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Eclipse Three cover

Genre anthologies seem to be everywhere lately, themed and non-themed, original and reprint, one-shot and serial. Even so, the combination of "original" and "non-themed" strikes me as rare, and, with the addition of "serial," becomes almost non-existent. Because, I suppose, how does one sell such a thing? One might rely on contributor names, and increasingly prolific anthologist Jonathan Strahan has indeed assembled an impressive collection of high-profile authors for Eclipse Three, several of which are veterans of the series. In terms of establishing a more distinct "brand name," however, Strahan claims that he continues to model these anthologies on classic non-themed precedents like Orbit, Universe, and New Dimensions, and, as this third entry is overall another very successful one, I would say that the Eclipse series could very well be headed that way. What exactly the Eclipse brand is, however, might still remain in question—for both Strahan and his readership.

In his introduction, Strahan describes Eclipse Three as "unthemed and intended to be as varied as possible" (p. 1), a broadly inclusive aspiration that echoes something we've been hearing a lot lately, perhaps most nearly resembling, of all things, the language Henry Jenkins recently used to introduce the "interstitial" tales in Interfictions 2 as "stories that are as different from each other as possible" (p 1). Strahan's brief introduction in fact consists chiefly of a meditation on the cover art, a previously unpublished Richard Powers painting rescued from obscurity, and we get no attempt to impose any sort of unifying theme or even unifying idea on the fifteen stories that follow. If it can take shelter under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction, it's fair game for Eclipse.

There have been some criticisms of the asymmetric slanting of previous Eclipse anthologies—too much of this, too little of that—but Eclipse Three actually reads fairly well as a survey of just about everything the field now encompasses, at least in generic terms: as Strahan puts it, these are "stories that range from straight fantasy to swords and sorcery to eloquent social science fiction" (p. 2). To fill in the gaps in that description of its range, I would also point to the collection's inclusion of some supernatural horror, a significant amount of something like slipstream, and even a story probably not best described as young adult fantastic mathematical fiction. And I'm possibly outing myself here, but the more slipstreamy/interstitial/whatever stories struck me as generally the strongest in the collection, although a few of them failed to impress. Not to single one out as egregiously bad, but, for example, I was disappointed with Pat Cadigan's initially promising "Don't Mention Madagascar," if only because the payoff doesn't seem worth the pages and pages narrating air travel that can seem as interminable as the real thing. And, while I would have to confess that I found a few other stories in the collection barely better than mediocre, I would rate roughly half of them as quite good, and three as truly outstanding.

One of those three is the opening tale by the redoubtable Karen Joy Fowler, and Strahan's choice to begin with her piece also seems significant in light of the generic issues I've begun to trace. I would definitely assign "The Pelican Bar" slipstream status, since, on the level of plot, it could be read as more or less "realistic," apart from the protagonist's possibly shroom-induced glimpse of a nictating membrane in the eye of one of the mysterious agents who come to cart her off to what is ostensibly a boarding school. Even when Fowler tells us that the girl "felt like an abductee" (p. 7), it's not clear that the trope of alien abduction necessarily undergirds the metaphor here, though the reptilian eye at least implies something of the sort, and we are, after all, encountering this narrative in an SF anthology. After the abduction, however, Norah enters a barely unreal world, finding herself in circumstances more improbable or absurdist than fantastic or supernatural—she must earn enough points to exercise her toothbrush privilege, etc. At times the story feels like it's going to turn didactic, but it never does; at times it feels like it's a fable or morality tale, but it isn't. To me, this is the kind of story that really seems to live up to Wallace Stevens's too quotable dictum that "The poem"—or maybe slipstream story?—"must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully." In sum, it's very possibly not science fiction or fantasy at all, but that description might apply to a sizeable area of the genre map today, an area that Strahan obviously admires.

The second of my top picks is Maureen F. McHugh's "Useless Things," another story that we'd probably have to call slipstream, but a decidedly different kind of slipstream from Fowler's lightly surrealist adventure. As far as I can tell, the story is set in the very near future but contains no proper speculative element beyond a passing reference to a magazine story about Tom Cruise's recent "telemerase [sic] regeneration therapy" (p. 103). At the very end of the story, however, the main character experiences a quiet vision of a post-apocalyptic landscape that clearly derives from her own familiarity with various pop culture apocalypses: if I had to invent a new subgenre for this story—and, sorry, I know this impulse is a vice of mine—I would call it thoughtfully pre-apocalyptic rather than post-apocalyptic. In other words, "Useless Things" is the kind of slipstream story that repeatedly affirms its connections to the genres of science fiction and fantasy even as it concludes its own "mundane" narrative with what we might have to admit evokes a high literary epiphany.

To be sure, stories that seem more literary than speculative or resist the intelligence in the KJF way can simply drive some people crazy, and there is much more to Eclipse Three than good slipstream. Although Strahan hasn't included any terribly hard science fiction, Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two" is both one of the "harder" pieces of SF here and another of the collection's finest. The story provides a gripping examination of love as a chemical process by focusing on just a few personal implications of the possibility that technology—and, of course, people—could manipulate that process: Griffith has succeeded in marrying an intriguing premise with well-imagined characters and an absorbing setting. The only other story that approaches the realm of classic SF is probably Caitlín R. Kiernan's "Galápagos," in my estimation a strong fourth after the three standout stories. This tale of a mysterious space disaster in the late 21st century is superbly paced and masterfully written, but the potential of the story is perhaps limited by the way in which both the basic situation and many of the details are so similar to some of the great SF narratives like Solaris and 2001.

