by Richard Paul Russo
Published by Golden Gryphon
237 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
I wouldn't want to be a character in Richard Paul Russo's stories.
Russo is fairly well known in SF circles. His novels have won or been nominated for a number of awards. But, as Karen Joy Fowler puts it in her introduction to Terminal Visions, his short fiction, which he's been publishing since the mid-80s, has been something of a secret. Well, now the secret's out: Russo's short fiction is intense and beautiful, intimate and painful. His stories, as the title of this collection says, are all terminal visions in which the world the protagonist once knew is forever shattered.
Russo's stories are gorgeously written, in a confident, understated style that lets the stories tell themselves (or, rather, such is the elegant illusion Russo creates). These stories are all driven by characters trying to work out their complex relationships -- relationships that fail to conform to social norms, or even to the expectations of the characters themselves.
Three of the 14 stories seem a bit out of place and below the standard set the by other 11. "No Place Anymore" is too vague; the much too long "More Than Night" contains a few powerful moments but otherwise begs for a tight, focused rewrite; and "View from Above," while benefiting from a bizarre ending, presents uncharacteristically clichéd relationships, albeit in conflict. However, the bulk of this collection is rich with intriguing scenarios and grounded in vivid emotions.
In "Listen to My Heartbeat" a woman becomes something other than human (or does she?) in order to join the space program. How can the man and the woman who love her react -- towards her, towards each other, towards themselves? "Just Drive, She Said," the tale of a violent encounter that changes two people's lives forever, is simultaneously hard-boiled and unabashedly romantic. "In the Season of the Rain" is a brutal and melancholic war story in which a character repeatedly quotes Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (coincidentally one of my favorite novels). In "The Open Boat" characters must confront the consequences of eternity. The protagonist of "Lunar Triptych: Embracing the Night" must deal with a world out of tune with his passions and follow the uncharted paths to which those passions lead him. The photographer in "Celebrate the Bullet" must wonder to what extent her perceptions and her actions are mediated by her art. How does she react when she is presented with a vision of violence far stranger than anything she could have imagined? The two old war veterans of "Watching Lear Dream," heroes of a past conflict that drove away extraterrestrial invaders, once loved the same woman, now long dead. One, Lear, is a powerful telepath whose visions become reality, but his power is out of control. The other is the only person alive who can keep Lear's dreams in check. Can they trust each other? Should they? In "Telescope, Saxophone and the Pilot's Death" love is unexplained, irrational, inconvenient and overpowering. In "Cities in Dust" love is barely possible -- and the desperate need for it a constant irritant. "Liz and Diego" are two old people tugged this way and that by both hopelessness and blind hope (this is my favorite story). The astronaut of "Prayers of a Rain God," after a trip to Mars, is plagued by visions of a dying race praying to him for rain, by his inability to answer those prayers and by the consequent deterioration of his once-idyllic marriage.
The characters of these 11 stories don't have it easy. Their relationships to life and to other people are always startling, always difficult, always in flux. Often, their dreams, their hopes and their visions make it all the harder to successfully negotiate with reality. When I say that I wouldn't want to be one of these characters, it's probably because I recognize myself all too much in them. Sometimes, though, maybe dreams and visions do bring you to places beyond what you dared hope. Just ask "Liz and Diego" or the two desperate drivers of "Just Drive, She Said." | December 2000
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.