Karen Burnham looks at the latest book in the acclaimed anthology series.
In his introduction to the fourth volume of Eclipse [Purchase], his original un-themed anthology series, editor Jonathan Strahan writes: “…each volume has had its own personality… In some ways [this] is the strangest and most eldritch volume yet.” I heartily agree. These stories often take a turn for the unsettling. When the stories about dead people aren’t the horror stories, you know you’re in for a bit of an unpredictable experience.
The odd feeling creeps up on you slowly. After all, the first story is Andy Duncan’s American-Southern tall tale, “Slow as a Bullet.” A guy named Clifford lets his mouth run off and bets his friends that he can outrun a bullet. So he spends all his free time for a year painstakingly developing the slowest bullet possible. It’s a fun story told in Duncan’s inimitable style. I want to come clean here and admit that I heard Andy read this live in 2010, so I’m hard pressed now to read it without hearing his distinctively accented voice and delivery — he’s one of the most talented live readers I know. So I’m not quite sure how the story will come across to someone who hasn’t heard Andy telling the tale. Still, there is a moment at the end that gestures towards a classic American spook tale of things lurking silently in the woods… but in this rather cheerful beginning it seems no more than an eerie afterthought.
Things quickly turn more weird in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Tidal Forces.” A woman’s partner seems to have trapped something like a black hole in her body, and it’s devouring her. They’re slow to come to terms with what that might mean: for her and for their relationship. The story is told in a rather abstract and distancing way, with the first-person narrator jumping between days in the timeline, tarot card references, Alice in Wonderland, and physics; all the while not quite able to face the situation squarely. When she does, the story takes a sharp turn into horror. But through all of it we remain aware that the women’s relationship is the focus of the story. This story is about as interstitial as it comes, drawing on elements and techniques from mainstream literary stories, horror, SF, and fantasy, all united to tell a single story.
This is not the only story that focuses on more intimate settings and characters. “Old Habits” by Nalo Hopkinson and “Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky could both be described as “slice of death” stories. In the former, a group of the dead are trapped in a “ghost mall,” forced to re-live their deaths once a day — the only time they can feel any physical sensation. They become addicted to the idea of tasting, touching, and smelling things, anything. The main character, killed in a freak escalator accident while his husband and their son watch in horror, begins to wonder if it might not be time to free himself from this banal limbo. I usually dislike stories that take a character up to a decision point… and then end. However, Hopkinson uses the technique perfectly in this story, leaving the reader in a limbo similar to the narrator’s. In Swirsky’s “Fields of Gold,” death is a big party in which a complete loser, Dennis, learns unpleasant things about himself and his wife. He reunites with his cousin, a girl who rebelled and lost her way until she died even younger than Dennis did. Together the fucked-up pair head off into the afterlife to make something at least a little better for themselves. These two are the only stories dealing specifically with dead people, and there’s barely a drop of horror between them — in this volume we save that for the living!
To be fair, Kij Johnson’s “Story Kit” isn’t so much horrific as it is unflinching. In a series of vignettes she weaves together several threads: the craft of writing, an author’s personal relationship trauma, and the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas. With what I think of as her unique and unsettling style, in a series of short passages Johnson reminds us of intense suffering and how it echoes through art to life and back again. Disturbing as it is, this is the story that stuck with me the most from this anthology, and the one I’d deem most likely to grace awards ballots this year.
Emma Bull also reminds us of tragedy in short vignettes, with her story “Nine Oracles,” which gives us nine variations on Cassandra’s tragic story. It includes two great closing lines: “Being right isn’t the same as being an asshole.” and “The light turns green. She goes forward, because she has to.” In a rare straight-SF story, “Panda Coin,” Jo Walton also uses short scenes to follow a single coin as it changes hands on a space station, through the black market and into the official economy. Along the way we meet laborers, black-market dealers, and self-aware underground androids. We learn how the habitat is socially constructed. My only complaint with this story, which I consider high praise, is that it’s too short. In part, I would have liked to learn more about the various briefly-met characters. But mainly Walton does a great job of opening up her plot and the world-building at the end, and I’m intrigued to see where else the story could lead.
