Visions That Are Only Dangerous In Their AfterimageS

Eclipse Two, the second volume of Jonathan Strahan's original anthology series, lives up to its hype. Some of the genre's strongest short-story writers ply their trade, with no goal but to tell solid speculative tales.

It's refreshing to read a collection like Eclipse Two right after the themed anthology We Think Therefore We Are. A lot of the stories in We Think felt a little slight, perhaps because they were straining to fit in with that anthology's overarching theme of artificial intelligence. Eclipse Two, by contrast, has no theme — Strahan says in the intro that he's not that interested in particular genre lines, or whether stories are experimental or traditional. The stories simply reflect Strahan's notion of good story-telling, and for the most part that's a solid criterion. As a result, most of the stories — with one or two notable exceptions — felt pretty straightforward and traditional, by contrast with some older anthology series like Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, where every story seems to be trying really hard to be experimental.

I'd say two-thirds of the stories in Eclipse Two were either decent or great, and stuck in my mind after reading them. The other third were at least interesting or had one or two neat ideas or turns of phrase. Most of the stories follow a pretty satisfying narrative arc, although one or two suffer from the dreaded "Here's An Idea. The End" syndrome. Pretty much every story has a few moments of sparkling wit, where some far-future alien mixes up King Kong and Hong Kong, or people joke about replacing your cyber-avatar with Goatse images and Rick Astley.

Even though the anthology is unthemed, some themes do suggest themselves after reading the whole thing. For example, a few stories are about robots or androids, who investigate their own origins and/or discover they're not what they thought they were. A couple of other stories deal with humans having their consciousnesses uploaded into a virtual world, even after their bodies are lost or destroyed — so that a virtual MMO-type world winds up serving as a kind of synthetic afterlife. In a bit of overlap, some other stories also deal with people who are quasi-immortal, for one reason or another. To sum up, a lot of the stories deal with being post-human, one way or another.

A lot of these stories have ideas that you've probably seen before, but they won me over with their execution. For example, Daryl Gregory's "Illustrated Biography Of Lord Grimm" is a street-level view of what it's like to live under the rule of a supervillain — in this case, one clearly modeled after Marvel Comics' Doctor Doom — but as the story gets more and more dire, and the destruction wreaked by Lord Grimm's battle with the U-Men gets more disturbing, all comparisons to Kurt Busiek left my mind. Likewise, Peter S. Beagle's "The Rabbi's Hobby" deals with the common trope of a mysterious person (in this case a young woman) turning up in old photographs where nobody remembers her actual presence. But Beagle's amazing flair for characterization, and his explanation for the phenomenon, transform it into a much fresher, more memorable type of story.

Probably my favorite in the book is Stephen Baxter's "Turing's Apples," which has a really unique spin on the idea of first contact from an alien civilization. Baxter's story in We Think Therefore We Are left me pretty cold, but this time around he's in top form, with asperbergers-inflected sibling rivalry, crazed terrorists, data-mining, and aliens who aren't actually interested in communicating with us, as such. Another stand-out story is Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," which will leave the image of a robot dissecting his own brain stuck in your mind for ages afterwards.

Maybe because it's not that revolutionary — just a really good read — Eclipse Two left me hopeful about the future of short stories. For the most part, these stories don't feel like vignettes, or abortive novels, or pitches for longer works. And as I mentioned, a lot of these stories stick in your mind after you're done reading, in some cases because of a single arresting image, and in others because of a compelling character study. (The Gran Torino-esque robot general of Jeffrey Ford's "The Seventh Expression Of The Robot General" and the cranky soothsayer old lady of Nancy Kress' "Elevator" keep popping into my mind at odd moments.)

So yeah, Eclipse Two is well worth picking up new, so you can find out what the fuss is about, and take part in the fevered discussions of its themes of artificial intelligence, fractured loyalties and tormented immortalities.