REVIEW: Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan

REVIEW SUMMARY: A good collection of sf stories, with as many outstanding stories as there were disappointing ones.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A science fiction & fantasy anthology of 15 original stories.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 11 good stories, 4 of which are outstanding.

CONS: 4 disappointing stories.

BOTTOM LINE: A good anthology that features some big names in short fiction.

I missed out on reading the sf/f anthology Eclipse One due to sheer saturation. There are several more anthologies being published now than just a few short years ago, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep up. However, Eclipse One has garnered such high praise that made an extra effort to read the latest volume, Eclipse Two.

In his introduction, Editor Jonathan Strahan says that his major concern is not genre purity as much as it is finding immersive stories. I find that genre boundary discussions, as fun as they are, are ultimately fruitless, so I think Strahan made a wise decision there. Indeed, some of the stories contained in this volume weave in and out of anyone’s genre definitions. Strahan also notes that he intentionally chose a mix of stories that weighs heavily towards sf. This raised my excitement level considerably since I tend to enjoy sf more than fantasy. Odd, then, that several of the stories just failed to click for me. But there were some really good stories, too, and overall the anthology is a good one.

Standout stories in this volume include:

  • “Turing’s Apples” by Stephen Baxter
  • “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang
  • “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” by Jeffrey Ford
  • “Fury” by Alastair Reynolds

Individual story reviews follow…


Karl Schroeder returns to the world of Virga with his story “The Hero,” a standalone story that only hints at the wonders of the world he created. It takes place about a year after the events of Pirate Sun, and concerns a young man named Jesse who seeks one of the fabled, mechanical Precipice Moths so he can relay some information vital to the survival of Virga, the miles-wide balloon world he calls home. Jesse, sick and abandoned by his family, wished to give back to the world so that he might have some purpose within it. But when he finds a Precipice Moth, Jesse must learn that sacrifice is part of being a hero.

Stephen Baxter’s “Turing’s Apples” is a perfect blend of interpersonal relationships and Big Ideas. The narrator, Jack, and his estranged brother, Wilson, eventually come together to decode an alien signal picked up by a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. Wilson is obsessed with decoding its secrets while he avoids any personal contact with his family – especially Jack who shares Wilson’s love for mathematics and science, but shuns academia to the point of working in the supercomputing department of a government anti-terrorist agency. Baxter’s Big Idea comes in when Wilson actually does uncover the secret in the alien message – something that drives him to solicit Jack’s help – thereby setting of a world-changing sequence of events. This is an excellent, well-written story that’s only slightly muddled by Jack’s speculation over what really happened.

“Invisible Empire of Ascending Light” by Ken Scholes outlines a theology whereby Missionaries are used to guide self-proclaimed gods from Announcement, through Consideration and towards Declaration and (finally) Ascension. This has yet to happen in the career of protagonist Tana Berrique, until she meets H’ru, a young man who knows more than he should. While I recognize the interesting world building behind the “Mystery” and the capable prose, I failed to make sense out of (or feel the importance of) the last scene and thus the story falls apart.

In “Michael Laurits is: Drowning,” Paul Cornell presents an unconventional story, fashioned as a news article, about a man who uploads himself into a social network to prevent his own death. Though the mechanism is far-fetched, some interesting ideas are presented about what it means to be human, though sadly they are never played out to any great degree.

“Night of the Firstlings” by Margo Lanagan puts a family-perspective on the Exodus, the night God killed the firstborn sons of Egypt but spared the Jews who marked their doors with the blood of a spring lamb. The first-person narrative acts as a double edge sword here, simultaneously lending much to being immersed in the story, but also making it difficult to consume because of the intentionally butchered grammar. And while the story has suitable religious themes and dramatic thrust, it just didn’t grab me.

In “Elevator” by Nancy Kress, a stuck hospital elevator leads to some soul searching for Ian when an elderly woman’s ramblings hit close to home for all the passengers. With this story, reminiscent of Twilight Zone, Kress shows that good stories are about people, not the events to which they are exposed.

