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Tuesday 5 February 2002

Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, Al Sarrantonio, ed.
(Roc 0-451-45859-1, $24.95, 544pp, hardcover, December 2001)

Reviewed by F. Brett Cox

First thing we do, let’s ignore all the hype. Redshift is subtitled “Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction”; the dust jacket asserts that readers hold in their hands “The ultimate anthology of speculative fiction” that “signals the dawning of a new era in visionary writing” and whose stories were chosen “to revolutionize and galvanize the field of speculative fiction.” Easy enough to ignore jacket copy, but then editor Sarrantonio declares in his introduction that Redshift is “the finest original sf anthology of the last twenty-five years — and the future of speculative fiction.” He then invokes Harlan Ellison’s 1967 landmark anthology Dangerous Visions as his role-model and repeats his hope that Redshift “will present a blueprint for the future” of SF.

Two problems. First, the historical moment from which Dangerous Visions emerged is, as Sarrantonio admits in his introduction, long past. Taboos of content — sex, violence, religion, politics, race — are pretty much gone. In his introduction, Sarrantonio writes, “I do think there are a few pieces in this book that would have had a hard time finding a home, specifically due to content, even in this day and age.” But with the possible exception of the editor’s own story herein, about which more later, I don’t think any of the stories in Redshift would have had “a hard time finding a home, specifically due to content” in F&SF, Asimov’s, Interzone, or Sci Fiction. The only way to “push the envelope” in contemporary SF is to write a story that displays an unusual degree of either formal or conceptual audacity. The latter is alive and well in the output of authors as varied as Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, and James Morrow, while, with occasional noble exceptions such as Kelly Link, the SF field seems to have largely given up the former as a bad job. As we will see, there are a few stories in Redshift that push some envelopes, but most of them, including several of the best stories in the book, do not.

Which brings us to the second problem. All stories occur in a context, most immediately the books or magazines where they appear. Put a story in a book that compares itself to Dangerous Visions, and the story will have an awfully hard time succeeding on its own terms. It would have been more accurate, more useful, and, I suspect, just as inviting to the potential reader, if editor and publisher had presented the book, not as revolutionary, but as state-of-the-art. The jacket copy also says that the stories in Redshift “encompass the expanding universe of speculative fiction, including hard and soft science fiction, fantasy, horror, and experimental and conventional literary fiction.” Absolutely true, and I would even, in at least two cases, add the category of Young Adult fiction to that list. What I admire most about this book — and there is much to admire, make no mistake — is the breadth of its fiction, its willingness not to be tied to any one type of story. Perhaps that in itself is dangerous enough.

As for the stories themselves, well, there are thirty, count ‘em, thirty of them — by the editor’s count, three novellas, five novelettes, and twenty-two short stories. About half range from unmemorable to OK; the other half range from very good to outstanding. And for bulk shoppers, the good news is that the very-good-to-outstanding stories include all three novellas and a good chunk of the novelettes, so for anyone who wants to count pages (which I don’t), the majority of this volume is absolutely first-rate.

And that is not to say that the other stories are necessarily bad. More often than not, they are OK-but-flawed, or perhaps just routine. For example, Laura Whitton’s “Froggies”, the author’s first professional sale, tells of an exobiology team that kidnaps three alien children and raises them as human to prove that the aliens can communicate, only to discover that the aliens communicate in ways that make any real relationship with humans impossible. The depictions of the alien children and the aliens’ dream-communication are effective, and the story as a whole is a perfectly good read that bears the marks of an inexperienced writer: the story begins, for example, with an expository glop in the guise of a court decision, and the relationships among the human adults are presented superficially. Most problematically, I found the central character of the exobiologist Jo-Ann to be wholly irredeemable; her comeuppance at story’s end seems an insufficient response to her criminal level of obsession and presumption. That this first sale is just a pretty good read as opposed to a cutting-edge indicator of the future of SF is hardly the fault of the author, who shows talent and promise. (Redshift’s only other story by a new author, Peter Schneider’s second professional sale “Burros Gone Bad”, is an approximately 360-word joke that I’m afraid I just didn’t get.)

