Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse anthologies are full of stories that have been important to the development of the genre short story over the past several years. Previous selections from the anthology series have been nominated for the Nebula Award (Andy Duncan's "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse," Eclipse One) and won the Hugo Award (Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," Eclipse Two), along with the World Fantasy Award and Shirley Jackson Award (Karen Joy Fowler's "The Pelican Bar," Eclipse Three). The latest volume, Eclipse Four, continues this tradition of quality.
For example, I think people will be talking about Caitlín R. Kiernan’s "Tidal Forces" for quite a while. The story is a meditation on the tragic inevitability of loss, the willing submission to unexplained forces that govern time and space, being and not being. Emily's lover, Charlotte, has been attacked by a mysterious shadow—"I can sit here all night long, composing a list of what it wasn't, and I'll never come any nearer to what it might have been" (p. 23)—and subsequently develops a steadily growing hole in her abdomen, later understood as "not merely a hole in Charlotte's skin, but a hole in the cosmos" (p. 26). Emily tries to derive a sense of linearity from what is happening by adopting a metaphor of a house of cards,
held together by nothing more substantial than balance and friction. And the loops I'd rather make than admit to the present. Connecting dot-to-dot, from here to there, from there to here. Here being half an hour before dawn on a Saturday, the sky growing lighter by slow degrees. Here, where I’m on my knees, and Charlotte is standing naked in front of me. Here, now, when the perfectly round hole above her left hip and below her ribcage has grown from a pinprick to the size of the saucers she never uses for her coffee cups. (p. 19)
But she gets lost in the metaphor, lost in the senselessness of imminent loss, left to simply sit on the sidelines and watch Charlotte be consumed by something that might be the "inadvertent avatar of a god, or God, or a pantheon, or something so immeasurably ancient or pervasive that it may as well be divine" (p. 29). Kiernan employs a number of through lines and recurring images which deepen the narrative, opening it up to include the whole world, much as the hole in Charlotte's abdomen comes to include a "preposterous and undeniable blackness" (p. 26). Charlotte’s memory of being shot by a BB gun as a child, for example, connects a trauma from her past with this inexplicably traumatic present. And Emily's vocation as a writer affords an opportunity for her research about the Age of Exploration to comment on the very nature of storytelling: "All those overlooked islands, inaccessible plateaus in South American jungles, the sunken continents and the entrances to a hollow Earth, they were important psychological buffers against progress and certainty" (p. 18-19). The metaphor resonates directly with Emily and Charlotte's present project of explaining the unexplainable, of attaching a narrative to an experience which very well may exist outside of the realm of story, outside of the usual boundaries created by a measurable time and space. But "Tidal Forces" is at its most moving when these confrontations with the unknown are most closely aligned with the human factor, the idea of two people loving each other enough to believe anything for the other—especially if it might save her.
Another extraordinary accomplishment is "Story Kit," by Kij Johnson, exploring how we funnel our experiences, doubts, regrets, and hopes into fiction, attempting to make sense of the discordant elements of our messy, senseless lives. The narrator—the writer composing the very story we are reading—is going through a divorce, having been abandoned by her husband, and the story itself is an exercise in writing the story of that betrayal. Like "Tidal Forces" earlier, "Story Kit" describes lovers being pulled apart—but here, the agent of separation comes from within, and that kind of pain can be even more raw, more desperate, than that which threatens from outside. The writer chooses the story of Dido and Aeneas as an appropriate corollary for her own experience, and what follows is a melding of these two narratives infused constantly with the self-conscious asides of a writer trying to produce something worth reading, but still something at a safe remove from memoir. She discusses the idea of funneling speculative metaphors—"Easier to distance [personal, searing losses] in some fashion: zombies, or a ghost story" (p. 53)—into the cauldron which also contains the messy, painful nuances of lived experience. "The writer's craft is no longer a skill she has learned, but a ship she sails" (p. 53)—and so, "Story Kit" is the story of a woman coping with real loss in the only way she knows: by turning it into fiction.
