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Eclipse One
edited by Jonathan Strahan
Night Shade Books, 263 pages

Eclipse One
Jonathan Strahan
Jonathan Strahan was born in Belfast and moved to perth in 1968. He is the co-founder of Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy and is currently the reviews editor of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Field. He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his family.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Starry Rift
SF Site Review: The New Space Opera
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Treasury
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2006
SF Site Review: Best Short Novels 2005
SF Site Review: The Locus Awards

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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In 1966, Damon Knight began to edit Orbit, an original anthology series that regularly featured writers such as Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, R.A. Lafferty and Kate Wilhelm. In 1971, Terry Carr began Universe, and the same year Robert Silverberg began New Dimensions, which between them featured Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr., Gardner Dozois and Wolfe. There were several others around at the time; the magazines were in something of a decline and for a decade or so original anthologies dominated the SF short story market. By the end of the 70s, however, with new magazines like Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine and Interzone emerging onto the market, practically all of the original anthology series had died (Universe alone staggered on into the 80s, though it was well past its peak).

They were heady days for the SF short story. The brash experiments of the new wave were over, but the effects of their iconoclasm meant that writers felt there were no limits to what they might try, and the result was some of the boldest and most innovative short fiction the genre has seen. Somehow the magazines never seemed quite so cutting edge, and those of us who were around at the time tend to look back on those original anthologies, and particularly on the golden triumvirate of Orbit, Universe, and New Dimensions, with considerable affection. And every so often someone tries to revive the original anthology series. Patrick Nielsen Hayden came closest to matching the originals with Starlight, but it only lasted for three issues. Now Jonathan Strahan is having a go with Eclipse, and specifically taking Universe as his model.

On the evidence of this first issue, it's a noble effort but he still has a way to go.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is that, where those earlier anthologies tended to concentrate on science fiction, here the majority of the stories are fantasy. That is no particular surprise, it's the way the genre has been going lately. More frustrating is the fact that, though Strahan has gathered together a cast of contributors as distinguished in its way as those who graced Universe, they seem less intent on boldness, on pushing at the limits of the genre. There are a couple, indeed, that have simply and rather meekly gone for the safest and most predictable of genre tropes. "Bad Luck, Trouble, Death, and Vampire Sex" by Garth Nix follows a pattern I've noticed in other stories by this author, piling incident upon disconnected incident until the thing has gone on long enough (in fact, usually rather too long) then bringing it too a conclusion that would have been possible at any point. It's about the standard incompetent magic practitioner who accidentally causes the death of the witch queen then has to escape repeated attempts on his life until he can figure out what is really going on. It's a comedy, which is how Nix feels he can get away with as many clichés as he uses, but he neither satirises the clichés nor uses them inventively enough to make this seem anything other than a very routine story. "The Transformation of Targ" by Paul Brandon and Jack Dann is another comedy, of reversals this time with the standard cruel ruler of generic fantasy suddenly finding he prefers being nice to people. It's a neat piece of work even if it winds up being rather predictable.

Terry Dowling's "Toother" is also predictable, if only because we've been there before. Dowling has told this combination of horror and police tale so often that we greet each new variation on the form (in this instance we are tracking down someone who kidnaps people in order to rip their teeth out and fashion them into weapons) with recognition of the quality of writing and with familiarity, but with no sense of surprise. "Quartermaster Returns" by Ysabeau S. Wilce starts promisingly with a soldier returning from the grave in a setting that is an intriguingly distorted version of the American frontier. But once the premise is established, the story proceeds with a plodding inevitability that leaves you feeling at the end that it is a story that is nowhere near as good as it should have been. Though for plodding inevitability the crown has to be taken by Jeffrey Ford's "The Drowned Life": take a tired cliché, a man drowning in debt; concretize it, the man finds himself in a submarine world; play as many variations on the theme as you can dream up, the man encounters sharks and octopuses and a couple of reversals of what you'd find on dry land. And that's it; it really is dispiriting when a writer as good as Ford usually is produces something so dull.

