Eclipse Two Edited by Jonathan Strahan
Most of the anthologies I've reviewed in this column have been built around
specific themes, such as zombies. I tend to read themed anthologies with a
forgiving eye; I understand that a mediocre zombie story will beat out a thousand
other better stories that just happen to be zombie-less.
Eclipse Two has no such restrictions on theme. Instead, in his introduction,
Strahan states his criterion for including a story in the book: "I want a strong story
built around a good idea that is complete; one that opens, builds, then delivers
some kind of pay-off at its conclusion." This is an admirable set of criteria, and the
book is filled with stories by some of the best authors of speculative fiction writing
Alas, I found many of the stories failed to live up to the idea. I don't pick up any
anthology and expect to love every story in it. But this collection had a higher than
normal rate of stories that failed to hold my interest. One frequent flaw was a lack
of immediacy. "Turing's Apples" by Stephen Baxter, "Ex Cathedra" by Tony
Daniel, and "Michael Lauritis is: Drowning" by Paul Cornell are good examples of
stories built around high concepts, such as alien contact, time travel, and
singularity, that spend most of their pages simply explaining their big ideas while
only loosely tying the concepts to the plot and characters. It's not to say these
stories aren't without merit: I thought Paul Cornell's story of how a drowning man
winds up backing up all his memories into a social networking computer was eerily
plausible, and the question of whether these memories should be regarded as a
person was interesting. It's just, once the premise is established, the Cornell's
story reads more like an essay on the ramifications of such a thing rather than as a
sequence of events building toward a climax.
I was almost tempted not to review the anthology, since of fifteen stories, I only
found three I genuinely loved. It wasn't that I actively disliked the other stories; I
can see why all of them have earned a spot in the anthology, they just weren't to
my own personal taste. However, the three stories I liked are the sort of stories I'm
really enthusiastic about; it would be a shame to bury these stories by just ignoring
My favorite was "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm." Lord Grimm is an
armor plated super-villain with an army of killer robots who is dictator of a small
eastern European country. In other words, he draws heavily on Marvel Comic's
Dr. Doom. The story isn't about him, however, but is instead about Elena, a
worker at a factory that manufactures the killer robots. When Lord Grim captures
a superhero, an entire army of superhero invades, and we see the invasion through
Elena's eyes as she's trying to rescue her injured son in a city that's being flattened
by giants and radioactive supermen who've come to free their fallen friend. The
story reminded me a bit of the premise of Cloverfield, but without all the vertigo
inducing camera work or the silly contrivances to keep the characters filming. It's
a cool idea, expertly executed, easily the best short story I've read this year.
Another wonderful tale is Jeffrey Ford's "The Seventh Expression of the Robot
General." Remember how I griped that many of the stories lacked immediacy?
This is a story that proves that you can write an engaging tale without it. The story
is told mainly as a historical essay about a Robot General who leads mankind into
battle against aliens. Ford does a wonderful job of bringing the character to life by
describing the expressions that could pass over the robot's synthetic countenance.
The story is both funny and sentimental and sad; it's hard to imagine this tale told
any other way.
The final story I fell in love with was "Night of the Firstlings" by Margo Lanagan.
It's a retelling of events from Exodus; I found the story a bit bewildering until I
figured out the blueprint. However, once I did piece all the clues together, I felt as
if my patience with the somewhat challenging style was well rewarded. Normally,
I distrust writing with an overly poetic voice, because I feel the flowery language is
concealing a weak story. Here, the underlying tale involves the spirit of the Lord
slaughtering first-born children; the language captures the sheer awe and terror of
such a moment. The final scene is precisely the sort of satisfying pay-off Strahan
promised in his introduction, triggering my sense-of-wonder to its fullest.
Strahan hopes to make the Eclipse books into an annual series. If each book can
bring me just three stories as good as these, I feel it's a worthwhile venture.
Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Escape from Hell is a sequel to the 1976 novel Inferno, the story of a science
fiction author named Allen Carpenter who wakes up in a hell modeled after
Dante's Inferno. If you haven't read the original novel, don't worry about it:
Niven and Pournelle spend at least a third of this novel retelling the events of the
first book. At times, they even cut and paste entire scenes from the first book to
serve as flashbacks and memories. If you strip away all the back story, this would
be one slim book.
Slim, in fact, describes many aspects of this book. Except for Carpenter, most of
the characters we meet in hell are actual people. Sylvia Plath is there, trapped as a
tree in the forest of suicides until Carpenter finds a way to free her. Carl Sagan
makes an appearance, as does Anna Nicole Smith and J. Edgar Hoover and scores
of other famous and semi-famous figures. Hell no doubt has billions of souls who
no one has ever heard of, but Carpenter again and again defies the odds by meeting
people he or his companions are familiar with. Perhaps because these are real
people, I felt like the authors didn't bother much with developing the damned or
giving them much depth. Carpenter's journey through hell at times seems to be
driven more by name-dropping than any sort of search for understanding.
My biggest problem with the book is, ultimately, how slim the philosophical truths
Carpenter draws from his journey truly are. Carpenter is walking through all nine
circles of hell -- for the second time -- and while he is able to ask a lot of
questions about why God might have built such a place, the answers he comes up
with are all, to my mind, unsatisfying. The characters don't seem to have learned
much from their stay in hell beyond the fact that God is to be feared. Plath is
deeply repentant of her suicide because she's trapped for eternity in unending pain,
or at least she was before Carpenter frees her. She repeatedly tells Carpenter that
"fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Niven and Pournelle manage to
show why the characters should be afraid, but fail to explain what wisdom is to be
drawn from it.
You would think that, with my complaints of shallow characters and too much
back story, I might not have enjoyed the book. In fact, I had a lot of fun reading
Escape from Hell. The story is full of obstacles and puzzles for the characters to
overcome. Many of the situations are surreal and nightmarish, but Carpenter
always manages to figure out the twisted logic behind them. The futures that await
Carpenter and Plath if they fail to escape are quite literally fates worse than death.
Carpenter's goal of wanting to help his fellow damned souls free themselves is
certainly an admirable one. The story works as a daring adventure across a strange
and dangerous land, and there are a few characters who do manage to emerge from
the clutter to stand out -- I particularly enjoyed the character of Aimee Semple
McPhearson, once the most famous preacher in America, now roaring across the
plains of hell on a motorcycle, taunting demons and assuring the damned that God
Escape from Hell may not be particularly deep, but that doesn't stop it from being
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