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Book Review: Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan

# Editor: Jonathan Strahan
# Paperback: 256 pages
# Publisher: Night Shade Books
# Publication Date: November 15, 2008
# ISBN-10: 1597801364
# ISBN-13: 978-1597801362

With Eclipse One, Jonathan Strahan is believed to have nearly single-handedly (kudos go to Lou Anders at Pyr as well) revived the non-themed anthology. Two of the stories were award nominees. It is an oft-talked about book across the internet. And while not every reviewer loved every story, it managed to have at least one story everyone could like.

Eclipse Two continues that fine tradition. Though not every story is great, the collection is consistently good enough that readers will devour it whole, even when a story may not be, initially, to their liking.

Eclipse Two is more science fiction than fantasy. Gone is the balance that Eclipse One strove for. It is instead replaced with the battle cry that the “pre-eminent thing is story” (from Strahan’s introduction). So while there are some fantasy stories in this anthology, what readers will really find is universal themes told in mostly futuristic settings, in new and old styles.

The anthology opens with a story by Karl Schroeder set in his “Virga” universe titled simply “The Hero”. Though this story, and its tale of the selfless hero dying for his beliefs, is entertaining, it was a poor choice as an opener, as some previous knowledge f the universe is required. Still, Schroeder does give readers enough of an inkling into how his universe works that eventually we are comfortable in the story, but the initial few pages take some intellectual work. Schroeder’s comparison of the hero who dies because he has no chance to live and the hero who sacrifices himself for the good of all, despite a positive future, makes for a compelling read. By the end, you still aren’t sure if the hero will do what it takes to save his world. That ambiguity makes for a tale that excites and enchants.

Stephen Baxter writes a near-future story about the search for alien life in “Turing’s Apples”. Baxter uses the sibling rivalry of two brothers to highlight the battle between the need to worry about the future and the need to live in the now, to revel in the moment. Though his last paragraph comes off a bit pedantic and preachy, Baxter manages to make the reader think about how the needs of now can and should be weighed against the needs of the future. But in the end, which will we generally be more sympathetic to? It is this struggle, this battle of will that Baxter invites us to ponder.

“Invisible Empire of Ascending Light” by Ken Scholes is not a readily quantifiable story. Is it a tale of politics? Is it about spirituality? Or is about the inevitability of change, for good or ill? Yes, and yes, and yes. Using a far future ruled by a God-Emperor (shades of Dune) who is to be reborn in Buddha-like fashion, Scholes provides a polemic on the necessity of change and the need for a belief in something greater than anything the physical can provide.

“God help us, he’d said.
She looked down at the emperor of ascending light one final time.
‘He already has,’ she whispered.

Paul Cornell gets creative with his story structure in “Michael Laurits Is: Drowning”. Written more as a news story written long after the fact, Cornell tells the tale of the singularity, and wonders at the very nature of existence. Is humanity its. Body, a soul, intelligence, emotion, or some sum of all these parts. Laurits becomes the catalyst for these questions, and the final answer is left simply as “it was all going to be okay”.

“Night of the Firstlings” is a derivative of a much older work. Margo Lanagan gives deep, ghastly realism to an event some consider myth and some reality, but on no account has this tale ever been so deeply personal. A young girl and her family take refuge under a table in their house after the eldest child is stricken with a disease. But unlike others in their community, they listen to the prophet. Lanagan gives real deep emotion to an event that could be dry as dust.

Nancy Kress builds on the true stories of people who change their lives while stuck in elevators. “Elevator” is a perfect descriptor of the story. Several people are trapped in an elevator for hours, strangely unable to phone out or get an emergency help. When the old lady in the wheel chair starts making strange commands, everyone is creeped out. But change can occur in the most unlikely of places and as a result of the most unlikely of comments. Each person on that elevator is changed by their experience. The story ends rather hauntingly, but hopeful for its narrator.

“The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory is another derivative work, this one based on superhero comics. But unlike the clean lines of the majority of those novels, this story is about the ache, pain and horrors of war, and the people caught between two sides. Though never directly mentioned, the analogues are obvious. But the real story here is about a young nineteen year old girl whose innocence is lost because of the hubris of the powerful. A political story, the tale is not preachy, simply sympathetic to the plight of those caught in the crossfire. This was far and away my favorite story of the whole anthology.

Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” was thoroughly interesting, if a bit too heavy on the scientific description. In style and form it reads like H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine where the narrator is writing his story down as if to future generations, being careful to make his methods clear so that later scientists can replicate it. The narrator is part of a race of beings dependent on air for its survival, and it is he who discovers the truth behind air’s relationship to the brains of his people. But in that revelation comes the very doom of their race. Although Chiang’s story was interesting, it was too heavy on scientific jargon and explanation to be truly enjoyable, though hard SF fans will probably go nuts.

“Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” satirizes popular online games like World of Warcraft. David Moles’ tale had the potential to be truly funny and entertaining, but over time slowly breaks down until it seems as if the author simply did not know how to end it, and so simply goes so esoteric as to be unintelligible. Near the end, there is even the insertion of a formula that only a few readers will get, thereby distancing the story to far from its roots in words. Sad, because the story could have truly been a great narrative of the singularity and the nature of freedom.

Peter S. Beagle continues to write his lyrical stories of the interposition of the supernatural onto the mundane. In “The Rabbi’s Hobby” a young boy is being trained for his Bar Mitzvah. But, like any thirteen year old, he is easily and willingly distracted. When the Rabbi who is his teacher points out a face on a magazine cover, both he and the boy are soon caught up in solving the mystery of that model’s identity. The conclusion is surprising, and the young boy’s grows into manhood when a simple letter teaches him that he “had no understanding of beauty. And no idea of what love is, or what can be born out of love.” Beautiful and entrancing, this seemingly mundane story is a quite a heart breaker.

Jeffrey Ford’s “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” left me somewhat confused. But I was entertained by this notion of a people being led into battle by a robotic general with only seven expressions. This tale struck me as being a satirical story of the outgoing US President and his “dreams of victory”. Overall, the story felt incomplete, as if the final action was simply tacked on to get the story completed. Before the final scene, all the rest had been historical, about the robot general’s life, and then suddenly the story of his end is simply there. And as to the seventh expression, I’m not really sure what it had to do with the story, though the concept of a robot general had potential.

Richard Parks’ tale of the masks we wear in “Skin Deep” is the only true fantasy of the bunch. A local witch inherits her grandmother’s power and the skins she wore for the completion of tasks. The Oaf, the Tinker, the Soldier, and the one not named, these skins were once real people, and when the protagonist wears them, she takes on their attributes, thinking and skills. But this young girl wants to be more than her grandmother ever was, and through the kindness of strangers learns that to be yourself can be enough. This was a great tale, written in a comfortable style and with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The heroine suffers under the same desires as all of us, but her ownership of the skins makes it (supposedly) easier to achieve her hearts desire. But to wear a skin is to play but a part, and not to be the true hero of her own life’s story.

“Ex Cathedra” needs some suspension of disbelief as it is a time traveling story. But with that out of the way, we learn about the lengths a man will go to protect his progeny. Whether spiritual or a product of Darwinian evolution, it is undoubtedly true that a man would sacrifice everything for his children. But make that man a time traveler, and the risks increase a hundredfold. Tony Daniel is writing about the core nucleus of the family, and of what lengths a man will go to save his own. Though I had difficulty with the explanation of time travel (i.e. killing your grandfather to do it) but as a story of what it means to be a true man, this is excellent.

Terry Dowling’s “Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose” made absolutely and completely no sense to me. I think it was about memory, and the power a memory has, but there is obviously some back story to this tale. Not having read the previous tales of Wormwood, there were intricacies of character that left me lost. Previous readers of Dowling’s tales may enjoy this more, and understand it better, but I can only say that I was without mooring as I glossed over the majority of this story.

Alastair Reynolds concludes this anthology with “Fury”. An exceptional tale that tells the “means to an end” story scenario from positive outgrowth of one bad act instead of a bad act begetting more bad acts. The narrator, a robot, is a security guard to the emperor. When the emperor is shot, he embarks on a quest to find out why, but what he fins instead is the truth of his own existence, and the beginning of what became the beginning of the thirty-two thousand year reign of his emperor. Really, really exciting, this story ends with a twist that is quite unexpected and is one of the strongest of the anthology.

Though I did not necessarily like every story in Eclipse Two, they all had positives (except for Dowling’s) that make this an anthology well worth reading. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few of them garner award nominations. I recommend this as a good anthology of SF that makes you think and broadens your horizons about story and human nature.

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