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Starlight 3 by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, editor

Cover art by Edward Miller

Edited by Claire Eddy

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This is the third and (so far as I know) last volume of the Starlight anthology series, which was Patrick Nielsen Hayden's effort to bring back the cutting-edge science fiction anthology in the tradition of the old Orbit anthologies. That is, an anthology that doesn't revolve around a theme such as alien pets or Ancient Egypt or alternate killers, but seeks to publish exemplary works of speculative fiction. As a result, it has a feeling more like that of a magazine of short stories than the typical theme anthology.

Nielsen Hayden opens the volume with a brief introduction reflecting on the fact that it is coming out in 2001, a year full of science fictional resonance, and how the actuality is different from Clarke's imagined future, yet there are disturbing resonances with other science fiction worlds. such as the grimmer parts of Heinlein's Future History. He also makes a nod to literary criticism in his mention of how science fiction allows us to reflect on the world that is by imagining what it might be if it were different. And then it's off to the actual fiction.

Ted Chiang is one of those authors who seem to just hit the ground running. His very first published story won multiple awards, and while some authors might have been turned into a one-hit wonder by that initial success, he has continued to produce outstanding stories. In "Hell is the Absence of God" he uses a technique similar to his earlier "Tower of Babylon," imagining a world in which some religious belief is literally true and following the implications through to their logical conclusions such that the reader can puzzle out the consequences right alongside the protagonist. Particularly, he tries to imagine a world in which God's presence is known and felt everywhere in the world -- except in Hell.

The result is a world in which much of what in our own world are matters of faith are matters of fact. There is no question about the existence of God or Heaven or Hell in a world where angelic visitations are regular, if alarming and often extremely destructive, events that are regularly covered on television news. Whether to believe in God is not an issue at all -- only a delusional person could deny the existence of God in such a world. Instead, the only question is how one will respond to the incontrovertable proof of God's existence. Will one respond with love, or not? Love God and be joined with him forever in Heaven after death. Hate him, or even feel only indifference, and one is banished forever to Hell.

Thus I cannot agree with the readers who have complained that the story is a mockery or parody of Christian belief. The only commonality with Christianity that his imaginary world has is the existence of a monotheistic deity whose angelic servants have Hebrew names, and the culture being generic American. In fact, the theology seems to have more in common with Islam, since the deity is one rather than triune, completely above human motivation, and without any element of salvation through substitutionary atonement. I think that Chiang made the characters generic Americans because he wanted as unmarked a society as possible for his American readers -- if he'd given his characters names that we typically associate with Muslims, they would have acquired a marked character as members of that specific faith that characters with ordinary European-derived American names would not have.

The story itself centers around a character who has lost his wife during an angelic visitation, and knows that her soul was taken to Heaven. He desperately wants to rejoin her, so he sets about to ensure that he will be able to possess the love of God that will allow him to rejoin her. So he studies all he can about angelic visitations in order to determine the best way to be caught in one and ensure that his soul will rise to Heaven. It seems all well and good -- except that the apparent interpretation of the rules isn't how the rules really work, as the protagonist discovers the hard way.

From theological speculation, Stephen Baxter takes us to a more traditional hard-sf-with-rivets form of physical and biological speculation in "Sun-Cloud," the story of an alien race on a distant world. They are composite beings, made of what appear to be swarms of small organisms working together but not actually joined to one another as the cells of our body are. As our cells are specialized, these corpuscles, as Baxter calls them, are specialized to carry out various functions in the larger whole. And as cells of our bodies die and are replaced, the corpuscles of their being may leave the swarm and be replaced by other ones.

I found the speculation about alien biology fascinating, but when I reached the end of the story, I was left wondering what was its point. The protagonist seems to have accomplished nothing in her brief life, wondrously though it may have been realized. I would've really preferred a story in which she had made some significant discovery, but instead this feels almost like he were trying to write the science fiction equivalent of a literary story about a completely alien character doing nothing and accomplishing nothing.

In "Interview: On Any Given Day" Maureen F. McHugh gives us a story told in the form of transcripts of interviews, rather like a documentary, of a woman with a strange future virus that causes nasty cancers. Again, it has a rather literary feel to it by which it gives us a glimpse into a fascinating (if grim) future, yet the protagonist never seems to accomplish anything. Instead, she just exists, in that passive slice-of-life way that seems to be so beloved of lit'ry magazines like The New Yorker. Maybe I just have no taste, but when I get done reading it, I'm left wondering what's the point.

