Ellen Datlow, editor,
Off Limits: Tales of Alien Sex
(St. Martin's Press, 1996; Ace, 1997)

"The essential thing to keep in mind about sex is that its inherent purpose is to bring two alien beings together to create a third being different from them both," Robert Silverberg says in his foreword to Off Limits. It's an interesting question: What is sex, exactly? Why do we have it even when not trying to create that third being? And with whom are we having it? Silverberg goes on to remind us that "all sexual encounters are meetings between aliens who must transcend the barriers of their alienness if they are going to attain any kind of union."

We've heard what the religious, the political, the medical and even the presidential definitions are regarding our sexuality, but what do we find when we turn to the sci-fi faction for an opinion? A little bit of the weird and wild, but with more humanity than might be expected. From Silverberg's tale, "Reality Trip," about an alien being living in New York and longing for companionship, to Neil Gaiman's creepy and disjointed-feeling ruminations on the interplay of food and sex in "Eaten (Scenes from a Moving Picture)," pretty much the entire gamut is covered here in this collection edited by Ellen Datlow.

There are some samples of the downright inhumane, like Roberta Lannes' "His Angel," a tale of a serial killer's religious vision. Just the memory of the story makes me want to check the locks on all my doors right now. Certainly it is an effective telling, for all that it is unsettling.

Sherry Coldsmith takes a very modern fear, disease, and twists it within an exploration of the role of prostitutes during war-time in "The Lucifer of Blue." Set in Barcelona in 1937, her characters at first appear more concerned with duty than personal satisfaction. But when they are threatened with an alien (here meaning unfamiliar and frightening) killer, the women's strengths and weaknesses begin to surface as Coldsmith examines the varied ways relationships create bonds between people.

In 20 stories by some of the best writers around today, readers are given a forum that not only provokes thought on a usually private subject, but provides some ground on which to form answers. As improbable as many of the circumstances seem, the emotions and actions of the characters are ultimately familiar, even in cases which we may wish they were not. Each writer's distinctive voice carries the theme along in sometimes unexpected directions.

As always, Datlow graces us with a sampling of the most thought-provoking short stories being published today, written by some of the most talented authors of our time.

- Rambles
written by Katie Knapp
published 31 July 2004

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