Reviewed by Steve Redwood

Unlike a book review, where the purpose of the review is probably to help a potential buyer decide whether it's worth buying or not, a magazine review usually comes after the event, so that the reviewer and the reader are merely exchanging notes, as it were. However, for those for whom this is not the case...

Yes, go out and buy it. Or, since this is still the real world, send away and buy it. Or, if you're as poor as me, offer to review it in return for a free copy!

I haven't seen an Interzone for about six years, and it has changed a lot. It's bigger, glossier, cheekier, with a spine where you can read the contents (is the word 'perfect bound'?) The cover, featuring a black pistol (with an extremely healthy young lady attached to it), has led to not a few heart attacks, fulminations, and excommunications on the TTA/Interzone message boards (would you be seen alive with this magazine, especially if you happened to be wearing a raincoat at the time?). I myself am an admirer of Juliette Lewis and Sigourney Weaver. The overall design is similar, as I seem to remember, to those of Buffy and other cult magazines which can actually be seen in real shops, so all to the good. Also, of course, it recalls the pulp roots of SF. However, at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I do think the "ALIENS! MURDER! CELEBRITIES! DRAGONS! SEX! FOOD!" running along the top of the cover, while clearly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, and in reality a perfectly accurate description of the contents, might be going too far, and put off potential new readers. Intelligent ones, I mean. Because the stuff inside the magazine is not (merely) for mighty bosom lovers.

After warming up with a spaciously designed double page of contents, an introduction in which we are promised an all-colour issue for #200, and some of the spicier bits of SF news from the indispensable Dave Langford's Ansible, we have the main--40 pages of fiction--section, which I'll come back to. This is followed by a long interview with Charles Stross, which I found most interesting, even though I haven't read any of his work yet. One or two people have complained they should have been given more information on the books, but it could be argued that is more the purpose of a review than an interview; perhaps the ideal solution would be a hybrid inter-review. We then have Mutant Popcorn, four pages of film reviews (the same critic as in the old days, I think), which have the added plus of an extremely lively style, with yummy phrases like 'the prodigious villain-consumption' of the previous Batman films, or 'two genius craftsmen and visionaries at their absolute brilliant worst' (Sin City).

Finally come eleven pages of book reviews (two on non-fiction), with an average of two reviews per page. John Clute's brain has only passing similarities to the brains of other mortals, so his reviews are entitled Scores, presumably to nudge the reader into adding up the number of sentences/ideas he completely understood! The introductory remarks had me scuttling to find out the meanings of 'fractal shite', 'assemblages of angularly adjacent tales', 'distributed-network psychopomps' (at this point I noticed the guy who had bought the magazine for the cover bosom throw it disgustedly on the railway carriage floor), 'kipple' and 'armamentarium' (I nearly fell for that one, but some deep survival instinct made me look it up!). Luckily, his reviews themselves were readily understandable (and intriguing), with some lovely sentences like '...the culture of America... where the Western World has gone to die', or Kelly Link's stories revealing 'something of a sweet tooth for hollow Pierrots'.

The other reviews are what you would expect of Interzone--at worst, more than competent, at best fascinating. After reading them, you not only have a pretty good idea about the books reviewed, but (especially in the case of Rick Kleffel) you have also touched on interesting ideas about the techniques of fiction (not just SF) in general.

But, back to the main course! The fiction starts off with Steven Mohan's The House of the Beata Virgo, set in a rather unusual brothel (all the women are Madonnas, the Madonna at different stages of her life, not the spoilsport Biblical has-been), which asks the perennial question about what we are. The mechanics for these semi-clones didn't really convince me (a retroviral editor that can alter your genes to make them the same as some celebrity's; OK, but this seems to imply growing a whole new body from the old one or reshaping it, down to DNA level.) There are really two stories here: that of the various prostitute Madonnas and their desperation; and the story of Jenny Hartley, the heiress to a fortune whose right to the money is disputed by seventeen other Jenny Hartleys--and no one can tell the difference! What is important is the shared theme--what is our personal identity, and are we willing to allow others to tell us who we are? ("She couldn't bear to watch a bunch of lawyers carve up her life, her memories, herself.") In what way is a copy of Madonna not Madonna? And at what point do you become an Electric Sheep? A sad, thoughtful tale.

