Stars – Janis Ian and Mike Resnick, editors

Cover of "Society's Child: My Autobiograp...

Happy 60th this month, Janis

Ian, Janis and Resnick, Mike (eds) – Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian 

I think one word is elegiac, though these are not all loving memories, or more dark than bittersweet. Sometimes it’s more like the final crumbling of an ashed curl of paper, all that remained of a scrap-book. Janis Ian is a folk singer – go here to listen to her. Now that I realize that she wrote one of the best stories in the anthology (IMO) I am extra impressed. In the majority I have to say these stories ring dark, but it is a very successful blend.

This dazzling, highly original anthology, ignited by the meeting of songwriter Ian and a host of SF writers affected by her music at the 2001 Worldcon, showcases 30 mostly superior stories, each based on one of her songs. (from a review at Ian’s site)

Three stories were chosen for inclusion in that year’s best anthology by Gardner Dozois.  I did not check ahead of time which stories were chosen – I’d prefer to do my own rankings before being influenced. Once I am finished and I’ve picked my favorites, I am going to research and see which ones won.  Tune in to the end of the post for the surprising results

My favorites

Two Faces of Love 1. When the Silence Calls Your Name by Tanith Lee. Wow.  Five star short-story. I am not entirely certain what the point, or turning point is; but this story provided one of those ‘perfect moment’ things that a short story should aspire to.  A woman flees an ended relationship to stay in a friends’ cabin on a remote cabin, and her world dissipates around her. Her inner monologue, limited third person, starts to blend seamlessly with second person as things thin to nothingness.  There is a part 2 story, but oddly it really did not complement the first piece so well, and I would rate part 2 as a ‘3’.

Second Person Unmasked by Janis Ian- the best second-person narrative I have read. It blends from being (you think) an almost-cliche’d serial-killer narrative, and then flows forward and through to turn your expectations inside-out.  I don’t know if it has a moment of absolute beauty in it, hard to do with a serial killer as protagonist, but it’s very well done.

and more good ones…

Hopper Painting by Diane Duane. Wow, another five-star selection. This particular image (I assume it’s the diner painting) had never struck me as being that bleak, but I understand the idea of resonance with maybe what the artist was feeling. I hit that once in a Mondrian exhibit that was arranged chronologically.  The main character does not want to be trapped in the painting, and needs an epiphany, triggered by tarot with a fate/muse to get out.

The final story in the anthology, Inventing Lovers on the Phone is by Orson Scott Card.  It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read anything other than Ender’s Game, so this story was not at all what I had expected.  The main character is a high school loner (right, sorry I guess that’s a parallel) but it’s a girl. She buys herself a cell-phone, so that she can pretend that there is someone special and unknown in her life.  Her best friend grabs the phone away, and a man’s voice answers.  Maybe I am too much of a sucker for parental mushiness, but it made me tear up just a little.

Calling Your Name by Howard Waldrop. OK, this one is not one of the best stories I’ve ever read, but getting close to the end of the anthology, I was so happy to hit something unrelievedly upbeat, I’m deeming it a favourite of the book. Context is everything, baby.  (spoilers follow here) A man gets a bad shock and then discovers he’s somehow in a different timeline.  The Beatles were the Quarrymen and never terribly successful; Nixon was never president, etc.  He shocks himself into yet a different timeline and his dead wife is no longer dead but instead still there, and they live HEATheEnd.


OMG, I jinxed myself with my celebration over the Waldrop story. Too much happy, now. 

Shadow in the City by Dean Wesley Smith: the story starts out so well: it’s written with authority and comfortable characters post apocalypse.  Carey decides to revisit Portland, and bumps into the only living guy there, and tah-dah, they realize upon pooling their knowledge that there will also be survivors under some mountain, in bunkers, etc.  Really? Happily ever after? That’s kind of flimsy. And, anyhow, after some other story pointed it out, would you really want to live on the fifteenth floor of a place post-apocalypse? Or, wait, does he have electricity still running, powering his surveillance equipment and computer? An elevator? Indoor cooking… Who washes the exterior windows on his penthouse? meh.

Pretty good to very good

An Indeterminate State by Kay Kenyon. Well, the name Davy and the cudgel of exposition in the third paragraph almost killed me ‘Once the rulers of the world, humans were now gone, replaced by superhumanly intelligent entities. Since his kind still used the human template, Davy looked human. But he was an AL, Artificial Life form – a sentient mind on a non-biological substrate…’ Ouch. But, it plays out  to end with a nice riff on the Society’s Child question (again), as Davy asks why he’s the only one who seems to want to know why the test scores are important… something like that.

Joe Steele by Harry Turtledove. Yikes, remember that Turtledove specializes often in alternate history? He takes the phrase ‘Stalin was a Democrat’ and runs with it, in a noir-tough-guy-voice covering all the historic people you might like.  Very well constructed, but a little gimmicky.

In Fading Suns and Dying Moons by John Varley. – a modern Arthur C. Clarke story with a kicker ending. An alien (or is it aliens? an alien force? something from far, far beyond three dimensions) comes to collect all the butterflies from Earth.  Told from the point of view of a lepidopterist in the final days of his career.

Society’s Step-child by Susan R. Matthews – omg, read the Slush-pile-reader article I referenced for the exact problem troubling the first two pages of this story: too many silly names.  That almost made me skip the story. But, once I got past that, it was pretty solid.  The narrator is impenetrably self-absorbed.

On the Edge by Gregory Benford – Personae from the American Revolution and the Soviet Revolution swirl aimlessly around in post-dot-com prosperity. Diverting, though I didn’t get a big oompf out of it.

Ej-es by Nancy Kress. Brain disease. Is it wrong to be simply happy, is it enough simply to be happy?

East of the sun, west of Acousticville by Judith Tarr. Well-written, but somehow lacking just a little bit of its soul. Travelling through several layers of the inferno (possibly Dante’s I don’t know) to retrieve music.

This House by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Nicely constructed, not quite lyrical. A slow piece about healing, forgiveness, and acceptance. And in the woods a house made of cedar with a fieldstone fireplace.

And the winners were…

Hm, I guess Janis Ian’s story was an honorable mention, not included in the collection? Anyhow, I still liked it better than each of the following.  Well, no, I take it back: Joe Steele was a similar feat, just in the alternate domain of alternate history told in noir haiku. Still.

I guess they won’t be paying me to compile my own years-best anytime soon 🙂  At least I thought they were noteworthy?! On the other hand, look at how the context affected my reaction to Calling your name. Maybe the editor builds the anthology like a mosaic, so it’s not just about the individual pieces.

So, the three stories chosen for the ‘Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-First Annual Collection’ were the following. If you don’t believe me, you can check with wikipedia. It must be true: I read it on the internet.

  • Ej-es by Nancy Kress
  • Joe Steele by Harry Turtledove
  • Calling Your Name by Howard Waldrop

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  1. #1 by Janis Ian on April 26, 2011 - 9:23 pm

    Wow. Thank you.

  2. #2 by Sandy M. on April 26, 2011 - 10:54 pm

    really, the real singer/writer Janis Ian?
    I would be very easy to fool; but, um, you’re welcome! Great book!

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