Humans have been obsessed with the possibility of flight from the beginning of time. Long before the Montgolfiers, Ferdinand von Zeppelin or the Wright Brothers, the ancient Greeks had Daedalus and Icarus, and the Hebrews had their angels. In "Wings" Colin Greenland gives us a world in which angels really come to visit, integrating themselves with the ordinary people of the world, admiring our resourcefulness in building airplanes and helicopters to give ourselves flight. Or at least everybody calls them angels -- there's never any evidence that they are divine messengers in the sense the angels of the Old and New Testaments were, or even supernatural at all. In fact, they could just as easily be mortal beings from a parallel universe who have slipped through some kind of worldgate. The story really focuses upon the effect of their arrival on some ordinary Britons, and their take on how the rest of the world reacts, especially America.

Normally stories are told in either first person or third person, but it seems like every one of the Starlight anthologies has contained one oddball written in second person, and every one of them has been exceedingly dark. Susan Palwick gives us the story that comes closest to horror in "Gestella." Yet it's not the sort of story you'd expect when I tell you that it's a werewolf story -- in fact, it's not the werewolf that's the monster. Although it can be read as an extrapolation of how werewolfism might actually work (especially the idea that the protagonist is not a human that turns into a wolf, but a wolf that can take human shape, and thus ages at a wolf's rate instead of a human's), it can also be read as a mediation on animal abuse, and particularly the absolute power a human owner wields over a dog. When someone brings a dog in to Animal Control and claims that it needs to be destroyed because it snaps at someone, does anybody ever question the veracity of that statement? It's not even his word against hers, because she has no voice.

From the shuddersomely grim we go to the light and cheerful in Jane Yolen's "The Barbarian and the Queen: Thirteen Views." Just as it says on the label, it's composed of thirteen vignettes of encounters between queens and barbarians over tea. Some of them are recognizably historical queens: Victoria, Elizabeth I. Others seem to be straight-up fantasy. But some seem to be metaphorical barbarians and queens in the here-and-now -- or maybe in a couple the queen is in fact the UK's current throne-warmer. But the cumulative effect is of absurdity and amusement, as we see one culture clash after another, but any harm done is always of such a fantastical nature that it's not frightening.

Greg Van Eekhout gives us another lupine tale in "Wolves Till the World Goes Down," in which the Aesir, the ancient Norse gods, and their associates have intruded into the modern world. Hugin and Munnin, Odin's messenger ravens, are trying to deal with a world in which things that were once the workings of magic are ordinary technology. Yet the ending manages to capture a sense of hope so different from the grimness or drabness of so many other stories in this anthology.

In "The Secret Egg of the Clouds" Geoffrey A. Landis gives us a little gem of a story about the dawn of the second space age, as Earthlings visit the cloud cities of Venus and seek to make sense of the culture they find there. But it is not a story about their technology by which they are able to survive and even thrive floating in the upper atmosphere of a hellish world, or even a travelogue of their fascinating customs. Instead, the heart of it is a mythical story, a very telling one, and Earth-humanity's utter bewilderment at it and their frustration at not being able to get the Venusians to tell them what they really want to know about the history of the cloud cities, not understanding what they have been told.

Brenda W. Clough takes us to ancient Greece to tell the final chapter of the story of Odysseus. The trickster king who spent ten years journeying through various perils to return home from the Trojan War is coming to the end of his long life, and now he must face the final peril. But is death always an enemy to be feared and hated?

In "Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby," Susanna Clarke gives us a story rich in the lore of fairy-folk, complete with footnotes annotating the text with explanations of what was really behind the folklore, such as the brugh, the fairy-hill, which was no palace but a sort of burrow where these immortal folk lived in almost unbelievable squalor. As such, it can be looked upon as alternate history, a feigned document from another world in which the fairy-folk were real and interacted routinely with historical England and America, including such important figures as Thomas Jefferson.

Madeleine E. Robins gives us a story of intercultural contact in "La Vie en Ronde," which I believe is French for "life in the round." When Vivey first begins to have falling spells, she thinks she's developing some kind of medical problem. Instead, she's slowly moving from our own world to another, one in which light suffuses everything and all lines form arcs and curves, where the people are balls of light that roll along their way and speak with sweet musical tones. But they are curious about the world from which she came, and in that curiosity lies the seeds of tragedy that will ultimately mar her relationship with them.

