In this much-vaunted New Golden Age of SF original anthologies, new series are proliferating like artificial intelligences after a Singularity. Witness the publication in 2008 of Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse 2; Lou Anders's Fast Forward 2; and George Mann's The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2. There were plenty of stand-alone anthologies in 2008 as well: Strahan's The Starry Rift; Gardner Dozois's Galactic Empires; Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Fast Ships, Black Sails; and John Joseph Adams's Seeds of Change. While it remains to be seen whether all the new serial titles can establish themselves financially, the awards ballots make it clear that anthologies are publishing an increasing share of the genre's best stories.
Jonathan Strahan stands out as one of the most active editors in the pack, having worked on twenty-two collections since his first, published in 1997. The Eclipse series represents an attempt to revive the tradition of original SF anthologies like Terry Carr's Universe (1971—1987) and Damon Knight's Orbit (1966—1980). Those anthologies emerged from a more unified fantasy and SF scene, riven by debates less numerous—if not less fractious—than today’s, and Strahan pays homage to the period by choosing a generalist, nonprogrammatic approach. The anthology favors no particular style or genre, nor does it seek innovation for its own sake. "I know it when I see it," Strahan writes of what he seeks: a story that is "immersive, that takes me away into its world" (p. 2).
The results of this approach can be frustrating, even though the individual stories are mostly good. Although Eclipse Two contains three or four first-class pieces, the book as a whole is uneven in quality and sometimes oddly old-fashioned compared to the work you’d see on, say, (ahem) Strange Horizons. The collection also fails to provide diversity in its authors: only two out of fifteen stories are by women; one at most is by a writer under forty; and Ted Chiang is the sole person of color. Such issues are perhaps to be expected from a (white, male) editor who is not specifically seeking diversity; indeed, they are the principle danger of the "I know it when I see it" school of editorial selection, which often hides unspoken biases.
On the other hand, the lack of a program allows great serendipity in reading. Many interesting themes lie below the surface, challenging the reader to draw connections between great stories that at first seem completely unique. Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," for instance, in my view the finest work here, is worth the price of the anthology by itself. Part of what makes this story unforgettable is the sheer wildness of its premise, to which Chiang brings the same obsessive logic that characterizes all of his work. The story's mechanical characters live in worldlike bubbles of argon surrounded by an endless expanse of solid chrome, their bodies fueled by compressed air they draw up from an underground reservoir. When the story's narrator notices that his people's sense of time is slowing down, he follows a hunch that leads him to vivisect his own brain. This scene, a vision of self-examination almost Giger-esque in its detail and sensuality, kept storming unbidden into my imagination weeks after reading this story.
Another standout is David Moles's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom," which borrows its title—but little else—from the novel by Cory Doctorow. The story brings us into the world of an absurdly cliched high-fantasy MMORPG populated by indentured posthumans, who are forced to say things like "What portion of our hoard remains?" when they mean "How screwed are we?" (p. 128). The story's parodies of gamer culture are hilarious, but Moles also raises the stakes by forcing characters into moral quandaries, in which they must decide whether they're acting rightly or merely playing a game.
Paul Cornell's "Michael Laurentis Is: Drowning," another standout, also focuses on the development of posthuman intelligence through apparently mundane technology: here through a futuristic version of Facebook where users post the tedious details of their breakfasts and breakups. In this case, however, the status update comes from a professor "attaching biological shepherding systems to whale sharks" (p. 61) deep under Japanese waters. He's attacked by an atheist terrorist group and dies, but not before a friend uploads all his memories onto the network. The story proceeds in short bursts, each one taking the extrapolation into deeper and more surprising territories.
This brings us to Stephen Baxter's "Turing's Apples," probably the purest science fiction story in the collection. The protagonist’s brother in this careful first-contact tale is a cold-hearted scientist—the kind that’s been a mainstay of SF since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—who receives a message from aliens unimaginably more advanced than we are. This story asks fresh questions about the relationship between astrophysics, information, and memory, but what really shines here is the lonesome majesty Baxter gives to the very long time-frame. He may be better than anyone else in the genre at conveying this feeling. It appears in "Exhalation" as well, but Baxter’s millenia feel longer—perhaps because Chiang allows his mechanical scientist to get his head around what’s happening, while Baxter makes it clear that the human mind may glimpse only a fragment of the cosmic processes he describes.
