Al Sarrantonio, Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy (Roc, 2004)
I love short fiction when it's presented in the form of an anthology like Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy. Really. Truly. It's the reading equivalent of a very good Chinese buffet; you get to sample stuff that you normally wouldn't think of even looking at. A bit of moo shu? Sure. Some octopus and curried noodles? Sure why not? Just give me a bit more of that wonderful green tea to wash it all down. Urrrp! Flights arrived a day after I e-mailed the publicist asking for a review copy. (A not unusual occurrence around here.) Having a few hours free, I settled into a comfortable chair in the corner of my GMR office, ordered tea, earl grey black, up for our kitchen, and started reading. Several very pleasurable hours later, I was indeed rather well stuffed. Perhaps even a bit overstuffed.
Flights claims to be inspired by Dangerous Visions, the anthology that Harlan Ellison did so many years ago that every critic now claims pushed, if not broke, the boundaries of what you could do in speculative fiction. I disagree. There is very, very good fiction here I'll detail what I really liked in a minute but the authors certainly did not push their own personal boundaries. If you want fiction 'without any restrictions of any kind', I suggest you check out some of the slash fiction that circulates on the Net that'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Hell, most of the fiction that Cemetery Dance publishes is far edgier than the fiction here! The irony is that this is one of the best anthologies I've ever read, bar none.
Turtledove, Feist, Gaiman, De Lint, Wolfe, Silverberg, Niven, Oates, Asaro, Card, McKillip, and McKiernan all contribute stellar tales here. Some tales are just plain silly Niven has a barely two page riff, 'Boomerang', on what happens when a God gets tired of living may be the shortest piece I've ever read by him and it's akin to the tales he's done in his Draco's Tavern series including one tale I remember as being nearly this short. But pushing edges is not what this tale does. And he's done far edgier writing including 'Cloak of Anarchy' (reprinted in his N-Space collection) for its exploration of just how thin the veneer of civilization is. Likewise the Charles de Lint offering, 'Riding Shotgun', is a dark tale set (sort of) in his Newford universe. It's a very chilling tale of things gone horribly wrong that reminds me of the superb short stories that Stephen King did early in his career. (I stopped reading King when his novels got thick enough to use as plant presses. Which is all they were good for.) However it is no more 'extreme' than ''The Witching Hour' which was reprinted in Tapping the Dream Tree, his fourth Newford collection! 'Riding Shotgun' is an extremely (pun intended) well-crafted horror story, but his Samuel M. Key novels are much more horrific.
Let me emphasize one more time that everything here is superb. There's nothing less than a merely outstanding tale here. It's just that the authors here (generally) are among the best writers we have with us today. So would I expect Neil Gaiman ('The Problem with Susan') to not tell us a great story (which is a meditation upon children's literature), and is also about lives lost and futures lost? Or Patricia McKillip ('Out of the Woods'), a favorite here at GMR, to not make fresh a somewhat worn folk tale? I think not! What Al Sarrantonio has done has assembled a collection that should win awards by armful if there's any justice in this world. Any one of the stories here is worth the price of this book including 'Coming Across', Harry Turtledove's rather clever take on why the Fey visit the World. As he notes, 'Elves could die: of boredom.' Like many tales in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy, what appears to be going on are vivid reimaginings of tales so old that they appear to have no beginnings. Many of these tales would be well-served by reading aloud to attentive readers on a cold winters night in a room illuminated only by candlelight. They're that good.
I've read, or at least skimmed, hundreds of fantasy anthologies over the past decades some superb, some decidedly mixed, and more than a few that were terrible. Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy is among a mere handful that are truly great. If you like the various anthologies that Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have done, say Black Heart, Ivory Bones, The Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest, and Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers, you'll find this equally pleasing. It's good enough that I must now seek out immediately Redshift: Extreme Visions of Speculative Fiction and 999, his horror anthology. I expect that I'll have many more hours of readings which will keep me entertained well into the night!