Saturday March 6, 2004

A Word of Explanation...

The title of this blog come from the novel The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, which won the first Hugo award for novel in 1953. In the book's future, telepaths exist. Espers provide a variety of commercial services, and also work for the police, preventing and investigating crimes. A businessman named Ben Reich wants to commit a murder and he wants to get away with it, but he knows the espers will catch him. He needs a way to shield his thoughts.

Reich visits a friend of his named Duffy Wyg& (Bester indulges in a lot of typographic cleverness—there's another character named @kins). She owns a company called Psych-Songs that writes jingles. He asks her what's the most catchy, persistent tune she's ever written—the kind that get stuck in your head.

"Oh. Pepsis, we call 'em."


"Dunno. They say because the first one was written centuries ago by a character named Pepsi. I don't buy that. I wrote one once..." Duffy winced in recollection. "Hate to think of it even now. Guaranteed to obsess you for a month. It haunted me for a year."

"You're rocketting." [nice futuristic space lingo, there]

"Scout's honor, Mr. Reich. It was 'Tenser, Said The Tensor.' I wrote it for that flop show about the crazy mathematician. They wanted nuisance value and they sure got it. People got so sore they had to withdraw it. Lost a fortune."

"Let's hear it."

"I couldn't do that to you."

"Come on, Duffy. I'm really curious."

"You'll regret it."

"I don't believe you."

"All right, pig," she said, and pulled the punch panel toward her. "This pays you back for that no-guts kiss."

Her fingers and palm slipped gracefully over the panel. A tune of utter monotony filled the room with agonizing, unforgettable banality. It was the quintessence of every melodic cliché Reich had ever heard. No matter what melody you tried to remember, it invariably led down the path of familiarity to "Tenser, Said The Tensor." Then Duffy began to sing:

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

"Oh my God!" Reich exclaimed.

"I have some real gone tricks in that tune," Duffy said, still playing. "Notice the beat after 'one'? That's a semicadence [sic]. Then you get another beat after 'begun.' That turns the end of the song into a semi-cadence [sic], too, so you can't ever end it. The beat keeps you running in circles, like: Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun. RIFF. Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun. RIFF. Tension, appre—"

"You little devil!" Reich started to his feet, pounding his palms on his ears. "I'm accursed. How long is this affliction going to last?"

"Not more than a month."

Reich is able to successfully use the song as a primitive mind-shield whenever a telepath wants to peep into his thoughts, but during his time as a fugitive he comes to be haunted by it. Wherever he goes, he's got a voice in his head singing Tension, apprehension, and dissension.... That's just good writing.

Bester's idea that a catchy song could be used like that was pretty clever. But the reason I chose the title of the song as the title of this blog was that Bester's description of the ultimate annoying jingle fits perfectly with what I hope to achieve here. Utter monotony. Agonizing, unforgettable banality. The quintessence of every cliché.

I hope it'll last more than a month, though.

[Now playing: "The Girl From Ipanema" by Pizzicato Five]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I am sorry to tell you that you have utterly failed in your aim, sir. :)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at Mar 6, 2004 8:09:09 PM

I've had that lyric in my head for 20 years. I'm really annoyed.

Posted by: David Weigel at Jun 17, 2004 7:27:01 AM

You think *you've* got problems? As soon as I read the book, over 30 years ago now, the *tune* came into my head: in ad hoc notation it's:

Eight sir seven sir
C C b g
six sir fi-ive sir
a a g-f e
Four sir three sir
f f e c
two sir one
e c d (rest)
Ten-ser said-the ten-ser
c-b' c-b' c-e (rest)
Ten-ser said-the ten-ser
c-b' c-b' c-e (rest)
Ten-sion ap-pre hen-sion and-dis
g-g f-f e-e f-f
sen-sion have-be gun
e-c d-b' c (rest)

And it's been there ever since! c is middle C, C is an octave above middle C, b' is the b below middle C.

