Al Sarrantonio, editor,
(Roc, 2002)

A bit of advice: this book is not science fiction, as it is generally understood. Redshift advertises itself as "extreme visions of speculative fiction," and that it does very well. These are experimental stories, not straightforward technology- or even character-driven tales. Some of the experiments are successful, some explosive and some a disappointing fizzle.

Redshift starts out strong and simple with "On K2 With Kanakaredes." Dan Simmons stays as focused and direct as his mountaineers and their unwanted alien companion. Ursula K. LeGuin continues the exploration of alien psychology in "The Building," a newsmagazine-style account of the ritual lifestyle of one race on behalf of another. In 10 pages, LeGuin manages to make the reader share the narrator's befuddlement with the actions of the building Aq, while illustrating enough of the joke to share the aliens' complacency. Laura Whitton allows her poor humans less insight into their adopted Froggies and allows for the possibility that the gap between two alien cultures may always be unbridgeable. The human scope laid around the alien tragedy makes that cold distance tangible and familiar. Harry Turtledove breaks away from science fiction and into the worlds of myth to unfurl a "Black Tulip" while providing a lesson on certain military maneuvers. The quick ending of a human battle by fantastic forces is escapist relief at first, until the reader, like the disrupted armies, begins to wonder what else is really lurking in the landscape.

Not all experiments can have such an excellent conclusion. While it may be blasphemy to not like a Michael Moorcock story, I was painfully nonplussed by "A Slow Saturday Night at the Surrealist Sporting Club." It reads like a coffeeshop philosophy argument, trying to be funny and going on far too long. Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg turn what seems to be a story of alien encounter and teenage male rutting into a bizarre, almost indecipherable narrative in their attempt to alter narrative form. "Cleopatra Brimstone" luxuriates in thick, velvet jungles of well-turned prose, but to no great effect. Even the distraction of watching Elizabeth Hand's gorgeous writing develop couldn't erase the displeasure of having to spend the longest story in the collection with a singularly unlikable girl. I really wanted to like "Cleopatra," if only for the language, but the mystery and suspense the story seemed to reach for died when I figured out the plot far too early, and turned to a series of (lovely and well-written) sex scenes. Cleopatra is lovely to look at, but dull to follow. Still, at least she goes somewhere, unlike a couple of famous and famously dead celebrities in Jack Dann's "Ting-a-ling." Even for fans of the celebrity gossip pages, there is a speed killing lack of tension, or development, or conflict, in this brief ramble.

But the majority of the experiments in Redshift turn out more pleasant, if somewhat bizarre, end results. Peter Schneider's "Burro's Gone Bad" is shorter than any description of it, and a highly successful eye catch; it should be issued alone as a press release for the book. James Patrick Kelly lets the book's "Unique Visitors" witness the deterioration of a one-sided conversation, with an oddly sympathetic character whose existence is a matter of debate even for himself. The inhabitants of P.D. Cacek's afterlife also dwell in a realm of "Belief," but it's left a troubling question whether they use that to make a heaven or hell for themselves.

"Billy the Fetus" is nowhere near as thoughtful or subtle. Al Sarrantonio may have created a story even the old school EC comics would hesitate to draw, but it's a great sick joke, a bizarre and mind-clearing interjection in a book of refined, elegant conversation. It has good company in Joe Haldeman's "Roadkill," a mystery story that could lurk comfortably in the pages of Weird Tales. In tone and subject it seems a direct bit of pulp sci-fi, but plants just enough curiosity to make you see your local tabloids with a bit more respect. If "Roadkill" is a tabloid headline explored in detail, "Weeping Walls" is a simple business classified from the local paper. Paul DiFilippo shares the darkly gleeful pleasure of watching a nasty person win, with no punishment in sight. This story of greed and cynical manipulation is so ordinary and fits so well with modern grief rituals that it hardly seems to be fiction.

Stephen Baxter and Neal Barrett Jr. are obviously working in a different world than our own. "In the Un-Black" and "Rhido Wars" both happen in a future so far off and separated by such great cataclysm that human language and history have been lost and altered to point of barest recognition. Baxter's heroes are unidentifiable as human, but still sympathetic in their great confusion. Neal Barrett is obviously dealing with Persons, but so oppressed and lost they seem barely above the Drills that rule them through force. The fittingly mutated language in each story is sometimes a challenge to follow, but the real frustration comes from not knowing more about the worlds and histories surrounding these vignettes. How did people become so alien "In the Un-Black"? How did baboons come to rule the world and wage "Rhido Wars"? No answers come from the equally confused heroes of the tales. Either of these worlds could quickly sprawl through a novel series. Seeing this brief glimpse of them is a delightful curiosity.

Redshift doesn't skimp on depth. There's a fat dozen explorations, experiments and plain yarns besides the ones already mentioned, and every one has its own conclusion on what fiction might look like in the future. It's a great place to visit, knowing you can run back to the present -- and maybe a bit of a guidebook.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 5 July 2003

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