Sunday, March 16, 2014

Three "Extreme" stories from Redshift: Wolfe, Disch, and Koja & Malzberg

Despite the fact that I own piles of books I have yet to read, I recently purchased seven SF books at the Des Moines Central Library book sale, where adult fiction books were 10 cents each.  Among these books was Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction edited by Al Sarrantonio, a big fat 2001 anthology of original stories.

In his introduction to the book, Sarrantonio praises Harlan Ellison and Dangerous Visions to the skies, even using the phrase "Ellison Revolution," which he shortens to ER.  (If only I had thought to shorten French Revolution and Russian Revolution to FR and RR back in my college days; it would have saved some wear and tear on my typing fingers.)  The stories in Redshift are meant to be as "dangerous" as those in Ellison's famous and influential 1967 anthology; Redshift is supposed to be the Dangerous Visions of the 21st century, pushing the envelope, influencing SF for the next 25 years, that sort of thing.

Today I read the three stories in the book by authors I already appreciate, Gene Wolfe, Thomas M. Disch, and Barry N. Malzberg, authors who are all deeply interested in the history and traditions of SF as well as "mainstream literature," and who have successfully (in my opinion, at least) brought high literary standards to their science fiction.  Let's see how "extreme" and "dangerous" these stories are.

"Viewpoint" by Gene Wolfe    

I first read "Viewpoint," a novelette of 40 pages, in my trade paper edition of the collection Starwater Strains, which appeared in 2006.  I was surprised by how forward, even blatant, it was in presenting its conservative/libertarian political arguments.  "This is like the lead story in an anthology curated by the NRA," I thought after I read it.  Everybody knows Wolfe is "on the right," as they used to say on "Crossfire," and I am basically sympathetic to what he has to say in the story, so I wasn't offended, just surprised at how "upfront" he was about portraying his political beliefs.  Now that I know Wolfe was commissioned to write an "extreme" or "dangerous" story, it makes a lot more sense.

The story starts in a big city, I suspect New York, I guess in the near future.  We find that the police (even the robot police!) are corrupt, the streets are crawling with drug dealers and violent beggars who threaten people with broom handles, and store clerks are angry jerks who act like they don't want to make a sale.  The government has seized all rifles, and frowns on the exercise of self defense.  Government agents insist that people don't really make or own money, all money is in fact the property of the government, and any you keep after taxes is just what the government has decided to let you have.  Everybody has a little screen on his forehead; the number of stars on the screen indicates your social class.

A country boy who lives off the grid in a log cabin in the woods of Pennsylvania, Jay, is in town.  He needs money, and in an office is handed a hundred thousand dollars in bills.  He is warned not to put the money in a bank, or the government will figure out a way to seize it.  What is Jay getting paid for?  To be on a reality TV show; the TV station will announce that he has the money, show a photo of him, and then the drama will be if he can survive the inevitable attacks he will suffer from desperate creeps and career criminals.  (They install something in his skull that allows them to film through his eyes.)  As it turns out, the government is a bigger threat to him than anybody else.  The story ends with Jay hiding in the woods, pursued by government soldiers.  Just as Jay is about to shoot a female soldier he sees a phantom of a Revolutionary War rifleman, and wonders if his hallucination will appear on the viewing public's TV screens.

This is a decent story, and Wolfe does all the violent parts and the espionage/crime stuff (trying to hide from surveillance and escape pursuers) well.  With its long list of complaints about the government and TV, the fact that the women in the story are sneaky and use their sex appeal to manipulate men, and that the black characters speak poor English, I think it is fair to say that the story is "extreme" or "dangerous" - it surprised me, and I can imagine it would offend or disappoint Democrats and left of center types.  On the other hand, it appeared in David G. Hartwell's Year's Best SF 7 and was voted 8th best 2002 novelette by Locus readers, so it seems like a substantial portion of the SF community embraced it.  And as far as technique is concerned, it is a traditional plot and character driven story.

"In Xanadu" by Thomas M. Disch

In this 14-page story, dead people's consciousnesses are uploaded into a virtual world constructed by the Disney company.  Unfortunately, the uploading process is not very efficient, and many memories are garbled or lost in the process.  And you are at Disney's mercy, or the mercy of computer hackers; a man is uploaded into the virtual body of a woman, for example.  In the end the main character hopes for death (as I have found Disch characters are apt to do.) 