I should add here that there is something else missing from Eclipse Three on the science fiction side—namely, a particular Peter Watts story that didn't make it into the final version of the anthology due to unresolved copyright issues. As I understand it, the issues stemmed from the status of the story as a very close retelling of John Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing, itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s 1938 short story "Who Goes There?" Fortunately, the story subsequently found another market in Clarkesworld, where it is currently available to read for free. On his own website, Strahan laments the absence of the story from his anthology not only for its quality, but also for the measure of "hard edged darkness" it would have added to the mix; upon reflection, the darker strands of speculative fiction are perhaps the only ones not so well represented in this volume, as the book's splash of horror inclines more towards the friendly-ghost variety. Watts's "The Things," which indeed takes a dark and brooding approach perhaps most reminiscent of John Gardner's Grendel, is told from the point of view of a famous sci-fi monster that we never knew was misunderstood. Even though I wouldn't lavish quite as much praise on the story as Strahan does, I found it an intriguing speculation on the nature of consciousness such a Thing might possess, a retelling that remains empathetic without becoming unduly exonerative. And, although several aspects of the narrative might puzzle someone unfamiliar with either of the antecedents, I'm certain that the story will reward on both levels of reading: I'll have to agree with Strahan that his collection is weaker for its loss, and rejoice with him that it has been published elsewhere.

As I hinted at earlier, there are also some stories in Eclipse Three by first-rate authors that nevertheless don't quite rise to their usual caliber. I had high hopes for the valedictory story by Ellen Kushner, but "Dulce Domum" came across as a case of slipstream gone wrong. While one could perhaps apply the urban fantasy label instead, the story would really read almost the same if it weren't fantastic at all: for me, anyway, the very slight fantastic element didn't add anything and actually distracted from the directions in which the story might have gone. In a sense, what begins as an interesting enough reflection on home, family, sickness, and sex almost seems cheapened by the casual intrusion of a certain familiar—or over-familiar—fantasy creature, the presence of which I would describe as barely peripheral to the main narrative. I also very much wanted to like Elizabeth Bear's "Swell," a modern fairytale about a would-be singer and a lusty siren, but its resolution turned out to be overly predictable and a tad too sententiously moralizing. But none of the stories are anything like awful, so I won't dwell on these less compelling ones.

Instead, I'll mention just a few of the other decent stories here to give you some idea of the almost indescribable shape of this eclectic collection. Peter S. Beagle's "Sleight of Hand," while it may wax a little too mawkish for some tastes, appealed to me because of the riddle at its center: in spite of an ending that borders on the maudlin, this Bradbury-esque magical magician story leaves us with a satisfying enigma to chew over rather than just some saccharine lozenge. But we'll again see the real range of voices and genres in Eclipse Three if we compare Beagle's sentimental contribution to Paul Di Filippo's baroque and quirky "Yes We Have No Bananas," a story with a completely inverted aesthetic. I would categorize this one as an alternative alternate reality story, and, if the self-consciously outrageous style won't turn you off, it'll make for a good read. On the other hand, Jeffrey Ford's "The Coral Heart" is a small slice of sword and sorcery that, for me at least, offered a somewhat disconcerting reading experience, as I kept expecting some kind of deep irony or even minor "twist" on the old genre, neither of which ever really came. It's not by any means a weak story, but it felt unexpected or somehow out of place rubbing shoulders with all that slipstream and, well, all that other stuff.

The problem I had with Ford's story may, of course, just lie with me, but it may also point to a larger issue with Eclipse Three and Strahan's likely still-developing editorial practice. I would venture to say that, while Strahan has previously been accused of narrowness in his selection process, the net cast for this anthology might have been slightly too wide to appeal to any one reading demographic: Strahan assumes an audience equally interested in horror, high fantasy, traditional science fiction, and quasi-realist slipstream. For another example of what I'm getting at, it seems to me that Ellen Klages's "A Practical Girl" would have fit equally well in a young adult collection, and not simply because its author is known for the genre or the protagonist is a child. And, while genre readers tend not to discriminate about young adult fiction as much as some others might, I can imagine plenty of Eclipse readers who might scratch their heads over the inclusion of a single young adult story in an anthology like this one. In short, it seems that few readers could possibly like all of these stories, a fact that I suppose is true of virtually any anthology, but in Eclipse Three the problem results specifically and inevitably from the collection's deliberate extremity of breadth. Consequently, we are forced more so than usual to rely on our editor's taste and judgment; since most of the stories here are solid, I'm definitely willing to trust Strahan for now, with the understanding that the occasional entry may stick out as unendurably bizarre. I would also note in conclusion that Eclipse Three seems a little slim compared to some other recent collections; no, not every anthology needs the poundage of ParaSpheres, but enough of the stories are good enough that one is left wanting more of them, probably several more. So here's hoping we'll be able to catch sight of another Eclipse soon enough.

T.S. Miller is currently a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, where he studies Middle English literature. Of course, genre fiction has been the secret vice of many a medievalist before him. His non-fiction has also appeared on The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and another article is forthcoming in Science Fiction Studies.

T. S. Miller teaches both medieval literature and modern speculative fiction as Assistant Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, where he contributes to the department’s MA degree concentration in Science Fiction and Fantasy.
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