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Starlight 1 by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor

Cover art by Jeff Adams

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Patrick Nielsen Hayden set out to create this anthology, there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the classic science fiction anthology series which arose at the time when the sf paperback market was first developing. In his introduction he very specifically names the long-running Orbit and Universe anthologies, as well as other, less well-known ones. All of them were generally known for their interest in cutting-edge science fiction, stories that pushed the boundaries in terms not only of ideas but of storytelling techniques.

However, one thing I really notice about this anthology is how heavily it leans away from traditional science fiction to slipstream, almost literary, treatments of the ideas. Instead of treating the extrapolation of the development of science and technology and its effects on society as actual things, it increasingly treats them as metaphors for the human condition in the present.

For an example, take the idea "protagonist discovers he is an artificial person." In a straight-up sf story, the character might find a hidden latch on his chest that opens up to reveal mechanical parts under the apparent organic surface, including a spool of punched tape which he discovers to be a reality regulator. He tampers with it in order to alter his consciousness and the story suddenly ends in a way that suggests his tampering led to his destruction.

But in a slipstream story, there may never be any hard evidence of his being artificial, and he draws that conclusion solely upon the basis of his lack of any memories from childhood or youth. In an effort to cope, he takes to sneaking into class reunions and trying to create a sense of connectedness, an ersatz past for himself to make up for the lack of a real one. He fills his tiny apartment with souvenirs and photographs from all the various reunions he's quietly gatecrashed, yet somehow they never quite give him what he's looking for. The entire story can be read not as extrapolation of future technology, but metaphor for the growing anomie of our society as personal connections become increasingly tenuous and artificial.

Michael Swanwick's "The Dead" is a story of zombies, but not the typical shambling undead monsters in search of brains to eat. Rather, these zombies are reanimated to be servants of the living, meek and docile and actually rather beautiful with their alabaster bloodless skin. How exactly they are brought back to life is never really discussed, other than it's become a corporate interest. The real punch lies in the question of what happens when a whole sector of the population becomes more valuable dead than alive, literally.

"Liza and the Crazy Water Man" by Andy Duncan is another of the stories in which the speculative element is very subtle, and quite honestly this story of a record man and a young woman with a beautiful voice could be read as literary fiction. Here and there we have hints that perhaps it's taking place in an alternate universe, but if so, it's one so close to our own as to be completely indistinguishable to the casual observer.

Jane Yolen's "Sister Emily's Lightship" asks the question, what if Emily Dickenson were to have encountered an alien? However, she refuses his invitation of a trip around the universe because he cannot allow her to take her dog along on the ride, and as a result we have only a hauntingly allusive poem as evidence of the encounter. Because history is not significantly changed, it almost belongs more in the subgenre of secret history rather than true alternate history.

By contrast, "The Weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley is most definitely the latter, dealing as it does with a world in which Leeuwenhoeck's discovery of microorganisms is followed almost immediately by the development of the germ theory of disease -- but not for the purposes of better treating it. War is brewing between the Netherlands and England, and a new and terrifying weapon is particularly welcome. The antiquated spelling and archaisms make the early parts of the story difficult going, but either they become fewer as the story progresses or the eye becomes accustomed to them and translates to modern English without note, because I did notice that I most definitely found it easier to read the further I went.

Robert Reed's "Killing the Morrow" shows how science fiction can border on horror. It is a subtle story told in the first person, about the mysterious intrusion into the protagonist's present of people from the future. Not as adult time travelers, but as tiny embryos which are put in the bathtubs of their host families, which are turned into makeshift artificial wombs. Although the mysterious Voices from the future direct their adult foster parents to feel honored and dutiful, the developing creatures prove to be more and more alien to modern humanity, and it becomes increasingly clear that this is an outright invasion, an effort by the future to supplant the present.

