Space Opera Mass Market Paperback – 5 Dec 1996
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Let us start with two entries by the editors, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's "Scarborough Fair" and Anne McCaffrey's "Bird in the Hand". The first turns out to be a well-spun, old-fashioned ghost story, set in Scarborough town, with the author as a narrator, and the folk song of the same name coming into the plot. "Bird in the Hand" is a whodunnit set on a space station and involves the capture of smug scoundrels smuggling songbirds offplanet by a sharp-eared detective.
Josepha Sherman's "A Song of Strange Revenge" and Cynthia McQuillan's "Space Station Annie" are two more storie about ghosts and space stations, but the tone and treatment are different from the first two. The first is about a ghost who gets revenge on her murderess--but finds that revenge is a dish best served cold. The author says that the plot was based on an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. The second is about a singer on the skids in self-imposed exile in space--partly because of a vindictive ex-lover-- who nevertheless gets a second chance at life. I liked this one.
Steven Brust's "Drift" is about another type of musician-- a drummer who challenges a percussion computer to a contest in a music studio on a twenty dollar bet. It is, of course, a retelling of the John Henry and the steam drill story. When I was in fourth grade, John Henry was one of my heroes. But the John Henry tale never translated very well into modern literature. "Drift" is the best retelling of that tale that I have read.
Gene Wolfe's "Bluesberry Jam" has, near the end, a hint of the folk tale as well-- but this time, Pecos Bill rather than John Henry. It is set in a somewhat surrealistic America that has become one large, immoveable gridlock of cars. The hero is a minstrel who has made an instrument of car parts called a "songchopper" and is on a quest for his lost love.
Marion Zimmer Bradley's "To Drive the Cold Winter Away" and Peter S. Beagle's "The Last Song of Sirit Byar" are about two more minstrels, each in a fantasy land. The Bradley is a fairy tale about how a minstel wanders into a town where music and joy and springtime have been banned-- and how she brings them back. The Beagle is a realistic portrait of the life of a famous minstrel, told by his one-time assistant. As with most Beagle tales, the value is in its characters who can sit up and bite. When I first read the Bradly story where the Duke had banned music _and_ beer _and_ wine _and_ coffee, I got up, put on a jazz record, and poured myself a slug of coffee.
Mary C. Pangborn's "Roundelay" is about how a third grade class makes a chain of Moebius strips, sings a musical round, and gets some un-Christmasy results at their pageant. The editors do not say so, but I assume that Ms. Pangborn is the sister of Edgar Pangborn.
Charles de Lint's "Saskia" has the opposite problem of Bradley's heroine. She is shunned by the many in a society where everybody sings. It is not that she is not pretty; but "no one engages her in conversation" (340), usually for no clear reason. It turns out that Saskia does indeed sing. But she sings the truth. De Lint remains one of my favorite modern fantasy writers.
More briefly mentioned stories include: two tales of Africa by Margaret Ball and Alan Dean Foster, another opera story (this one about the Rhinegold) by Elisabeth Waters, a grim tale of a songchild versus the gods on a distant planet by Robin Wayne Bailey, an American Indian fantasy of a rather mythic nature by Leslie Fish, a comical wedding tale by Paula Lalish, and a rather strange story by Suzette Haden Elgin about a kind of music called "Soulfedge Rock". Elgin is an author whom I have discovered only recently, but I intend to read more of her fiction.
I saved Jody Lyn Nye's "Calling Them Home" for last, because it is pure-quill space opera:
"Eh-oh, ha-oh, ma-ne, ah-oh," rumbled the song from Beacon 17, out toward Alpha Centauri, sounding like a North American native chant. Margette had sent a message to Van Blake a good year ago. Idly she scrolled through the mail to see if he'd responded. Van was a good-looking guy but a slow correspondent. (370)
The story is about a girl operating a beacon in deep space who guides spacers home, partly with music and partly by talking, who ends up in some big trouble of her own in the midst of an ion storm. Nothing classic, but good fun.
Exceptional stories are by Peter S. Beagle, Gene Wolfe, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, and Charles de Lint. Almost as good are the tales by Cynthia McQuillan, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jody Lyn Nye. There's not a clunker in the lot. Yes, I know. Theme anthologies come and go quickly. But this one deserves reprinting. And certainly all of the stories in it deserve reprinting-- if some enterprising publishers haven't already done so.
So in looking for a replacement of this book, I was very sad to see it was out of print. Thank goodness for the used book market!
If you lived through Chicago's traffic jam in this past year's horrible snow storm, the first story, Bluesberry Jam, will resonate the most for you.
It's hard to pick out a favorite story from the anthology, all of them are so wonderfully written. I'm a life long fan of McCaffrey, but this anthology is just a recipient of her name. The music and the literature blend so well together. Yes, this may be a sci-fi/fantasy compilation, but it is true literature in how it speaks to us as a human being.
Well worth the time to hunt down, and I assure you, this copy is going nowhere. Just wish we could also have a Kindle version as well.
My favorite stories in the collection are "Bluesberry Jam" by Gene Wolfe, "Ever After" by Paula Lalish, "The Last Song of Sirit Byar" by Peter S. Beagle, and "A Bird in the Hand" by Anne McCaffery.
"Bluesberry Jam" is about a traffic jam that lasts so long that it develops a culture and social services. "Ever After" is a sort of a silly story, about making wishes and finding love; the ending has more truth in it than most `true' stories. "The Last Song . . ." reminds us about the power of song, the power of our words--to create what is real in this life. "A Bird in the Hand" is a kind of who dunit in space . . . I like mysteries, and science fiction, so this is the perfect escape.
Several of the stories made engrossing reads and held my attention. I found this to be quite the entertaining bunch of stories by authors familiar and new. I especially loved Peter S. Beagle's story, was surprised by the craft in Robin Wayne Bailey's story, and felt a little bittersweet (because of her passing) reading Marion Zimmer Bradley's story.
As a fan of science fiction, I heartily endorse this anthology. Sadly, not all the stories lived up to my expectation, mostly because I felt too few of them weren't science fiction-y enough. A music lover, I loved the theme, just was hoping for a bit more music and science fiction.
Still, well worth your read, especially for the masters' whose works appears within these pages.