Slow as a Bullet by Andy Duncan
Duncan’s story is quite brilliant; I have no idea how to categorise it, and it’s got some lovely characters – Cliffert and our nameless narrator being the only two we really know, but they’re done vividly and well – and the plot is strange and a nice mix of deeply serious and deeply funny. Duncan’s got a somewhat whimsical idea and gone even further into whimsy, but there’s a hard edge in there, too; this strange story is beautiful and brilliant.
 
Tidal Forces by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Again we’re confronted with a hard-to-categorise story; sitting somewhere in the interstitial between science fiction, fantasy and romance, Kiernan’s beautiful, powerful tale works on a number of different levels. The characters are powerful and the strange, jumpy, non-linear narrative style lends a strange power to the story; it’s a story, in some ways, about stories, and a very effective and interesting one, well-written and creative, diving into the gaps and playing with them powerfully and beautifully. Moving stuff.
 
The Beancounter’s Cat by Damien Broderick
This story is a slightly mixed one (the message at the end is one that I really despise, in some ways…); the characters are well-written, the science fictional setting imaginative, innovative, strange and weird but believable, the mysticism that imbues the story with a sheen of fantasy slowly stripped away as the whole thing moves further from the simplicity of the beancounter’s cat. Broderick’s story works well, and powerfully, but its message has two parts and, for this reader, one dilutes the other, casting a slight pall over an otherwise excellent work.
 
Story Kit by Kij Johnson
Johnson’s (very, very meta) story is a really deeply interesting and moving one both about process and about pain. It brings in passages from a number of short stories (not, I think, real ones) and focuses on the author and on the Aeneid, or rather on Dido, and in that there’s the heart of the story; it’s about loss, and about an author working through that loss, about the author’s response to it. It’s a strange, affecting, weird story (that requires a decent amount of classical knowledge to really get the intricacy of) and its interstitiality really fits this collection.
 
The Man in Grey by Michael Swanwick
Again this is an oddly interstitial story (I think we can take that as read hereon in unless I say otherwise…), and a rather wonderful one; Swanwick’s philosophical take on solipsism is a strange, and unusual, story that really does place huge emphasis on free will and the uniqueness of mankind, but also on the question of why things happen and how we should respond to them; Swanwick’s managed to create a powerful, interesting story with an amazing force behind it to make the reader think about reality and what is.
 
Old Habits by Nalo Hopkinson
This is a very up-front, honest ghost story… and yet it’s still creepier than any other ghost story I have ever read. That’s because it manages to mingle together some powerfully dark elements of the human mind with some really interesting, new ideas in a ghost story; the prey of ghosts is not humans, but even more disturbing in some ways, and the creepiness of the story is enhanced by characters like Baby Boo, and the emotionally resonant, appalling ending. A really creepy, spooky story.
 
The Vicar of Mars by Gwyneth Jones
Jones’ story is quite an odd one; it’s about a priest, and shaken faith, and the power of nightmares. Science fictional to the core, and with some interesting religions and concepts at that, it has a whole universe behind it showing through quite clearly, but the focus of the story is on a single alien priest and an old woman, and it’s a powerful, interesting, disturbing story that really does push the bounds of science fiction with excellent characters and odd events mixed together in a new conjunction that has the power to frighten.
 
Fields of Gold by Rachel Swirsky
Swirsky’s story is another afterlife story, far less creepy but in its own way just as disturbing as Hopkinson’s; Fields of Gold posits an afterlife that is, at the same time, paradise and hell, in its ever-changing nature, in its blunt honesty. Dennis is a man-child (I’m not a huge fan of Swirsky’s portrayal of him, it seems a little… unfair, really; rather like the portrayal of Karen is too sympathetic, taking the sympathy that Melanie deserves, in some ways) and the arc of the story is one of revelation, discovery and, really, dematurity of Dennis, making him into that child (not emasculating him, but de-adulting him). A very, very mixed story, in my mind; strong and effective, but I’m not personally a fan.
 
Thought Experiment by Eileen Gunn
Gunn’s story, a science fictional masterpiece, is absolutely brilliant. The ending is a perfect twist, completely unexpected though foreshadowed throughout, and the main character – the slightly confused Drumm – is so innocent, and yet so intelligent and in some ways brilliant, as well as being relatable, that the story works perfectly. It’s an interesting thought experiment and idea, and a well-explored one, so that the whole thing works beautifully (if having a really weird set of implications…), leaving us with a thought-provoking, well written and interesting story.
 
The Double of My Double is Not My Double by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is weird and fun; a semi-subversion of the idea of the doppelganger, it manages to be playful and serious at the same time, with really disturbing moments mixed with the poignant romance that intertwines with the events of the story. Ford’s tale is quite a fun and weird one, really not making a huge amount of sense if logically thought about rigorously but enjoyable and likeable, which is what, in this case, appears to be the intent; touching and humorous, with a little action thrown in for good measure.
 
