Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Most original anthologies in science fiction these days seem to follow themes, such as the recent Alternate Generals or Armageddon. Occasionally, a non-themed original anthology will appear, as last year's New Worlds or More Amazing Stories, although these are frequently tied in to a specific magazine. Gone, for the most part, of the days of the original anthology series like Terry Carr's Universe or Jim Baen's Destinies. In 1996, Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden published an anthology entitled Starlight 1. His goal seemed to be to simply publish quality short science fiction. He now has followed with Starlight 2.
In his brief introduction, Nielsen Hayden specifically states that the purpose of the Starlight series is not merely to publish good science fiction, but also to publish good fantasy, a distinction which he indicates is more one of trappings than of story. True to his word, he has published a wide range of science fiction and fantasy in Starlight 2, plus a few stories which don't really seem to fall into either category.
As is perhaps fitting, the two strongest stories of Starlight 2 form bookends around the rest of the contents. Robert Charles Wilson's "Divided by Infinity" opens the book and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" ends it. Wilson's story is one we have seen before. Bill Keller, a widower, has discovered that every decision made has multiple outcomes and each outcome exists in an equally real world. Someone who tries to commit suicide multiple times, as Keller has, will continue to exist in some worlds, even as he makes his existence more and more unlikely. Into this mix, Wilson adds the explosion of a dual neutron star in Orion which will have an effect on the likeliness of all human existance.
Chiang's story is an, at first, unlikely mix of Louise Banks reciting her daughter's biography interspersed with her descriptions of the linguistic work Banks is performing on the alien heptapods who have just made contact with earth. Although the story is disorienting at first as Chiang switches back and forth between the action, eventually he manages to bring the two plotlines together in a manner which, while it doesn't explain everything, does provide the reader with the necessary clues to piece the story together in a logical manner.
Playing off the theme established in Wilson's story, M. Shayne Bell takes a look at the idea of multiple realities and compares it to the concept of a single, correct timeline in "Lock Down." Bell's team of time repairmen are sent back in time to observe events which don't happen the way they "should" and keep observing them until the "proper" sequence of events takes place. In this particular case, the team is sent back to observe opera diva Marian Anderson in Salt Lake City in the 1940s. As Anderson is treated well in the aberrant timelines, the repair team must grapple with the question of duty to their timeline or duty to their consciences. The story does not fully succeed because, although Bell introduces the issue, he doesn't really examine the consequences.
Two other stories in the anthology which don't really examine the consequences of their premises are Martha Soukup's "The House of Expectations" and David Langford's "A Game of Consequence." Soukup's story is a look at relationships and happiness which works surprisingly well given the elements which don't work, not least of which being the idea of a brothel filled with prostitutes-with-hearts-of-gold. This is something Spider Robinson has milked through several books and it doesn't work any better here. Langford's story, like Chiang's takes a look at the scientific method. Langford brings the reader to the edge of the discovery and then ends the story.
The third story in Starlight 2 which deals with the scientific method is "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" by Raphael Carter. This "story" is written as a scientific paper which also explains how the joint authors went about doing their research into the ways concepts form in the brain with relation to gender identification. With little plot, however, this seems to be more a thought experiment than a story.
The reader is treated to Susanna Clarke's "Mrs. Mabb," a Victorian story in the vein of E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia stories. In the small village of Kissingford, the young Venetia finds herself facing the formidable Mrs. Mabb for the heart of Captain Fox. While the story starts out straightforward, it quickly becomes apparent that Venetia is either suffering from some form of dementia or there are strange forces protecting Mrs Mabb and keeping Venetia from reclaiming the Captain. Clarke has a good sense of the period and writes in just the right light-hearted tone to make the story a success.
Many of the stories in Starlight 2 suffer from a feeling of displacement. The reader is observing the characters through a fog or a dream which is distracting. This fog makes the characters less real and the reader less likely to care about them. This occurs frequently enough, in Kushner's "The Death of the Duke," Scholz's "The Amount to Carry" and Angélica Gorodischer's "The End of the Dynasty," that it seems to be a writing style Nielsen Hayden enjoys. Unfortunately, it is a style which causes the reader to wonder why they should be interested in what happens to the characters.
Most of the stories in Starlight 2 do work and the anthology series promises to provide a much needed outlet for original and innovative speculative fiction. Nielsen Hayden proves that he is willing to publish fantasy alongside science fiction and that there is room for experimentation in both genres. In his introduction, Nielsen Hayden promises Starlight 3 in time for the Millennium. With luck, the series will continue long into the twenty-first century.
|Robert Charles Wilson||Divided by Infinity|
|Susanna Clarke||Mrs Mabb|
|M. Shayne Bell||Lock Down|
|Raphael Carter||Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation|
|Martha Soukup||The House of Expectations|
|David Langford||A Game of Consequences|
|Carter Scholz||The Amount to Carry|
|Ellen Kushner||The Death of the Duke|
|Esther M. Friesner||Brown Dust|
|Jonathan Lethem||Access Fantasy|
trans. by Ursula K. Le Guin
|The End of a Dynasty|
|Geoffrey A. Landis||Snow|
|Ted Chiang||Story of Your Life|
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