Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Book Reviews by James Maxey
April 2009

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 today.

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 the anthology.

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 loves them.

Escape from Hell may not be particularly deep, but that doesn't stop it from being entertaining.

Read more by James Maxey

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