D. G. Compton's "In Which Avu Giddy Tries to Stop Dancing" takes us to a world where everybody dances. The exact nature of the dance is never explained, other than it is part of everybody's life and the music is everywhere. Except Avu Giddy can't hear the music any more, and his feet hurts. He wants to stop dancing, and is willing to do himself harm in order to quit.

I was frustrated by what seemed to me like very vague worldbuilding -- I wanted to know more about just how the dance fit into their society, and what was going on. Yet at the same time, I could see that it could also be interpreted as a metaphor for conformism in society and what happens to a person who tries to break free of that mindless conformity.

In "Power Punctuation" Cory Doctorow gives us an epistolary story of future corporate life through the eyes of a new hire who's eager to work his way up through the ranks, even at the expense of those who give him a leg up. Again, it's a story that is best understood as a metaphor for present-day society, rather than as extrapolation of a possible future society.

Alex Irvine's "The Sea Wind Offers Little Relief" feels to me like Fahrenheit 451 meets One Hundred Years of Solitude. The protagonist, Edmar de Carvalho, could easily have come from a South American magical realist story, and the story of a future in which reading has been abolished has that feeling of rich, layered imagery where fantasy shades off into metaphor, where we are never quite sure if we're reading about technological extrapolation or a symbolic representation of the suppression of freedom of the press in the here and now. It's a grimly evocative story of people who have abandoned the written word trying to compel a dissident to betray his fellows by explicating a poem from a distant world of exile where they paradoxically found freedom in their confinement.

In "Senator Bilbo," Andy Duncan uses JRR Tolkien's Shire to satirize the actual historical Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, a notorious segregationalist of the 1940's, right about the time Tolkien was actually writing The Lord of the Rings. (Interestingly enough, the historical Senator was a short man, about 5' 2", and fond of colorful clothes, so turning him into a hobbit is a logical development of the similarity to the name of Tolkien's famous character). Set some generations after the close of that novel, it shows us a Shire in which the Scouring was not final, in which change is coming whether its inhabitants like it or not. Duncan captures the spirit of Tolkien's Shire superbly, yet shows us the dark underside of racism and discrimination that underlay the coziness of that happy ending (however, to Tolkien's credit it should be noted that in his last years he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the theological implications of the portrayal of the orcs and trolls as naturally evil races, and sought to emphasize the notion that nothing was evil in the beginning, and suggest that the orcs and trolls were in fact animated by lesser spirits of the order from which Gandalf came, spirits who had made the willful choice to serve evil rather than good).

The anthology is closed with another story with explicit theological content, Terry Bisson's "The Old Rugged Cross." In it, a murderer becomes convinced that to be saved he must follow in Christ's footsteps, all the way to a literal crucifixion. Although the penal system is justly uneasy about the prospect, a professor of Biblical history who sees it as a chance to understand the physiological processes of death on a cross and how well or poorly the Gospel accounts represent the actuality of Jesus' sufferings. It's a very uneasy story, and I was left exceedingly uncomfortable when I finished reading it.

On the whole, it is a very literary-feeling anthology, with a lot of stories that feel more like metaphors for the human condition than scientific extrapolation. Although there are a few real gems that offer insights that stuck with me long after I finished reading them, there are more than a few that feel more like a jewel-encrusted navel-gazing lens -- exquisitely crafted, but what's the point? Maybe I'm just the wrong audience for literary science fiction.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • "Hell is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang
  • "Sun-Cloud" by Stephen Baxter
  • "Interview: On Any Given Day" by Maureen F. McHugh
  • "Wings" by Colin Greenland
  • "Gestella" by Susan Palwick
  • "The Barbarian and the Queen" Thirteen Views" by Jane Yolen
  • "Wolves Till the World Goes Down" by Greg van Eekhout
  • "The Secret Egg of the Clouds" by Geoffrey A. Landis
  • "Home Is the Sailor" by Brenda W. Clough
  • "Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge was Built at Thoresby" by Susanna Clarke
  • "La Vie en Ronde" by Madeleine E. Robins
  • "In Which Avu Giddy Tries to Stop Dancing" by D. G. Compton
  • "Power Punctuation!" by Cory Doctorow
  • "The Sea Wind Offers Little Relief" by Alex Irvine
  • "Senator Bilbo" by Andy Duncan
  • "The Old Rugged Cross" by Terry Bisson
  • About the Authors

    Review posted February 23, 2010

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