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Starlight 2 cover Starlight 2 edited by Patrick Nielsen Hadyen

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Starlight 2 is the latest installment in the new anthology series intended to showcase cutting-edge short science fiction and fantasy. This is a laudable event, because producing an anthology is a risky venture.

First, producing a short-fiction anthology is financially risky. There isn't much of a market for short fiction, and most of that lies in the periodical publishing business. Very few original-fiction anthologies break even, let alone earning their publishers a profit. (We won't even talk about reprint anthologies).

Second, there is always the risk that some of the fiction will be too cutting-edge for some readers, that they will be left staring perplexedly at the end of the story and saying, "Huh?" This can be idiosyncratic -- the very story that will leave one person confused may kick another reader into the next level of consciousness, dazzling at the new awarenesses illuminated by the narrative.

Such is the case with this anthology. Some of the stories didn't really do much for me, although other readers may well enjoy them again and again. Others left me thinking long after I'd closed the book.

For instance there was Robert Charles Wilson's "Divided by Infinity," which started out looking like a story about the realization of the dreams of the Golden Age writers, then metamporphosed into something completely different. Another, equally poignent albeit in a different way, was M. Shayne Bell's "Lock Down." This story takes some serious risks, most particularly in being written in the second person, something beginning writers are usually warned away from. Furthermore, it deals with the issues of alternate history in a new way, forcing the protagonists to choose between the real truth and the histories we feel should have been true.

Yet another interesting story of the power of time and perception is "Story of your Life" by Ted Chiang. Humans are accustomed to think of things sequentially, in terms of cause and effect. However this might not be the only way to see things, just because it seems natural to us. Since languages encode patterns of thought, might it be possible for a human exposed to an alien language that encodes time radically differently to shift into that mode of thinking, and to perceive time in a completely different way?

David Langford's "A Game of Consequences" is a story of teenage mad scientists loose in the lab, who grow up to work on an experiment more dangerous than any of them can imagine. Playing with quantum effects is not recommended when you're not sure what you're doing.

"The House of Expectations" by Martha Soukup also explores the consequences of experiments gone horribly wrong, only this time it is a medical one. What do we do when the cure turns out to be worse than the disease, in a totally unexpected way?

But to me the most interesting story was one that stretched the very boundaries of "fiction." Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation" is presented as though it were the scholarly paper of two future researchers who have discovered a strange new way for the human brain to go wrong. A tiny minority of people, whether due to injury or a genetic defect, are incapable of distinguishing men from women. Although otherwise of normal intelligence, they seem incapable of comprehending the meaning of gender, no matter how many times it is explained to them. Then they discover a pair of twins who share the genetic marker for this disorder, but seem to show no symptoms. However, closer study reveals that they seem to have developed a workaround, although not without its peculiarities. This leads the researchers to some serious questions about the role of filtering in categorization -- might the information we ignore be as important as the information we notice?

On the whole, this is a collection that is well worth your time and money if you are interested in seeing the best and the most unusual in current short science fiction and fantasy.

Table of Contents

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This review posted June 2, 1999

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