To continue in no particular order: Harry Turtledove’s “Black Tulip” is an engrossing and, alas, timely examination of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan whose fantasy element (the combatants awaken a sleeping dragon) seems utterly beside the point; the author handled this sort of thing much more memorably in his earlier story “Ils Ne Passeront Pas” (published in Armageddon, ed. David Drake and Billie Sue Mosiman, Baen, 1998, if you’re interested). In Michael Moorcock’s “A Slow Saturday Night at the Surrealist Sporting Club”, God shows up at a private club and answers a few questions — turns out He really likes Southern Baptists. It’s an amusing story that did not leave a very strong impression. Another veteran of the Dangerous Visions era, Thomas M. Disch, offers “In Xanadu”, in which the protagonist finds him (later her) self in a computer-landscape of “posthumous intelligence.” Dedicated to the memory of the remarkable and underappreciated John Sladek, the story recalls the aesthetics of the New Wave with its limpid, slightly distant prose and its simultaneously embracing and being appalled by the modern landscape, a la J.G. Ballard. Its chief virtue is as a reminder that, as Moorcock himself pointed out in a recent online editorial, “language can in itself act as narrative.”

P.D. Cacek’s “Belief” admirably pushes the conceptual envelope as it tells of a soldier in a future war who awakes to an afterlife that involves fighting an endless war for a planet that is literally Heaven; however, the story is badly undercut by the author’s decision to have a single supporting character, an old black man, speak in phonetically-spelled dialect (“ah jist be one o’ da many, dats all”) that is both unnecessary and distracting. On the other hand, the same strategy didn’t bother me in editor Sarrantonio’s own “Billy the Fetus”, partly because here the entire story is narrated in dialect, partly because, at about four and a half pages, the story does not wear out its welcome in terms of form or content. The latter — Billy the Kid’s unborn son forces his way out of his dissolute mother’s womb, with dire results — is a gleeful extension of the middle finger to the reader’s sensibilities. I found it a good guilty pleasure, but, despite my earlier praise of Reshift’s inclusiveness, this one story seems to me to belong in some other book.

Catherine Asaro’s “Ave de Paso”, in which two Mexican teenagers have a close encounter with a Mayan earth spirit who seeks their souls, and Catherine Wells’s “’Bassador”, whose seven-year-old protagonist finds her chance to escape a future urban wasteland when she hooks up with a street gang that turns out to be guardians of a vast repository of books, are both earnest, well-made tales that would be my candidates for the book’s YA representatives. And while such stories once again beg the book’s status as “revolutionary,” I do not use the term “YA” disparagingly: if you want to turn on a bright twelve-year old to SF (and what could be more dangerous than that?), you could do far worse than show him or her these two stories. Younger readers would also probably be drawn to the youthful protagonists and parent-child conflicts of David Morrell’s “Resurrection”, Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s “Between Disappearances”, and Rudy Rucker and John Shirley’s “Pockets.” In Morrell’s novelette, a young man devotes his life to supporting the costs of keeping his terminally ill father frozen, leading to a role reversal when the father is cured but the son ages and falls sick. It’s smoothly written but somewhat sentimental and melodramatic (e.g, the protagonist’s mother reluctantly divorces the frozen father but marries an abusive man who drives her to drink and, eventually, death in a drunk driving accident). Rucker and Shirley’s story visits the edge of the conceptual envelope in its depiction of “pockets,” transdimensional bubbles where time effectively stands still and the very act of being there is addictive. The concept is memorable, the storyline of a teenage boy fighting to hold on to his pocket-addict father less so, although any story that made me think of both Robert A. Heinlein’s “ ‘ — And He Built a Crooked House” and Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities” can’t be all bad. Hoffman’s story is a good example of SF as literal metaphor, in this case of displacement and alienation from family as a woman with a “travel rock” accidentally embedded in her back is transported randomly among many worlds but periodically winds up in her mother’s living room.

On the other hand, I would not recommend handing any twelve-year-old Joe Haldeman’s “Road Kill”, a graphic account of a serial killer who may be an alien, or Jack Dann’s “Ting-a-Ling”, an alternate history in which James Dean and Marilyn Monroe have sex during a car ride, or Michael Marshall Smith’s “Two Shot”, in which a narcissistic cyberstalker pays a terrible price for constructing his life totally around the home tapes he makes of his sexual encounters with women. Smith’s story is flawlessly written but marred, for me, by a Twilight Zone reversal at the end that seems out of tone with the rest of the story. Haldeman’s is a story in which everything happens — as the editor notes, it’s basically a movie compressed into a few pages — while Dann’s is a story in which hardly anything happens — they go for a ride; they come home. Despite the violence in Haldeman’s story and the sex in Dann’s, both works are pretty light fare, but executed with consummate skill, with Dann’s pitch-perfect Hollywood dishing dialog especially irresistible. Less engaging is Kit Reed’s “Captive Kong”, a nonetheless well-written parable of selfishness and brutality, in which a man survives an absurdist apocalypse by kidnapping a female bodybuilder to defend him against calamity; Robert E. Vardeman’s “Feedback”, another high-concept story of a world of telepaths that develops an S/M underground of “screamers” where telepaths who can only send, not receive, are flogged for the entertainment of others; Larry Niven’s “Ssoroghod’s People”, a story in the author’s “Draco Tavern” series that probably won’t mean much to readers such as I who are unfamiliar with the series; and Ardath Mayhar’s “Fungi”, in which human explorers have a run-in with sentient fungi on an alien planet, and whose “sharp sense of humor,” in the editor’s words, can’t quite overcome the pulpishness of the plot.