Nine Oracles by Emma Bull
This one’s a simple, neat science fiction story, but not in a huge way; it’s about people – not what happens, but who it happens to. The titular oracles are nothing supernatural, on the surface of it – but they’re defined by relationships, common humanity, and a sort of shared nature. And I love every one of the nine; they’re beautifully written, similar and different, powerful, eliciting a variety of responses, wonderfully written and a slap in the face of those who think genre fiction can’t be character study. Because this is, in the best way possible.
 
Dying Young by Peter M. Ball
Ball’s Western story, with a very Western moral, is an interesting piece; a science fictional Western, albeit in a very (very) different mould to Firefly and its spawn. The characters are strong and well-written, with the clairvoyant and nameless narrator an interesting figure who undergoes serious development as the story goes on and the strange dual-morals of the story (one of which, in fact, is strongly reminiscent of Good Omens). This fun, rollicking and at the same time serious tale is a very nice and enjoyably piece.
 
The Panda Coin by Jo Walton
Walton’s story is quite nice, and very traditional, science fiction. The core concept is something that wouldn’t surprise the average reader of thrillers and spy novels, but the application to science fiction is done effectively, and allows Walton to let us see a variety of people’s lives and their daily doings; it gives us a cross-social view of the world that Walton has created, with snippets from the daily lives of a number of people, enough to have a little knowledge but still leave us wanting more. This is a setting on which a novel could be built, and a short story like this is perfect for giving us a glimpse into the worldbuilding behind it as well as creating a set of little, brief character interludes.
 
Tourists by James Patrick Kelly
Kelly's story is a strange, moving and powerful one; he manages to bring together themes of colonisation, human nature, romance and love, and it's a combination made stronger by the deft skill with which these themes are woven together.  The characters - Mariska and Elan especially - are well drawn, with those in the background demonstrating a far greater depth than can be fully shown in the appearances given to them, and they're sympathetic and interesting people with their own thoughts, minds and issues.  The whole thing really does create a beautiful and moving emotional odyssey.
 
Overall
Strahan's editing is among the best in the genre, based on this anthology; Eclipse 4 is a brilliant selection of different, strange stories showcasing some various talents of all kinds - science fiction, urban fantasy, horror and fantasy share space in a demonstration of the breadth of the genre and the different styles that its umbrella covers, as well as the various different foci that stories can have. I am now going to be seeking out Eclipses 1-3, and I recommend you all do too.
Malak by Peter Watts
This is quite an interesting and deeply unsettling story about the effect of giving military unmanned craft a “conscience” and autonomy, but with human override; Azrael is an interesting “character” (it’s an odd term to use, because Watts is careful to never allow Azrael true consciousness) and the story is strange and unusual, very well written and thought-provoking about cost/benefit analysis in conflict and the nature of war.
 
Watching the Music Dance by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Rusch is… a terrifying writer. This story is painful, emotionally wrenching, to read, because Suze and Nils are so powerfully written; and because it’s so immediate and painful, the impact of the mother on the child, and the father’s attempts to deal with it. Rusch creates a near-future which is horrifying in its plausibility, especially the no-supermen element, and the characters are so immediate; I finished this with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, and I suspect it would hit parents even harder. This is really powerful, and really strong.
 
Laika’s Ghost by Karl Schroeder
Schroeder’s story is a strange one, especially in a hard SF anthology (the Red Mars aspect of it – giving new meaning to the term, too – is unmistakable); imaginative, and with some wonderful characters and a near-future world no one would want to live in really, it’s a well-written and interesting story, but it does seem to break the science quite a lot. On the other hand it does also make an interesting tale, and one that is thought-provoking, so it is a good one, and a good piece of specfic.
 
The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter
I quite like this one; it feels more like it belongs in Is Anybody Out There? in some respects, but it’s a good story, with fantastically explored implications (albeit not in the same direction I would have thought, but that’s part of what’s fascinating about it). It has a sense of the universe and humanity’s place in it, and it also has a lot of interesting discussion about intelligence and communication and futility; a thought-provoking, well-written story.
 
The Server and the Dragon by Hannu Rajaniemi
This is the first truly awesome story of the collection; Rajaniemi works on a scale and level way beyond that of any of the other authors so far. The idea of the server, the dragon, the baby universe and the events that happen within the story have so many implications and such a level of familiarity and strangeness that awe is the only appropriate reaction, and Rajaniemi really lets the story work on its own merits, and brilliantly so.
 
Bit Rot by Charles Stross
Stross’ story is a rather strange one; it mixes science fiction with scientific concepts in an easy and free manner, blending them together to the point that they are indistinguishable. This particular piece combines AI with zombies to come up with a brilliant horror story with unfolding strangeness; it’s a far-future story, akin to Rajaniemi’s, with space travel and interesting ideas (accurate science? I don’t know enough to say) but at most basic characterisation and a poor execution; the style doesn’t quite work, giving mixed results.
 