In "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" Susanna Clarke gives us a view of an alternate Regency England where magic is known and openly practiced with measurable results. It is very interesting to see the slight shifts in the nature of the mannered societies of which Jane Austen and the like wrote as a result of the presence of magic as a real and present force. Ms. Clarke has since written a novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell , set in the same world.

When I first saw the title of Susan Palwick's "GI Jesus," I thought it was going to be something on the line of the picture I sometimes see at sf convention art shows of Jesus as various kinds of action characters. However, in this story GI refers to the gastrointestinal tract, and plays subtly upon the Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation to give us a story of an encounter with the numinous and a moment of grace. It's not heavy-handed or preachy, and the miracle could be understood as metaphor, but it still manages to be heartwarming.

Martha Soukup's "Waking Beauty" is another of those stories in which the fantastic element is so subtle that maybe it's just a metaphor, a way of interpreting events in order to see wonder in everyday life. It plays somewhat upon the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, but in a modern setting.

"Mengele's Jew" is Carter Scholz's take on the familiar quantum-mechanical thought experiment of Schroedinger's Box. At the end we're never quite sure if the old butcher actually carried out his experiment, or if it all remained in his mind, a crime of intent rather than actual deed. He certainly did enough other atrocious experiments in his bloodstained life.

From the horrors of an actual historical regime we move to the imagined horrors of a fictional regime in John M. Ford's "Erase/Record/Play: A Drama for Print." Sometime in the not too distant future there is a horror of brainwashing and murder that becomes so confused that it is no longer certain who were the perpetrators and who were the victims, or whether meaningful distinctions can even be made. The atrocities began with the best of intent, using an experimental drug to selectively erase problematical memories in hopes of reforming the subjects' thought habits and bringing about genuine re-education, although to what desired goal is never made clear. However, as things progressed, the original goals deteriorated into bizarre patterns of cruelty and murder in which people were subsequently made to forget the terrible things they'd done.

In an attempt to untangle the twisted threads of guilt and victimhood, either to bring healing or justice, the principal characters are undergoing a form of play therapy in which they read classic plays aloud in hopes of triggering some echo of memory. Even the psychiatrist who is organizing these exercises is uncertain as to which group he belongs. To him, that is the greatest horror -- that truth and guilt themselves have been murdered alongside the unknown numbers of people whose lives were destroyed.

Mark Kreighbaum's "I Remember Angels" hovers somewhere between hope and horror, with images of angelic faces and first kisses coexisting with ones of grim Guards and people dying in Riots. For a mere six pages, it packs an awful lot of punch, and trying to describe it more extensively would give it away.

In "The Cost to Be Wise," Maureen F. McHugh gives us a story of a young woman of a lost colony and her interactions with the Terrans who rediscover it. Although she is fascinated with the strange and wonderful things they bring, not everybody on the colony world see things as she and her village do, and as a result things come to a horrific and violent confrontation.

On the whole, it's a very interesting collection, even if some of the stories feel more like mainstream fiction than cutting-edge science fiction. When I was younger, I probably would've become annoyed with them and felt that I'd been the victim of a bait-and-switch, of teachers or other Adult Authorities trying to trick me into liking literary fiction that was Good for You by trying to slip it in alongside some science fiction. But now it's just more of a matter that these stories aren't exactly to my taste and I can just as easily give them a go-by.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • "The Dead" by Michael Swanwick
  • "Liza and the Crazy Water Man" by Andy Duncan
  • "Sister Emily's Lightship" by Jane Yolen
  • "The Weighing of Ayre" by Gregory Feeley
  • "Killing the Morrow" by Robert Reed
  • "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" by Susanna Clarke
  • "GI Jesus" by Susan Palwick
  • "Waking Beauty" by Martha Soukup
  • "Mengele's Jew" by Carter Scholz
  • "Erase/Record/Play: A Drama for Print" by John M. Ford
  • "I Remember Angels" by Mark Kreighbaum
  • "The Cost to Be Wise" by Maureen F. McHugh
  • About the Authors

Review Posted August 29, 2010.

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