This short story is about a scientist, Gilbert Lister, who develops
the ultimate melodyone that so compels the brain that its listener
becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. As the storyteller,
Harry Purvis, explains, Lister theorized that a great melody "made
its impression on the mind because it fitted in with the fundamental
electrical rhythms going on in the brain". Lister attempts
to abstract from the hit tunes of the day to a melody which fits
in so well with the electrical rhythms that it dominates them
completely. He succeeds...and is found in a catatonia from which
he never awakes.
Clearly, the Ultimate Melody behaves like a lethal text.
Like the lethal texts in Macroscope
and Snow Crash,
it affects the physical structure of the brain in such a way as
to render the individual incapable of normal action. Purvis explains
that the Ultimate Melody "would form an endless ring in the
memory circuits of the mind. It would go round and round forever,
obliterating all other thoughts".
Interestingly, Purvis speculates whether Lister's fate is a negative
one. He muses, "Yet I'm not sure if his fate is a horrible
one, or whether he should be envied. Perhaps, in a sense, he's
found the ultimate reality that philosophers like Plato
are always talking about". Purvis also compares the
Ultimate Melody to the song of the Sirens,
in that it was a "lethal" text that no one could hear
in safety, nor communicate to others.
The Ultimate Melody is somewhat like the catchy tunes written
by Wyg in The Demolished Man, which the protagonist uses
to hide his murderous thoughts from mind-readers. Anyone trying
to "peep" his mind will get only the tune, going around
and around. It is somewhat analogous to a nam-shub, which is
described in Snow Crash as a virus of the mind.