Creatures with Wings by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Goonan’s story feels like it should have a strong emotional punch, but it really, for me, doesn’t; it feels rather divorced from reality, with the character of Kyo somewhat strangely unsympathetic despite all attempts to make us empathise and connect with him. The plot of the story is equally odd, with religious meditations combining with psychophilosophical considerations to form a strange and semi-comprehensible whole that, unfortunately, really misses the mark…
 
Walls of Flesh, Bars of Bone by Damien Broderick and Barbara Lamar
This is a seriously weird story that, to me at least, really is inexplicable and nonsensical; it seems to involve a lot of complicated quantum theory that resolves into chaos (or possibly devolves from order into ordure, as the main character would have it).Whilst the characters are relatively well-written, they too devolve into the chaotic and impenetrable final part of the story that really makes this a strange unreadable morass…
 
Mantis by Robert Reed
This feels less like science fiction and more like philosophy, but the near-future setting, brilliantly realised, gives us two sets of first-person viewpoints and narratives, linked, to follow; Reed manages to make the story work brilliantly, leaving questions hanging in the most fantastic way and making the characters, and the story, linger in the mind with the unfinished nature of at least one half of the narrative powerfully incorporated into the story. This is seriously cool.
 
Judgement Eve by John C. Wright
Paradise Lost meets The Evitable Conflict here, in Wright’s science fictional Miltonian story of justice and pride; it starts shakily but gains strength and momentum as it continues, building and building to an inevitable, powerful, brilliant confrontation that is written with great soul and humanity. Hard science fiction this is not, but it is thought-provoking, interesting, well-written, and what science fiction aspires to be: about what it is to be human.
 
A Soldier of the City by David Moles
This is a somewhat unusual story; Moles builds a science fictional culture and setting, and doesn’t really explain how or why it would (could, should) work. It seems to draw on things like the SG-1 prominence of ancient religions, and on mythology, with Ish as a well-written and interesting character, but the plot is a little disjointed and there’s not enough information there to understand the story properly; I’m left with very mixed feelings.
 
Mercies by Gregory Benford
Benford’s time-travel story is quite brilliant; combining quantum, serial killers, and futuristic technology, we have a story of justice and mercy brilliantly told with well-written and interesting characters, obviously focused on Warren but also bringing in serial killers and other characters from the future, in such a way that we have a really well-told conception of justice, and indeed, of inevitability; a really good story, with an unsettling moral.
 
The Ki-Anna by Gwyneth Jones
Jones’ story is a really good one; it’s a cultural, human exploration of some really odd, interesting themes that we see through the eyes both of a member of the culture and an outsider, a human. The story as a whole is interesting in its refusal of the liberal shibboleth of cultural liberalism whilst also being nonjudgemental – it’s an anthropologist’s story, and a crime story, and all in all, fascinating and thought-provoking reading.
 
The Birds and the Bees and the Gasoline Trees by John Barnes
I… like this story. It’s strange, and happy, and romantic, and sweet, and deeply scientific and geeky, and uses terms like panspermia, and synthesises all these disparate different elements into a cohesive and coherent whole with sympathetic, brilliant characters, a number of issues – including the autonomy and humanity of “humaniforms” (androids, ish) – treated, and an avoidance of a single “concept” as the basis of the story. Barnes’ story is a brilliant closer for this anthology.

Overall
I have to say that Strahan's made a slightly mixed selection here; there are some fantastic stories in here, and some far less good ones, but overall the quality was high and the majority of the stories were decently applied to the theme, but it did seem to be a little too scattershot at times, with some of the stories ending up just messy meditations rather than actual stories. A good, but not brilliant, selection.
Goats of Glory by Steven Erikson
This is pure swords and sorcery brilliance, the creepy keep, the grim soldiers, the Western-style ex-booming town… a dark, horrific, and incredibly brutal tale of slaughter and death, it’s got a suspenseful start which suddenly changes into an action-packed, fast-paced, main body of the story, with blood and guts everywhere. The characters are intense and relatively typical of the genre, but Graves is a nice touch – as are the specifics of each of the five mercenaries. Plus, it’s always good to see sword and sorcery stories acknowledging the possibility of women being equally good at both the sex and the fighting as the men…
 
Tides Elba by Glen Cook
This is a fantastic tale of the Black Company, the complete Annals of which I really want to lay my hands on. Full of intrigue, suspicion, investigation and politicking, but only on a small, internal, company-level scale as opposed to the grand scale of epic fantasy, Tides Elba shows a very different kind of S&S fantasy to Goats of Glory: a more subtle, military, less violent kind, but still equally brilliant. Even those without the pre-existing connection to the Black Company will get on with Goblin, One-Eye, Elmo, Croaker and the rest; they’re a brilliant group, really well portrayed, and the story works brilliantly.
 
Bloodsport by Gene Wolfe
This is a fantastic story. With its use of a sort of living chess as a central concept, combined with an eternal conflict between two forces – perhaps slightly amorphous and representative, I’m not sure – Wolfe’s married S&S sensibilities and style to epic fantasy narratives, yet in practice the epic fantasy is only possibly there. This is a quiet, gentle story; it has violence and action, and those are portrayed hard and fast, yet our narrator has a gentility to him that pervades across the whole story brilliantly, giving it a very different feel. Really well done.
 
