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Redshift, edited by Al Sarrantonio

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Well, that’s that done…

Introduction by Al Sarrantonio
‘On K2 with Kanakaredes’ by Dan Simmons
‘The Building’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
‘Froggies’ by Laura Whitton
‘What We Did That Summer’ by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg
‘A Slow Saturday Night at the Surrealist Sporting Club’ by Michael Moorcock
‘In Xanadu’ by Thomas M. Disch
‘Commencement’ by Joyce Carol Oates
‘Unique Visitors’ by James Patrick Kelly
‘Black Tulip’ by Harry Turtledove
‘Belief’ by P. D. Cacek
‘In the Un-Black’ by Stephen Baxter
‘Weeping Walls’ by Paul Di Filippo
‘Anomalies’ by Gregory Benford
‘Captive Kong’ by Kit Reed
‘Feedback’ by Robert E. Vardeman
‘Between Disappearances’ by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
‘Resurrection’ by David Morrell
‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ by Elizabeth Hand
‘Burros Gone Bad’ by Peter Schneider
‘Pockets’ by Rudy Rucker and John Shirley
‘Ave de Paso’ by Catherine Asaro
‘Road Kill’by Joe Haldeman
‘Ting-a-Ling’by Jack Dann
”Bassador’by Catherine Wells
‘Ssoroghod’s People’by Larry Niven
‘Two Shot’by Michael Marshall Smith
‘Billy the Fetus’ by Al Sarrantonio
‘Viewpoint’ by Gene Wolfe
‘Fungi’ by Ardath Mayhar
‘Rhido Wars’ by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Helpfully for the critic Al Sarrantonio sets out exactly the criteria he wants anthology to be measured by. In his introduction he asks rhetorically:

So is Redshift the finest original sf anthology of the last twenty five years? Will it expand sf and influence its future for the next twenty five years?

These are the questions I’ve tried to address by proxy with my crude five star ratings for Quality and Shiftiness. I can’t really address the first question because I haven’t read enough original sf anthologies of the last twenty five years. Judged on its own merits though, it isn’t very impressive. If this is the finest then that is a sad indictment indeed. Perhaps the best thing Sarrantonio could have done was excise all his own words from the anthology. The insane hyperbole of his introductions exert a poisonous influence on the reader. If you are constantly told that this is the best thing since sliced bread you can’t help but respond “well, clearly it isn’t”. If the stories are allowed to stand for themselves you are more likely to say “yeah, that was a decent collection”. Of course, Sarrantonio didn’t want to produce a collection that was merely decent.

The second question is more interesting and split into two parts. Rather than address it directly though I am going to look at another view of Redshift. I recently read John Clute’s review at SF Weekly and I was surprised not that it differed from my view but at how radically it differed whilst coming to the same conclusion. In the details though, it takes virtually the opposite view to me and this in turn will help me illuminate a few of my problems with the anthology. So, some quotes from the review:

There are, moreover, almost no bottom-drawer tales here from “famous” vanity-plate authors whose veteran status allows them the occasional bummer, the kind of story that should be signed “Vet.”

Clute weasels a bit with “almost no” but I don’t know how else to describe the stories from Moorcock, Kelly, Turtledove, Haldeman, Niven and Wolfe. These are tired, predictable stories that wouldn’t get picked out of the slush. I’m prepared to believe Turtledove can’t actually do any better than this, that his entire career is based on just churning this stuff out, but at least some of the others should know better though.

Those authors who are new or newish are included on merit mostly, not promise.

Who are these new authors? Laura Whitton makes her publishing debut with a terrible story which in his introduction Sarrantonio admits was a workshop piece that only made it into the collection under the patronage of Dan Simmons. And, er, that’s it (unless you consider a publishing history of ten years “newish”). It is notable that there aren’t actually any new writers here. This is particularly noticeable from the other end of the decade because none of the present wave of new talent are represented or even suggested.

There are no stories which go on too long, and several—Neal Barrett’s long, stunning “Rhido Wars,” which depicts hominid life in a context savagely pre or post our own, maybe a few terrible centuries into life on a generation starship, but who knows?—seem to stop way too soon, as though a novel had been pounded into pemmican.

Now, I could happily read more of ‘Rhido Wars’ but many of the stories here out stay their welcome. ‘Commencement’ by Joyce Carol Oates is perhaps most egregiously over-protracted but at least it is well written. Most of the other stories that are too long are actually quite short in absolute terms, the problem is their ideas and prose are too feeble to sustain them for even this length.

By the way, if you had to look it up (as I did), “pemmican” is dried meat that has been powdered. This strikes me as a poor way to describe ‘Rhido Wars’; this is not an atomisation, it is more like a reduction to intensify the flavour.

Now for some agreement: “There is no genre prison left for Redshift to escape from.” The comparison Sarrantonio draws to Harlan Ellison is – to use Clute’s term – codswallop because it is so obsolete. However, when Clute then goes on (despite this) to look at the idea of what is still taboo in individual stories I again disagree.

