Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review of Eclipse One ed. by Jonathan Strahan

In his introduction to Eclipse One: New Science Fiction and Fantasy, editor Jonathan Strahan lays out in unequivocal terms his hopes for the anthology.  A quest for quality, his ambition is to collate the zeitgeist of speculative fiction at the beginning of the 21st century by soliciting stories without premise from the world’s best writers of short fiction.  Modeled on the diverse anthologies of yesteryear (directly cited are: Universe, Orbit, and New Dimensions), the stories do indeed capture some of the most intelligent, touching, and stylized writers currently on the market, and generally do rise to meet Strahan’s challenge to himself: “There's only the test that every reader applies to any work that they encounter—is it good fiction or not?”  The following is a brief rundown of the fifteen stories selected:

“Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” by Andy Duncan – Father Leggett is called to the house of the O’Connors one day, and there meets their strange daughter Mary, and an even stranger chicken which she has named Jesus.  Uncertainty and doubt creeping in regarding his faith in the aftermath of this encounter, the religious undertones of this subtle, wonderfully balanced story run deep.  What reads as a goofy title is a significantly more multi-layered story.

“Bad Luck, Trouble, Death, and Vampire Sex” by Garth Nix lives up to the frenetic.  A windmill rolling through a circus, attempting to explain the story is an exercise in futility.  A piece wherein one element of supernatural after another is glommed onto the storyline (like a fleet-footed PKD in a Gothic fantasy setting), bright flashes of standard fantasy and horror tropes appear and disappear—adherence to reality simply intractable.  A lot of fun, the story nevertheless shoots all its bullets in one fusillade.

“The Last and Only or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” by Peter S. Beagle is a classically styled story of a man who immerses in himself in French-ness—culture, language, food, etc.—in an attempt to make himself French, and succeeding.  Subtly examining cultural heritage, the meaning of culture, and globalization in a few scant pages, the story is not only well-written but relevant.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” by Maureen F. McHugh is not a story in the traditional sense, rather a character study about a young mechanic who survived a dirty bomb attack on Baltimore, and as a result may be suffering from Dissociative Fugue (partial memory loss/personality disorder).  Raising of awareness about the little known disorder, McHugh nevertheless utilizes a trope of science fiction to gain poignancy in an affected person.

“The Drowned Life” by Jeffrey Ford is the story of Hatch.  Hatch is a normal man running the rat race of lower middle-class life, trying to keep up with bills, his job, and the necessities of family.  Giving up one day, he sinks into Drowned Town, and there sees life from a different perspective.  A vividly poetic story dense with both overt and unobvious allusion, Ford really nails the never-ending game of catch-up poorer Americans play.

“Toother” by Terry Dowling is perhaps the most straightforward and familiar piece in the anthology.  A police procedural, it is the story of the search for a serial killer, or killers, who steal the teeth of the dead so that they can kill others.  Nothing truly standout that evening television has not covered from a hundred other angles, there is little observably unique save for those who enjoy such stories.

“Up the Fire Road” by Eileen Gunn is a story that on one hand bears strong resemblance to a story inspired by the seedy tabloids you see waiting in line at the grocery store: “Sasquatch Weds Woman: Bear Love Child” and other such headlines.  On the other hand, it is the story of a trip into the mountains as told from the alternating (and differing perspectives) of a man and a woman.  Escalating slowly but steadily into the Weird, and then to the talk show Weirder, there are a number of potential allusions involving responsibility, parenthood, and commentary on the modern era, but being 100% certain about these is impossible given the surreal point to which it all draws to a head.

“In the Forest of the Queen” by Gwyneth Jones is a fairy tale of modern, corporate proportions that becomes much more upon its conclusion.  At the start, the millionaire Aymon Bock and his wife Viola are traveling the French countryside outside Paris, scouting the land they have just purchased to plan where best to locate the charity foundation they intend to open.  The paved road they drive breaking abruptly off into a dirt road, their subsequent travels through the woods are a few degrees away from ordinary.  A mix of common fairy tale elements and motifs that escalate to nowhere practical, a spiral twist is its strongest feature thematically. 

“Quartermaster Returns” by Ysabeau S. Wilce is a stylized, gritty tale of a cowboy quartermaster who mysteriously returns to life after drowning in a flood attempting to rescue a crate of beer.  With echoes of Malazan soldiery, the story possesses great rough and tumble military atmosphere on its way to telling of a payroll gone missing.  (This story is a great example of how the power of style can make something potentially cheesy—like zombies—approachable, readable, and enjoyable.)

“Electric Rains” by Kathleen Ann Goonan is another story whose impetus is a terrorist attack using dirty bombs.  Surreal compared to the realist concerns of McHugh’s story, Goonan utilizes metaphor in telling the story of the woman Ella and her attempt to come to terms with the attack and the society that has arisen in its wake. Not the strongest prosaically, the story nevertheless uses symbolism well.

“She-Creatures” by Margo Lanagan is a story of pirates and their fairy encounter.  Literally a short story, Cottar’s tale feels strongly like a one-off that depends on the description of the supernatural to carry it, substance fading thereafter (like Jones’ take earlier).

“The Transformation of Targ” by Jack Dann and Paul Brandon is the most peculiar piece in the anthology (if possible in a wide open speculative fiction anthology).  Reality swirling with a bizarre pseudo-reality featuring Gothic-esque demons a la comic books, getting into the story takes patience given the number of paradoxes, but once it feels out its limits, does come to target.  The comedic overtones, however, do not balance the allusive qualities.

“Mrs. Zeno's Paradox” by Ellen Klages is the shortest in the collection.  Its four pages describe the meeting of Annabel and her friend Midge at a cafĂ©, and the manner in which they decide to share the brownie Annabel has ordered.  Playing with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (I think), the story is the tiniest yet sweetest, just like one of the crumbs of the brownie.

“The Lustration” by Bruce Sterling opens on one of the strangest moments of artistry I’ve ever read: the casting of a termite hive by pouring molten metal into its depths.  But the story gets stranger—a setting difficult to imagine given the abstract descriptions which ensue.  Scattered environmental movements, singular printing techniques, eons of time, odd wooden balls, a holy man with claws, oblique conceptualization of programming, esoteric social rules, and on goes the list of oddities.  Needing to be read twice, the intangibility will either be frustratingly obscure or curiosity engaging. Either way this is the least accessible story in the anthology—the only clue to its meaning the quote which leads things off.

“Larissa Miusov” by Lucius Shepard is a sublime tale of an inexplicable Russian beauty through the eyes of an up and coming screenwriter in L.A.  Full of emotions and mystery, the screenwriter’s life gets turned further and further sideways the closer he gets to the eponymous beauty.  Shepard developing the intrigue admirably, the story would be realist save the ambiguous denouement—a positive note upon which to close the anthology.

In the end, Eclipse One is a very solid anthology—a fact nearly guaranteed by the group of writers solicited.  An individual story may not appeal to a reader, but the style and focus of each is strong enough to tide them over to the next—not a bad ploy on Strahan’s part.  Another interesting aspect is the representation of gender; half the selections are by women authors.  A notable difference from Universe, Orbit, and New Dimensions, it gives the content a modern and progressive spin.  I will not mention the stand-out stories in the anthology as this will be different for every reader, but suffice in saying that Strahan has accomplished his goal of collecting some of the best writers of short stories at the beginning of the 21st century and included them in one volume.  I look forward to the remaining three volumes in the series.

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