The Singing Spear by James Enge
Enge’s story is quite brilliant; it’s got so many touches which I just love, most of all the character of Morlock Ambrosius, Morlock the Maker. Having a magical artisan past his prime as the hero of the story is quite brilliant, and the awesome way he’s portrayed is wonderful: he leaps off the page as a real character and one we could grow to love. The story hangs together fantastically, drawing on the style of Leiber and Howard with some real innovations original to Enge, to give a tale we’re drawn into and which grips us by the scruff of the neck right the way to the fascinating end. I want more Morlock Ambrosius, and I want it as soon as I can buy more books!
 
A Wizard in Wiscezan by C. J. Cherryh
The wizard of the title isn’t the one we expect, and Cherryh’s writing carries the reader through the story inside the mind of Willem, whose coming of age tale this is. It is a true S&S story, what with a swordsman and a sorcerer; it has everything from demons to wicked sorcerers and rulers, through to noble kings and good insurgents. Cherryh keeps the clichés fresh and new, though, with a writing style and a depth of feeling and clarity that makes sure the reader doesn’t notice when things are obvious – there’s no twists in this story, just linear narrative, but because we’re so wrapped up in Willem, we don’t care. As a character piece and as a piece of S&S, a tour-de-force.
 
A Rich Full Week by K. J. Parker
This one’s a nice one; not typical S&S, but really fun as a story, which is more important. The nameless viewpoint-character is a really well-drawn figure, conflicted and with low self-esteem, that lets Parker create a wonderful story with a brilliant series of twists as it ends. The magic-system is well-portrayed and complex, and the stunningly well-written world is amazingly detailed for such a short story; we see so little but discover so much through the narrative and reflections of the viewpoint character. Parker’s story is fantastic, and I cannot recommend it enough.
 
A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet by Garth Nix
This is in the same world and vein as the last Nix story I read, and is just as brilliant; recalling somewhat Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and also the Greek pantheons and their outcasts, Nix creates a fantastical and fantastic world with enforcers of the gods’ will banishing various beings. Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz are both amusing, strange characters, with so much mystery around the latter, and Nix’s by-turns-amusing, by-turns-straightforward S&S is a great piece.
 
Red Pearls by Michael Moorcock
Moorcock’s Elric piece suffers a little if you don’t know your lore, which I don’t, but it is a fantastic tale of swords and sorcery, of violence and sibling rivalry, of travel, derring-do, and madness. Elric is in typically fantastic, amoral and fatalistic form, and the world is brilliantly, beautifully lush and strange; Moorcock’s not bothered with half-measures in this exotic and unusual setting, revealing more about the Melnibonéans and their heritage than I believe was previously know. The whole story hangs together really well, the sudden fast-paced scenes of violence as vivid and lush as the more languid moments; this is yet another demonstration, as if it was needed, that Moorcock really is the living master of swords and sorcery.
 
The Deification of Dal Bamore by Tim Lebbon
This is a fascinating story; Lebbon’s set up some really interesting dichotomies and problems here, with religion and politics mingling in a horrific, dark story that tends towards the truly vile and graphically disgusting at time – but in the service of a cause, the cause of making the story work properly. Our two main character, Bamore and Jan Ray, are very different people with conflicting and conflicted motives; that conflict drives the story to its ultimate, powerful, deadly conclusion, utterly strange and utterly unexpected in its brilliance. A wonderful twist, to finish a strong piece.
 
Dark Times at the Midnight Market by Robert Silverberg
This scifantasy story is hilarious, brilliant, and very different from traditional S&S fiction. It has alchemy, it has chemistry, it has magic and science mingled and mixed in a most intriguing fashion, and what it has above all is the air of a mediaeval romance – court politics and love mixing in a most inappropriate fashion, leading to unintended consequences. Silverberg brilliantly brings out the character of Ghambivole Zwoll, making him a clear figure of mixed character, very different from the traditional focus of S&S; and the whole story hinges on Zwoll’s character rather wonderfully. Finished to perfection by the final paragraph, this is a fantastic story.
 
The Undefiled by Greg Keyes
Keyes’ characters are conflicted, interesting characters; Fool Wolf is a twisted, strange human with some serious problems, and his inner dialogues with Chugaachik are fantastically well-done. The horrors of his possession is well-shown, portrayed in a fascinating manner especially as things change for them over time – indeed, Keyes demonstrates how things change over the brief course of the story really well; and the plot is brilliant, with a stunning twist at the close of the story. A decent, different S&S story.
 
