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Starlight 2 edited by Patrick Nielsen Hadyen

Published by Tor Books

Cover art by Jeff Adams

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Starlight 2 is the second installment in Patrick Nielsen Hayden's ambitious anthology series intended to showcase cutting-edge short science fiction and fantasy. As stated in his introduction to the first volume, it was his intent to recreate the science fiction anthology series in the tradition of Orbit and Universe which encouraged authors to take risks and push both themselves and the genre to their limits. Unfortunately, the series would see only one additional volume before it came to an end.

At least part of the problem was the downturn in the economy which resulted from the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So long as the economy was booming, a publisher could justify the risks involved in publishing such an anthology. And they are considerable -- all anthologies have a much smaller market than novels, and generally the best performing anthologies are those that center around a theme. An eclectic anthology such as Starlight would have a much smaller audience, but in order to attract the sort of cutting-edge fiction from big-name writers that would make it comparable to the old Orbit and Universe anthologies of the 60's and 70's, it has to be able to offer substantial per-word rates, such that the anthology may well not earn out its initial investment. When times become tight, such speculative ventures are often the first to feel the axe.

Still, it is good to be able to enjoy the run while it lasted. And a good run it is, with a number of stories that really make a person think. And of course the editor opens the volume with his introductory comments, this time focusing upon the critics' question of how it can be called a science fiction anthology when so many of the stories in the first volume fell more closely in the fantasy genre. His comments on genre indicators are rather amusing, but they also have some very serious thought behind them about the nature of category and what it means for the reading experience. So much of our perception of the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy, and of what is going on within them, is predicated upon our knowledge of the history of the genre and particularly the stories that are often considered foundational.

Thus it is quite appropriate that the very first story should be Robert Charles Wilson's "Divided by Infinity," which tells the story of a man who discovers a bookstore in which he can obtain books available nowhere else. Books like The Stone Pillow, in the form of a copy so age-browned and brittle that it couldn't possibly be a modern forgery. As he continues to discover other lost masterpieces, novels that were never written in the consensus reality for various reasons, he begins to wonder what is going on, which leads him to a volume of rather mystical philosophy on immortality and probability. However, the story has a very surprising twist ending, the sort that can't even be described or discussed without spoiling it for anyone who might not have read it.

Susanna Clark's "Mrs. Mabb" is another story of an alternate England in which magic is known and openly practiced the way science and technology have been in our own world. The titular character's name is of course a reference to Queen Mabb, yet the overall feel of the story is of a fantasy version of Jane Austen's world -- not just the mannered societies of country gentry and their intricate rules for visiting one another, but the subtle interplay of character and the way in which they play the rules like a game.

M. Shayne Bell's "Lock Down" takes some serious risks, most particularly in being written in the second person, something beginning writers are usually warned away from as being a gimmick rather than a legitimate technique. And the very fact that it is unusual and so rarely seen (outside of Choose Your Own Adventure and similar game books) makes second-person narrative particularly jarring for some readers. They balk at being told what they're doing, even more than some readers balk at first-person narrative, being unable to believe that the character is really telling them the story.

But for a reader who can get past being told "you" are doing thus and so, it is truly a fascinating story. It's not exactly time travel or alternate history in the conventional sense. Rather, it's the story of a desperate effort to repair the timeline from some devastating event (perhaps some well-meaning but ultimately disastrous attempt at changing the past for the better, given the dates of the beginning and end points of the segment of fractured time, which roughly coincide with the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement). The task at hand is to scan through a period of time and determine how much of it is actual history and how much is spurious, and to lock down the authentic history (hence the title).

The team's biggest problem is distinguishing between what really happened and what we wished happened, especially what may have been in people's hearts to do but was never realized because they feared social disapproval or ostracism. And it's emotionally painful stuff, dealing with a visit of the famous African American opera singer Marian Anderson to Salt Lake City, Utah and her excruciatingly personal encounters with the sort of racism that was commonplace in the 1940's, a sort of racism so blatant and brutal and in-your-face as to remind us just how far we've come in the half-century since the Civil Rights Movement. Not everybody was a virulent racist, but a lot of people who didn't like racism were sufficiently afraid of the social power wielded by those who were hardcore racists that they kept their heads down and their mouths shut, and thus cooperated with evil by default even while wishing it were safe to following the promptings of their consciences. But wishful thinking can't be allowed to slip past, no matter how much nicer it would've been than the actuality, or it will invalidate that entire chunk of time. It's a story that will appeal to those for whom the concept of objective reality is philosophically or morally important, and will probably annoy those who prefer the idea that reality is a social construct.

The next story stretches the very boundaries of what constitutes fiction. Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" is presented as though it were the scholarly paper of two fictional researchers who have discovered a strange new way for the human brain to go wrong. A tiny minority of people, whether due to injury or a genetic defect, are incapable of distinguishing men from women. Although otherwise of normal intelligence, they seem incapable of comprehending the meaning of gender, no matter how many times it is explained to them. Then the resesarchers discover a pair of twins who share the genetic marker for this disorder, but seem to show no symptoms. However, closer study reveals that they seem to have developed a workaround, although not without its peculiarities. This leads the researchers to some serious questions about the role of filtering in categorization -- might the information we ignore be as important as the information we notice?