The story isn't bad.  I laughed at some of the jokes.  But is it "dangerous" or "extreme?"  Disch dismissively criticizes religion, environmentalism, and feminism, and at greater length and perhaps more subtly, consumerism.  And, of course, Disch suggests that death is to be welcomed, even if religion is a scam.  He reminds you how cultured he is with his references to philosophers, French cinema, and high brow music.  "In Xandau" also has a sort of New Wave feel, with its many one page chapters, its barely-there plot, and the whole death and computers angle.  I guess it is about as "dangerous" and "extreme" as the Wolfe story; it is certainly more challenging when it comes to technique and literary pretension, but it is also diffuse and intangible compared to Wolfe's hard-hitting, in-your-face writing.

"What We Did That Summer" by Kathe Koja and Barry N. Malzberg

I don't know anything about Kathe Koja, but Will Errickson at his cool horror blog raves about her.  (I'm pretty sure I'm not supposed to admit that when I googled her name and all the photos came up I said, "Whoa, this chick is pretty good-looking.")  The premise of her novel The Cipher sounds like it could be great, and lots of people seem to think it is great.  Maybe I should keep an eye open for it when I hit the used bookstores and libraries.

I've read lots of Barry Malzberg's work, but most of it before I started this here blog.  I have several reviews of Malzberg books up at Amazon.  Malzberg's work is almost always "extreme" in one way or another, so I was curious about what he would come up with here.     

Well, "What We Did That Summer" is 10 pages long, and it scores very high on the Extremometer; in fact Koja and Malzberg may have left my buddies Tom Disch and Gene Wolfe in the dust.  For one thing, even though the story is full of dialogue, there are no quotation marks.  For another, I'm not sure what happened in the last paragraph.  But most important are all the other paragraphs, which are depressing, disgusting, and distrubing.

An impoverished prostitute who lives in a shack and lives on mac and cheese she can only afford when it is on sale is drinking cheap beer with one of her long term johns.  This guy has been her customer for ages, and they "hang out" regularly, but they barely even seem to like each other, bickering bitterly through the whole story.  You get the feeling they are stuck being friends with each other because they have totally screwed up their lives and nobody else will put up with them.     

The man had a strange adventure when he was 16 years old, thirty years ago, and he tells the woman the story, despite all her interruptions and complaints (about his poor sexual performance and the callous way he has treated her all these years, among other things.)  The man, along with a friend, those thirty years ago, came upon three girls in a field, naked girls who essentially dared them to have sex with them.  The girls are somewhat odd, with weird accents and strangely shaped bodies, and the boys later dub them "the aliens."  Several times over the course of a month they have sex with these three girls, long sessions in which the boys are permitted to do "whatever they want" with the girls. Of course, this is like a dream come true for the horny teenagers, but eventually the protagonist wonders if perhaps they are taking advantage of the girls, if they are maybe mentally ill, and what they are doing constitutes abuse or rape.

Tonight is the thirtieth anniversary of the climax of this strange adventure, when a fourth odd person or "alien," a man with a strange hat and a sort of necklace, confronted the two boys.  The alien man wore no clothes, and the boys see he has no genitalia.  The alien man explains that the boys must pay, without specifying what that payment should be, and then vanishes.  Thre boys never see him or the three girls again.

His story concluded, the man tells the woman he wants to show her something, and pulls down his pants and starts masturbating.  The woman hides her eyes, but he insists she look.  Then comes the confusing final paragraph.  It seems possible that the woman is suddenly experiencing the memories of the three alien girls.  Or, perhaps, she is just being reminded of her own life, how men have treated her so badly, like an alien, how in her life sex, instead of something joyous or life affirming or expressive of love, has been something desperate and horrible.

"What We Did That Summer" is not a fun read, but it is a strong story and I think Koja and Malzberg delivered what Sarrantonio was looking for when he was commissioning "extreme visions."  The story paints a pretty bleak picture of sexual relationships, includes what some might consider "obscene" images, and shows contempt for one of our finest literary institutions, the quotation mark. 


So, three good stories, each of them containing elements that will likely surprise or even shock the reader: Wolfe's unapologetic condemnation of a corrupt government which infringes property rights and the right to self defense, Disch's dismissal of religious and liberal pieties and embrace of death, and Koja and Malzberg's disturbing depiction of sexual relations and men's treatment of women.

I will probably read some more stories from Redshift in the future, and also seek out some more short stories by Koja, or maybe one of her 1990s novels.          

1 comment:

  1. I hope you enjoy Koja's novels when you're able to track them down! Thanks for the shout-out.