In the Stacks (Maisie’s Tune) by Robin Sloan is both a synthesizer with knobs you can fiddle with and a short story you can read. Here’s a sample, but you can read the entire story by the author of the novels Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore right here.
I’M A LIBRARIAN, so of course I was picking melted plastic out of the 3D printer when I heard the news that Maisie Martin had died. I wandered out of the maker space, past the robotics lab, around the VR cave, into the music studio. We do have books in this library, lots of them. But these days, we have more than books.
Maisie was dead, so it was time, at last, to break down the synthesizer.
3D printers, LEGO robots, VR goggles: these offerings are not, among well-funded public libraries, uncommon. The Big Red Synthesizer is, by contrast, unique. Before it was Maisie’s instrument, it was my headache.
The music studio, I could handle. Generally, it was reserved by various squads of scruffy teens. They howled and tittered behind the glass and left the production computer’s keyboard greasy with Cheeto dust.
Every so often, one of them would spy the Big Red Synthesizer, enormous, as long as a Fiat, parked against the back wall of the studio control room. It was a fugitive from the 1970s, ancestor to the tools inside the production computer. Packed with knurled knobs set beside pulsing LEDs, it might have been ripped from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Every so often, one of the teens would creep out of the studio to ask: Hey, uh… how do you use that thing?
I would confess: I didn’t know. The synthesizer’s markings, “VCO” and “VCF” and “LFO,” were as inscrutable as an ancient tablet. Jacks yawned open, ready to receive the cables draped over hooks on the wall. According to what logic would those cables be inserted? I had barely weathered the transition to USB-C. I had no idea.
The teens would fiddle. Generally, their efforts produced only silence, and they retreated back into the computer. Once, a girl with stringy hair and long fingers summoned a yowling square wave, so banshee-pure that it punched through the soundproofing and filled the library. I jogged to quiet the noise, but she pulled the plug before I arrived, frightened by her own sound.
There was, as far as I knew, just one patron who understood the use of the Big Red Synthesizer, and her expertise made up for all our ignorance.
Maisie Martin, 83 years old, was a virtuoso.
Her career had bloomed and faded before the internet, so there wasn’t much to find about her, except the stub of a page on the university website naming her a Professor, Emeritus in classics. She had written a book about the muses, far too obscure to be included in our collection. Her hair was cut short, her expression set serious, but she was never unkind. She simply had things to do…