Only one story—Elizabeth Hand’s “Cleopatra Brimstone,” worthily the longest tale in the book—is both sexually explicit and deeply incorrect.

Clute then recuses himself (at double the length of the above quote) from discussing the story further on the grounds of his friendship with Hand (the story actually takes place around Clute’s home). this leaves us to guess at what is meant by “deeply incorrect”. From context I am assuming something like transgressive and ‘Cleopatra Brimstone’ is a story about transgression but it is divorced from the youth culture that is the catalyst for this transgression. Hand makes herself a tourist.

Gene Wolfe’s “Viewpoint” is also un-PC, a deliciously surly take on the modern mega-state, and media, and people who rob people and don’t respond well to kindness;

It is a shame to see someone of Clute’s intelligence using the phrase “un-PC” in this way. There is nothing un-PC about this story (even if such a thing exists). It merely presents a Conservative caricature of a Liberal state and as with all caricatures it is unconvincing. There is no taboo here: this is mainstream (and idiotic) American political discourse.

Joe Haldeman’s “Road Kill” is not so much un-PC as nearly intolerable: told at an icy remove—the story is couched as a kind of movie synopsis—it has some of the effect of those fictions which attempt through estrangement to convey some sense of Final Solutions.

This is just madness. ‘Roadkill’ is not told at an icy remove, it is told at the intimate remove of a voyeur. A writer could use this to make a point about reader complicity. Haldemen does not. To link this trashy example of the sex and death thriller to novels that attempt to explicate the Holocaust is staggeringly mistaken.

But then – the individual stories dismissed – Clute gets to his conclusion and nails the major failing of the anthology:

What there is not—and it may have been a bad instinct on Sarrantonio’s part to allow us to think there might be—is any sense of consensus about the nature of the fantastic in the new century.

Redshift is fundamentally backwards looking, it is an anthology of the Twentieth Century. So, returning to that second question, the answer to both parts is no. This is starkly apparent in the type of authors solicited, it is equally apparent in the type of stories they have produced. These are stories that are solid, even stolid, rather than expanding and radical. It is – sadly for Sarrantonio – most apparent in the total lack of influence the antholgy has had on the genre. Never mind twenty five years, it was forgotten with five.

Written by Martin

5 June 2009 at 10:58

‘Billy the Fetus’ by Al Sarrantonio

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As I mentioned in the introduction Sarrantonio has committed the unforgiveable sin of including one of his own stories in a collection that is supposed to be the best best original SF anthology for a quarter of a century. Now, if you are Ted Chiang this is perhaps – perhaps – acceptable but it hardly needs saying that Sarrantonio is no Ted Chiang.

The story itself? It is actually quite a neat, off the wall idea: Billy the Kid pops out of the womb early to kill his mother’s new lover. The fact remains though, that this is a disposable four page story that is based on a pun. Shoehorning in crap like this from your friends is one thing, shoehorning in your own crap is a whole other kettle of fish. Shitty fish.

Quality: **
Shiftiness: **

Joe R Lansdown provides the introduction and describes the story as “brave”. Even if fiction can be brave, this isn’t.

Written by Martin

28 May 2009 at 10:57

Posted in sf, short stories

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Redshift: Introduction

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Minus five points for opening with a dictionary definition.

Al Sarrantonio didn’t pussyfoot around, he wanted Redshift to be the “finest original sf anthology of the last twenty-five years”. His introduction opens with that titular definition because he wants to expand the horizons of the genre. He is also keen to following the footsteps of Dangerous Visions and he identifies four goals of the “Ellison Revolution”:

1) Taboo busting
2) Experimental
3) Expanded the field
4) Really good

It is Sarrantonio’s view that one and two are redundant; the battle has been won, there are no more taboos and everyone is free to experiment. Fair enough but that doesn’t leave much to connect him to Harlan Ellison, he is just left with stories that are a) mind-expanding and b) good. Laudable certainly but hardly revolutionary. He could just said “here is a big, fat original anthology that I think is pretty good” and dropped the iconoclasm. However, in keeping with his wishes I will be marking the individual stories on both quality and shiftiness.

Oh, and minus a million points for including one of his own stories in the anthology. (More on that when we get to it).

Written by Martin

17 April 2009 at 16:24

More Dangerous Visions

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Not long after I started this blog I decided to encourage myself to read Feeling Very Strange – which had been sat on my shelf for some time – by writing about the individual stories as I read them. It worked quite well and I still regularly get hits for the individual entries. (Apologies if you are one of the people studying ‘Sea Oak’ as set text, I imagine you are quite disappointed when you click on that link.) Anyway, I thought I would try it again.

Redshift is a 2001 anthology edited by Al Sarrantonio with the goal of being a Dangerous Visions for the new millenium. From what I remember of its reception, people weren’t convinced it had achieved this goal but we shall see over the coming weeks when I actually read it.

Written by Martin

14 April 2009 at 13:28

Posted in books, sf, short stories

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