Friday, February 08, 2008

Eclipse One edited by Jonathan Strahan

The only original anthology that sounds like a space mission (Eclipse One is go for lift-off!) comes from editor Jonathan Strahan and the mad geniuses at Night Shade Books.

There are fifteen stories in here, and I'm going to write something about all of them. (Probably cranky, unfair things, since that seems to be the way I'm reviewing this month -- please accept my apologies up front, and my hopes that I'll start saying nicer things sometime in March.) So I'll keep the introductory notes brief -- Jonathan Strahan is trying to jump-start the long-dead market for original anthology series (along with Lou Anders at Pyr), and good luck to him.

"Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse" by Andy Duncan
In a time which doesn't seem contemporary but isn't otherwise specified, a Catholic priest deals with a young girl and her hypnotized, backwards-walking chicken. Much later, he thinks about it.

It struck me as pointless, I'm sorry to say. It's essentially a literary shaggy dog story leading up to the Paul Harvey-ish "...and that person became...Famous Writer X!" ending. I like the way Duncan writes, but "Unique Chicken" seems to rely entirely on knowing Famous Writer X (and maybe knowing more about X than just existence, which is bad for me, since I don't).

"Bad Luck, Trouble, Death, and Vampire Sex" by Garth Nix
A young man who has just accidentally caused the death of his witch-queen grandmother realizes that he has been cursed, though escaping the consequences of grandma's death is of more immediate importance. Eventually, a new witch-queen is chosen, and everything settles down.

This is not a deep or profound story, but it's very enetertaining and does exactly what it needs to do. My only quibble is of the Chekov's Gun variety: it's just not done to mention vampire sex in the title and then relegate it to an off-hand backstory mention.

"The Last and Only or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French" by Peter S. Beagle

A typical American man suddenly and inexplicably starts turning French.

I don't know if it's fair or not, but I get the feeling that Beagle can write this sort of wry, winding story in his sleep after all these years. It's probably actually much harder than that, but "The Last and Only" feels just like the ur-Peter Beagle story: a wry, detached tone, an atmosphere right out of the middle of the American Century, inexplicable happenings

"The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" by Maureen F. McHugh

In the near future, a teenage boy went into a fugue state after a dirty bomb in Baltimore. Several years later, he's reunited with his mother. The story is told as if it were a newspaper column.

This is very flat and prosy. This kind of newspaper style works best for really large, unbelieveable events; the events of this story are already banal and everyday, so flattening them out even more doesn't help it. I imagine it was meant to be something like "a newspaper story from the near future," but it's a dull one from a dull, '70s-style future.

"The Drowned Life" by Jeffrey Ford
A man whose life is getting too much to handle "stops bailing" and falls into a drowned city. Everything is very metaphoric, as the story admits. His family tries to save him.

This story absolutely should not work; it's much too blatant on the one hand and non-specific on the other. And yet it does; it's easily the most moving story in Eclipse One. I have no explanations.

"Toother" by Terry Dowling
A really nasty horror story about a possibly-supernatural entity kidnapping women, extracting their teeth, and killing them. Some series characters of Dowling's solve the mystery, and catch the killer. (Or the current killer, possibly.)

Very effective, very creepy. For my money, this is the heart of Eclipse One: this story and Jeff Ford's.

"Up the Fire Road" by Eileen Gunn
Either now or very soon from now, two dumb losers get lost during an ill-thought-out ski trip, and meet a pan-sexual, multi-gendered sasquatch, which they both have sex with over an extended period of time. Eventually, they go back to civilization, where several people are pregnant, and other silly things happen.

I might have missed the point of this story entirely; the two protagonist's voices were done well, but I hated both of them. I didn't see the appeal of the sasquatch to either of them -- it felt like a story in which things were asserted, rather than shown, and I didn't believe any of the assertions. Technically solid, but not a story I liked.

"In the Forest of the Queen" by Gwyneth Jones
Another couple runs into trouble in a wilderness -- this time, they're yuppies in a French forest, and they fall afoul of what seems to be an unlicensed Mythago Wood rip-off.

I believed the characters in this one, though they are horrible stereotypes, but I didn't see how the ending had anything to do with them, or with anything. Tree-hugging nonsense, if you ask me.

"Quartermaster Returns" by Ysabeau S. Wilce
In another of Wilce's Califa stories, a small Army outpost in what seems to be Alternate-World Death Valley resurrects the recently flash-flood drowned quartermaster to find out what happened to their missing payroll. A folkloric contest ensues.

Pleasant and colorful, though it could have gone for more of a tall-tale flavor, maybe. (On the other hand, I don't know if that tone has any place in Wilce's fantasy world.)

"Electric Rains" by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Terrorists stike the mid-Atlantic again, hitting Washington, DC with some kind of nanotech device in the backstory. Now heavy rains bring mind-altering nano, which leads the wet affectees into the Metro to have their brains downloaded. One young woman drags her just-died adoptive grandmother through the changed landscape to Arlington National Cemetery.

What's the deal with destroying the Balti-Wash corridor? Dreary, quiet, and not to my taste. It's one of those character-does-something-but-it's-really-about-her-inner-journey stories, which I think are terribly overdone in SF these days. We need to get some outer journeys going.

"She-Creatures" by Margo Lanagan
In Lanagan's typical vaguely-like-Australia-but-not-anywhere-in-particular, three men are doing some kind of smuggling by night, when a group of five witches find them and perform a weird sexualized ritual on one of the men. It's all very life-changing and frightening.

The scene where the witches the guy is genuinely powerful. But Lanagan refuses to explain it or have it lead anywhere, so it just floats above the story. We don't know who these guys were before, or what they were doing. We don't know who the witches are, or what they did, or what they have to do with anything. So it's one strong scene embedded in a few thousand words of not enough scene-setting, like a fan dancer whose thin, wispy fans don't actually cover anything.

"The Transformation of Targ" by Paul Brandon and Jack Dann
An evil overlord goes to a therapist to get his mojo back, but ends up switching careers.

Pleasant enough, but it's very slight -- it reads like something out of a Marty Greenberg anthology. (Fantastic Shrinks, anyone?)

"Mrs. Zeno's Paradox" by Ellen Klages
Two women divide a brownie far too many times.

Clearly based on someone or other in real life, and short enough not to overstay its welcome.

"The Lustration" by Bruce Sterling
Two hundred million or more years in the future, on a world in a system outside the Galaxy, an engineer in a civilization of "humans" (probably uplifted bears) discovers the secrets of the possibly-conscious vast network of wood that covers his planet.

Very traditional SF, in which Sterling has his characters get down to talking about ideas for most of the story after he maneuvers them together. A story very much like this could have been sold to Campbell in 1940 -- but that's not a complaint. I'm not entirely sure the ending actually has the mood it affects to have, or has earned that mood, but the story as a whole is pretty good.

"Larissa Miusov" by Lucius Shepard
A wannabe screenwriter in LA falls in with a gorgeous Russian woman who has no capacity for love (so she says). Things end badly, as usual for Shepard.

One would have to be quite generous to call this fantasy, and so it possibly doesn't precisely belong in this anthology. It's also not a great Shepard story. But even a pretty good Shepard story is something to be prized, so I won't complain.

As a whole, Eclipse One has an air of quiet competence. If only a couple of the stories (Ford and Dowling) are really good, none of them are less than professional, and even the misfires are all respectable. It's a good first outing for a new original anthology series, and I look forward to many Eclipses in years to come.

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