Music for Another World
Edited by Mark Harding, published by Mutation Press 2010
I love an anthology. I really love an anthology that I can read in a day without getting bored or being overcome by the desire to throw the book across the room. Music for Another World ticks those boxes :-).
The theme is, funnily enough, the intersection of music and strange fiction and the stories run the gamut of fantasy, horror, science fiction, a little bit of steampunk and a soupçon of slipstream. Not all the stories are equal – but, then, how often do you find an anthology in which all stories are created equal? – but most of them have an interesting take on how music acts not just as a soundtrack to lives, either subtle or as overpowering as a Wagnerian opera, but also as a raison d’être for some folk. The music in these stories ranges from rock’n’roll to steal the soul, to Gregorian chants, to serious space opera, to Schubert as a means of prolonging as well as destroying lives.
All the stories have elements to recommend them, and there is something for everyone in this anthology. The stand-outs for me were The Three Lilies by Cyril Simsa, Festspeel by Vincent Lauzon, Silenced Songs by Aliette de Bodard, Dybbuk Blues by Richard Jay Goldstein, The Accompanist by Susan Lanigan, and Singing Breath into the Dead by L. L. Hannett.
Simsa’s The Three Lilies is the shortest piece in the book and nicely sets the tone of strangeness that is inherent in these stories. “They say only police and psychopaths are out at 4am” is a great opening line and it leads us into a world where music is more than just aural wallpaper. The music in this tale has the power to transport and impassion its listeners, make them take risks and give them the courage to flee the everyday.
Lauzon’s Festspeel takes the form of a decommissioned solder’s letter home to a less-than-loving father. The story has the feel of a German folktale, but it becomes apparent quickly that this is a fantasy world removed from our own. Two wounded musicians, former combatants, meet and find common ground. The voice is wonderful and rich with subtext, sly humour, and is very convincing.
Silenced Songs by Aliette de Bodard is also set in a fantasy world and examines survivor’s guilt and the power of forgiveness to heal a broken person. The music in this story is not the star, but a vehicle for the tale. The parallel stories of loss and grief rub nicely against each other to create an engaging narrative tension.
The tone of Goldstein’s Dybbuk Blues is strong and draws the reader in to this snappy tale of jazz and revenge. The protagonist is sympathetic even though he doesn’t have the most upstanding of lifestyles. I felt a bit let down by the female character of Syble – she just didn’t seem to be used as well as she could have been and in the end felt a bit like wallpaper – but the story is definitely worth reading.
Lanigan’s elegant story The Accompanist was a wonderful surprise. It starts gently and the pace is never frantic, but the writing gets you in and doesn’t let you go. The protagonist’s voice is terribly sad, but also terribly determined and in that determination is something rather frightening and threatening. You don’t lose your sympathy for her even though by the end you wonder if you should.
I must make a disclosure about my favoutire story, which is Hannett’s Singing Breath into the Dead. I saw a first draft of this story a few years back, and critiqued it then. I have seen it be re-written and morph into something new and different – although the original core of the story remains the same – in a way that has made it an even more amazing and troubling tale. One way to tell a real writer from an amateur is to see how well they rewrite – many simply cannot unpick themselves from the story as it originally came out, and cannot improve it because they are too wedded to the first shape it took. Hannett is a real writer and seeing how she has crafted and re-crafted this story of strange births, strange deaths, and songs to enable even stranger conceptions is truly impressive.
Some of the stories in this anthology feel as though they belong in larger pieces and it made me as a reader feel a little uncomfortable. Some of them I would love to see in larger form, for it would give them the chance to really spread their wings. On the whole, I enjoyed this anthology and would urge anyone with the mixed interests of music and spec-fic to grab a copy. Or even if you don’t have those mixed interests, grab a copy – it’s a good read :-).