Many other stories in Eclipse Four work to make the anthology worthwhile. Andy Duncan offers up "Slow As a Bullet," a well-executed tall tale (with magic!) in the southern tradition. Jeffrey Ford's "The Double of My Double is Not My Double" seems at first glance like a psychological odyssey into the ideas of reality and selfhood, and while it succeeds on that level, the story also becomes a meditation on relationships and trust, the staying power of love. And plenty of the more traditional genre stories are worth enjoying, from Gwyneth Jones's "The Vicar of Mars"—a deeply immersive and beautifully told science fiction story—to Jo Walton's "The Panda Coin," a story about class struggle and just getting by in a world where the only person you can trust to keep your best interests at heart is yourself. And the anthology closes with a longer story by James Patrick Kelly, "Tourists," set in a world he has written in before (most notably in the Nebula- and Hugo-nominated “Plus or Minus”), which doesn't necessarily satisfy as a standalone piece—I'll admit that I haven't read the previous installments, and was left with many questions here—but still exemplifies the aim of the stories in Eclipse Four: to present entertaining genre narratives which also investigate very real, very relevant ideas and concerns, in this case the meaning of otherness and the discordant elements which form our very identity.
Two of the most affecting stories in Eclipse Four are populated entirely by dead people: Nalo Hopkinson's "Old Habits," which presents a shopping mall filled with the ghosts of those who have died there, and Rachel Swirsky's "Fields of Gold," a relationship drama unfolding in the afterlife. Both stories address the nature of the proverbial other side as a space in which to come to terms with events that took place back in the world of the living—notably, the way in which one died. "This is not going to be one of those stories where the surprise twist is and he was dead!" (p. 71), Hopkinson warns us early on in "Old Habits," in which the characters must relive their deaths—asthma attacks, freak accidents, even a murder—once each day, the world of the living always just out of reach, sensed but not felt in a sensory way. The experience of dying is the one way these characters can still feel physically connected to their former selves, and they are so desperate for the sensations associated with being alive that they destroy each other for the chance to experience something from the living world—mundane things like the smell of french fries, perfume, coffee. And the story itself is rooted in the mundane, the idea that the things which eventually do us in are usually nothing special, just run of the mill accidents that ultimately don't make any sense at all. The trivial quality of the deaths highlights the randomness of life in general, and the setting of the shopping mall further points to these absurdities; the sterile, empty world of the mall becomes an eternal home for these characters who legitimately have nothing left at all, literally indulging in "old habits"—frustration, grief, death.
Meanwhile, Swirsky's "Fields of Gold" points us in the opposite direction, making the case for inevitability; these characters realize that there were signs pointing all along to the way things would all turn out. The story presents a less desperate, less yearning afterlife, filled with those longing for meaning rather than experience. Immediately following his death, Dennis emerges into a festive scene in which "dead people came at him with party hats and presents. Noise makers bleated. Confetti fell. It felt like the most natural thing in the world" (p. 103). He reconnects with those he has lost in his life and wistfully laments the things he has missed out on by dying fairly young. But gradually a design emerges as he sees that he still has a lot to learn about the nature of his death and the true feelings of those who have been closest to him; he recognizes himself as a "master of self-denial; he didn't even let himself realize there was something he wouldn't let himself realize" (p. 110). By illuminating the complexities in the relationships between the story’s primary characters, Swirsky delves into the nature of human connection and the things that ultimately tear us apart.
Offerings from Michael Swanwick (an occasionally insightful story about human agency and the meaning of life in the face of the "roiling, churning emptiness that underlies the world" (p. 69)), and Emma Bull (a disjointed but poignant series of vignettes modeled after the Cassandra myth) are highly competent but perhaps dwarfed by the quality of their company, and only one story—Damien Broderick's "The Beancounter's Cat"—missed the mark for me completely. I'm not one of the many people who would be automatically turned off by a talking cat story (Miranda July's most recent film, The Future, exemplifies how the idea of the talking cat can transcend its kitsch appeal and become a way of talking about our approach to relationships animal and otherwise), but Broderick's piece errs on the side of silliness, amusing at times but ultimately revealing itself as far too light to feel relevant in the company of the other more weighty, more ambitious tales.
But missed opportunities are the exception here in Eclipse Four, and when the exception in an anthology of stories is a lack of quality rather than an abundance of it, the result can safely be considered a success.
Richard Larson was born in 1984 and is a Brooklynite by way of St. Louis, MO. His short stories have appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, ChiZine, Electric Velocipede, and Sybil's Garage, and are forthcoming in Subterranean, Shimmer Magazine, and Wilde Stories 2011: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction. In addition to reviewing books for Strange Horizons, his film (and other) reviews have also appeared at Slant Magazine and The House Next Door. He went to grad school but all he got was this stupid T-shirt, so now he spends most of his time reading and writing (and writing about) speculative fiction. He blogs at http://www.rlarson.net.