Science Fiction Music Review:Queen-'39

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/23/09

Queen's Night At The Opera (along with it's companion A Day At The Races)is widely considered to be the artistic high point of their career. The album contains the Magnum Opus Bohemian Rhapsody and other radio-friendly fare, such as You're My Best Friend. Into this mix, Brian May dropped a bit of filk... probably the only song I know of about relativistic time dilation... so, let's talk a bit about '39

I think I'm going to analyze this song line by line, so here goes:

In the year of thirty-nine
Assembled here the volunteers
In the days when lands were few

So, in 2039, or 2139... or some year ending in '39, a volunteer crew sets out from a world where overpopulation is the major issue. Very poetic Malthusian sentiments, there.

Here the ship sailed out into the blue and sunny morn
The sweetest sight ever seen
And the night followed day
And the story tellers say
That the score brave souls inside
For many a lonely day
Sailed across the milky seas
Ne'er looked back never feared never cried

More poetry- Dr. May has a way with words, no? The hope of a world rests on the shoulders of twenty intrepid explorers traveling through the night without a regret, or a functioning tear duct, apparently.

I'm really not making fun of it here. The sweet earnestness of the song is one of it's defining characteristics, along with the gloss that frequently coats legends. I really admire this aspect of the song.

(chorus)Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away
Don't you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I'll take your hand
In the land that our grand-children knew

Dr. May packs some physics in with the pretty words. Note that he uses 'years' as a measure of distance as opposed to time. Technically, 'space/time'; the way he uses it evokes both a feeling of immense time and distance from the main character's loved ones. In addition, May implies that signals from his relativistic starship may have trouble reaching Earth, and that there may be no
communication between Earth and the Starship. He also plays with verb tenses here, foreshadowing the tragedy to come.

In the year of thirty-nine
Came a ship in from the blue
The volunteers came home that day
And they bring good news
Of a world so newly born
Though their hearts so heavily weigh

The travellers come home after being gone for a hundred years, bringing good news of a colonizable world, but the Earth they come home to isn't really their home.

For the earth is old and grey
little darlin' well away
But my love this cannot be
Oh so many years have gone
Though i'm older but a year
Your mother's eyes from your eyes cry to me

And then the knife plunges in. The Earth itself has aged a century, and apparently not gracefully. Our unnamed protagonist finds that his wife is long dead, and all he has left is a fleeting glance of his beloved in his daughter's aged eyes. The poignancy of this moment, the sense of abandonment and loss actually humanizes the 'twin paradox'; Brian May has the heart of a poet and the head of an astrophysicist. And it works for him...

As an aside, I was kind of wondering where the travellers went... so I figured that at relativistic speeds and a one way travel time of 50 years, that a 20 lightyear radius from Sol would be a reasonable assumption. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. We need to look at something more in the 50 ly range. My pick is 26 Draconis at 45.95 ly away. Even so, these spacemen are either in suspended animation, or related to Superman. To achieve a time dilation of 100:1, they would have to accelerate at about 10g's to the halfway point, flip and decelerate at 10g's until they got to 26 Draconis, and then do the same thing on the way back. And that's the best case scenario that fits what tidbits Dr. May gave us...

(Here, play with some numbers yourself! . Here's some more useful calculators)

However, since the protagonist's daughter is alive, perhaps May was being poetic with his throwing around a century as Earth elapsed time. If that's the case, there are a good, solid two dozen stars that are candidates within a 50 ly radius, and if you throw possible suspended animation into the mix....

I'll be honest. I have no idea where they went if you factor in poetry and people-sicles.

Back to our regularly scheduled song:

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away
Don't you hear me calling you
Write your letters in the sand
For the day I'll take your hand
In the land that our grand-children knew

Don't you hear my call
Though you're many years away
Don't you hear me calling you
All your letters in the sand
Cannot heal me like your hand
For my life, still ahead, pity me.

I really like the image of 'letters in the sand'. The ephemeral nature of life against the background of the infinite, and the longing for real human contact speaks to the tragedy that befalls the starship traveller. He has accomplished much for humanity, but lost all he holds dear.

Oddly enough, this theme is echoed a bit on another May track on the album Good Company where the protagonist loses all his friends and loved ones by his single minded focus on building a business.

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?-Mt 16:26a, NASB

Here's the song.

Brian May on '39:"It's a science fiction story. It's the story about someone who goes away and leaves his family and... because of the time dilation effect, when you go away, the people on Earth have aged a lot more than he has when he comes home. He's aged a year and they've aged 100 years. So, instead of coming back to his wife, he comes back to his daughter and he can see his
wife in his daughter... a strange story"

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