Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review of Eclipse Two ed. by Jonathan Strahan

Eclipse is an ambitious project by Jonathan Strahan to mimic some of the more well known speculative fiction anthologies of yesteryear by soliciting stories which capture the feel of the times.  A solid collection of shorts, Eclipse One featured not only some of the best writers of short fiction at the beginning of the 21st century, but stories which would go on to receive award nominations.  Eclipse Two, the second in what would become a four book series, while aiming at the same target, does not capture the zeitgeist in the same manner, but is more progressive, more investigative as it explores the potential direction speculative fiction, particularly science fiction, may be headed.  The following are brief summaries of the fifteen pieces in the anthology:

“The Hero” by Karl Schroeder is an abstract note on which to open the anthology.  The setting disassociating, it requires patience to see through the web of illusion Schroeder has spun using ordinary words like ‘bug’, ‘dragon’, and ‘capitol’ to represent things which are anything but ordinary in his imagined world.  Japanese anime present in much of the imagery of this distinctly non-Earth sci-fi setting, the story is of Jessie and his plight to ‘save’ humanity in its multi-sun domain.  Seeming to need a little more flesh for complete coherence, the story is nevertheless unique and sets the tone for the whole of what is to come. 

“Turing's Apples” by Stephen Baxter is a story I’ve read somewhere before, I just can’t put my finger on it. Utilizing familiar elements of Silver Age sci-fi (radio signals from extra-terrestrials, super-computers, and lunar antennas), as well as the age-old motif of sparring brothers and rational vs. emotional intelligence, the story nevertheless is readable for the combination.  Unoriginal, it is hard sci-fi in short form ending on both a sappy and sense-of-wonder note that is very much in the vein of Gregory Benford, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, and Isaac Asimov.

“Invisible Empire of Ascending Light” by Ken Scholes is more sci-fi I’ve read in slightly different form elsewhere.  Certain Words capitalized so the Reader knows which are Important, Scholes plods through a tried-and-true Plot of a Cultural Revolution in “If one Ascends, another must Descend.” style.  For this story to have the impact it desired, a stronger background would be needed, as the point toward which it builds feels underwhelming without the context.

“Michael Laurits Is: Drowning” by Paul Cornell is the shortest in the collection.  More a future history and less a story, it tells of the eponymous man—a scientist—and his post-human escape from death after a terrorist attack.  Cornell having the technical lingo down, he also has a finger or two on the pulse of human reaction to the first man to go digital.  Short but quality.

“Night of the Firstlings” by Margo Lanagan is a story whose exterior will be surprising once readers learn the motor driving it.  Very much in Lanagan’s style, intrusions of the fantastic into the real re-tell this Biblical tale of the night the archangel came and took a city’s firstborn.  A personal, emotional retelling, the subject family’s point of view goes a long way toward describing the terrors that would have been.

“Elevator” by Nancy Kress is a forced concept that does not better itself for the twist at the end.  When a hospital elevator stops between floors, seven unlucky people must wait for help.  None attempting to escape through the roof hatch or to pry open the doors, a collection of diametrically opposed personalities are forced to coexist in claustrophobic conditions, the words of a batty old woman meandering between.  The prose less than polished, the story feels like a homework assignment turned in at the last moment; it meets the teacher’s requirements, but barely.

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory is a comic book story in more ways than one, and for this reason is largely unique.  On the surface play elements of gritty superheroes (I was reminded of Watchmen), while at depth an all too standard good vs. evil mindset serves to undermine the proceedings.  The story of a fictional Trovenia under attack by the dreaded U-Men of America, the locals employ their Slaybots, mechanized gear, and all other manner of steampunk-ery in defending their beloved land and villainous leader.  Gregory seeming to enjoy the scene setting and tech more than telling a purposeful story, a fair amount of nice description meanders to a weak finish.

“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang is a fascinating story of a robot-man who dissects himself.   Not a grisly description of wires, fluids, tubes, and lubricants, the story is set within a society wherein air tanks, called lungs, need to be replaced every day and the brain is composed of leafed gold foils stamped with symbols and formulas.  Highly reminiscent of StanisÅ‚aw Lem, this is the stand-out piece not only in the anthology, but perhaps for the year in short fiction. (Interesting fact: this story contains not a word of dialogue.)

“Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” by David Moles is near impossible to describe in accessible terms in one sentence except to say it is the intersection of futuristic computer gaming and reality.  A wild combination of tropes whose complexity requires a significant amount of untangling, the purpose of the story would seem to drown in the cleverness of the milieu.  Weirdness with spotty coherence, bits of the known are mixed with much more of the unknown in this disorienting look at post-humanism in a gaming context.

“The Rabbi's Hobby” by Peter S. Beagle is the story of a boy and the titular rabbi’s search for the girl on a magazine cover.  Getting ready for the boy’s Bar Mitzfah, preparation time gets eaten into as one clue after another about the girl’s identity start surfacing.  Beagle’s story one of the best of Eclipse One, in Two he continues to blend quality storytelling with subtle themes in this story of belief, the supernatural, and universal love set during America’s Golden Age.

“The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” by Jeffrey Ford is more a history and less a story of the great Robot General of the Harvang wars.   Dreaded in battle and a celebrity in peace time, this one-off is filled with vivid description—one of Ford’s specialties—but lacks meaningful substance beyond.  “I’ve got an idea; let’s see where it goes.” kind of story, it possesses impact in the moment, but little beyond.

“Skin Deep” by Richard Parks is a typical tale of the genre.  It is the story of the witch Ceren, her many skins which give differing personalities, and the civil strife of the Medieval-esque land she inhabits.  When called into a fight as Soldier one day, things get interesting.  Not a notable tale, but enjoyable enough as light entertainment.

“Ex Cathedra” by Tony Daniel is a downward spiral of a story. I wish I could say that I am going to spin the metaphor into something positive, but in this case the meaning is straight-forward. Opening on the line “My children have been stolen”, shifting to time travel and the ‘paradox’ of being unable to have children while time traveling, moving to a galaxy sized cathedral under construction, moving to cosmic fornication, to time jumps, to virtual existences, to confused relationships… well, the reader gets the picture.  Daniel seeming to cram too many ideas into this hard sci-fi story, by the end desperation sets in as still many ideas remain but so few pages in which to add them.  All in all, it is not a wholly coherent story, a fact not helped by the workaday prose.

“Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose” by Terry Dowling is the story of a far future Earth under alien occupation.  Trussed up in clothes that disguise the figure beneath, the story is in fact quite a standard one (societal revolution) but is dressed up in descriptions, lingo and neologisms of the future, making it original to some degree.  Like Schroeder, Gregory, and Moles, Dowling is attempting to clothe the genre in something wholly fresh.

The opposite mindset, “Fury” by Alastair Reynolds appears to be a tribute to Isaac Asimov, particularly his Robot stories.  In the wake of an assassination attempt on the emperor, the chief of security Mercurio is tasked with finding who perpetrated the act.  Robots, good and bad, coming out of the woodwork in the course of the investigation, Reynolds walks paths worn thin by science fiction detective fiction in telling his story.  For those whose genre view is limited to such stories, undoubtedly “Fury” will be entertaining.  For those who are looking for something more than Silver Age sci-fi in the 21st century, the story may not have value beyond tribute.

Eclipse Two, unlike Eclipse One, is majority sci-fi.  From steampunk to hard sci-fi, the future of gaming to classic detective noir, the collection is also 90% male authors.  There is a scattering of fairy and fantasy, but by and large the anthology is more ‘futuristic’ than ‘supernatural’ in style.  Many of the stories by up and coming writers, and therefore experimental to some degree (i.e. attempting originality), there are some successes and failures of coherence along the way.  Re-visioning genre tropes can be an effective means to progress the field, but in the case of many of these stories, still falls short of storytelling with a purpose.  This creates an interesting juxtaposition.  Eclipse One features stories which are more ‘standard’ in presentiment, while Eclipse Two sees authors attempting to break existing molds.  However, given less of the writers are established, Two falls short in the quality of the writing.  Many of the authors are simply not stylists, or are still learning the ropes of the craft, resulting in stories with strong potential, but with only partially convincing presentation.  Strahan striking platinum with Chiang’s story, by far the best is “Exhalation”.  Located smack in the middle, it is the balloon which buoys the anthology.

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