Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review of Eclipse Four ed. by Jonathan Strahan

For those who have not been reading the Eclipse anthologies in order but are interested in Eclipse Four, the series can briefly be summed up as: Jonathan Strahan’s attempt to collect some of the best, most readable authors writing at the beginning of the 21st century in speculative fiction.  Eclipse One producing a wide variety of solid stories, Two leaning toward science fiction and Three toward fantasy, Strahan, according to the introduction, intended Four to be in the same vein as Three.  The result, however, is an anthology more similar to One given the mix of styles, sub-genres, and gender representation.  The following is a brief overview of the fourteen stories.  
“Slow as a Bullet” by Andy Duncan is a tall tale—or perhaps rather, a slow tale.  A simple premise for a simple story, on a whim Cliffert bets his buddies that he can outrun a bullet.  Dripping with Southern flavor, this one-off is an easy foot on which to start the anthology—pun intended. In the hands of any other writer, this perhaps may have been a dud, but with Duncan’s infusion of character—in the meta sense—the story leaves an impression.

“Tidal Forces” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is a brilliant story about a writer and her lover attempting to come to terms with the unquantifiable aspects of life.  Written in non-linear yet flowing prose that moves like the titular tide, it is a story that can be read multiple times given the layering.  Literary fiction near its best, the usage of scientific theory (a riff on an Einstein quote) is so intelligently subsumed into a story of modern human interest I find myself rambling…

“The Beancounter's Cat” by Damien Broderick is a story that tantalizes the understanding.  Just as one idea begins to become concrete, the scene shifts, opening up another galaxy (sorry) of possibilities.  The story of the tax collector Bonida living on Iapetus, one of Jupiter’s moons, things never feel normal as a talking cat enters her life on page one.  Escalating to a post-singularity scene, the cat takes Bonida places she never dreamed, and opens a universe to her that boggles description—the line between fantasy and science fiction crossed numerous times.  Hovering just out of reach (at least for me), the meaning behind it all as presented via vivid scenery and character interaction that warrants further rumination.

“Story Kit” by Kij Johnson adheres more literally to the title than one might expect.  Opening with the six story types of Damon Knight, Johnson then examines, in highly prosaic fashion, the elements that go into writing via references to Greek tragedy and contemporary, though unnamed, fiction.  Seeming to evolve into a narrative more personal than universal, the (meta-) story can also be read as a feminist text for Johnson’s struggles and goals with pen in hand.  A post-modern, abstract gem, it will not be enjoyed by all precisely for those reasons.

“The Man in Grey” by Michael Swanwick bears strong resemblance to a Philip K. Dick story, particularly “Adjustment Team”.  The story of a woman saved from falling in front of a train by the titular character, what follows is a questioning of cosmology, free will, and whether the reality we perceive is actually reality.  Better style than PKD (or John Brunner’s similar tales of The Travelerin Black), but possessing a premise more trite, Swanwick ends up in mediocre territory when the scales stop moving.

“Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson is a ghost story—no bones about it.  A simple piece that depends on a social rather than a horror ideology, it tells of the days of a ghost living inside the mall where she died.  Sensory perception lacking, every day she is granted a moment’s time in the real world to re-live his her death.  Though this moment does form the conclusion, the focus of the story remains on modern society and commercialism.  Competently enough written, it is (thankfully) not a cheesy ghost story.

“The Vicar of Mars” by Gwyneth Jones is a quirky story of Boaz, an alien missionary on Mars hunting rare stones and ministering.  Meeting a strange Earth woman, the story only gets more bizarre after Boaz has had a frightening experience in the desert one day with his equally strange traveling partner.  A story at time confused by itself but generally marching in a strong direction, there is, unfortunately, little upon the denouement to make the story stick in the mind.

“Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky is another ghost story with realist rather than horror aspirations.  Though incest is a topic under discussion, Swirsky primarily uses her razor-edged prose to describe a man with high ambitions but zero drive, and the relationship troubles the attitude gets him into.  Looking back at his life from beyond the grave, what he decides, well, the reader will have to discover.  Swirsky handles the morality of the worn fantasy trope well, but in the end can’t transcend the stock nature of the idea save in nihilist fashion.

