A Story Collection That Will Give You New Ideas About Story-Telling

Despite its name, the Eclipse anthology series is always luminous. And a new installment of Eclipse is always something to celebrate.

Eclipse Four, out about now, is possibly the most playful and weirdest of the bunch, and it contains some fascinating meditations on storytelling. Not to mention death, identity, and some very strange ways to travel. Spoilers ahead...

You can tell that this is going to be a tricky, storyteller-y book, right from the first story, Andy Duncan's "Slow as a Bullet." It actually starts out with a storyteller asking, "Did I ever tell you about the time Cliffert Corbett settled a bet by outrunning a bullet?" And then you get to Kij Johnson's "Story Kit," which actually starts out by enumerating the types of story, according to Damon Knight. And some of the other stories in the book have a very storyteller vibe, including Michael Swanwick's "The Man in Grey," in which a mysterious figure stands outside of reality and says "let the story begin."

Several other stories in the book, though, have a feeling of being fables or weird fairy tales, like Jeffrey Ford's "The Double of My Double is Not My Double," in which it turns out there are a whole bunch of doppelgangers of people, many of whom seem to live in a shabby house together — but then one of the doppelgangers gets an evil doppelganger of his own, and it gets very weird and trippy and complicated.

I get a similar weird surreal vibe from Nalo Hopkinson's "Old Habits," in which anyone who dies in a shopping mall is condemned to hang around the mall forever, reenacting his or her death once a day — and if you've ever thought shopping malls seemed like bleak, horrible places, this story won't do much to change your mind. And if Hopkinson's take on the afterlife isn't unsettling enough for you, then Rachel Swirsky's "Fields of Gold" will definitely freak you out, with its tale of a man and his ex-wife who are both having their "welcome to the afterlife" party on the same day — and he's not welcome at hers.

Not only do a lot of the best stories in this volume feel like a bit of a story-writing tutorial, but they often seem to deal with the idea of using stories to navigate from place to place. Like Eileen Gunn's screamingly funny/weird "Thought Experiment," in which a man somehow invents time travel via thought, and finds himself in the Middle Ages as well as Woodstock, until his leaping around threatens create so much havoc that it unravels his own personal timeline.

Like a lot of the best short stories, several of the best stories in Eclipse Four will worry at you and come to mind after you've put down the volume. You'll find yourself thinking about the marmalade cat that befriends the bean counter in Damien Broderick's story, or the dragon in a saloon full of gunfighting cyborgs and clones in Peter M. Ball's "Dying Young." I wouldn't say this volume has any particular story on the same level as Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," but there are several really terrific ones. And it's hard to think of many other anthology series that have maintained this level of quality and variety into their fourth volumes.

Eclipse Four makes a worthy addition to one of the most exciting anthology series around, and it might just give you some new ideas about storytelling.