Monday, March 02, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: Eclipse Two by Jonathan Strahan

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

When I read Eclipse One more than a year ago, I knew I had to get Eclipse Two. I'm a fan of original anthologies, those with a theme or otherwise, and Jonathan Strahan editing the book was a big plus. Having Ted Chiang on the cover didn't hurt either.

Eclipse Two however is a very different beast from its predecessor (and whether that's good or bad depends on your preference). I'm more of a fantasy fan than a science fiction fan and this anthology focuses more on the latter. That doesn't make this a bad book, mind you, but whereas I found each and every story from Eclipse One thrilling, it's not so unanimous this time around. But I think it's also unfair to pin it to the sub-genre. There were several science fiction stories that I really enjoyed after all. However, there were some that were mediocre or lacked impact. Nancy Kress's "Elevator" for example, while it had good characterization, confused me, specifically who the prophetic voice was addressing. If it wasn't for the didacticism in Kress's writing, I would have been absolutely lost.

Still, there were a couple of engaging stories here, such as Margo Lanagan's "Night of the Firstlings" which I think is an impressive way of retelling a familiar Bible story, and Ted Chiang's "Exhalation" which involved some creative world-building and reminded me of Isaac Asimov's "The Gods Themselves."

The ones that truly excited me however were lumped up in the middle. "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" by David Moles takes into account our modern culture of MMORPGs and pushes it to the next level. Cyberpunk might be outdated but Moles takes the best elements of that sub-genre and resurrects some of its best themes. All the while, the author grounds his story with complex, sympathetic characters. It's not perfect, mind you, but still quite engaging.

"The Rabbi's Hobby" by Peter S. Beagle is impressive and it all boils down to the author's characters. Their voices feel authentic, whether it's the teenager struggling with his Hebrew or the unconventional rabbi, and one is drawn in by the details that one forgets the literal and symbolic coming-of-age ritual in the piece. What's commendable is how the speculative element is seeded and manages to subtly sneak itself into the narrative as if the other alternatives were out of the question. This is a fairly traditional piece but a well-written one that it's simply a pleasure to reread.

"The Seventh Expression of the Robot General" by Jeffrey Ford is relatively short but I feel that it's of the appropriate length. Right from the get-go, there's this sense of retro science fiction that's compelling and piques your interest. Ford's strength however is his focus on the implicit rather than the explicit, and in this case it's the mysterious "seventh expression" of the protagonist. This is one of those stories that remind you science fiction can be fun and enjoyable and that it doesn't always have to be always serious or political.

Despite some of my minor complaints, Eclipse Two is nonetheless a keeper and includes several well-written stories. Some of the stories alone, such as "Exhalation" or "The Rabbi's Hobby," is worth the price of admission alone.

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