And that’s just the OK half. The best is yet to come.

Three of the best short stories in Redshift are high-concept SF to satisfy the most rigorous of tastes. James Patrick Kelly’s “Unique Visitors” tells of a 21st-century billionaire who, downloaded into a neural network, speaks to an audience of “unique visitors” 800 years in the future, only to discover the gap between him and them is perhaps unbridgeable. Stephen Baxter’s “In the Un-Black”, a story in the author’s “Xeelee” series, offers a classic plot of two young lovers rebelling against the inertia of established tradition against a perfectly-evoked far future environment. Gregory Benford’s “Anomalies” is more down-to-earth but even more extreme in concept as the discovery by an amateur astronomer of the moon’s accelerating in its orbit leads to a “computational” interpretation of the universe and, by story’s end, to unforeseen events that link science with theology. All three stories are outstanding examples of matching tone to content and of their authors’ awareness of their forebears. Kelly’s brief and ironic presentation of his protagonist’s dilemma recalls Frederik Pohl’s classic “Day Million”, while Benford’s simple, elegant narrative of complicated, extraordinary events evokes Arthur C. Clarke. And Baxter gives us a slice of an entire universe while both commanding and demanding reader involvement with textbook, yet wholly warranted, science-fiction sentences: “Absently he reached into his drab monastic robe and touched his chest, stroked the cool, silvered Planck-zero epidermis, sensed the softly gurgling fluid within, where alien fish swam languidly.” “Unique Visitors” and “Anomalies” show their respective authors at the top of their game, and “In the Un-Black” may be Stephen Baxter’s finest short story to date.

Jumping back to the other side of yet another street, we find Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg’s “What We Did That Summer” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “Commencement”, two stories whose ideas are not startlingly original but whose execution is so stunning that we are once again forced to ponder the truth of Moorcock’s statement, above, about language-as-narrative. In Koja and Malzberg’s story, a man tells a woman, who used to service him as a prostitute but who is now a sort of companion, about the summer he was 16 when he and a friend had repeated sexual encounters with three strange girls who may or may not have been aliens. The story is as much about the relationship (or what’s left of it) between the man and the woman as it is about the encounters with the girls; by story’s end, the two scenes merge in an elegant, if enigmatic, commentary on the far larger issue of what men and women do to one another. It is the best collaboration yet from these two distinctive authors. The Oates story, in which a future college graduation goes horribly wrong, is fundamentally an SF retelling of Shirley Jackson’s classic “The Lottery”, but one that maintains Jackson’s allegorical, rather than a science fictional, approach to rationality. Like Koja and Malzberg, Oates gets her point across through the sheer brilliance of her writing. One can imagine, however, the Oates enthusiast struggling with the science fiction protocols of Stephen Baxter’s story, or the Baxter fan dismissing the Oates story because it is, ahem, quite illogical. 2000 points to Sarrantonio for putting both stories in the same book.

Another odd couple is Paul Di Filippo and Ursula K. Le Guin, but I would cite his “Weeping Walls” and her “The Building” among the best stories in the book partly because both stories are perfect examples of what these drastically different authors each do so well. In the Le Guin story, two races, the Adaqo and the Aq, both live on the planet Qoq but don’t interact. In the past, the Adaqo enslaved the Aq, but that ended with the eco-collapse of the Adaqo. Since then, the Aq have exhibited an instinct for building that manifests itself in infancy; some go on a pilgrimage to Adaqo lands for stone to build a great, empty building which, according to some Aq, is “for the Adaqo.” Like so much of Le Guin’s work, it is a subtle anthropological tale that is also a deep commentary on how our own world works. Sharply contrasting in tone, but arguably similar in intent, Di Filippo’s story is a near-future satire in which the inventor of Weeping Walls, a prefab kit for public displays of mourning, staves off a challenge from a competitor by designing Fantasy Exits, in which people can commit suicide in the melodramatic fashion of their choice, be it a terrorist attack or the Titanic. Di Filippo is a master of this sort of unrepentant, trashcan-bouncing-down-the-hill-with-the-heroes-inside satire; the present story reads like the movie Network rewritten by Ron Goulart. It is also an entertaining and wholly appropriate response to some of the ghastlier tendencies in American culture.

