Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy edited by Al Sarrantonio

I should start off by saying 'I've no idea what 'Flights' is supposed to mean and only a vague idea of what the secondary title is supposed to infer.'  While this bothered me, it didn't affect my enjoyment in reading this mammoth collection.  The unifying element is fantasy of all kinds.  There are some great stories, some great writing and on a few occasions, both at the same time.  

Riding Shotgun by Charles de Lint is the connoisseurs gem in this collection.  A man lives his life in shame as he was the drunk driver in an accident that killed his brother only to be given a second chance and see what would have happen had their places been switched.  What we see in the alternate life is anything but what the narrator expects and he quickly tries to find a way to make sure his brother stays dead.  This was an interesting look at the 'one more chance at life' ghost story and it's de Lint's voice and story twist that make it so special.  

Robert Silverberg in The Sorcerer's Apprentice (that has to be the title of hundreds of short stories and novels) also subverts common troupes as the down on his luck, broke, middle-aged man decides on a career change and puts himself in the tutelage of a younger, beautiful sorcerer and the ensuing relationship is anything but cliched.  

Nina Kiriki Hoffman was not content in giving readers the expected story in Relations where a capricious spirit seeks to enthrall a young man with her spells only to find out that she has been subtlety beaten to the punch and that perhaps, despite her anger at being out witted, she doesn't want to fight against him.  

Aside from the unexpected twist in the familiar settings by short story masters Flights was also filled with a lot of humor.  Tots by Peter Schneider detailed an illegal child fighting ring similar to MMA and while I'll understand if you're skeptical, trust me: it was hilarious.  Tourist by Neal Barrett, Jr. is a realistic bus tour through hell with a particular group of 'little old ladies' who have the most bizarre questions and thoughts on the sights they see.  Fallen Angel by L. E. Modessitt, Jr while not exactly written as comedy has more than enough implied jokes and social thought for those who aren't afraid to laugh at the serious nature of church dogma.  Bill, the Little Steam Shovel was easily the most surprising in the collection.  After all, children's stories and Joe R Lansdale should never be put together.  Happily he started swearing in the third paragraph destroying all pretense and farce.  This story felt like a "Thomas the Train" episode gone horribly wrong, with death, sex, swearing and even morals.  While the story was great--and extremely funny in places--parts felt forced and Lansdale was pigeon holing himself into a character's voice that never really felt his own.    

There was also a handful of very well done 'standard fantasy' tales which are always welcome in an anthology of this size and variety.  The Silver Dragon by Elizabeth A Lynn has everything any fan of traditional secondary world fantasy could want.  A Tower with No Doors by Dennis L. McKiernan reads like a fairy tale in the most comforting sense of the phrase as we see a young prince get himself into trouble with a beautiful, damned, young woman who is more than she seems.  Patricia Mckillip delivers with Out of the Woods as she continues to prove genius in terms of short fiction and not so much in her novels, or at least for this reader.  

It's no stretch to say that there is a fair bit of horror in Flights.  What was easily the best inclusion in the entire, near 600 page collection was Six Hypotheses by Joyce Carol Oates.  It attempts to chronicle an entire family's fall into madness and the 'illness' that claimed them.  It's not scary, nor would I call it uncomfortable.  It is without doubt horror.  It's also brilliant.  Perchance to Dream by David Morrell dealt with a man's unique sleep disorder and how it was affecting his life.  Unfortunately while the story was great and the writing more than held up the psychological revelations at the end underminded the power of my imagination and the resulting conclusion left me a bit angry.  Neil Gaiman's--yes, I'm talking about horror in a fantasy anthology and mentioned Neil Gaiman--The Problem of Susan is a profound look at the sole Pevensie survivor from C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia.  Ever wonder how Susan's life went post-Narnia?  Gaiman, through a contemporary lens that is sure to be at-odds with Lewis, gives us his take.  It's brutal and terse and very unapologetic and probably far more realistic in direction than Lewis would ever have thought to go.  That last one might have been my favorite even if I never did want to think about Edmund being decapitated.  

If Riding Shotgun is only for the hardcore, and Six Hypotheses for the willing adventurous few, then Golden City Far by Gene Wolfe has to be the mass market appeal system seller.  If ever there were a short story I wanted to be expanded into a full blown novel of it's own, this would be it.  (Which is part of the reason Golden City Far works so well as a long short story.)    A schoolboy dreams and treats his dreams as real.  People tell him he's crazy and his psychologist has a hard time pinning down his ailment.  Other people start affecting his dreams and the dream people interact with folks from his school and readers have a very difficult time understanding what is the real reality: school and football or what we thought to be his 'dreams.'  Wolfe has a way of writing that makes me feel that every now and then I skipped a page, but he also empowers me enough to make sense of things on my own.  All is explained at the end and this story is so good that I feel it would justify the purchase of Flights to the reader who didn't like anything else in the collection.    

There were a few that aren't worth mention and a few others that had no appeal to me (the attraction to Tim Powers and Elizabeth Hand still elude me) but as big and varied as Flights is I should think there is more than a little for everyone to like.  Easily the best short story collection I've come across this year and while I haven't read many, the quality of the collections I have read make that last comment hit hard if only to me.   

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