"The House of Expectations" by Martha Soukup also explores the workings of the human mind and what happens when it goes wrong. The protagonist is having a hard time making a relationship work, so on the suggestion of his last girlfriend he avails himself of the services of a licensed brothel. However, each of the girls fails to satisfy. He simply cannot respond to someone whose interest in him is clearly professional in nature, however skilled and thorough that professionalism.

And then the madam offers him another girl, and at last his trigger is tripped. Tripped with such intensity that he returns again and again, each time wanting her and her alone. Finally his desire for her becomes so intense that he breaks the boundaries established by the house, and in the process discovers an unnerving story of a medical experiment gone horribly wrong. And suddenly what seems to be a rather titillating story instead becomes a meditation on medical ethics.

David Langford's "A Game of Consequences" also deals with the consequences of experiments being done by people who don't understand the system with which they are working, and then start changing things. It was bad enough when they were high schoolers playing target practice and shot a bird. Playing with quantum effects is not recommended when you're not sure what you're doing.

"The Amount to Carry" by Carter Scholz is another of those very subtle stories in which the alternate history element may slide right past the reader who is not familiar with the period. The early parts of the story read like a mainstream story about the development of the insurance industry, and it's only with the appearance of Franz Kafka that we realize that this is not the history we learned in school.

Similarly, Ellen Kushner's "The Death of the Duke" is a fantasy that could almost be mainstream, if it were to deal with a present-day or recent-past setting of a character facing his mortality. Instead it takes place in another land, quasi-medieval, which may or may not have magic.

In "Brown Dust" Esther M. Friesner gives us a horror story rooted not in the typical European folkloric traditions, but in the syncretic traditions of South America where African and Native American traditions had to hide to survive rigorous persecutions by the conquistadores and their descendants. There is also an element of the South American magical realism tradition in the treatment of the central characters transcendence.

Jonathan Lethem's "Access Fantasy" brings us back to America, to a surrealistic "if this goes on" portrait of an endless traffic jam of people trapped in a city of enormous size, fantasizing about apartments they see through realtors' tapes and otherwise trying to imagine themselves having a normal life. Yet just on the other side of the One-Way Permeable Barrier life is still normal -- if only one can be clever enough to get through to it. Unfortunately it's not quite as absurdist now as it was when it was written, particularly as news is filtering in about the gigantic traffic jam in China that left people trapped for six days (although how much of that was the rigidities of a centrally planned economy is open for debate).

In "The End of a Dynasty: or the Natural History of Ferrets" Angélica Gorodischer and translator Ursula K Le Guin give us an intricate magical realist story of a land where the fallen king has become a sort of unperson, his image defaced and ritually disrespected each day by the queen and her young son, who is receiving a most peculiar education in the forbidden secret history of their country. An education that will make him progressively more insane, albeit in ways that harm mostly those nearest to him, and not the ordinary people.

After that lengthy visit to a vista quite unlike our own, Geofrey A Landis gives us a very short tale which makes us rethink some serious assumptions about poverty. When we see homeless people struggling to survive, we typically dismiss them as dead-enders, failures at life who lack the capacity to get it together and succeed. But what if one of them were in fact a mathematical and scientific genius, frantically working away on equations that could completely revolutionize the way we understand the physical world, equations that may well never be seen because she is of the wrong color, the wrong gender, the wrong social class, the wrong neural hardwiring, whatever leads her to be dismissed and pushed to the side like so much human waste.

The final story of the anthology, "Story of your Life" by Ted Chiang, gives us yet another look at the issue of how our perceptions shape our conception of the physical world. Humans are accustomed to think of things sequentially, in terms of cause and effect. However this might not be the only way to see things, just because it seems natural to us. Since languages encode patterns of thought, might it be possible for a human exposed to an alien language that encodes time radically differently to shift into that mode of thinking, and to perceive time in a completely different way?

However, this shift is not without consequence. As the linguist increasingly learns to think in the alien language, however clumsily, her own perception of time begins to shift from a sequence of events to a movement toward a purpose, with a consequent loss of freedom of choice. She knows from even before her daughter is conceived how the girl's life will end, but at no point can she act to prevent it for the simple reason that once she foresees it, it's already for her a fait accompli even if it lies years or decades down her personal worldline.

On the whole, this is a collection that is well worth your time and money if you are interested in seeing some very unusual short science fiction and fantasy.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • "Divided by Infinity" by Robert Charles Wilson
  • "Mrs. Mabb" by Susanna Clarke
  • "Lock Down" by M. Shayne Bell
  • "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" by Raphael Carter
  • "The House of Expectations" by Martha Soukup
  • "A Game of Consequences" by David Langford
  • "The Amount to Carry" by Carter Scholz
  • "The Death of the Duke" by Ellen Kushner
  • "Brown Dust" by Esther M. Friesner
  • "Access Fantasy" by Jonathan Lethem
  • "The End of a Dynasty" by Angelica Gorodischer, tr. Ursula K. Le Guin
  • "Snow" by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
  • About the Authors

Review posted August 29, 2010.

Buy Starlight 2 from Amazon.com

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