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Eclipse Two edited by Jonathan Strahan

As you would expect from the title, this is the second in the anthology series entitled Eclipse (Night Shade Books). We start off with “The Hero” by Karl Schroeder which poses an interesting question. If you recognise the need for action to save your universe, just how far will you go? Of course, the talk of universes is all part-and-parcel of the game sf writers play. It’s all a matter of scale. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you live in a village perched precipitously on top of a cliff. From this vantage point, you can see an approaching danger. Would you risk climbing down the cliff to deliver a warning to the people living below? They are completely vulnerable unless they take action. You recognise that people tend not to take warnings seriously unless your actions demonstrate the seriousness of the threat. You must therefore be seen to make the climb even though no-one in living memory has ever survived.

A cynic might suggest that risking death for others is never going to pay dividends. Stephen Baxter in “Turing’s Apples” retreads Fred Hoyle’s excellent A for Andromeda. It’s the dilemma of one world when it receives a signal, probably containing computer code, from another world. Do you trust the motives of the aliens with the technology to send you the message? Baxter’s hero decides the probable benefits outweigh the risks and starts the process without government approval. A panicking world then tries to put the genie back in the bottle.

Ken Scholes “Invisible Empire of Ascending Light” is one of the stand-out stories. The Empire is founded on a version of the divine right of kings. In an era when the ruler is expected to reincarnate to continue leading, the noble families plot to continue ruling through a Regency. The plan is simple. When the current Emperor begins to fail both physically and mentally, they exploit technology to keep the him alive. Just in case he is somehow able to reincarnate while not technically dead, they also devise a search system designed never to find any newly reincarnated ruler. The Missionary General tasked with evaluating possible cases of reincarnation travels to meet a new candidate, and finds herself with a pivotal decision. Appropriately, the next story by Paul Cornell is a mirror image to the notion of reincarnation. If you had the technology and the storage space, would you download the personality of your drowning friend? If you did, would the resulting file still be your friend or just so much code? Ah, Turing has so much to answer for.

We then come to a story by Margo Lanagan called “Night of the Firstlings”. There seems to be quite a stir amongst the tastesetters with many influential voices hailing her as the best thing to come out of Australia since kangaroo meat was exported as high in protein and low in fat.* Frankly, having now read four or five of her short stories, I remain unconvinced. This outing is a post-apocalypse tale of a diminishing group trying to stay ahead of plague and floods. I find it uninvolving. I did not care whether any of them survived. Equally, Nancy Kress’ story of a group of people trapped in a hospital elevator left me cold.

We are then back on the straight and narrow. In “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm”, Daryl Gregory offers a delightfully judged excursion into a weird, steam punk, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow conflict between monster robots and the invincible ruler, Lord Grimm. In the midst of a preemptive strike by the robots, the local people suffer losses, but emerge with the will to rebuild weapons to offer “real” resistance against next strike. All I can say about Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation” is that, as we have all come to expect from this writer, this is yet another tour de force. For once, the decision by the “hero” to perform surgery upon himself was not as scary as it might first have appeared. Then David Moles takes us into a posthuman world where some of the living lie sleeping on life support while their minds explore simulated realities. In “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” we have an intelligent view of the ideas underlying the deeply annoying Matrix franchise.

Peter S. Beagle then delivers our third, if somewhat incongruous, delight. “The Rabbi’s Hobby” is a wonderfully delicate supernatural tale. Yet finding it in the midst of space opera and more exotic fantasies is somewhat strange. Although I have no complaints at the editor’s eclectic eye — it’s always a pleasure to read a new story by Beagle — it does make the anthology rather more mixed in genres than others. Jeffrey Ford’s “The Seventh Expression of the Robot General” takes us back to the wry world of steam punkish robotics. Once the battles are over, the now redundant General first contemplates suicide and then recognises this self-sacrifice may allow his technology to fall into the wrong hands. In “Skin Deep”, Richard Parks offers us Avatar in a world of magic — a witch with the ability to slip into different bodies could be a handyman to help, or a soldier to protect, the local villagers. Tony Daniel gets caught up in his own ontology with “Ex Cathedra”, a somewhat strange variation on time travel paradoxes, while the reliable Terry Dowling returns to the Wormwood cycle with “Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose”. This leaves us with “Fury” by Alastair Reynolds. In a Kutnerish Empire of forts and castles, the chief of security tracks down an assassin who threatened the life of his Emperor. This offers a clever counterpoint to Ken Scholes’ story of empire and completes a fine piece of work by the editor.

Although this is not a themed anthology as such, there is a certain consistency in the authors’ concerns. Each of the main protagonists, no matter whether heroic in the classical sense of the word, must confront a previously unrecognised truth and come to terms with it. In some cases, Empires tremble and fall. In others, they come to terms with themselves as individuals. But, overall, the central trope seems to be one of transformation. Anyone may take on the trappings of others, i.e. put on or grow into a different body. This presupposes the new bodies fit without dominating the new wearer. So does the witch become the warrior if she wears him too long, is the boy the same after the bar mitzvah, is the only “true hero” a “dead hero”, and so on? And what happens to this artificial enhancement after the human wearer sheds it? Perhaps, in some small way, this captures a basic truth about what makes a good story. The characters must engage your interest and the development of the narrative must make you care how it ends. With only two exceptions, this anthology succeeds, making an above average book which I unhesitatingly recommend.

For the next two books in the series, see Eclipse Three and Eclipse Four. There’s also a new website, Eclipse Online.

For the record, “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang won the Hugo Award 2009 for Best Short Story.

*Edited to change the reference from ostrich to kangaroo to avoid the implication that the bird was indigenous to Australia.

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