September 2005

Lara Apps

fiction

Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy by Al Sarrantonio

This is Al Sarrantonio’s third anthology inspired by Harlan Ellison’s legendary Dangerous Visions series. While previous volumes 999 collected horror and suspense stories and Redshift science fiction, Sarrantonio explains in his introduction that he asked contributors "not to be concerned with taboos (if they could find any these days)" and "not to feel constrained in any way." While few of the 29 stories in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy could be classified as extreme, this volume contains so many excellent and varied works that it is difficult to select favorites. Gene Wolfe’s “Golden City Far” has already won a Locus Award, and has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” is a nominee for a British Fantasy Award.

Flights begins with Robert Silverberg’s "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," a playful, erotic take on master-pupil romance with a hint of darkness. Romance closes the anthology too, in Wolfe’s complex, subversive and disorienting novella “Golden City Far.” In between, a wide variety of styles and themes keeps the pages turning.

Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” is the most "extreme" piece in the anthology. Gaiman not only finds and breaks a taboo or two, but also goes head-on at a sacred cow: the Narnia stories. Anyone with fond childhood memories of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will come away from “The Problem of Susan” feeling like they’ve been smacked between the eyes. I read it in the bookstore, as I tried to decide whether to buy Flights or not. Then I read it again. When I was finished, I just stood there for a while, and then headed to the cash register. I have re-read “The Problem of Susan” at least three times since I brought Flights home, and it astonishes me every time with how good it is.

Other notable taboo-assailing stories include L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s “Fallen Angel”; Peter Schneider’s "Tots," which feels like a graduate student nightmare about Clifford Geertz’s study of Balinese cockfighting; and Joe R. Lansdale’s "Bill, the Little Steam Shovel." Elizabeth Hand and Harry Turtledove contemplate the impact of AIDS in two very different, but equally thoughtful pieces.

For sheer beauty and lyricism, A.L. Attanasio’s "Demons Hide Their Faces," Patricia A. McKillip’s "Out of the Woods," and "Blood, Oak, Iron” by Janny Wurts stand out. My favourite of the group is Attanasio’s story: the central premise that ancient texts are all that stands between civilization and chaos is intriguing, and the prose reads like a descriptive language explosion. I am not familiar with Attanasio’s work, so it may be that this is simply his normal style; if so, it would probably wear over the course of a novel, but in a short story, one can indulge fully in the pleasure of phrases like "claggy mud" and "chimeric cloudscapes."

Those who like their fantasy on the dark side will find plenty to enjoy, especially the contributions by Joyce Carol Oates (the only reprint in the anthology), Neal Barrett, Jr. and Charles de Lint. "Perchance to Dream," by David Morrell, is the best of the several dream-themed stories. Sarrantonio’s own "Sleepover" is perhaps the scariest piece in the anthology, tapping into every child’s fears that Mommy and Daddy would be happier without them.

It is impossible to do justice to the entire anthology, though every story deserves comment. I’ll conclude by saying simply that Flights contains some of the best literary fantasy out there. While several of the stories will undoubtedly be reprinted in the annual best of collections, don’t wait for those; you’ll miss out on some great work.

Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy edited by Al Sarrantonio
Roc
ISBN 0451460367
578 pages