Daryl Gregory’s “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” is an affecting (and political) story about the effects of war of civilians. In this case, American superheroes invade the land of Trovenia, ruled by Lord Grimm, and leave behind countless victims like Elena and her young brother. Elena is a steel worker in a factory that builds robots to fight the war. When the merciless American U-Men strike, casualties are high. Elena’s struggle to escape the onslaught is quite engrossing.

Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” is perhaps best described as a mechanical man’s notes on the scientific method used to discern the true nature of life: that it is predicating on changing air pressure. The setting is a self-contained world totally unlike our own, in which the mechanical men draw air from an underground well, replacing their lung tanks daily. Reading this, I am reminded of the wonder I felt when I first read “Surface Tension” by James Blish. Chiang’s story is equally enjoyable and just as wondrous. Well done.

David Moles’ unconventional and challenging story “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” is about a virtual gaming world where players are driven by humans, post-humans and AIs. Imogen is a human working toward posthumanism ascension in an extrapolated Disneyland as a cast member. Only by staying in character (even against several attackers) can she gain the seniority needed to be free. If this sounds confusing, you are not alone. Moles, in an obvious nod to Cory Doctorow and his similarly named novel, is playing with the same types of elusive ideas. Unfortunately, Moles, who I am sure has a firm grasp on this setting, left this reader behind, even after multiple readings.

Peter S. Beagle’s “The Rabbi’s Hobby” is not the kind of story that usually appeals to me, which makes it all the more impressive that I found it to be completely captivating. Maybe it’s the conversational writing style that relates the story of a Rabbi’s obsessive search for the woman on an old magazine cover. Maybe it’s the affecting characterization of young Joseph, who is being taught by the Rabbi. Whatever the reason, this story — which doesn’t step into fantasy territory until about midway through and until then reads like mainstream fiction – was wonderfully written and totally engrossing.

“The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” by Jeffrey Ford is more essay than story, conveying the story of a sentient, merciless military robot. He was both a hero (in the war with the Harvang) and monster (due to his mercilessness) and Ford’s prose, which is delivered swiftly and with confidence, makes it one to remember.

The main character of “Skin Deep” by Richard Parks is Ceren, an orphaned witch with who literally wears the skin of others. In doing so, Ceren obtains their abilities – like the deadly soldier, or the strong oaf, or the Tinker who is good at fixing things. She also shares their memories. As Ceren tries to make her way serving the local town, she meets and falls for Kinan, a local farmer. She denies her feelings, but an as-yet-unseen skin tempts her towards enticing Kinan. “Skin Deep” is a decent story, to be sure, but the symbolism of the message given away by the title is too obvious to be as effective as one would hope.

I want to be able to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Tony Daniel’s “Ex Cathedra” which incorporates time travel, the future destiny of humanity, a narrator’s moral dilemma, and a parent’s desire to make good for their children. But while all these interesting elements are present, the story seemed to mix them all together in such a way that reduced each to something uninteresting. The ideas seem grand, but the execution was not able to do them justice.

“Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose” by Terry Dowling is part of the author’s Wormwood stories. Not having read any of those stories, I am left wondering if one needs to in order to enjoy this one, because I just didn’t get the point of “Truth Window.” It seems that aliens have “xenorformed” the Earth — demoting human civilization while populating it with other subservient alien species – and then those conquering aliens left. Or have they? A meeting between aliens, moderated by a human, discusses a possible human uprising, but the verbiage is so…alien…that it made it very difficult to follow.

“Fury” by Alastair Reynolds is a great example of expert storytelling. It’s a science fiction murder mystery that starts off with a bang (the assassination of the Galactic Emperor) and keeps moving through several plot twists as the Emperor’s Security Advisor, Mercurio, attempts to solve the crime. Reynolds keeps things interesting by offering up plot twists every few pages, but the real beauty is how the story unfolds for the reader. Once the entire story is laid out, it is every bit as satisfying as the journey to find it. Well done.