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Eclipse Three edited by Jonathan Strahan

Given the editor starts off with a discussion of the jacket artwork, how can I avoid mentioning it. In terms of style, it’s a real blast from the past, and not necessarily in a good way. I suppose something abstract in a slightly futuristic mode is appropriate for a non-themed anthology, but this is a bit weird. We have a figure in red who could be making a thoroughly obscene gesture or looking to make a shadow puppet of Anubis with a really provocative pair of ears. He stands, legs astride, wearing one of those one-piece jumpsuits much favoured by space heroes of the 1950s. To his right is the eclipsed sun with perspective lines linking to what may be a partially disassembled robot, or perhaps that’s just a door knob and not a head. I can understand why Jonathan Strahan would want to spend the introductory pages defending it all. Anyway, here we are, under starter’s orders, with Eclipse Three (Night Shade Books), not surprisingly following on from Eclipse Two.

And we are off and running. . . except I am immediately pitched back into speculation on what this anthology is intended to be. “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler is a perfectly respectable piece of fiction about parents who send off their rebellious teen to a boot camp for reprogramming, if not depersonalisation. I am unimpressed by the jacket blurb describing this as a “strange incarceration”. It seems nothing more than a slightly polemical piece about the cruelty parents can inflict on their offspring. There’s not the slightest sign of anything remotely sfnal, fantastical or horrific about it. It’s a great story in its own right, but I disagree with the editorial choice, and placing it first in the anthology compounds the strangeness.* “A Practical Girl” by Ellen Klages somewhat gets us back on to a better track with the notion there’s magic in pure maths such that it can create its own perfect world. The irony is that the perfection resulting from a magic square is a closed loop no matter which direction you attempt to move. It’s nicely told as a period piece with a young girl intent on “saving” a younger boy she meets.

We really get moving with “Don’t Mention Madagascar” by Pat Cadigan. Whoever said karma was something you collected every time you passed “Go” by dying had not the good fortune to read this delightfully wrought story. I suppose the problem for Hindus and Buddhists is that few have the chance to visit Madagascar. “On the Road” by Nnedi Okorafor is a reworking of a standard horror trope as a woman comes to realise that matters of life and death can be shaped by powerful spirits. What makes this better than the usual efforts is the cultural relocation to Nigeria. I confess to reading very little fiction based in Africa, so this editorial choice briefly extended my repertoire.

“Swell” by Elizabeth Bear picks up the pace again with a marvelous story about a siren. There’s beauty in the perfectly-judged reaction of the man to the “gift” from this water nymph to him. I wish him every success and will be looking for his first CD when it’s released.

“Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh is a sad piece about a woman trying to eke out a living in the New Mexico countryside. It touches on the increasingly hot potato of illegal immigration, ties it to the hobo culture and leaves the woman at risk as hopefully “safe” men passing by, trade their labour for a meal. She makes dolls and diversifies into up-market sex toys to pay the bills. The hook to justify inclusion is vaguely horrific or, given the increasingly eclectic nature of the stories, perhaps we should be beyond genre expectations at this point.

Back into classic sword and sorcery with “The Coral Heart” by Jeffrey Ford, an entertaining romp through the usually dismal swamp of barbarians who have to fight their way out of trouble with their sword. This particular blade is a variation on the Gorgon theme, transmuting the wounded victims into coral rather than stone. Our “hero” and his tulpa are distracted by the lusty side of love in a trap seeking revenge. How it all works out is great fun. As an aside, I note that only four and a half of the authors for the fifteen stories included in the anthology are male. It’s reassuring that a male editor is sufficiently meritocratic to pick the best stories available without regard to gender.

It’s always sightly invidious to pick favourites from an anthology but, for me, there are three clear winners in this anthology, listed in the order of their appearance. The first is “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith. The balancing between the natural and chemical attraction is made most satisfyingly. The field trial of hormonal manipulation is wonderfully cruel, made all the more so because of its commercial context. It poses a difficult choice for the lab rat once alerted to the sequence of events leading thus far. The simple emotion of hope in the resulting decision feels right. “Sleight of Hand” by Peter S. Beagle — just mentioning the author’s name is almost enough to guarantee a top-three finish. How this man contrives to produce so many good stories is beyond me. It’s a magical consistency. In this case, we have a thematic return to Madagascar where, for a rather better reason, a person may earn a right to change what has happened. In Cadigan’s story, the girls rather blunder through to their “end”. Beagle resolves matters more poignantly. My final choice is “Yes, We Have No Bananas” by Paul Di Filippo. Taking the title of a 1922 song and then producing this wonderfully fey story of magical science in a post-apocalyptic America is no more than we have come to expect from this master storyteller. Having lived through food rationing, I know what it’s like to live in a world without bananas.

Back with the merely “very good”, we have “The Pretender’s Tourney” by Daniel Abraham. Again, this is a slightly odd choice in that it’s not really science-fictional — only a metallic meteorite falls — and barely fantasy, being rather more a historical piece about succession to a throne in generic mediaeval times with Welsh overtones. “Mesopotamian Fire” by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple walks a tightrope of humour and just about emerges unscathed. Writing in this style is very difficult to sustain over any length and this pair of authors time their throwing in of the towel just before it grows tedious. “The Visited Man” by Molly Gloss almost made my top three as a ghost story dealing with grief. It’s another nicely-judged story about a recently bereaved old man rescued from apathetic surrender by the intrusion of the artist who lives in the apartment below. The shading of melancholy into a more positive mood is gently captured as both men deal with their “issues”. As another aside, one of the paintings described in this story would have made a good cover.

“Galapagos” by Caitlin R Kiernan is a fairly routine story about an alien first contact triggering evolutionary shifts in the crew. It’s saved by the manner of its telling through the eyes of the sole human allowed to see the consequences. This enables most of the “action” to be left off-stage and so our own imaginations are more involved. Slightly less of the descriptions towards the end would have improved the finished product. Finally, we have “Dulce Domum” by Ellen Kushner which is an exercise in intertextualism, mashing in text from “Wind in the Willows” to illuminate this Christmas tale. I’m not sure it’s a success but it’s a brave piece of writing.

Looking back on the anthology as a whole, it has proved enjoyable if sometimes frustrating, offering stories of a kind I would not normally have read. Insofar as any editor can provoke readers into exploring fiction outside their declared zone of interest, Jonathan Strahan has bravely pushed the envelope. This is worth picking up.

*For the record, “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler won the World Fantasy Award 2010 for Best Short Story, “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith was shortlisted for the Hugo Award 2010 for Best Novelette, while Eclipse Three was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award 2010 for Best Anthology.

For reviews of other anthologies edited by Jonathan Strahan, see Eclipse Two and Eclipse Four. There’s also a new website, Eclipse Online.

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