If you believe in reading short fiction for pleasure, you're condemned to frequent disappointment. Most short fiction, even the good stuff, is... laborious. So when reading the anthology Eclipse Three, you may be startled at the unexpected sensation of enjoyment.
Oh, and here's a spoiler warning, although I'll try not to spoil anything too much.
Eclipse Three should be required reading among anyone who wants to write short stories — or, for that matter, among anybody who still clings to the hope that short fiction can be enriching. The storytelling in this volume is, for the most part, both polished and bumpy — that is, it gives you the assurance from the first sentence that you're in the hands of a storyteller who knows what s/he is doing, but it also contains lots of irregularities and odd surprises. These are almost all stories by people who know how to set up, and subvert, expectations without seeming manipulative or crass.
I had high hopes for Eclipse Three already — the first two volumes from editor Jonathan Strahan were superb (you can read my review of volume two here.) And the list of contributors for the third volume is pretty awe-inspiring, including Karen Joy Fowler, Peter S. Beagle, Maureen McHugh, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Jeffrey Ford, Nicola Griffith and Paul Di Filippo. (Not to mention a lovely, previously unpublished cover by the late Richard Powers.)
But it's actually better than I'd hoped. Pretty much all I need to say about the quality of the stories in this volume is that the Peter S. Beagle entry does not stand out. By which I mean, it's as rich and clever and epic-feeling as any Peter Beagle short story — but you don't feel as though you've stumbled on the one standout story in the book. A number of the other stories in the book are just as instantly engrossing, and have that "personal but also huge and world-encompassing" feeling that Beagle does so well.
A lot of the best stories in this volume follow a main character who encounters a stranger who opens up a bizarre world. In Beagle's story, it's a magician who meets a woman whose husband and little girl have died, and shows her how to play a trick on death. In Molly Gloss' "The Visited Man," it's a weird (and not very good) painter who befriends a man whose wife and son have also died, forcing the widower to adopt more and more animals and go in search of night ghosts. In Nnedi Okorafor's "On The Road," it's a little boy who shows up at a woman's door in Nigeria, carrying with him some kind of terrible hunger that hollows you out from the inside.
There are also a lot of stories about people's relationships with odd communities, including Fowler's opening piece, where a rebellious teenage girl gets sent to a nightmarish kind of "boot camp" where her spirit is broken (and the camp turns out to have a weird secret). Or Di Filippo's "Yes, We Have No Bananas," in which a guy gets evicted and goes to live on a houseboat in a world that we (and he) gradually realize is an alternate universe. In Pat Cadigan's "Don't Mention Madagascar," a woman gets caught up in a world of travelers who are being forever being shuttled around impossible destinations — is it the spirit world? Alternate universes? — and they form an odd sort of community.
A lot of the stories have to do with creativity and the life of the artist, including Maureen McHugh's "Useless Things," the story of a sculptor who gets robbed and finds herself hardening against the world, and Elizabeth Bear's mermaid-meets-guitarist tale. Most of all, many of these stories deal with loneliness and loss, and the strange discoveries that come to people who've given up on finding themselves in this world.
The best story in the book, though, is Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two," the jaw-dropping story of freakish biochemistry experiments, venture capital, and a lesbian lapdance that goes much further than anyone expects. It's reminiscent of the thrilling leap-in-the-dark feeling of her novel Slow River, but feels even more intense and weird, maybe because nothing could be weirder than a strip club in Marietta, Georgia.
Though a few stories in the book didn't thrill me quite as much as the rest, and purists may protest that a few of these stories are more literary than speculative, Eclipse Three is almost entirely a great prize. I didn't realize how much my faith in the short stories had dwindled, after reading dozens of unsustaining tales, until I read these stories. It made me want to go back to writing short fiction myself, something I've been neglecting, in the vain hope that I can write something half as engrossing as the tales in this collection. [Borders]