Perhaps the most distinctive story in Redshift is Neal Barrett Jr.’s remarkable “Rhido Wars.” Like Le Guin, Barrett offers an alien scenario that comments on the human condition, and like Sarrantonio, he plays around with dialect. But this story of the race of Persons enslaved by the race of Drill, the latter of whom destroy themselves in armed conflict while the former, innocent bystanders, are also largely wiped out, is not really typical of anything, unless it’s Barrett’s career-long determination to keep trying something different. The narrator’s broken English, and the lack of specificity as to the setting and causes of the story’s situation, would be damaging in the work of a less skilled writer, but in Barrett’s hands, every aspect of the story strengthens its status as a powerful allegory of oppression and violence, and as the second-grimmest story in the book.

Finally, there are the book’s three novellas: “On K2 with Kanakaredes” by Dan Simmons, “Viewpoint” by Gene Wolfe, and “Cleopatra Brimstone” by Elizabeth Hand. Simmons’ tale, which opens the book, tells of three mountain climbers who are compelled by the U.S. government to take an alien visitor along on their ascent of K2, in return for which they will, with transport and assistance from the aliens, get to climb Olympus Mons on Mars. It’s a slick, breezy, highly entertaining adventure that features an excellent command of the sensory details of mountain climbing; more importantly, the SF component is firmly integrated and absolutely necessary to the rest of the story.

Wolfe’s story may surprise those familiar only with the baroque delights of his novels but not with the extraordinary breadth of his short fiction. In this story, a man from rural Pennsylvania is implanted with a TV transmitter and given $100,000 to be observed by a national TV audience as he fights to hold on to his money and his life. Despite the graphic horror of some of Redshift’s other stories, “Viewpoint” takes the title of grimmest and most disturbing work in the book, a libertarian’s nightmare in which the problem is not just entertainment turned into panoptic surveillance but an all-powerful central government empowered to take your money and your life whenever it wants. Wolfe’s simple yet loaded sentences lead the reader through a migraine of a future in which nobody is safe, in which violence is inevitable, and in which the possible answers to the question, “Whose fault is this?” are so awful you’re afraid to even ask the question in the first place.

Hand’s story, the longest in the book, tells of a young woman, Janie, with an affinity for insects, especially butterflies, who is raped. When, in recovery, Janie goes to London to housesit for friends of her parents, she undergoes her own metamorphosis as she discovers the leather-and-lace underground of Camden Town, and her “affinity” turns powerful and dangerous. Hand maintains a compelling narrative pace even as she allows herself to linger on the evocative details of Camden Town and Janie’s equally evocative (to say the least) sexual journeys, all the while never losing focus on either her main character or on the fantasy scenario at the heart of the story. It’s a triumphant performance, Hand’s best work of short fiction to date.

Conclusions? As I said to begin with, let’s ignore all the hype. Redshift may not be a revolution, and it may not be the best original anthology of the past 25 years. But it is, on the whole, an extended and satisfying statement of what contemporary SF and fantasy have to offer, and its best stories, all of which I hope wind up on some awards ballot somewhere, make a pretty good-sized book by themselves.

And if you do give Redshift to a twelve-year-old with the stories marked that you think the kid will like, and he or she reads “Cleopatra Brimstone” or “What We Did That Summer” instead, don’t worry too much. I was twelve when I first read Dangerous Visions, and it didn’t do me a bit of harm. Honest….

F. Brett Cox's fiction, essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Century, Black Gate, Indigenous Fiction, The North Carolina Literary Review, The New York Review of Science Fiction, The New England Quarterly, Paradoxa, Science Fiction Studies, Contemporary Novelists, Science Fiction Weekly, The Baltimore Sun, and elsewhere. He lives in southern Alabama with his wife, the playwright Jeanne Beckwith.

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