Visions of Paradise

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Eclipse Two

I have always enjoyed original anthologies series, having been a faithful reader of Orbit, Universe and New Dimensions during the height of such series in the 1970s. Two years ago I bought George Mann’s Solaris Book of New Science Fiction and enjoyed it enough that I plan to continue the series.

When Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse One was published a year ago, I did not buy it for two reasons. First, the reviews indicated it was heavily fantasy-oriented rather than science fiction, and I am not so much a fantasy fan as an sf fan. Second, while I share much of Strahan’s taste in fiction, he is much more likely to be enamored by a story which is primarily surface flash and clever writing than I am, so that each of his Best Short Novels volumes contained a few such stories. So those two facts made me wonder how much I would actually enjoy in Eclipse One.

Eclipse Two, however, had a considerably higher percentage of science fiction stories, so I decided to give it a try. Overall, my reaction to the book is mostly positive. Strahan manages to get stories from some of the biggest names in f&sf and, not surprisingly, they provided most of the book’s highlights.

Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” is a SETI story set around two brothers’ sibling rivalry. One brother Wilson is part of a project set on the far side of the moon which has received a one-second message six thousand light years away near the core of the galaxy. The message is repeated once a year, as if it were being sent by a rotating lighthouse-type signal. But in that second is compressed more data than the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

The storyline about the signal is Baxter’s strength as a writer, scientific extrapolation which blends into philosophical extrapolation. The pinnacle of the story takes place in the passage

We don’t know anything about what they look like, how they live–or even if they’re corporeal of not. But they are old, vastly old compared to us. Their cultural records go back a million years, maybe ten times as long as we’ve been human...But they regard themselves as a young species. They live in awe of older ones whose presence they have glimpsed deep in the turbulent core of the galaxy.

If that paragraph excites your sense of wonder, then Baxter is the writer for you. While personal interactions are his weakness, the brothers’ sibling rivalry does not interfere with the thought processes at the heart of the story.

An Alastair Reynolds story is generally part police-procedural and part human interest story, and “Fury” is both. Mercurio is the security expert for an emperor who has ruled all the colonized worlds in the galaxy for tens of thousands of years. So when an assassin inside his own palace shoots him through the head, it assassinates his body, but his mind is quickly downloaded into one of dozens of available replacements.

However, investigation of the assassination attempt soon indicates that the bullet had the potential of being lethal to both emperor and body, but was not used so. Obviously, Mercurio is anxious as to why the assassin would commit such a half-hearted murder and sets out across the galaxy to learn why. What he uncovers is totally unexpected, and raises ethical issues which Mercurio must deal with. The story raises the question of how much punishment for an evil deed is just, especially when that punishment might causes repercussions far worse than the original evil act. And is there a statute of limitations not on legality but on justice and morality?

“Fury” is a more thought-provoking story than usual for Reynolds, almost slipping into Baxter territory, and still manages to include a satisfying ending.

Richard Parks usually writes fantasies set in the Far East, but “Skin Deep” is a rural tale about a young witch who, in addition to her herbs and medicinals, also has inherited from her grandmother four skins, each of which infuses the girl with the body and traits of its original owner, such as a worker and a soldier. But the girl has never worn the fourth skin sitting high on the top shelf, and she has no idea of its power even as it calls to her repeatedly to don it.

Several short stories are also enjoyable. Margo Lanagan’s “Night of the Firstlings” tells about a strange plague which strikes all the first-born sons of families, leading into a famous scenario climax. Nancy Kress’ “Elevator” is a Thomas Disch-like story about seven people trapped in a stalled elevator overnight, while one of them, a senile old lady, babbles comments which have particular resonance to each of the other people trapped with her.

Jeffrey Ford’s “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” was a serious look at a robot who led a nation’s forces in war, and it was interesting more because Ford is an excellent writer rather than for the story itself. Ted Chiang’s “Exhalations” creates a fascinating world whose beings replace their lungs periodically when they run out of air. While the story is not as detailed as Chiang’s best stories, nor as outstanding as many critics have claimed, it is still a worthy addition to his slender group of superb stories.

And then I reached Peter Beagle’s “The Rabbi’s Hobby.” It began as a cute story about a 12-year old boy studying for his Bar Mitzvah with a rabbi, but the boy is not particularly thrilled about learning Hebrew, nor is he very good at it, while the rabbi is both patient and demanding. Then they both discover a thirty-year old magazine cover with a beach scene where off to the side of the scene a not-particularly-pretty girl strikes both their fancy.

Thus begins a mystery as the rabbi and boy try to learn the identity of that girl. They learn the name of the photographer and that he kept precise records of all his models, yet for some reason there are no records of the mysterious girl. Although the photographer is dead, they contact his daughter who gets drawn into the mystery and goes through her father’s records and contacts his friends, eventually finding another photograph with the same girl off to the side of the picture.

Do you ever read a story when abruptly halfway through it you realize that this story really appeals to you, that for some reason it has struck a particular emotional chord? That happens to me occasionally. In recent years I got that feeling from Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream” and Robert Reed’s “Good Mountain.” I had it again with “The Rabbi’s Holiday”, beginning when the photographer’s daughter took a plane flight to bring the rabbi and the boy something special she had found. And the story continued on that high level the rest of the way. For me, at least, “The Rabbi’s Hobby” is worth the entire cost of the book.

As in previous Strahan volumes, I could not finish reading several of the stories in Eclipse Two, struggling through several pages before it became obvious that in those stories the medium was the entire message. Still, the good stories by Baxter, Reynolds, Park, Lanagan, Kress, Ford, Chiang, and, especially, Beagle made for a worthwhile volume, especially if you enjoy the wordplay stories as well.


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