Starlight 2, Ed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Tor, 1998, 318 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86184-2

In his introduction to Starlight 2, editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden reopens a well-stirred can of worms by noting, unapologetically, that his anthology series includes both Science-Fiction and Fantasy. The SF-vs-Fantasy debate has torn apart many otherwise-solid relationships, destroyed entire families and plunged not a few countries into internal strife. Well, maybe not, but in the fannish community, there are few more acrimonious subjects.

Hayden, -noted contributor to rec.arts.sf.written, in addition of being one of the best editors in the SF business- forces the debate in his introduction to Starlight 2, when he writes such combative statements as “[both genres] share the same readers” (not sure) and “much of SF is fantasy with hardware” (much of bad SF, usually) as well as his counterpoint to David Hartwell’s “all-‘true SF’” credo for his “Best SF” anthology.

Past this rather doubtful three pages, Starlight 2 is a collection of thirteen Science-Fiction and Fantasy stories. There’s something for everyone, and that’s the biggest failing of the anthology.

I’ll be honest and admit that I skimmed over the stories by Suzanna Clarke, Carter Scholz, Ellen Kushner, Esther M. Friesner, Angelica Gorodischer (as translated by Ursula K. LeGuin): Life’s too short to waste on that icky fantasy stuff, especially when it gets boring on page two and the last few pages offer no big surprises.

The anthology starts off with a bang with Robert Charles Wilson’s Divided by Infinity. Smooth introduction, great paradigm change(s), terrifying conclusion, great premise. If only the other stories would have been like that…

M. Shayne Bell’s “Lock Down” offers the promise of a much better story that what is actually delivered. No big conflict, no development… just… almost a vignette. Disappointing. With luck, Bell will develop his premise into something more substantial. Maybe a novel?

Raphael Carter is almost invariably a constant joy to read, and “Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation” is no exception. Despite a relatively meaningless premise, the story is presented, quite originally, in the style of a scientific research paper. Fun stuff.

Martha Soukup’s The House of Expectations veers close to comedic territory at times, but finally ends up as one of the best -and most poignant- stories of the volume. Classically structured and clearly written, it’s a pleasure to read.

Many people will be surprised by David Langford’s A Game of Consequences. Not because it’s not up to Langford’s usual high standards of writing, but because it deals with rather more serious themes than the British author’s usual brand of comedy. One of the best of the volume.

“Access Fantasy”, by Jonathan Lethem, conforms to expectations of difficult reading (one story, one paragraph), cardboard future, ironic humor and inconclusive conclusion that we’ve come to expect from Lethem. Surprisingly, it’s also a lot of fun. Who would have thought?

Geoffrey Landis is best known for hard-SF, but Snow looks a lot like pure realism. The sympathetic protagonist, however, is miles removed from the usual clichés or squeaky-clean hard-SF protagonists. A very good short-short story, with a twist.

Finally, we come to Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, which always seems poised of the verge of something much bigger and much better, but ends up rather weakly, with the sense that an opportunity was missed. I still think it’s a pretty good linguistic SF story, but a lot of the extra stuff should have been cut.

SF or Fantasy, magic or reality, Starlight 2 offers a collect of sophisticated speculative fiction. Though I didn’t find it as uniformly marvelous as some other critics (too much fantasy, not enough oomph in the conclusions), it’s good reading as long as you know which story to pick and read. “True-SF” fans, however, should be best served by the Hartwell anthologies.

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