I should start my review of this collection of short stories with a confession: I wanted to be in it. I still love short stories, even if I don’t get time to write (or read!) them enough these days. Music is also very important too me, although I’m strictly a consumer, not a producer, when it comes to that art. I’ve got an unpublished science fiction story where music, or at least love of music, is an element, and I submitted it to this anthology, but it didn’t make the grade. I understood the editor’s reasons for not including it at the time. Now, with this collection in my hand, I’m doubly sure he was right to do so.
Though this is a small press publication, it’s a well-presented book containing a consistently high standard of writing. That writing covers a very broad spectrum: the book’s slightly pretentious-sounding subtitle – ‘Strange Fiction on the Theme of Music’ – is actually pretty accurate. The unifying theme of music has resulted in a delightfully wide range of styles and genres (slipstream, ghost stories, alternate history, fantasy and science fiction to name but a few), settings (ranging from deep space through gritty suburban streets to the Christian heaven) and emotional effects. I mention emotion because of the soul-deep link between music and emotion. One of the strengths of this anthology is that it explores this link, and so does it without descending into sentimentality: although a number of the stories have a certain whimsy, they generally manage to be charming without becoming cloying.
It helps that Mark Harding, the editor, isn’t afraid to show the darker side of life; there’s a fair few untimely deaths and several stories feature drug use. There’s less of the third part of the unholy triumvirate – sex – than might be expected, but more love, even if there’s rarely a happy ending. Closet romantic though I am, that’s fine by me in this context.
When it comes to musical, as opposed to literary, genres there’s all sorts of styles, including classical, rock, punk and jazz, plus a few less easy to classify and yet to be invented musical genres too.
Perhaps a quarter of the stories are science fiction. Much of this felt quite old-fashioned, and sometimes read as though the writers were working outside of their usual genre – for example I lost patience with the rambling ‘Deep Field’, which featured a ship that needed shagging and a protagonist that needed slapping, plus more scientific inaccuracies than you could shake a conductor’s baton at. The two shorter pieces, ‘Lorna’ and ‘Figaro’ worked well as ‘space vignettes’, while ‘Star in a Glass’ was perhaps the most sophisticated example of SF in the book.
I found the two ghost stories based around (possibly) dead romantic composers intriguing but somewhat unsatisfying, though this might be because I’m not particularly fond of that style of music. And much as I loved the idea of using the discography of a fictional band to illuminate an alternate 1980s in ‘Shostakovich Ensemble, The’, the result left me scratching my head – or perhaps the writer was being massively ironic when he told us that Shaking Stevens was executed for treason, and I just missed the point. I also felt that grouping the stories as ‘movements’ within the book didn’t add anything; having said that the editor freely admits that others who aren’t as close to the stories as he’d become might not see the pattern for themselves.
However, my complaints may be due less to a lack of skill on the storytellers’ parts than to my preferences and/or interpretation. When you’re dealing with not one, but two, subjective art forms, there’s a lot of room for personal taste.
Some of the stories that worked best for me were the contemporary(ish) ones. Two in particular, ‘Dybbuk Blues’ and the ‘The Legend of Left-Hand Lewis’ were exquisitely written. They read like music, with not a note/word out of place, perfect pacing and careful phrasing; the writer in me kept stopping to admire the art, while the reader in me couldn’t put down the book until the story resolved.
I also liked both the fantasy stories, even though fantasy isn’t my genre. ‘Festspeel’ in particular, as this tale evoked a well-rounded other world seen through the eyes of a character I immediately cared about.
Good short stories, like good songs, have ability to briefly transport you to another place, and, despite the odd sour note, Music for Another World certainly achieves that.