“Thought Experiment” by Eileen Gunn is a story about Ralph Drumm Jr. and the experiences he has time traveling after having his teeth whitened one day.  The time travel only thinly disguised as science fiction, the tale is quite unremarkable.  The motif a bug bear of sci-fi, Gunn does nothing new with the concept.  Hurting the effort further is the ho-hum prose—“Oh cripes” an expression used as a sense of fun is attempted to be imbued upon the reader.

“The Double of My Double Is Not My Double” by Jeffrey Ford is the story of a man who has a double—a doppelganger—who also has a double, and the first double wants to kill the second double.  Not as head-twisting as that sentence, the story is a simple, straight-forward affair about how a writer’s head space gets clouded the longer they spend with their thoughts imagining a story, and perhaps more importantly, the roots to reality they need to keep themselves sane.

“Nine Oracles” by Emma Bull is a ‘story’ that hammers its point home through nine mini-windows into the lives of ordinary people, that is, rather than through a single effort with introduction, body, climax, and resolution.  The point?  Well, much like Kiernan’s story earlier in the anthology (though vastly different in style and structure), the point is that logic may not always be what dictates reality.  How this story/nine stories is speculative fiction is another question…

“Dying Young” by Peter M. Ball is not a take on the romance film with Julia Roberts.  Opening with a dragon wearing a gun belt walking into a wild west saloon, and moving on to introduce cyborgs with razors and cloned sheriffs, the wackiness does not cease until the final page.  Fun, but ultimately cartoon-ish storytelling, it is quality style with zero substance.  (Actually, wild-west fantasy-steampunk, but essentially the same thing…)

“The Panda Coin” by Jo Walton is a sci-fi riff on the film Twenty Bucks—and probably something before.  Instead of a camera on the shoulder of a main character, the story follows a coin as it is passed from hand to ‘hand’ (some are robots) through a space colony named Hengist.  Telling rather than showing and loaded with redundant speech tags, the android prostitute social causes can be overlooked for the implications of where the coin ends up.

“Tourists” by James Patrick Kelly is the last and longest piece in the anthology.  A Mariska Volochkova story, this one picks up with her recovering from injuries sustained while part of a failed space mission.  A celebrity for her role in the aftermath, she tries to put her life back into place while avoiding the spotlight—a difficult task given the people still in her life.  When meeting a Martian named Elan (Martians were originally human but underwent slight genetic alteration to survive on the red planet), however, her life takes on more twists.  Kelly possessing a soft touch, the novelette has the feel of a novel—the story obviously having undergone revision to positive, subtle effect.  Ultimately a story about hero worship, celebrity-ism, and cultural and racial differences, it is a balanced mix of Silver and New Age sci-fi sublime and a positive note upon which to close the anthology.

In the end, Eclipse Four is an anthology perfectly in line with the quality of the three other books in the series.  Strahan has been consistent in soliciting stories from the writers he is in contact with.  The mix of science fiction and fantasy once again proves enjoyable—not superb, but worth the read.  Like the other volumes there are some real stand-out selections, but several which also feel forced, written to meet a deadline rather than being organic efforts that sprang effortlessly from the imagination after proper germination.  If I had to rank this volume, I would put it on par with Two and Three in terms of quality.  In terms of externalities, however, it achieves the same balance of sci-fi to fantasy and gender as One.  Overall, it is like One in that it is best for omnivorous readers not tied any particular sub-sub-category of spec fic.  Night Shade books unfortunately going belly up a short time after this anthology’s release, Eclipse Four proved the last in a series that did seem to have some staying power given the overall quality of style and storytelling the volumes presented.  Alas, such is the state of modern publishing.


  1. Thanks for the review of "Old Habits!" FYI, the protagonist is male, not female.

    1. Apologies, Nalo - for two things, actually. For getting the gender wrong and not reviewing any of your work on my blog! Please forgive how pathetic this question will sound, but is there any particular book that would be a good entry point into your oeuvre?