Review: Eclipse Two, edited by Jonathan Strahan

Eclipse2

(Night Shade Books, 2008. ISBN: ISBN: 978-1-59780-136-2)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus [ASif!] WordPress site, May 2010.)

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The stated aim of Strahan’s Eclipse annuals is to emulate the unthemed anthology series of decades past, such as Orbit and Universe. Eclipse is intended to provide a selection of stories exploring the gamut of topics within SF and fantasy, by some of the best writers in the business. How does it measure up?

“The Hero,” by Karl Schroeder, has some startling worldbuilding on its side – Jessie is a young, quietly-desperate drifter who, within the story’s brief span, participates in a misguided assault on a truly massive insect, makes a promise he cannot afford to keep, and journeys to the perilous heart of the vast, hollow habitat in which his family ekes out its living. It’s a story that’s big on sense-of-wonder, but it didn’t particularly move me.

Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” concerns itself with one of the staples of space-based SF: the discovery of a signal from an advanced alien intelligence, and contemporary society’s reaction to the resultant upheaval. Baxter presents two brothers, both gifted, both of whom agree that the briefly-detected signal has ramifications not apparent to the general populace, but disagree on the appropriate response to the signal’s existence. I must confess that there’s a tendency for Baxter’s stories to rub me up the wrong way, and this one’s no exception: it’s undeniably well done, and those who like their SF underpinned by solid physics (a category into which I generally fall) should find it enjoyable. I didn’t, and I wish I knew why.

“Invisible Empire of Ascending Light,” by Ken Scholes, plays with the entrenched messianism of a rigidly hierarchical future religion. The declaration of personal divinity is a risky business, but who gives a thought to those tasked with assessing such declarations? Scholes’ story resonates with a sense of mystery, and sketches with commendable economy a solid-seeming backstory.

“Michael Laurits Is: Drowning,” by Paul Cornell, is clever, postmodern, cold.

Margo Lanagan’s “Night of the Firstlings” is a vivid, gritty re-imagining of a Biblical episode, and one of the anthology’s highlights.

In “Elevator,” Nancy Kress strands a disparate band of strangers in a hospital lift, for several hours The speculative component in this one is well-concealed, but it’s there, and Kress does a masterful job of telescoping strong characterisation, for the story’s several protagonists, into a compact frame.

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm,” by Daryl Gregory, reads like a graphic novel without pictures. The ‘Lord Grimm’ of the title is a more-or-less two-dimensional supervillain, endlessly bent on the fruitless assault of neighbouring Trovenia, but his subjects are given a real sense of depth and of tragedy in Gregory’s portrayal of young, misguidedly heroic Elena, caught in the crossfire.

Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” is a breathtaking, elliptic exploration of consciousness and mortality, as a robotic researcher uncovers some surprising truths about its mode of existence.

“Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom,” by Ted Moles, serves as a kind of companion piece to the Lord Grimm story, in that both Gregory and Moles present vivid, three-dimensional portrayals of cartoon-like existences. In Moles’ story, the focus is on online multiplayer role-playing games, with a kind of reality-tug-of-war between characters and players, faced with a squeeze instigated by the game’s developers. I didn’t completely buy the story’s denouement, but the imagery and the depth displayed here definitely won me over.

“The Rabbi’s Hobby,” by Peter S. Beagle is perhaps the anthology’s strongest story, against some fairly heavy competition. Rabbi Tuvim is helping Joseph prepare for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, but both mentor and pupil allow themselves to be distracted by a mysterious woman whose image appears in a photograph in a decades-old magazine. It’s an unhurried, richly detailed story in which the intrigue slowly unfolds to a moving and memorable conclusion.

Jeffrey Ford’s “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” is a steampunkish fable on the limitations of the military mindset. I think. It’s a short piece, detailed and somewhat off-centre.

“Skin Deep,” by Richard Parks, is an effective twist on a more-or-less standard fantasy setting. Ceren, the witch, must choose between protecting the secret of her abilities and protecting the lives of her neighbours, when her land is invaded by bandits. Of all the stories in the anthology, ‘Skin Deep’ probably hews closest to the tropes of classic fantasy, and does so with compassion and compelling characterisation.

“Ex Cathedra,” by Tony Daniel, suffered – for me – from an unsympathetic POV character and a plotline in which it’s distinctly difficult to find one’s footing. Will is working on the design and construction of the magnificent Cathedral of Justice, but that’s by no means his only agenda. And the other activities in which he’s participating look set to place in jeopardy everything which he should hold dear. But when it comes down to it, does he care?

In “Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose,” Terry Dowling presents a future Earth in which humanity is subjugated by a diversity of superior races. I must confess unfamiliarity with Dowling’s landmark Rynosseros series, and so have no concept of where this story fits within the overall Dowling canon, but the range of alien viewpoints presented here is impressive, and the story’s vision of future history sits comfortably somewhere between the plausible and the poetic.

Alastair Reynolds’ “Fury” demonstrates, once again, that the man appears more-or-less incapable of writing second-rate space opera. “Fury” has something of the same Asimovian feel as Reynolds’ recent novels The Prefect and House of Cards, but is unconnected to either of those stories. As the name suggests, ‘Fury’ smolders with a barely-repressed sense of cold, outraged malice, and is beautifully assembled.

This is, overall, a very solid anthology, although given the calibre of the authors represented here, you’d be a little surprised if it were not. For my own tastes, perhaps a few too many of the stories conveyed as ‘clever’ rather than as truly engrossing or memorable, but the contributions by Lanagan, Gregory, Chiang, Beagle and Reynolds more-or-less assure the purchaser of money well spent.

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(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2010)

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