Fortunately, most of the rest of this volume is rather better. Ellen Klages, for example, provides a smart comedy in "Mrs Zeno's Paradox" that doesn't rely on familiar tropes, and that makes its point and moves on in three short pages, a lesson others could profit from. Klages's story is also one of the few science fictions in this anthology. Curiously, and I am sure coincidentally, all but one of the others are also written by women, which raises an issue I will perforce come back to later in this review. For now let me note that Maureen F. McHugh ("The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large") and Kathleen Ann Goonan ("Electric Rains") both provide post-disaster stories, in each case a terrorist attack upon the United States. But neither the two dirty bombs exploded over Baltimore in McHugh's story, or the explosion caused by rogue homeland security agents in Goonan's are really the focus of the stories. Rather they are about survivors coming to terms with the new reality, in each case their survival is an important part of the protagonists' new sense of identity. McHugh tells of a boy with amnesia and how he is affected by coming into contact with his old life, a story which would have worked as well even without the terrorist background. Goonan tells of a little girl who may be the child of the homeland security agents, and of what she does when the old woman who has sheltered her since the attack finally dies.

The only SF by a male writer is Bruce Sterling's "The Lustration", set on a steampunkish world in which all life revolves around an ancient, wooden, planet-sized computer. Sterling inhabits this world almost too well, so that at times it is not always as clear as it should be why some things are the way they are, but that only means it is a story that will probably repay a return visit. It is also an SF story that has something of the air of a fantasy about it, and two other stories similarly have an inter-generic feel about them. "She-Creatures" by Margo Lanagan concerns a band of smugglers in some version of the past who are suddenly confronted with a frightening group of women who are probably, though this is never spelled out, alien. The set up and the air of menace work perfectly, though the story felt like it deserved a better resolution. I remain undecided whether "She-Creatures" is fantasy or science fiction, though I think the tone of the piece leans more towards the former. Gwyneth Jones, in one of the three best stories in the book, leaves us in no doubt that it is science fiction, but skillfully withholds this revelation until the end. "In the Forest of the Queen" feels like a stereotypical fantasy: a brash American couple in France ignore warnings by a local and drive into a forest where they loose their way and appear to find themselves in a sort of fairyland. That this isn't the case, and the way the stereotype is subverted, is what makes this such a good story.

I would say that the rest of the volume is fantasy, except that Andy Duncan's "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse" may actually be mainstream. It is certainly one of the better stories in the book. It concerns a girl with a pet chicken she calls Jesus Christ and which she trains to walk backwards, and the effect this has on a doubting priest. That the girl grows up to be Flannery O'Connor is a grace note in a story all about grace. Reading the story carefully, nothing supernatural need happen at any point, but it is certainly written with the flavour, the sensibility of the fantastic.

There is, on the other hand, no doubt that "Up the Fire Road" by Eileen Gunn is fantasy, since it involves two cross-country skiers in remote country who have an affair with a Sasquatch, though each sees the creature differently and in ways that reveal their own character. It's a superbly written story, but it degenerates into the sort of farce that suggests Gunn didn't really know how to end the story properly. Lucius Shepard also tells of an affair with the mysterious, an affair coloured by what we want to see, in "Larissa Miusov." It is told by an unsuccessful young Hollywood screenwriter who meets a beautiful Russian woman who helps to get his first script into production; but he is so focused on what she can do for him that he misses all the other things going on around her. Again it's a good story, though again it leaves you with the vague sense that there is something missing. Which cannot be said of the best story here, "The Last and Only or, Mr Moscowitz Becomes French" by Peter S. Beagle. It tells of an American university librarian who finds himself becoming French, indeed in the end more French than the French. The story is sly, witty, subtle, flirts with racial stereotypes but cleverly avoids them, and like too few of the other stories here it represents the daring and ingenuity that used to be a feature of Universe in its prime.

When this book first appeared, Strahan was strongly criticized because the cover featured the names of five writers, none of them women, even though women make up just under 50% of the cast list, and include writers like Gwyneth Jones whose reputation must match any of those who were listed on the cover. That is bad enough, but the selection of names on the cover raises another problem. Of the five writers featured, two of them, Garth Nix and Jeffrey Ford, produced what were easily the worst stories in this volume; while the stories by Gwyneth Jones, Maureen McHugh, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Margo Lanagan and Ellen Klages were a match for any of the authors featured except Peter Beagle. I would have thought that the names on the cover should direct you to stories that will excite you about the anthology as a whole, but that isn't what happens here. Mind you, this is a volume of solid competence rather than real excitement, and subsequent volumes are going to have to get much more exciting if they are to match up to Terry Carr's Universe.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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