From a story in which almost nothing actually happens, we have a complete change of tone, and swing into non-stop action that recalls the good old pulp days (though the illustration itself implies the story is more pulpy than it actually is) in Neal Asher's Garp & Geronamid. Enough action here for a novel. We have a strange alien ecology with a deadly parasite, corrupt elections that make standing in a police recruiting line in Iraq seem a safe doddle, a drug more addictive than heroin (also handy for eating up live enemies' innards), an über-AI with a taste both for wildebeest and for vengeance, an impossibly nasty villain aged a hundred and forty-three who looks sixteen, a dead detective still on the job, an extra-planetary journalist with augmented vision to film what he see, zombies and super-golems: a mixed bag of ingredients, many of them old staples (the Western's villain-who-owns-the-town, etc.) but put together with great verve and imagination. Despite a few grisly scenes, I couldn't really take the adventure too seriously, but I certainly enjoyed the ride. (Would-be submitters to Interzone, however, take note: a lady reporter is nailed to a tree, and dies while having her innards devoured by distant and uncouth relatives of the maggot; another reporter says; "she was a hack, but this is excessive punishment".)

Sunset by Jay Caselberg is very well written, though the idea is not totally new (even as far back as the Strugatsky brothers' Roadside Picnic, alien influences give rise to a hybrid baby): you give birth to something abnormal, what do you do? An old (and modern and real) dilemma, which doesn't need an SF setting. Doesn't need, but in this case (as in much SF) the extreme setting (colonists trapped on a world they can never leave, the only hope of continuance the 'inhuman' children) allows the question to be faced full on: these people can't just hand over their child and their problem to a charitable agency or hospital. The couple who take their decision here are banished to the edges of the colony, "as if interacting with them would announce the thoughts that nobody dares to put into words". I feel the chunk of text taken from the story and highlighted as an introduction is badly chosen, as it bears little relation to the story. And perhaps the question openly posed here, "How do you define humanity", is more subtly tackled in Steven Mohan's opening story. It's the sheer quality of the writing that makes the story succeed, from the superb opening sentence to the careful avoidance of all shock tactics--you have to read very carefully to notice that these babies are not simply malformed--there are also implications that in some way their existence is destroying the mothers, and there is the unexplained but chilling sentence: "He was never satisfied unless he had a proper feed."

Bird Songs at Midnight by Nina Allan somehow never really pulled me in, though I feel that it should have. The story is seen through the eyes of a woman on an alien planet, watching peaceful dragons from a hide erected by an exploratory team. It's not just that nothing much happens until the end (nothing much happens in the first story, either), it's that this end is too frequently signposted--a character affirming dragons can't fly, too many references to Monarch butterflies, wildebeest, sheep knowing their way home, flashbacks to a childhood and other migrations, changes in the dragons, etc. I also get the feeling this might be part of a larger series (or introduction to a novel?). The broken love-affair between the narrator Isabel and Steve, the references to Schwarowski's 'burned' hands, the Blanket Fever plague, and so on, can be explained, I admit, as reflecting the flight of the heroine herself, as showing her reasons for putting her soul, as it were, into the dragons, as background detail to give breadth and verisimilitude, but somehow I was still left with the feeling that there was too much extraneous, not absolutely necessary, detail for this particular story. As backdrop to a novel, however... for instance, the character Dennis Marchont is crying out for more space. And, as a complete short story, the last two lines are uncharacteristically weak; my mental scissors were twitching, desperate to snicker-snack and leave us with the poignantly beautiful image of Isabel's now-ancient sister on Earth looking at the stars and listening to the night birds sing. So, yes, a nice mood piece, some excellent writing, a pleasant read, but ultimately not as satisfying as it should have been, given the themes of flight and freedom.

