Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Three more "Extreme Visions" from Redshift: Sarrantonio, Niven, Haldeman

Calibrate the Extremometer!  It's time to check out three more stories from Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction, the 2001 anthology edited by Al Sarrantonio which seeks to (according to the jacket) "revolutionize and galvanize the field of speculative fiction."  I liked the three stories I read last time I cracked open Redshift, let's hope I have another positive experience.  

"Billy the Fetus" by Al Sarrantonio

I decided to read Sarrantonio's story to get a sense of what kind of work he was hoping to receive when he sent out his call for "extreme" stories which would "expand the science fiction field."  This is the first story by Sarrantonio I have ever read.

"Billy the Fetus" is a first person narrative written from the point of view of a fetus.  Reflecting the limited educational opportunities available to fetuses, our protagonist Billy has deplorable grammar.  ("Soon as I growed ears I heered things.")  Billy's mother is promiscuous, and Billy gets the idea that the penis of one of her sex partners is a weapon that is trying to kill him.  So, Billy grabs the umbilical cord in his hands (which, he tells us, still look like flippers) and tears it, then leaps out of the womb into the outside world to do battle with his supposed enemy.  He grabs up a convenient revolver and shoots his mother's inamorato.  When "Mammy" expresses unexpected indignation, Billy decides he's not ready for the world and returns to his mother's womb.  He brings the pistol with him; he plans to use it to defend himself should anybody "come in after" him.

What can you say about such a story?  It is "extreme," I'll give it that.  I didn't actually laugh, but I guess it is kind of funny.  Joe R. Landsdale in his introduction calls the story "brave" and its prose "magnificent."  Well... OK.  It's short (between 4 and 5 pages) and it is not bad, and it is definitely original, so I guess it is worth your time.  It isn't an obvious pro- or anti-abortion story, which is what I had expected; somehow the joke on "Billy the Kid" didn't occur to me until I was almost finished with the brief tale.

"Ssoroghod's People" by Larry Niven

I don't really think of Larry Niven as the kind of guy who pens "extreme" stories.  Niven's Ringworld, Integral Trees, Smoke Ring, and Mote In God's Eye, which he co-wrote with Jerry Pournelle, all of which I have reread as an adult over a decade after reading them in my teens, are full of interesting ideas, but I thought them average or mediocre in the style and character departments.

Niven is a prolific writer, so even though I have read lots of his work (besides the novels listed above, I read Oath of Fealty, Footfall, Legacy of Heorot, and Ptaavs in my youth) I had never heard of Draco's Tavern before. "Ssoroghod's People" is a Draco's Tavern story.

This story is about as short as "Billy the Fetus," but it is giving me a very low reading on the Extremometer.  An alien who is over a million years old comes in to the tavern and tells the story of how she watched a civilization rise over the course of millenia, then destroy itself with risky manipulation of its genes.  The story seems to be Niven warning humanity to not tinker with its DNA; or, if it must, to confine such experiments to isolated labs, like on the moon.

"Ssoroghod's People" is fine, but I have the feeling I will soon forget it.    

"Road Kill" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman is the kind of guy I would expect to write an "extreme" story.  Even if I'm not keen on their collectivist politics, I think Forever War is a great novel and I also really liked Mindbridge.  Haldeman's style, in those novels at least, is "literary," and reflects thinking about life, psychology, society, etc.  Those are also good adventure stories about going into space and dealing with aliens.  Haldeman seems like the kind of guy who, in response to Sarrantonio's call, could write a story which would use surprise or shock to get me to change my way of thinking about some big issue.

"Road Kill" is a description of a movie; maybe it counts as a "treatment."  (I don't really know what constitutes a treatment.)  The movie in the story really does sound like one of those serial killer movies like "Seven," which is the only serial killer movie I think I've watched in its entirety.  A huge fat guy murders joggers and cyclists in secluded woods, a rich guy hires a Desert Storm vet to look for the killer.  The killer is a sci-fi fan and claims to be an alien shipwrecked on the Earth.  We witness him torture and mutilate numerous people before he is finally brought to justice.

This story is like 6 or 7 pages, and I think the best of the three I have read today.  But is it "extreme?"  It doesn't seem to be expressing some point of view on some big issue.  I doubt we can consider the gore extreme in the post splatterpunk era.  ("Seven" and all that Hannibal Lector business was years before Redshift.)  Writing the story as a movie treatment seems like a novel idea, but I think Barry Malzberg did something like that years ago, though I can't recall in what book.  If the story is meant to be a criticism of gruesome Hollywood movies and/or SF fans or the view of SF held by people outside the dedicated SF community, maybe that is sort of extreme(?)


Let's rank the six stories I've read from Redshift.  The stories have fallen into three groups in each of the two categories; differences within the groups are minor and perhaps illusory.  The Wolfe, Disch and Haldeman stories are all approximately equally good and equally "extreme."

             Is It Good?                                          Is It Extreme?
Best      What We Did.... (Koja & Malz.)        What We Did... (K & M)        Extreme!
                                                                         Billy the Fetus (Sarrantonio)
             Viewpoint (Wolfe)                                                
Good    Road Kill (Haldeman)                        Viewpoint (Wolfe)                             
             In Xanadu (Disch)                              In Xanadu (Disch)      Somewhat Extreme
                                                                         Road Kill (Haldeman)                                   
Avrge  Ssoroghod's People (Niven)
            Billy the Fetus (Sarrantonio)               Ssoroghod's People (N)  Not Extreme 

If this sample is representative, Sarrantonio has done a good job; none of the stories was poor, and 5 out of 6 have recognizably extreme elements.

Redshift includes 30 stories; it is possible I will read more of them. 



  1. Hmm. You haven't sold me on this collection yet. Of the six, I would probably be angry or confused by five. Like you though, I have no idea why Niven would be in an "extreme" collection.

    1. Niven has a story in the original Dangerous Visions, which is Sarrantonio's model for Redshift. From a marketing perspective it makes sense to have Niven in a collection, as he is popular and may attract a different segment of the SF community to the book; Niven is one of the names on the cover.

    2. That I can certainly understand. I'm a Niven fan (don't shoot me!), but I would never expect him to be dangerous or extreme. Now I'm going to have to find out which story of his was in Dangerous Visions.

    3. Of all the Niven novels I have read I don't think I thought any were bad, so don't worry, I won't shoot!

      In fact, I'm planning to read some Niven stories this week.