Posted by: John cowan at Aug 25, 2004 8:17:28 PM

please to provide a helping guide for these tenser
how are you using these alphabatical notations.
whats the logic behind these notations.
Abdul Hakeem Majid

Posted by: Abdul Hakeem Majid at Jan 10, 2005 5:03:42 AM

Those are musical notes, Abdul. The "tensor" referred to here is a character in a TV show in a novel, not the mathematical concept. Sorry for the confusion.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 12, 2005 5:37:04 AM

Found this page doing some vanity googling. As a member of the real Tenser clan, I must say I regard this blog with mixed emotions.

Posted by: James Tenser at May 30, 2005 3:26:13 PM

Interesting. Two other two methods which seem to keep showing up in science fiction is either the character continuously remembering the Alice line of "curtsey while you're thinking," or They Might Be Giants Songs. The first always kind of confused me other than that it is a bit of a nonsense phrase and also implies unusual mental activity. The second I find highly amusing in that most They Might Be Giants songs have words that sound like thye mean something, but in a person's head, the meaning seem to keep shifting and changing. They're also very catchy little tunes.

Posted by: Sean Duggan at Jul 13, 2005 6:34:51 AM

Curious: Tensor, how did you come across the novel? I read it some time in the late 50's, so I can attest that the mind shield lasts at least that long.
I have to share my linguists story. A few years ago (okay, about 28 years ago) I worked with someone from Tennessee who, when you pointed to bell peppers, she called them mangos. I sent a note to a linguist discussion list (this was before the Internet) and within hours I got notes back from linguists who were happy to tell me the geographic extent of this usage (middle Appalachia) and how it arose (both bell peppers and mangoes were used in the chutneys that British sailors (some of whom settled in Appalachia) of the 17th century ran into).

And, have you read Stars My Destination?
Gully Foyle is my name
Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination.

Posted by: Larry at Sep 28, 2005 8:30:09 AM

Thnax to David Weigel. I have added music to the tensor lyric myself. anyone know of any attempts have been made to mimic the desciption made in The Demolished Man??? ie "I have some real gone tricks in that tune," Duffy said, still playing. "Notice the beat after 'one'? That's a semicadence..." etc, I have yet to hear of any attempts in that order.
I do not no if this song has been actually stuck in my head... but it has been there ever since i read the book... it is more likely to be "stuck in my head" voluntarily, since i liked the tune so much and really enjoyed the book. The re-occurrence of the lyric throughout the book helps to build a lot of tension (no pun intended). I do prefer Stars My Destination tho. The man as predator concept is much to my liking.

Posted by: Pesta at Sep 4, 2006 1:37:51 AM

I read this as a kid and there are times I'd run 2-3 of these in my mind at once just for the heck of it.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at Dec 20, 2006 4:59:07 PM

Hah, you still haven't bored Dorothea. I just followed today's link to your blog because I wanted to know where you got the title. The song wore off (I read the book in the late 50s) and I couldn't recreate it. Thanks for having it here. I knew it was "The Demolished Man," but I had the author wrong too!

Here's to more banality.

Posted by: orcmid at Mar 20, 2007 6:31:32 PM

Bester invented leet-speak!

I love the story. I first read it as a teenager, and I've re-read it many times. It reminds me a lot of more recent cyberpunk stuff like blade runner or the works of William Gibson.

Posted by: Paul Sharp at Jul 6, 2008 4:40:25 PM

Bester loved to play with the language, as can be seen in my favorite story of his, "Fondly Fahrenheit," which also features characters obsessed over a catchy tune, as well as "futuristic space lingo."

As for the infectious aspect of the jingle, the first example of viral marketing I know of is in Fritz Leiber's short story, "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-Tah-Tee," which features an earworm with both audible and visual aspects. It's been on my top ten list since I read it in Jr. High almost 25 years ago.

Posted by: Karl Loeffler at Sep 9, 2008 10:41:15 AM

I like to live by the motto: "Never make an enemy by mistake, but always by intention." Keeps me polite most of the time.

Posted by: Scott A. Joseph,MD at Feb 27, 2009 9:14:24 AM