Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden



351pp/$23.95/July 2001

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The third in the Starlight series edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden fully stands up to the quality he achieved with the first two volumes.  Nearly all of the stories are strong and insightful, giving the reader entertainment and something to think about.  In his introduction, Nielsen Hayden notes that this book is being published a year later than he promised in Starlight 2, however, since the delay was (apparently) caused by his desire to present the best stories he could find, it is quite forgivable.

Ted Chiang's stories are always enjoyable and intriguing, and “Hell Is the Absence of God” is no different.  Chiang postulates a world in which appearances by angels and views into Hell would seem to make faith a matter of fact.  Instead, people react to the knowledge of God's existence and an afterlife in a variety of ways.  The story focuses on Neil Fisk, a non-devout man who wife is killed during an angelic visitation.  While dealing with his grief, Fisk comes to the realization that if he is to be reunited with his wife in the afterlife, he must learn to love God.  Unfortunately, never having been devout before, he fails to see how he can love God now that his wife has been taken from him.  Fisk's quest for understanding brings him into contact with Janice Reilly, a woman whose physical infirmity was cured during a visitation, and Ethan Mead, whose own life was strangely unchanged by witnessing a visitation.  Chiang raises several questions about faith in this story with ends by breaking some of the rules Chiang had set up, but which increases the poignancy of the story.

In his Mammoth series, Stephen Baxter has created a world in which humans appear only on periphery and non-humans are the focus of his story.  In  “Sun-Cloud,” he has continued this style by setting a story on a Clementian waterworld in a tight orbit around an enormous star.  Baxter's title character and her sister, Orange-Dawn, are attempting to stretch the boundaries of knowledge while maintaining a respect for their cultural traditions.  One interesting feature is that Baxter, through the mouth of Cold-Current, seems to feel that it is impossible for the traditional culture to offer the same respect to those seeking knowledge.  In order to tie the story more closely to humans, Baxter incorporates a series of asides which compare Sun-Cloud and her relatives and their world to humans and Earth.

Maureen F. McHugh manages to capture the NPR broadcast style in her story “Interview:  On Any Given Day,” which successfully marries the media of radio and the internet presented in a book format.  The story deals with the spread of disease in the near future, but does so in a manner which paints a vivid picture of a society complete with fads.  In the story, McHugh shows teenagers living in a world which includes rejuvenation techniques which allow people to look like they are decades younger than they actually are.  In this case, Terry, the carrier of the protovirus which has stricken interview subject Emma, is a seventy-year-old man who appears, and tries to act, like a teenager.  McHugh does a fantastic job depicting his inability to fit in with his chosen crowd no matter how hard he tries and what he looks like.

British author Colin Greenland has written a bittersweet history of a relationship between an Englishman, ostensibly himself, and an American woman in “Wings.”  In the background of the story is the sudden appearance of a mysterious race of angels who have worked this way into the world's societies.  Although the story's Colin's relationship with Cathy fails to work out, the story ends with a form of reconciliation for them and a glimpse into the world's future which the angels will help to bring about.

“Gestella” is the titular werewolf  of Susan Palwick's examination of the werewolf legend from the point of view of a female lycanthrope.  "Gestella" is a fable about how superficial men treat beautiful women, ignoring the women's nonphysical attributes.  The story does not fully succeed because Palwick ignores Jonathan Argent's point of view entirely and tries to paint all men with the same brush, becoming more polemic than story.  Jonathan's character is drawn in decreasing dimensions as the story reaches for its conclusion, which basically turns into a race against time for Gestella as Jonathan reaches a midlife crisis.

Although Jane Yolen's story “The Barbarian and the Queen:  Thirteen Views” appears to begin as a Roshomon-style tale of a meeting between the title characters, it quickly metamorphs into something else, examining the various meanings and roles played by the barbarian and queen archetype throughout the ages.  In many of Yolen's scenarios, the roles, not surprisingly, are either reversed or mingled.  While the effect is interesting, it lacks a strong narrative continuity.

Perhaps it is inevitable that a collection published in 2001 would contain a eschatological tale.  Rather than look at the Christian end of the world, Greg van Eekhout re-examines the Norse legend of Ragnarok in “Wolves Till the World Goes Down.”  Van Eekhout primary character is Hugin, one of the two ravens who serve Odin.  As the omens leading to Ragnarok approach, Hugin and Munin travel to visit Baldr, whose death set the events into motion.  While Baldr works to keep his world coming from an end, the prophecy of the sibyl must be fulfilled and Baldr's actions eventually lead to a new world, although not necessarily in the fashion accepted by Norse mythology.

Geoffrey A. Landis has created an optimistic tale of Armageddon in “The Secret Egg of the Clouds.”  Rather than describe the destruction of Earth through internecine warfare, Landis tells the story of two anthropologists searching for oral traditions among the humans who have settled on Venus.  Set during the Second Space Age, the Venusians tell a fabulous tale of the thousand brothers who flourished at the end of the First Space Age.  It is clear that they are describing science fictional events in mythological terms.  Landis points out how endemic science fiction and science is to our society that it has become the mythology of our era.

The great Homeric epics tell the stories of heroes in the prime of their lives.  In The Odyssey, despite the years of travels and travails, Odysseus maintains his strength of body and quickness of mind.  In “Home is the Sailor,” Brenda W. Clough, takes a look at Odysseus as he is about to embark on his final voyage and he lies abed, physically broken and mentally adrift.  Her examination of the waning of this epic hero fits in nicely with her portrayal of Gilgamesh in her novel How Like a God and she revisits many of the same issues, although from the hero’s point of view.  Clough makes the dying Odysseus s sympathetic figure, made more so by the reader’s knowledge of his previous misadventures.