Hew the Tintmaster by Michael Shea
Shea’s addition to Vance’s canon of the Dying Earth is wonderfully true to the original; Cugel is his normal amoral self, the magic and situation of the world is the same strange, exotic, unpredictable and mixed-up world, the whole plot is beautifully weird and inexplicable, and all kinds of strange and whimsical species exist. The humour of the tale is quite wonderful, and the beauty of it – the idea of the power of aesthetics – is also rather nice; indeed, Shea really does seem to have captured the sense of Vance’s Dying Earth perfectly…
 
In the Stacks by Scott Lynch
Lynch’s story is absolutely brilliant. I thought I felt the hand of Pratchett on my shoulder as I read this story, with the library being incredibly reminiscent of the Library at the Unseen University (albeit with different librarians…); but Lynch does something rather different with it, taking a concept that Pratchett makes semi-safe and turning it into something very threatening, populating it with all sorts of awful, insane monsters – brilliant creations of the imagination – and dark, grim people. It’s a brilliant, wonderful, amusing and whimsical story by turns, which comes together into an absolutely brilliant masterpiece.
 
Two Lions, a Witch, and the War-Robe by Tanith Lee
Lee’s story is a proper swords and sorcery tale of a quest and two bravos, with magic playing all sorts of roles, positive and negative. The play on Lewis in the title is not continued within the story, which is rather more Howard or Leiber than anyone else, as might well be expected from S&S fiction; the characters of Zire and Bretilf are sound, decent(ish) sword-swinging bravos brought into political complexity against their wills and forced to act as pawns, and the tale plays on that note rather well, with an interesting semi-philosophical running throughout and dealt with in full at the close.
 
The Sea Troll’s Daughter by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Kiernan’s story is influenced by both Irish myth and Beowulf, that progenitor of all English literature. The use and subversion, by turns, of all the tropes and themes of the Beowulf myth is fantastic and fascinating; Kiernan turns various elements on their head in order to give the reader a series of false leads and expectations, which she delightfully subverts. The characters of the hero and the lover they take, and of the sea-troll’s daughter, are all wonderfully well dealt with; and the story hangs together with a kind of rugged beauty, like the landscape Kiernan paints.
 
Thieves of Daring by Bill Willingham
This is Conan, pretty much purely and simply; a thief breaking into the house of a mage, guarded by magical defences, and finding himself trapped by those same defences. It’s brilliant in the faithfulness to the spirit of Conan as written by Howard, with the character of Septavian having virtually the same personality and dislike of sorcery; the major difference is in having him less of a brute and less of a barbarian, more trained and with tricks up his sleeve. Good, solid, traditional S&S.
 
The Fool Jobs by Joe Abercrombie
This is pretty typical Abercrombie fair, with Craw taking the place of the disillusioned, depressed, self-doubting mercenary captain dissatisfied with his place in the world and the jobs he gets, and the other members of the cast falling into the usual Abercrombie roles.  The fact is that whilst Abercrombie plays within a very specific area of fantasy, he does it well, and that's what this story is; another example of Abercrombie doing what it is he does best, writing blunt, cynical fantasy of a rather S&S-style, with a stock set of characters and a certain trope to continue. Workmanlike prose adds to the impression that this is just how it is, creating a solid piece of work.
 
Overall
The selection of stories chosen by Strahan and Anders for this anthology ranges far and wide within the modern resurgence of swords and sorcery fantasy.  Whilst I disagree with their premise that it died for a while - Cook and Moorcock, with their continued success, might be decent counterarguments - they've clearly taken a look at the field as it stands today and chosen some of the best authors, and the fact that these are all original pieces only makes me all the more happy; the different takes and styles mesh together really well, and Strahan and Anders are both, clearly, master anthologists.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
Chiang's story is an absolutely brilliant tale of entropy, but also of what it means to be human, the extremes of scientific curiosity, and what life is. Indeed, the expressions of the Laws of Thermodynamics - not in an obvious way, but still clearly underlying the story - give so much humanity to the nameless viewpoint and to the alien "other" who is speaking that Chiang's empathy is clearly absolutely fantastic; indeed, the detail and intricacy of the story, the thoughtful complexity of it, the completeness of the world and the alieness of it is all really incredibly wonderful. I am envious, and more, of Chiang's ability to write, but I am so glad it exists, so that I can read what he produces...
 
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
The title is not the only brilliant thing about this story. Bear's tale of a black professor in 1940-ish is fantastic, and the implications of the shoggoths' enslavement and his own grandparents' experiences combine to create a wonderful dilemma and set of implications up the conflicted character of Harding. Brilliantly written, the background detail is fantastic, and Harding's academic character is absolutely crystal clear; every action he takes is intelligent and makes sense given his personality, and indeed the whole concept of the story is incredibly creative and well-done. This is a fantastic story, more than earning its inclusion in any best-of anthology.
 
Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel by Peter S. Beagle
This is a really moving, touching and very Jewish story - Beagle must be himself Jewish, because he's got the mindset and religious life so perfectly it's brilliant. There's a wonderful sense of the divine pervading the story, and it contains one of my favourite lines ever. Duvidl, Chaim, Rifke, and the rabbi Shulevitz and brilliant creations, as is the blue angel herself; Beagle's got a really deft hand for character, and the amount he packs into a story of only 30 pages is incredible. It's an intense story, evoking a range of emotion but at the end leaving one with "fear and trembling", to steal the Kierkegaardian phrase; absolutely standout fantastic and incredible.
 