So far, nothing really really really original. The previous stories have more or less original approaches, but to fairly established themes and SF tropes - even the wild Garp picks-n-mixes (and why not, if the result is a wildly enjoyable ride?). Then along comes Jeremiah Tolbert with something completely alien to our experience, body-food and seasoning (pigs begging to be eaten in Hitchhiker's Guide don't really count; nor does the Mormon founder Joseph Smith's warning to his wife in Who Needs Cleopatra? not to look back: 'Remember Lot and his wife; I would find a salty vagina unappealing.'***).

Religion and sex have long been bedfellows (hence so much hypocrisy), as have food and sex, but here the three are quite literally brought together in a marvellous and unforgettable story. The narrator of This, My Body is the star pupil of the Order of Cuisine and Flesh, sold by his parents at a young age, and brought up, trained, and genetically altered by the 'monks' so that any food he prepares is flavoured by his own body, off which the 'devoreuses' (and sometimes the 'devoureux') eat before devouring him in a different, more time-honoured way, which leaves them with a hunger that old Victorian Oliver Twist would never have recognised. Antonio really is the seasoning beyond all seasoning, and the most competent lover imaginable. But this is no comedy, quite the contrary. The cost to the narrator has been his dehumanization (again!); he is no more than a tool, whether religious or sexual; he wishes only to escape, somehow afford the reversal treatment, and begin to live a real life, with real feelings. He is bought by a rich (and sinister) man as a present for his wife while he himself is away (with the warning never to touch his daughter from an earlier marriage). The story follows the strange intense religious/sexual/culinary/self-discovering relationship between the wife, the daughter, and the narrator. And it is not merely the women using the narrator; as the old cook Gustave says, "I know you believe that you love her, my friend, but you do not. You only love what she can do for you." I should add that the story is much stranger, and much more memorable, than I have been able to indicate in this quick summary.

(The story is grim, not funny. But it does contain my Line of the Week: "We might as well be friends, Antonio. Considering that you will be screwing my wife before the week is out.")

So, in summary, an excellent read from start to finish, well worth risking sidelong glances in the pew. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just off to look at the cover again. (I didn't say I admired only the Sigourney Weaver type...)

(*** This is possibly the most blatant and disgusting abuse of a review slot to be witnessed this century. I am fully aware of this. I am insolently unrepentant. I am beyond the pale. Browned by too much Spanish sun. I don't care. The writers above all have fame, glory, and pelf (and most likely hair and teeth, blast 'em!) while this poor lowly reviewer merely has half a packet of old ginger biscuits and an annual royalty cheque of $11.85. The world is manifestly unjust. In an unjust world, justice cannot be sought by just means. However, Whispers of Wickedness is proud to open up this competition to a wider public: anyone who can provide evidence of a viler, more intestine-twisting, wince-enhancing, yuk-engendering self-plug than the one above (which, you will remember, was for Who Needs Cleopatra? Details at www.readreverb.com Oh my God, how am I able to live with myself? ) is invited to send their contribution (vacuum sealed, for god's sake!) to the mysterious Lady D on the Forums here. The winner (if there is one, which we doubt) may be invited to partake of cakes and tea with the Lady D herself; alternatively, she or he might be disembowelled on the spot--the Lady D is after all a woman, and therefore as unpredictable as Cleopa... arrghh, stop, treacherous quill!!)

Interzone, edited by Andy Cox and published bi-monthly by TTA Press, 5 Martins Lane, Witcham, Ely, Cambs CB6 2LB, UK. A4, 68pp, £3.50/$7US or £21/$42US for 6 issues (for other countries see ordering details on website).

Website: - www.ttapress.com


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