Back to the more unsettling realms, Jeffrey Ford puts his narrator through a bit of surreal nightmare in “The Double of my Double is not my Double,” in which the narrator’s previously unthreatening doppleganger enlists him to help messily dispatch an usurping fantasma-gris — all of which leads the narrator, almost subconsciously, to face some unpleasant questions about himself. In Gwyneth Jones’ “The Vicar of Mars,” an alien “High Priest of the Mighty Void” goes to visit a possible congregant on Mars. In return he is treated to a faith-shattering sequence of nightmares, both dreaming and waking.
In a tale of more subtle existential horror, Michael Swanwick gives us an inside-view to a solipsistic universe with “Men in Grey.” A stage-hand for the universe has to reveal himself when he saves a girl from tripping in front of a train that she had decided to avoid. As he explains to her, there are only perhaps 40,000-50,000 real people in the world. At any given moment, the men in grey run around and make sure that the world in the immediate vicinity of these actors (“The talent”) is adequately defined and staffed with extras. The rest of the time the world dissolves into the formless ‘grey.’ The girl, who previously had mundane problems such as an unwanted pregnancy by a boy she doesn’t much like, suddenly has to confront a universe entirely different from what she’s known. This is a small story about very Big Ideas, a nicely faceted stand-alone gem.
Amidst all these stories that balance their genres delicately and paint them with a light wash of horror, I began to wonder about the impact of reading collections as a whole, as opposed to reading individual stories. Specifically, I thought back to Eclipse 2. I admit with chagrin that I never read that whole anthology cover to cover. Instead I read Ted Chiang’s story “Exhalation” when it was nominated for the Hugo that year. Read on its own, it is an amazing story that opens up both its universe and our own at the end. And there’s one scene that’s always stayed with me, when the robotic researcher sets up an elaborate series of mirrors in such a way that he can dissect his own head. I wonder, if I were to read that story in Eclipse 4 rather than 2, that instead that scene might have filled me with unease instead of wonder, and perhaps even been tinged with the faint smoke of horror. Basically, I suspect that I read each successive story here in a way that highlighted any element of horror, whether or not the author intended it, simply because of the cumulative effect.
Amongst all the interstitiality, two stories mash-up their genres to little effect. Damien Broderick contributes “The Beancounter’s Cat,” which is a sufficiently-advanced-tech-looks-like-magic story in which people in orbit around Saturn have forgotten the origins of their world and powers. The eponymous beancounter is guided by a cat to her mother, thought to be deceased, and to a god-like figure who asks her to make a huge decision. Even though it specifically says: “But it must be an informed choice,” there is no way that the two and a half pages of dialogue that follow can possibly give someone raised entirely in ignorance enough context to come even a fraction of the way towards being “informed.” Yet choose she does, bravely and boldly. She has enough sense at the end to think of the millions of people her choice will affect and ask: “Who are we to make such a choice for a whole world?” but the cat guide quips “And hey, if not you, who?” And they set off. I’m glad she at least asked the question (a pet peeve of mine is that so often the heroes of stories make unilateral decisions without ever asking, or thinking to ask, any of the huddled masses whose lives and livelihoods hang in the balance), but the ending feels almost trite after the cat dismisses the concern so lightly.
In contrast, the problem with Peter M. Ball’s story “Dying Young” is that its beginning feels light compared to where it ends up. It begins when a dragon walks into a saloon, with cyborgs and clones watching its every move. This has all the hallmarks of a multi-genre parody, but instead it develops into an earnest space Western. The narrator has some precognitive ability, and the rival factions in town seek to make use of it. He finds himself caught between the doctor (unscrupulous but helpful to the town), the sheriff (a good man, but somewhat weak), and the dragon (bent on revenge on the doctor). The young man steps up, makes his choice and lives with the consequences. Which is good, but it doesn’t feel like it pays off the genre-mashup world building or the slightly tortured Western-style dialect in which the story is told.
Overall, this anthology is full of good stories that are both effective and affecting. Any story that gets under one’s skin and makes you feel something has done at least something right, and that description applies to many stories here. Eclipse 4 shows off a lot of potential in the fluidity of genre walls, the possibilities inherent in focusing on questions both philosophical and personal, and the pleasures to be found in following brilliant and literate authors wherever they choose to take us.