The long time-frame also appears, in very different guises, in two other stories here. Alisdair Reynolds's "Fury" shows us a peaceful galactic empire ruled by a bizarre leader who illustrates the fleshier side of posthuman possibility—180 degrees from Paul Cornell's Facebook upload. This one features some wonderfully inventive biotechnology and an admirably twisted narrative. Tony Daniel, meanwhile, gives the far future a warmer treatment in "Ex Cathedra." Although the humor in this piece was welcome, the story's time-travel plot involved so much zig-zagging through the ages that it rather lost me.
Time travel may be a fun literary device, but many physicists would tell you it’s more like magic than science—which brings up another pattern in Eclipse Two. Before the collection was published, there was talk to the effect that this installment was going to lean away from fantasy and toward science fiction. Yet many of these stories read as fantasy with a spare SF trope thrown in. That’s not to say this is a flaw; it actually points to a bleeding-together of fantasy and SF that’s pleasantly interstitial and which I’d like to see more of in future volumes.
Ken Scholes's lovely "Invisible Empire of Ascending Light," for instance, contains fast intergalactic travel—a concept synonymous with science fiction for many readers yet as fantastic as any dryad or centaur relative to current technology—while its plot revolves around humans who transform into mystical gods. And Jeffrey Ford's "The Seventh Expression of the Robot General" again toys with a science-fiction chestnut, but its robotic subject has more in common with 19th-century automatons than with the currently operational robots of war (as described, for example, by P.W. Singer). In an insightful twist, the Robot General is programmed to make seven different faces, but "the first six of these expressions were slight variations on the theme of 'determination'" (p. 184). The story already feels like a classic meditation on the authoritarian tendencies of the Bush years.
There are several stories closer to pure fantasy, as well. Margo Lanagan's "Night of the Firstlings" is an eerie retelling of the biblical curses of Egypt, and offers this collection's most supple and inventive language. Like Ted Chiang, Lanagan is astute at applying logic to fantastic situations. She renders the Jewish exodus through the parted seas in graphic detail, showing us a realistic sea floor complete with soggy chasms and scurrying clamlike creatures, bringing new clarity to the old yarn.
Peter S. Beagle's "The Rabbi's Hobby" also tackles a religious subject, as the piece takes place against the background of a lazy student's dreaded Hebrew lessons. The Rabbi—a dignified yet lonely older man rendered with great sensitivity—becomes fascinated with the face of a woman on the cover of an old magazine. He decides to try to look her up and eventually discovers a ghostly secret that helps him teach the boy the spiritual lessons he ignores when they appear in the Torah. In other fantasy tales, Richard Parks's "Skin Deep" tells the story of a young village witch who can slip into the bodies of four assistants by wearing their skins, and Nancy Kress's "Elevator" traps a crowd of strangers together between floors, one of whom is a psychic and sees the underlying fault lines in the lives of all the others.
In addition to this wide spectrum of free-standing SF, fantasy, and stuff in between, the collection also includes two stories from established science-fiction series: Karl Schroeder’s "The Hero" is set in Virga, a far-future, gravity-free construct whose central sun blocks the use of advanced technology; and Terry Dowling’s "Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose" is set in Wormwood, a "xenoformed Earth" populated by competing alien races. The Schroeder is an enjoyable pirate adventure and whets the reader's appetite for more stories set in this world, while the Dowling is almost incomprehensible to the reader not familiar with Wormwood. It's riddled with in-jokes, fruity dialogue, and characters we're supposed to already know but don't, and doesn't work well here.
Daryl Gregory's "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" also didn’t quite work for me. The crumbling quasi-Baltic setting ruled by a fierce warlord pulled me in, and the story’s underlying politics are well served by smart lines like, "She almost felt sorry for people in other countries whose leaders all looked like postal inspectors" (p. 94). Yet the main character felt like a generic "competent woman," without enough individual thoughts and feelings to make me care about her plight. At times, the story also seemed to depend on comic-book illustrations that weren't there.
Eclipse Two remains recommended reading despite its flaws. Its best stories are among the most interesting published in 2008, and the initial impression of patternlessness it creates leaves readers lots of freedom to spot emerging themes. The emotional possibilities of robots, the various paths toward posthuman futures, and new blends of fantasy and sf are just a few I saw, and curious readers will enjoy finding others.
James Trimarco’s pile of books to read is getting so big it is developing its own independent weather patterns. His stories have appeared in Escape Pod and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. He’s also a Consulting Editor at YES! Magazine and a member of the writing group Altered Fluid.