Fixing Hanover by Jeff VanderMeer (reread, originally read in Extraordinary Engines)
In the past I've given this story relatively short shrift, perhaps a little unfairly. It is actually better than I've given it credit for, read in this context rather than as a steampunk story, and one without the hallmarks of much of VanderMeer's work - which is, in this case, a definite strength. Fixing Hanover is a story of loss, of discovery, of slow revelation, and of painstaking process; it's a fascinating tale with complexity, humanity and morality coming together to create something truly interesting, and indeed the slow revelation of the past and the world is timed incredibly well. I am, on reflection, rather a fan of this story.
 
The Gambler by Paolo Bacigalupi
I'm not a big fan of Bacigalupi, in general, but this story does seem to be pretty good. Mixing the fast-paced news welter of the modern world with extrapolations to a near-future which shares similarities with The Windup Girl, this is far superior to that; it's a discussion of what's valuable, and valued, in a society, and whether those two can ever become the same thing. It's a fascinating story of exile and redemption, with perhaps a touch - or more - of schadenfreude, but it comes to a fantastic understanding of the character of Ong and the world in which he lives, as well as the world of Lao from which he has come; really good, thought-provoking stuff.
 
The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald
McDonald’s story is a weaker selection than the previous ones, to my mind. It is a fascinating, complex, interesting, wonderful, thoughtful and intelligent story, but it doesn’t suck the reader in; whilst the world-building, the near-future tech, is complex and well-dealt with, whilst the nutes are rendered in stunning Technicolor detail and bluntness, whilst the setting is brilliantly realised and explained to the reader, the characters are a real problem: they’re not sympathetic enough. McDonald makes them rounded and human, but I can’t like any of them, even when I can see their point of view; and for me, that’s a problem. However, this is still a great story, just not a pleasure to read.
 
Virgin by Holly Black
This is a really depressing story, and really dark. Black’s take on the Fae has always been a more traditionalist and grim one, but this reflects worse on humanity and our smallness, our pettiness, than probably any other fiction I’ve ever read; it’s a tale of cruelty and banal evil, rather than of grand schemes and great deeds. Black’s made it moving and soul-destroying, intense and powerful, and at the end of it it hurts to have read the story. A strong, painful piece…
 
Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel
This combination of Frankenstein and Pride and Prejudice, intimated in the title and set some years after the latter novel, is a rather brilliant story of manners and of evil; it really does combine, in incredible style, the prose of Shelley and Austen in quite remarkable fashion. Making Mary the central character, and somewhat different from her role in the Austen novel, is quite a nice touch; she’s reasonably likeable and very much akin to the Austen original. The whole affair, and encounter, is brilliant, and really well worked; Kessel’s Pride and Prometheus really is fantastic, and stands out from the crowd of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-style works fashionable at present.
 
The Thought War by Paul McAuley
This is the first truly duff story of the anthology; it has major flaws in style and execution, and manages to avoid really being interesting. Whilst steeped in scientific and "historical" information, the 6-page piece is a single long infodump; it doesn't raise compassion or caring, it doesn't excite horror or fear, it doesn't produce sadness or despair, it doesn't elate or create happiness. It is an informative, rather than a moving, piece, and that is a domain I tend to dislike my fiction moving into; inform if you wish, but make it entertain as well. Reminiscent of the first story in the anthology, Chiang's Exhalation, without the humanity or heart, this is an inclusion I could have done without.
 
Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarsköe by Garth Nix
Nix's story, despite the childlike name and general YA air of the opening, is probably not a story I'd give to a YA. It's a brilliant story, there's no denying that; the changing focus and nature of it, the rapid world-building and character creation, the twists that come not-too-fast but relatively thick, the sense of pervading horror and strangeness, the odd rules that obviously govern things, and Nix's slow revelations of the truth of what's going on are really well done; equally the speed and fury of the final confrontation are brilliant, really well handled... all in all a great story.
 
The Small Door by Holly Phillips
Phillips is a really weird author, but this is a fantastic tale; reading it left me with a lump in my throat for the darkness of its end, but also some hope - for the same thing, actually. It's brilliant at making the reader feel for Sal and be moved by the events of the story, hurt and wounded and mournful; it's also great in the way it manages to balance contradictory things, in an incredibly human way. Phillips' imagination has some really subtle elements interwoven in this story, and her ability to draw in and hold onto the reader in such a subtle, quiet, understated tale is wonderful. Really quite harrowing and at the same time uplifting.
 
