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Eclipse Four edited by Jonathan Strahan

I suppose the question for discussion is what we should expect when we pick up an anthology. Of course, the answer is easy when there’s a theme clearly announced on the cover. Here be vampires, zombies and other divers monsters. Or the marketers can stick a genre label on the front and so reassure us a steady diet of primary colours like science fiction, fantasy, etc. or secondary shades of urban fantasy, noir, etc. Yet here we have an evolving series where the content seems somewhat unpredictable. In a sense, the only thing we can rely on is the name of the editor. Regardless of genre, do we trust his taste? Although the front cover proudly proclaims, Eclipse Four (Night Shade Books, 2011), edited by Jonathan Strahan, “New science fiction and fantasy”, Strahan says in his introduction, “. . .it is the strangest and most eldritch volume yet.” Apropos of nothing, he uses “eldritch” twice on the same page to describe the volumes in the Eclipse series. You can’t get more strange than that.

“Slow as a Bullet” by Andy Duncan is an engaging folksy fantasy based on the notion a work-shy good-fer-nothing could transfer his own laziness to a bullet. The result is a genuinely pleasing story about life in small-town America. “Tidal Forces” by Caitlin R Kiernan then follows up with a weird story in which an unknown supernatural force “wounds” one of a couple. Fortunately, the other partner is able to take matters in hand and this could resolve the problem favourably — only time will tell. “The Beancounter’s Cat” by Damien Broderick introduces us to the idea that, in a far future where space has been conquered, the only adventure worth having is going into the future as a family. “Story Kit” by Kij Johnson is a somewhat experimental piece in which we explore the nature of a story that happens to be about people in the situation of Dido and Aeneas. I’m not wholly convinced by it, but did find it interesting.

Jonathan Strahan demonstrating the Australian version of the Vulcan mind meld

“The Man in Grey” by Michael Swanwick is a simple, elegant story about the reality of life as we know it. While the idea itself is not entirely original, the execution is beautifully stage-managed with free will demonstrated in a slightly unexpected way. When you consider the extraordinary revelation our acting heroine experiences, her response is credible and understandable (to anyone other than a mere stagehand, that is). “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson follows on, thematically, to present us with a different view of how life after death might end (forgive the apparent paradox). This is another example of a slightly tired trope of everyday ghosts elevated to a different level by the excellence of the writing. In this case, it’s a provocative idea that guilt might combine with a final appreciation of what has been lost, to provide new motivation. Continuing in this rich vein, “The Vicar of Mars” by Gwyneth Jones suggests there’s a thin line between what we imagine and what exists. Many years ago in the cinema, Morbius inadvertently resurrected the Monsters from the Id. In this future, aliens might be haunted by monsters from the void. Whether there’s any real threat depends on who might invoke them and who might confront them on the threshold. “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky has a spirit materialising at the party to welcome him to the afterlife. Once he has adjusted to the idea of his death, there’s some navel-gazing on everything he did to endear himself to others while alive. Fortunately, before he gets too depressed, he remembers how it felt to be eleven years old and this might just convert an alcohol-fueled afterlife into something approaching heaven. Swirsky produces a highly enjoyable romp that tramples on expectations, beautifully capturing the death of relationships and the guilt people feel when they’re being honest with themselves.

“Thought Experiment” by Eileen Gunn is a wonderful time travel story where each traveller needs a backstory and fills in the gaps of his or her own existence. These intrepid individuals prove that, if you travel enough, your own story moves from the back to the front burner. There’s a pleasingly wry sense of humour at work in this exploration of cause and effect, with the humour morphing into a slightly manic phase as we continue with “The Double of My Double Is Not My Double” by Jeffrey Ford. This takes the idea of doppelgängers and gives it group therapy. If nothing else, it confirms how inventive people can be when it comes to dipping things in chocolate. “Nine Oracles” by Emma Bull is elegant and to the point. Naturally, I predicted the outcome but don’t want to boast about it. “Dying Young” by Peter M Ball takes us to a distant post-war future where bodies and minds have been modified for the war effort but must now survive the peace. This is an impressive rumination on the effect of free will on predestination. What if two people with the ability to see into the future have to decide how it will all turn out.

“The Panda Coin” by Jo Walton takes that old detective cliché, “follow the money”, and gives it a pleasing twist through the structure of the narrative. The guided tour of the space facility is fascinating. Finally, “Tourists” by James Patrick Kelly tells us something about relationships. When you have no stake in a place, you come and go as a tourist. You see but are indifferent about what you see and what you will leave behind. Although we would like to limit tourism to its more literal meaning, there are people who never feel they belong in a time or place. For them, the only thing to do is move on when the time is right.

Going back to my introduction, I think Jonathan Strahan is wrong to apply “eldritch” to this particular anthology. It smacks too much of Lovecraft in this context and is wholly inappropriate to the editorial choices actually made. None of the story have visible or implied Cthulu tentacle prints. In the spirit of honesty, I admit Eclipse Four took me quite a long time to read. This is a compliment. These stories deserve to be savoured. This means I’m damning the book by labelling it potentially literary. This refers to the obvious intelligence and sensibility that pervades every story. Some of you might take this as distinguishing the work from the populist end of the market. So, yes, if you are a fan only interested in stories about spaceships and dragons, you may be disappointed (even though there are spaceships and a dragon — not in the same story, of course). Further, I note a trend in the so-called top-end reviewers to come up with clever phrases to hype the book. Such phrases then appear on websites or, better still on the jackets of the books themselves. I’m not going to play that game for this anthology. I’m simply going to say this is a very good book. You should make a point of buying and enjoying it. No special trumpeting is required when the rewards of reading it are so great.

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

Eclipse Four was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Anthology. “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky has been shortlisted for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novelette.

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