I’ll get the basics done quick. Eclipse 1 is the start (and hopefully not the entirity) of a new, unthemed, original anthology series from Night Shade Books, edited by the not-quite-ubiquitous-yet Jonathan Strahan. It contains fifteen stories, two of which (by Bruce Sterling and Maureen F. McHugh) are excellent, three of which (by Garth Nix, Ellen Klages, and Paul Brandon & Jack Dann) are terrible, and the rest of which fall somewhere in the middle ground. Enough of the pack are on the good side of okay to make the anthology worth reading if you like short stories. In his introduction, Strahan says we’re living in an “extraordinary” time for genre short stories, artistically speaking; for my money there isn’t quite enough weight in Eclipse‘s fiction to support that claim, but what does lend it some credibility is the realisation that it’s trivially easy to sketch out equally impressive hypothetical contents for at least two more volumes before you have to consider repeating yourself.
Or, indeed, the realisation that Eclipse is just one among many. Unthemed anthology series have been popping up everywhere, at least if by “everywhere” you accept that I mean “from smaller publishers, predominantly those based in the US.” Earlier this year Pyr launched Fast Foward, and Solaris has its Best New [Science Fiction|Fantasy]; I’m sure Prime’s offering is on its way. And all the indications are that Eclipse should be most reliably to my taste, given that in general I like Strahan’s choices as an editor. What struck me about Eclipse, though — and this is where the post stops being a review and turns into “thoughts inspired by”; if you want more detail, you could try one of the three (count ‘em) reviews in the November Locus — was not the quality of the stories so much as the content. Here’s some more from Strahan’s introduction:
This is not a science fiction anthology. Nor is it a fantasy anthology. It’s both and it’s more. It’s a space where you can encounter rocket ships and ray guns, and zombies and zeppelins: pretty much anything you can imagine. Most of all, it’s somewhere you will find great stories. It does not have an agenda or plan. There is no test of genre purity that it can pass or fail. There’s only the test that every reader applies to any work that they encounter — is it good fiction or not? — and I hope we’ll pass that one every time.
As if to underscore the point, the anthology opens with Andy Duncan’s “Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse”, a historical story which is probably not fantastical at all, and ends with Lucius Shepard’s “Larissa Miusov”, a contemporary story which probably is fantasy, except that we’re not given any proof. In between, despite Strahan’s comment, there is not a single rocket ship, ray gun, or zeppelin; nor are there any scientists or robots or dragons. You could call this the Doctor Who problem: the promise is that the Doctor and his companion could go anywhere and see anything; the reality is that they mostly hang around present-day London. (On the other hand, thank the lord, there aren’t any retold fairytales or myths in Eclipse; or if there were, they were retold inventively enough that I didn’t notice.) There’s a single, solitary zombie, but he doesn’t want brains so much as he wants a drink. Moreover the fantasy stories outnumber the stories that can be read as science fiction two-to-one and, as that phrasing suggests, a reader with a less flexible definition of sf than me could easily make a case for a more unbalanced ratio. Whatever it may have been intended as, what Eclipse actually is is an anthology of mostly contemporary, mostly low-key fantasy, with a sprinkling of near-future sf, and one dose of real, wonderful weirdness.
The dose of weirdness Bruce Sterling’s offering, “The Lustration”. It is set on a planet that is: (1) encompassed by a possibly-sentient computer made out of living wood; (2) part of a solar system, ejected from a galaxy about the size of ours some eighty million years previously, that contains 512 other planets and moons; and (3) inhabited by scaly creatures that call themselves humans. You see the problem in trying to classify it. You can’t, without making a lot of assumptions, position the story as part of our future; you might just as well say it’s set in an alternate dimension where physics happens to be broadly the same as our own. (I’d love to read a fantasy story where it turns out the galactic- or larger-scale cosmology of the universe is radically different to that of ours, though.) I counted it as one of my five above because in subject, if not in setting, it tackles traditional sf matter, because it does so in a traditionally sfnal manner, which is to say through blissfully unnatural interrogative exposition (“You think you’re evil becasue you think humanity matters in this universe!”, says one character), and because it finishes with a good old-fashioned conceptual breakthrough. Similarly, I counted Gwyneth Jones’ future-Fairyland as sf because an sfnal explanation is provided at the end, but the tone of the story is pure fantasy; and I counted McHugh’s “The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large” as sf despite the fact that the difference between the story’s world and ours is one bomb, and a bomb that turns out to be background at that, which in extrapolative terms makes the story rather less sfnal than the most recent season of 24. (Or makes it a case of SF as affect, if ever I saw one.) When you get right down to it, if you wanted to be really purist, the only story in the book that confronts the reader with an even half-way plausible novum is Kathleen Ann Goonan’s “Electric Rains”; another way of describing the book would be to say that although the reading pleasures specific to fantasy are well-served, the pleasures of science fiction are sparse.
“So what?” many will say. Indeed, I’m tempted to say it, too. I cheered the launch of the Strahan-edited Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, not so much for ideological reasons (there is certainly plenty of unclassifiable fantastic fantastic material, as it were, but equally certainly there are distinct literary forms called “science fiction” and “fantasy”) as for practical ones (aside from the high level of conservation of writers between the two forms, they are so often published by the same companies, advertised in the same places and shelved together that it seems artificial to treat them as separate communities). Nor does it bother me that the two volumes of that Year’s Best so far skew fantasy in a 60/40ish ratio. In principle, I’m all for Eclipse‘s mission; and even in practice, as I say, I think it’s a decent book. But the “so what”, for me, is that the book Eclipse is in practice is not the book Eclipse claims to be.
It claims to contain “new science fiction and fantasy”, and to be “in the spirit of classic science fiction anthologies”. The sf is put first, in other words. There’s a clue to the reality in the names on the front cover; these were apparently chosen for being the biggest name authors in the book, but it’s still noticeable that only one of them (Bruce Sterling) is an sf writer, while the other four are fantasy writers (Garth Nix, Peter S Beagle, Jeffrey Ford and Lucius Shepard — not that the last two, at least, haven’t written sf, but they’re better known as fantasists, in the same way that Sterling has written fantasy but is better known as an sf writer; and they contribute fantasy to this book). But the names are somewhat overwhelmed by the other indicators. The cover illustration, for instance, could be for a fantasy story, but the rubble, with its concrete and rust stains and reinforcing metal rods, looks to my eyes more like it belongs in an sf setting. (Moreover, four of the five could-be-read-as-sf stories are by women, compared to only three of the ten fantasy stories; so while the cover names give some idea of the content, they don’t give an accurate idea of the breadth of the writers included. Even with the complete author listing on the back cover, it’s another way in which the book you look at on the table is not the book you sit down to read.) Now, Eclipse didn’t mislead me, but that’s because I’m obsessive and tracked down the full contents before I ordered a copy, and moreover I recognise and have previously read work by every author in the book — my purchase was mostly on the strength of McHugh’s name, as it happens. I was a little disappointed by the preponderance of fantasy — when I buy a book that says “science fiction and fantasy” on the cover, I would prefer to read science fiction and fantasy — but not surprised. But I can’t help thinking that the presentation of Eclipse isn’t doing it any favours in terms of getting the book into the hands of those who will enjoy it most. I can imagine readers looking for sf and fantasy disappointed when they discover only fantasy, or readers who dismiss the collection as a same-old, based on the names on the cover, and miss out on some good and interesting work. And most of all I can imagine readers whose expectations, raised by Strahan’s introduction, colour their reaction when they read the fourth contemporary fantasy in a row, and start to wonder where the rocket ships are. Maybe in Eclipse 2?