Turing’s Apples by Stephen Baxter
Baxter's story is an interesting and moving one; in the same sort of line as Chiang's and McAuley's, it focuses in a large part on scientific concepts and acts as hard SF in a somewhat old-fashioned way, but stands apart from each in using it as a jumping off point for a very human story, and in mingling it with some very alien - literally - elements. Like Chiang's, the realisation and effect of the concept is huge and dealt with in a very skillful, very human way; but unlike it, there's more of a feeling of human conflict in here, the scientific implications being filtered through interpersonal relationship, until Turing's Apples (not the first one you might think of, though...) are all eaten away... This makes me even more convinced I need to read the Xeelee sequence, because it's a brilliant advertisement for Baxter's ability.
 
The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates by Stephen King
King's story is another of the less obviously fantastic ones, and as seems to be normal for King is infused by religious concerns - in this case about the afterlife and about humanity. It's a really moving, touching and almost painful story to read, and once more I was left with a lump in my throat reading it - there's a desperate sadness and love infusing the piece, such a sense of mourning, especially the almost anticlimactic and at the same time awfully pathos-inducing ending. King's created a character with whom we deeply, deeply sympathise and feel for - indeed, sympathy becomes overturned by empathy, and that is the mark of a truly great writer; this story is wonderful in how touching it is, and even if it does include a moment or two of cliche, those are rather overriden by the pathos of the piece. Moving and fantastic.
 
Five Thrillers by Robert Reed
Reed's series of connected short stories - or rather, Reed's long short story told in five acts - is a fascinating piece of science fiction, meditating on the effects of an utterly amoral genius if he chose to turn his actions towards the good of mankind. It's a really rather interesting far-future that Reed posits, with space travel, genetic mutation, &c, and he's an absolute genius at constructing actions and reactions of people; Carroway, in his actions, is really well and disturbingly portrayed, not at all sympathetic but utterly brilliant and ruthless, and that works; we're drawn into the story to see where he's going and what he's leading towards, and when we discover it, it's incredibly horrific. A brilliant, awful tale.
 
The Magician’s House by Meghan McCarron
McCarron's story is similar in tone to Black's, in many ways - that use of sex in terms of magic, that pessimism about human nature, that basic underlying theme of the awfulness of life. This one seems to have an active anti-sex message, however, in many ways, which I really find problematic; on the other hand the characters and emotions of the story work really well, one little moment aside (it's too graphic and not really integrated into the story properly, as well as being just plain odd). It's a well put together piece, and the emotions are all there, it just doesn't click properly, for some reason, in my mind; perhaps it's just a little confused about itself...
 
Goblin Music by Joan Aiken
Aiken's story is a really quite interesting, indeed, fascinating one; replace goblins with Travellers, and it is also terribly socially relevant. It's a moving, but also dark, piece, with a mixture of English country conservatism and warm-hearted kindness portrayed absolutely beautifully, with characters very much like those of a small village - albeit perhaps more accepting, overall. It's a fascinating piece of social history, in some ways, about a past that never truly existed; but it's got a strong message for the present, as well as strong, interesting characters and some wonderful thought behind it. Really good work.
 
Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan (reread, originally read in Extraordinary Engines and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded)
Langan's story, on its third read, loses something; perhaps the suspense and surprise, the twists and changes, are necessary; perhaps its the unexpected or unforseen character growth that's needed to drive the story. It's still an interesting story, and still has a much darker view of steampunk and Victoriana - as well as sex, which it treats terribly negatively - than people expect, but it's not got the spark that makes a story great. It's functional and more than adequate in painting a picture of the torments of the viewpoint character, as well as in describing a bleak, awful Australia, but again... I'm not sure how far it goes. Rereading, in this case, makes the heart grow colder...
 
The Art of Alchemy by Ted Kosmatka
This is a fascinating, fantastic story; reminiscent of the Ben Elton novel Gridlock in its premise – indeed, the premise is namechecked, intentionally or otherwise – it’s a wonderfully interesting take on corporate responses to perceived threats, the problem of the profit motive for innovation (and it is a big problem), and on the nature of chemistry; it’s also a fascinating character study on our two main figures, who are interesting, complex, contradictor and altogether very human figures who keep the story moving and working. It’s a really brilliant piece of work.
 
26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss by Kij Johnson
Johnson’s story is sweet and touching, and definitely fantasy: it simply accepts, rather than even trying to explain, what’s happening in it. It explores the nature of humanity and how wide that is, with sympathetic characters – it seems dry and factual, with little dialogue and very flat description, but the reader still connects incredibly strongly with Aimee, because Johnson’s description is so incredibly evocative and powerful despite its seemingly basic nature; and the monkeys… well, read the story to learn about the monkeys, and they’re worth it. All 26 really are.
 
Marry the Sun by Rachel Swirsky
This has the most fantastic first line of a short story I have ever read. It’s stunningly brilliant. Swirsky’s story matches that first line; a romance, and an exploration of humanity and pain, and an examination of the reality of the relationship between gods and mortals, it touches on so many subjects and is incredibly powerful and painful. Swirsky’s versions of the Greek gods, and her creation of Bridget, are all so very human, so very believable; they’re real people, who we can understand, whose motivations are real and basic. It’s an absolutely fantastic, brilliant story.
 
