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What a beautiful world this will be

What a glorious time to be free. An essay on why Donald Fagen’s I.G.Y is the single best science fiction song. Ever.

Full disclosure/disclaimer. The Nightfly album has been played to me since before I was able to make memories. It was grafted into my mind during the period in which I began to experience conscious thought, which may have resulted in a mild bias and the smoking of Chesterfield cigarettes.

Despite my bias and the opinions of a bunch of people who are wrong on the internet, I maintain that this song stands alone as the best sci-fi song ever, standing above others in several respects. First let’s take the lyrics, this song features the following:

  • An intercontinental vacuum evacuated tube train.
  • A Goddamn Space Casino. Or orbital weapons platforms, take your pick. I like the casino.
  • Solar powered cities and geoengineerd weather.
  • The liberation of mankind through automation & information technology. A singularity even, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Not to mention “more leisure time for artists everywhere” and Spandex jackets for everyone. That’s a rich world to build in just six minutes.

The Wikipedia entry for I.G.Y. states that “The song is sung from an optimistic viewpoint during the IGY”. (International Geophysical Year, a period of international cooperation in Earth Sciences, during which Russia launched Sputnik and the Space Race kicked off.) On the surface the lyrics indeed shine with the graphite and glitter of the golden age, but the fact that this song was written in the early 80’s betrays a very different sentiment.

As a childhood member of the Science Fiction Book Club, Mr. Fagen cites several sci-fi authors as having influenced his lyrics, and admits to stealing most from the dark humor and satire of Alfred Bester (also William Gibson’s favorite). Instead of Space Age optimism this song oozes with cynicism for futures that never came to pass. The very same cultural zeitgeist that fueled what would then be the next major movement in sci-fi literature, ‘the cyberpunkers’ as Fagen calls them.

This record stands lyrically in perfect balance between the two major movements in (american) 20th century science fiction, using the imagery of the golden age in sarcasm to express the sentiment that fueled cyberpunk. A feeling my generation has grown up with, and which now haunts us through the new art brought forth from our relationship with the machines.

Science fiction is a native 20th century art form that came of age at the same time as jazz. Like jazz, science fiction is very street-level, very American, rather sleazy, rather popular, with a long and somewhat recondite tradition. It’s also impossible to avoid, no matter how hard you try. – Bruce Sterling

Then the music itself. Tastes differ obviously, and we can probably agree that chart positions don’t mean much in determining how good a song really is, but there is something to be said for distribution and staying power. This song is ubiquitous at a level probably only paralleled by other Steely Dan records. It gets airtime on every inoffensive easy cool smooth mellow jazz rock station and supermarket the world over. Whether you like it or not, you know this song.

Music can, to some extent, be judged on its technical merits, the quality of its sound. In this case I.G.Y. stands entirely in a class of its own. This track is so impeccably produced that professional audio engineers use it to calibrate their systems. It’s been called ‘the Freebird of Pro Audio‘ but it’s more like the International Prototype Meter. It’s a benchmark. Hifi geeks know this song so well that when listening to it they no longer necessarily hear the song, they hear the quality of the system it’s playing on. No other record even comes close to being used as widespread in this way.

In conclusion, as Science Fiction is a literary genre we return to the lyrics. Note that nothing in the text is entirely unfeasible, or even improbable. There are no aliens, no transporters, no FTL drives, no dragons, no other dimensions and no magic wand bullshit. Politics aside humans could build everything in this song in a matter of decades. It’s an aspirational world Fagen has built, and it’s an achievable one. That is straight up hard science fiction. I don’t care how many synths you built or how spaced out your video is, this is the best science fiction song. I rest my case, thank you for your time.

I.G.Y.

Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win

Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure time for artists everywhere)

A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

Get it on iTunes or Amazon.


Bonus reading: The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi
An essay by Donald Fagen himself on his Science Fiction influences.