Music for Another World, edited by Mark Harding
Music for Another World, edited by Mark Harding
Mutation Press, 270pp, £8.99
Prominent on the cover of this first anthology from Mark Harding’s Mutation Press is the description “Strange Fiction”. I am not, I must admit, especially fond of that label. It seems too nebulous. Science fiction and fantasy, as labels, have their grey areas at the margins, but “strange fiction” is such a catch-all it could mean almost anything. Does Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright count as strange fiction? While it is to all appearances an 1939 ordinary mainstream novel of a man trying to save his hometown, it is also written entirely without the letter “e”. That seems pretty strange to me.
Having said that, the back-cover of Music for Another World describes its contents more traditionally, and to my mind, more accurately, as “New Science Fiction and Fantasy on the Theme of Music”. Mark that “on the theme of music”, because that is what this anthology is about. Its stories all possess some musical link. While the genre of the prose may be defined, the music genres referenced are certainly not. They include rock, punk, classical, jazz and opera, among others. All of the eighteen stories are also by new writers. Only one contributor, Aliette de Bodard, has a novel out from a mainstream imprint, and that was only published last year. This does not mean Music for Another World is by any means substandard. It’s a strong anthology, and its contents are all well-written pieces.
Some, however, are less satisfying than others. The opener, ‘Three Lillies’ by Cyril Simsa, is a short atmospheric story, but it reads as though the second half were missing. David H Hendrickson’s ‘Blue Note Heaven’ is one of the anthology’s more original stories, set in a world in which Heaven is reachable from the Middle Kingdom. But God’s presence in Heaven means no secular music is allowed, as jazz saxophonist Max Freeman discovers on accepting an invitation to play there. The premise of ‘Star in a Glass’ by Vaughan Stanger may not be the most original in the world – a reformed band needs a little extra something in order to recapture its former glory – but Stanger successfully puts a science-fictional spin on it. Tom Brennan’s ‘Lorna’ also suffers from a less-than-original idea, a sentient ship attracted to a man because of his singing, and doesn’t quite manage to shake off echoes of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang. ‘Festspeel’ by Vincent Lauzon seems unnecessarily cast as epistolary, but the fantasy world it presents is original and interesting. ‘Like Clara, in the Movie Heidi‘ by Jill Zeller is less genre heartland than the stories preceding it, and as a result feels unfairly inconsequential. Chris Amies’ ‘Cow Lane’ plays on a theme of ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, but with punk music, and set in a Camden pub in the late 1970s. ‘Blue Sky World’ by Andrew hook is a lyrical piece, in which a rift in spacetime brings a singer to our Earth from a dimension containing great beauty in the arts. It’s an affecting piece. The aforementioned de Bodard provides a high fantasy tale: while the prose of ‘Silenced Songs’ is polished, the story is too generic to really shine. ‘Figaro’ by Jackie Hawkins, about the opera-obsessed crew of a hospital starship, is great fun. ‘Shostakovich Ensemble, The’ by Jim Steel is the cleverest piece in Music for Another World, comprising a series of reviews of the eponymous band’s albums which reveal a Britain very different to ours. Worth the price of admission. As is Neil Williamson’s ‘Arrthymia’, which has been deservedly shortlisted for the BSFA Award. Richard Jay Goldstein’s ‘Dybbuk Blues’ is another story which plays a familiar tune: the jealous artist who kills another for his talent and meets a well-deserved end. ‘The Accompanist’ by Susan Lanigan is the second story to feature a classical composer who has survived to the present day, but this time by draining the life from students at a musical academy. It’s a very good story. ‘The Legend of Left-Hand Lewis’ by Maxwell Peterson is entertaining, with some amusingly-drawn characters, but it peters out and ends unsatisfactorily. ‘Lacuna Blues’ by Stephen Gaskell is set on Earth and in a starship, but the former scenes don’t quite convince, and this spoils what could have been a very interesting story. Sean Martin’s ‘Deep Field’ has some good ideas, but tries too hard to cover all sub-genres and as a result feels a bit over-stuffed. ‘Singing Breath into the Dead’ by LL Hannett, despite its weird portmanteau neologisms, contains some lovely writing and an original world. Finally, ‘Fugue’ by Gavin Inglis, a ghost story with a happy ending, strikes a fitting end-note to the anthology.
There is a danger in themed anthologies that their contents may sometimes stray into previously-colonised territory. The theme of music, which feels as though it should be infinitely broad, actually proves quite limiting. There are, it seem, only so many ways to integrate music into fiction. Which is not to say Music for Another World contains no original ideas whatsoever. On the contrary, Hendrickson’s, Steel’s, Hannett’s and Williamson’s stories all impress with the originality of their premises. And those that may be based on conceits which might feel a little familiar, well, they’re very much authentically musical. There’s nothing bad in Music for Another World – it is a good collection of tales, ranging from the eminently readable to the excellent. Recommended.
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