Crystal Nights by Greg Egan
Egan’s story is, perhaps, something of a precursor to Chiang’s Lifecycle of Software Objects novella; both deal with the emergence of AI, and in very different ways, they see how humanity can nurture such developments, and more importantly how individual humans will shape that AI. Indeed, it is an incredibly well-written piece that, from a very different perspective, sees humanity as a much darker force with much different imperatives; it’s a fascinating story of character and of Darwinism, brilliantly written, and does, in a brief aside, include Chiang’s idea of the coming of AI. Brilliant.
 
His Master’s Voice by Hannu Rajaniemi
Rajaniemi's story is quite a weird one, really; following two characters - uplifting animals, a dog and a cat, the nature of their uplifting unclear and uncertain - it's a tale of risk and recovery, bravery and loyalty, and finding sentience. It's a tale of the far-future, I think, but that's not clear; it's a strange one, with a plot that is straightforward but characters and concepts that are rather mixed - especially the cat and the dog, who vary in their capabilities and whose intelligence is similarly somewhat variable. The writing style is good and it does power along nicely, but some elements of the story could - should - have been better cleared up, and overall I have mixed feelings about this one.
 
Special Economics by Maureen F. McHugh
 McHugh's story has a soundtrack, a mix of hip-hop and the country song Sixteen Tons.  The near-future it posits is now one we're safe from, with the passage of bird flu from potential pandemic to blip on the radar, but the concept remains the same; post-epidemic economics will indeed be different, and this suggests a really interesting model for what that difference might look like in China.  It isn't a terribly optimistic story whilst at the same time containing its own solution, shades of grey mixed with a wistfulness for the long-gone days of black and white revolutionary versus reactionary... a really good, political, left-wing story.
 
Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment by M. Rickert
 Rickert's story will be incredibly difficult to talk about without getting angrily passionate and political, and that's a good thing; indeed, I suspect it's her intention. Starting off with a quote from Randall Terry (the third one down), Rickert displays the horrors, the awful dystopia, of that world in a very Orwell way: from the perspective of someone touched by it, who accepts it. It's a horrific scenario, a bleak and black world, ugly and appalling, and its justification is just vile; the whole story exposes the hypocrisy of a certain kind of "pro-lifer", and is incredibly powerful and effective, as well as moving. Really grim.
 
From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled… by Michael Swanwick
 This xeno-tale is quite fantastic; Swanwick creates a whole alien civilisation and culture, and at the same time a whole human civilisation and culture, to explore an oft-neglected "science" in science fiction: economics, in human terms. Information and trust economies are explained and understood, built up and worked with; the myth of original sin and its value is dealt with; and the powerful uncertainty of the end of the story is brilliant, indeed. It's also got a touch of Sixteen Tons about it again - that's not overstated, but plays as background to the human character; and those characters are reasonably strong, explicitly subverting the cliches of this kind of story. It's well-told and well-dealt with.
 
If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes
 This is a fascinating story which slowly developes across the piece, with slow revelations controlled by Bowes about Mark Bannon and the Bannons as a whole. It's a New England Irish-American political family, and Bowes plays with that idea, bringing in the Kennedys and Kennedy-esque elements; he also makes sure the reader knows what's happening to a limited extent, slowly upping the supernatural elements, the strangeness of the story as it goes along. There's also a fascinating level of insight into US politics in the story, with its infighting and double-dealing; again, Bowes has a real level of insight and character-building, with the whole cast terribly vivid and human, really well displayed as people. Brilliant, and with an amazing ending.
 
The Doom of Love in Small Spaces by Ken Scholes
 Scholes' story is a really sweet and touching on, about a burgeoning of love in a weird dystopia, a strange and unclear world of bureaucracy and officework. It's a very strange story, but what shines through are the characters of Drummond and Harmony, thrown together, both with their secrets - revealed in an utterly unexpected twist at the end - and their personalities; it's a beautiful, passionate, odd story which works really well, in its execution, as it powers through towards an end utterly unexpected. The vividness of the decaying world and the strangeness of it all is beautiful, crumbling as we read it, and adds to the odd, gothic atmosphere of the piece. Great stuff.
 
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link
This set of intertwined narratives, each with their own cliffhanger, is brilliant. It starts out with hints of Twilight and other YA sparkly-vampire fiction but grows progressively stranger and darker, the narratives growing more gothic in their own, understated ways; the characters are similar and yet different, and you can see the way they parallel the actions of each other, with a strange inevitability about the ending (which is brilliantly, wonderfully played by Link, who displays an absolutely incredible genius in this story) whilst letting it also be a surprise.
 
Overall
This selection of short stories is varied, complex, widely-selected, and incredibly good overall; whilst a few duff notes are struck, the anthology hangs together well, covering all kind of corners of the SFF, with moving political pieces, brilliantly vivid character portraits and settings that leap off the page and draw the reader in.  With a mix of new and established authors on the scene Strahan's wide gaze has brought together a collection of stories that everyone will find something to enjoy in.

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February 2012

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