Review: Starlight 2, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Starlight 2 is a worthy successor to Starlight 1, the excellent inaugural volume of this science fiction and fantasy anthology series. Once again, the collection of twelve original stories contains one story that I consider brilliant, several I like very much, and a minimum number of stories that I do not care for: one, in this case.

The brilliant story is Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," one of three stories in the collection with unusual narrative forms. Winner of a Sturgeon Award and finalist for a Hugo, "Story of Your Life" is told partly in second-person future—the only story I have read, and likely will ever read, in this form (though I can't be sure of that)—and manages to be both a moving tale of motherhood and a mind-bending speculation on time, language, free will, and the intersections thereof. This is the best short fiction I have read since John M. Ford's "Erase/Record/Play" in Starlight 1; I admire Ford's work excessively, so this is high praise indeed.

The other second-person point of view story (present tense, in this case), M. Shayne Bell's "Lock Down," is also about time, which makes me wonder if it's possible to tell a successful second-person story that doesn't play with time in some fashion. The tale here is of the tension between what should have and what actually happened, in a time where the fractured past needs to be locked down, or fixed into place, lest it endanger the present. This is a solid and quietly affecting tale which I enjoyed a great deal.

The last of the unusual narratives is Raphael Carter's Tiptree Award-winning "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation," which takes the form of an academic essay, complete with references; the dates on some of these references are the most immediate (and nearly the only) indication that this is sf. (Carter reports in the "About the Authors" section that "if you read enough issues of Nature, your dreams acquire footnotes that cite other dreams.") A quite interesting discussion of different theories of cognition, this story, like those previously discussed, succeeds by making the reader forget the oddity of the story's form.

By and large, I enjoyed the rest of the stories in the collection also. For instance, Robert Charles Wilson's Hugo-nominated "Divided by Infinity" takes a new (to me, at least) approach to the "many worlds" subgenre of sf stories. Jonathan Lethem's "Access Fantasy" (which receives an Honorable Mention in the odd-format contest, having no paragraph breaks across its fifteen pages) is a slightly surreal and rather pathetic tale of life in an eternal traffic jam. Geoffrey A. Landis's "Snow" is a short yet effective look into a homeless woman's mind, while Martha Soukup's "The House of Expectations" considers what one man, at least, really wants in a relationship. Ellen Kushner provides a lovely, sad sequel of sorts to Swordspoint in "The Death of the Duke"; the fantasy "The End of a Dynasty," by Angélica Gorodischer, is intriguing and charming and rather makes one wish that Ursula K. Le Guin would translate the rest of the novel that "Dynasty" is excerpted from. The only story that I did not care for was "The Amount to Carry," by Carter Scholz, which has Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Charles Ives meet at an insurance convention. I admit, I may have been distracted by wondering if Scholz usually writes fantasies about historical personages thrown together, or if "Mengele's Jew" in Starlight 1 was a coincidence, but I was left with the sensation that I was missing something, whether crucial historical knowledge, a subtle theme, or simply the right sort of taste to appreciate the story.

Overall, Starlight 2 demonstrates that the excellence of the inaugural volume was no fluke. With a healthy variety of tone and content, this anthology is strongly recommended.

%T  Starlight 2
%E  Nielsen Hayden, Patrick
%C  New York
%I  Tor
%D  1998
%G  0-312-86184-2
%P  318pp
%O  hardcover 

Copyright August 12, 1999 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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