Susanna Clarke's Starlight stories have a tendency to place the traditional welsh fairies into an historical British context.  In Starlight 2, she placed the queen of the fairies into the Victorian village of Kissingford.   “Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” is set in the eighteenth century and follows a Jewish-Venetian doctor, David Montefiore, and his immortal fairy prince friend, Tom Brightwind, into a desolate English town.  The story is diverting, made even more interesting by the copious asides explaining fairy culture.  

La Vie en Ronde” tells the story of Vivey, who begins having strange bouts of vertigo which lead to disassociation with herself and her surroundings.  Vivey seems to be spiraling into a form of dementia that pulls her from her own world.  Madeleine E. Robins’s story actually seems to be two stories grafted on two each other.  The first deals with Vivey’s attempts to discover what is happening to her, urged on by her friend and co-worker, Rosemary, who is the only real human contact she seems to have.  The second, and longer part, deals with Vivey’s new life once she gives in to the strange happenings which drag her from her own world.  La Vie en Ronde” is the least successful story in Starlight 3, because Robins never really gives the reader any reason to feel empathy with Vivey or the strange creatures she meets in the round world into which she sinks.

D.G. Compton has created a society which appears alien and totalitarian in “In Which Avu Giddy Tries to Stop Dancing.”  Laws apparently have been arbitrarily created which intrude on the freedom of the individual to the extent that people must dance through life rather than walk.  The concept, and the world, seem ludicrous as Compton looks at Avu Giddy's act of rebellion through the eyes of his friend.  Without explaining the rationale, Avu Giddy's family begins to reject him.  Eventually, Compton does provide a context for the story which will resonate with many readers and which provides the required context missing for so much of the story.

Jasper Whitehead, the protagonist of Cory Doctorow's “Power Punctuation!” is reminiscent of Charlie Gordon, the experimental subject in "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.  However, while Gordon is raised to the heights through scientific experimentation, Whitehead's rise is directly as the result of the whim of the powerful CEO, Rhindquist MacBride.  MacBride has the will to create a massive corporate empire out of nothing, but finds that he fails when certain decisions need to be made.  Rather than make them himself, he places Whitehead into a position to have to make those decisions.  Never fully aware of what is happening to him, Whitehead is a representation of the idea that those who want power should be kept away from it.

Alex Irvine has postulated a world in which literacy is a crime in “The Sea Wind Offers Little Relief.”  Although Irvine’s main character, Edmar de Carvalho, has been serving a sentence for the crime of reading, he is given the opportunity to read and interpret a poem.  For de Carvalho, the exercise is a bittersweet joy as it reminds him of what he has lost.  For de Carvalho’s unseen antagonist, the narrator, the process is a punishment for de Carvalho, but becomes a sign of his admiration for the prisoner.  Because of his lengthy imprisonment, de Carvalho must provide his own context for the poem he is reading.  His assumptions are based entirely upon his own imagination, the words of the poem, and knowledge which is nearly a century and a half out of date.  Although de Carvalho declares the poem to be a pretty standard example of an epic, he is also able to mine it for specific information about the culture which created the poem.

Andy Duncan continues the story begun in The Hobbit by examining the career of “Senator Bilbo,” the descendant of the adventurer who found the One Ring.  Representing a conservative society in the Shire-moot a couple of generations after the destruction of the One Ring, Senator Bilbo is living is a world of cataclysmic social change.  He, and his constituents, however, cannot break from the isolationism which has always characterized the Shire.  The way to deal with an influx of trolls, orcs, and various half-breeds is to pass miscegenation laws in attempt to return to a simpler time.  Duncan has written an interesting story which could form the basis of a longer story which can look more fully into the issues surrounding conservative cultures which must deal with sudden, or even gradual, change.

By coincidence, I happened to read Terry Bisson's “The Old Rugged Cross” the day Timothy McVeigh was originally slated for execution.  Although "The Old Rugged Cross" doesn't deal with McVeigh, as Bisson did in his Nebula-Award winning story "macs," it does deal with the idea of the condemned selecting his own means of execution.  Bud White has been condemned to die for the rape and murder of a young girl.  Because of a dream he had of himself on the cross with Jesus, a chaplain convinces him to use his death to recreate the crucifixion.  Bud agrees, not fully understanding what his death will entail, and the planning proceeds, making a circus out of the execution which is accepted by almost everyone.  Only the victim's grandmother questions the propriety of the execution.  Just as Bisson's ideas of execution in "macs" is disturbing, so is the treatment he provides in "The Old Rugged Cross."  Innocence or guilt does not play a role in either story, simply the idea that as a society, we put individuals to death for crimes, and the means for that death says something about our civilization.

Ted Chiang Hell Is the Absence of God
Stephen Baxter Sun-Cloud
Maureen F. McHugh Interview:  On Any Given Day
Colin Greenland Wings
Susan Palwick Gestella
Jane Yolen The Barbarian and the Queen:  Thirteen Views
Greg van Eekhout Wolves Till the World Goes Down
Geoffrey A. Landis The Secret Egg of the Clouds
Brenda W. Clough Home Is the Sailor
Susanna Clarke Tom Brightwind, or, How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby
Madelaine E. Robins La Vie en Ronde
D.G. Compton In Which Avu Giddy Tries to Stop Dancing
Cory Doctorow Power Punctuation!
Alex Irvine The Sea Wind Offers Little Relief
Andy Duncan Senator Bilbo
Terry Bisson The Old Rugged Cross

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