The best new science fiction magazine in 20 years is, ironically, unknown to most American readers. Introduced in 1982, the British quarterly Interzone is a quixotic and decidedly noncommercial effort to bring a semblance of literary respectability to a genre known for more adolescent urges. Irreverent, occasionally angry and consistently expansionist, the magazine is the spiritual successor to New Worlds, focus of science fiction's "new wave" of the 1960s and proving ground for such contemporary talents as Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Michael Moorcock and D.M. Thomas.

"Interzone: The First Anthology" is America's first real exposure to this fine magazine, whose distribution here is haphazard and limited primarily to specialty bookstores. Compiled by three members of the magazine's editorial collective, it is less a "best of" anthology than a representative sampling.

Acclaimed British novelist Angela Carter is featured in "The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe," a Freudian dreamscape -- a portrait of the horror writer as mother's boy -- sketched in haunting colors. Keith Roberts, whose impressive talents have produced at least two sci-fi classics, "Pavane" and "The Chalk Giants," soars in "Kitemaster," a dark parable of the collision between science and religion in a world where men take to the sky in kites, on vigil against apocryphal demons. But only a handful of the other contributors -- David Redd, John Shirley and Cherry Wilder -- will be known even to the aficionado of science fiction.

If short on names, the collection is nevertheless long on imagination, including an impressive first story, "Dreamers," by British film critic Kim Newman, and two well-crafted variants on the time-honored sci-fi theme of alien pregnancy, Scott Bradfield's "The Flash! Kid" and Rachel Pollack's "Angel Baby." The major disappointment is the only selection not drawn directly from the magazine, Geoff Ryman's "O Happy Day!" The editors have eschewed Ryman's World Fantasy Award-winning novelette, "The Unconquered Country," in favor of this curiously insincere portrayal of a labor gang in the death camps of a matriarchal dystopia; it smacks of the gimmickry that has trivialized traditional science fiction.

Like other stories here, "O Happy Day!" also succumbs to the urge to flaunt a naive political vision. Neil Ferguson's "The Monroe Doctrine" poses an alternate reality in which newly elected President Marilyn Monroe resolves the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia by seducing Leonid Brezhnev; lest his message be misunderstood, Ferguson's coda has Marilyn coo a plea for world peace through love. The collection's most outrageous entry, Michael Blumlein's "Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration," is a deadpan medical abstract depicting the evisceration of Ronald Reagan by a team of surgeons named Biko, Cochise, Guevara and Ng.

More compelling (and not simply because of its subtlety) is Malcolm Edwards' "After-Images," in which nuclear holocaust plunges a tiny section of west London into a terrifying purgatory, its few survivors locked in a seemingly eternal moment by a rift of time. As Edwards writes of his survivors, living in the shadow of "forces held in check delicately around them," we know, without needing to be told, of whom he really speaks.

The overwhelming influence here is J.G. Ballard. His iconography seems to infect Interzone, from the pasteboard masks of media imagery (Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys and Ronald Reagan are repeated fixtures) to an obsession with withered, entropic landscapes. Not surprisingly, Ballard's contribution, "The Object of the Attack," is the collection's linchpin. A piecemeal assemblage of entries in a psychiatric journal, the story recounts the aftermath of a bizarre, glider-borne attack upon a messianic former astronaut by an epileptic misfit who challenges his message of sanctified science. As always, Ballard's prose reads with truant symbology ("the sea is an exposed cerebral cortex, the epidermis of a sleeping giant whom the Apollo and Skylab astronauts will awaken with their splashdowns"), and its bite is sharp.

At issue is the promise of outer space -- the salvation from the stars offered by traditional science fiction -- and Ballard's assassin, like Ballard and his Interzone compatriots, rejects its illusions. It is "inner space, not outer, that needs to be explored," Ballard wrote as early as 1962. "The only truly alien planet is Earth." The talented writers and editors of Interzone have fulfilled that vision. "Interzone: The First Anthology" should revise most readers' conceptions of the purpose -- and the promise -- of science fiction.