INTERZONE #205

Reviewed by Steve Redwood

This sixty-four-page issue boasts--I believe one could even say, flaunts--a Jim Burns cover, with a Brigitte Bardot-lipped and Ornella Muti-shaped semi-clothed (well, a bit less) lady holding a sinister reptilian bird, and a superb alien landscape part of which is unfortunately, if necessarily, hidden by the credits. Perhaps it might have been better to have omitted the lady and kept the magnificent landscape; I love semi-naked ladies almost as much as naked ones, and this cover is flamboyant and striking, just right to attract shelf browsers in that elusive Eldorado, the real shop, but a bit misleading maybe for those expecting to wallow in relaxing pap inside. Still, glorious colours, and the inside of the magazine too almost glows with quality. The use of colour throughout seems to have been very carefully thought out, restrained in parts but exploding bloodily on our vision when appropriate, as in the design and illustrating of David Mace's story.

Inside, we have more or less the same lay out as recent Interzones--the inimitable Ansible (the ever-vigilant Thog spots 'her shining hair absorbs all light'!), followed (after one interview) by fiction, film reviews, interviews and book reviews and commentaries. These are of the quality one has come to expect, with the added bonus of a dual look at James Tiptree, Jr.

The first story, This Happens, is not strictly fiction, as the author, David Mace, points out, but a fictionalised account of conflated real events. A daughter, mother, and grandmother are killed unintentionally by a 'surgical strike' on an enemy supposedly hiding in the house next door. The only 'sci-fi' in the story is that we see the detailed unfolding of the disaster backwards, going as it were from death to life: it unhappens. And this simple inversion works! Just how, I'm not quite certain. Obviously, from being unusual; from having a more complicated structure than at first appears; from a masterly use of language. But also, I think, because by going from death to life, we are more forcibly reminded of what has been so easily destroyed. The detail is unnerving: 'The doll hasn't met the flame front yet... the doll is intact now. It's squeezing itself into a five-year-old hand. Mervet, the owner of the hand, has barely noticed the disconnection between doll and hand, between hand and arm, nor the thread of brilliant blood erupting in between'. I feel bad just copying that--and that's what the author intended: to make us think and feel what 'collateral damage' really means. Yes, the message is rather heavily underlined towards the end, but not enough to detract from the force of the story and the fierce language and imagery. Taken with Chris Nurse's stunning artwork, this is a powerful, shocking opening to the fiction section of the magazine.

I made the mistake of reading Sean McMullen's The Measure of Eternity straight after This Happens, and perhaps inevitably, with its fantasy trappings and cod 'epic' language ('The like of Ubar had never been known in all the world's history', 'Ubar, city of many towers', etc.) it at first struck me as shallow and derivative. However, the story soon takes off, with an ageing if still beautiful courtesan, seventy-nine of whose 'sisters in pleasure' have vanished once the King lost interest in them, discussing her problem with the narrator, a mysterious handmaid with unspecified powers. We are just getting into this, when the story changes tack, and concentrates on a strange beggar who spends all day proclaiming to passers by that he has nothing. This 'nothing' turns out to be the mathematical zero, and most of the rest of the story (apart from a bit of typical fantasy revenge killing) turns out to be a paean to the power and beauty of the concept of zero. There's no doubting the skill of McMullen's writing, and I may indeed in future be able to perceive the beauty of the hitherto ugly zeros in my bank balance, but I feel the two strands do not fit together too well (the reason for the murder of the beggar is a bit recherché). That said, it was a most unusual reading experience, and the final impression is one of bravura and audacity.

Numbers also feature in the next two stories, too. In the River by Jason Stanchfield is a rather fine story involving the arrival on the edge of the solar system of a six-kilometre-long alien spaceship. An Earth ship is sent there, and Jenna, the protagonist, is given implants of alien nerve tissue which allow her to live for months in their liquid environment, and to communicate with them through an olfactory node. The intention is that she will thus be able to learn how they harvest 'zero-point energy' to travel through space. But she almost loses her humanity while with them, and feels desperately alone when pulled out. Just as she realises the basis of their numbering system, the aliens warn that they are about to leave, giving no reason. Jenna has to immerse herself again to save a companion-cum-rival... There are weaknesses in the story: having only the numbers 'one' and 'a greater-one' allows the aliens to manipulate space time; how? "I'm not a physicist" is the only answer. The story would have been better without this unsatisfactory and unnecessary mcguffin. There is also what seems to me at times a rather inconsistent subplot involving Jenna's husband's infidelity while she was immersed in the alien world. But the depiction of the aliens is utterly convincing in that at no time do we get even a hint of their motives, and they can be both unpredictably violent and pitiless, and loving and understanding. And the real power of the story lies in the feelings of loss that Jenna experiences when she is no longer with them. All in all, an unusual and moving tale.

A complete change of pace and tone comes with Rudy Rucker and Terry Bisson's 2+2=5 (2 less than the mad computer's calculation in Lem's Cyberiad!). This is a delightful little jeu d'esprit, not just for the central concept of a universe built on holes like tent pegs, but also for the incidental details that 'humanize' the story, such as the bantering mutual affection between the two lead oldies, or the mad Buddhist monk in Wichita, who's been counting aloud for two years, and is now well over the twelve million mark. The narrator, with a bit of technological help (a 'fully-coherent nuclear-magnetic-resonant dark-matter-powered Accelerandodrome', what else?) manages to count past Googol (you all know what that is, I hope!) until he comes to a number that cannot be spoken or written or even thought. But that's not the only number that doesn't exist...

Finally, we have a novella, Blue Glass Pebbles, by Steven Mills. In essence, the plot goes back to at least early Silverberg, people infected with sleeper 'moles' which can be activated from a distance to kill. There is, of course, much more to the story than this, in that the person who has done the infecting is Jo-Jo, the ex-Premier of the new state of Western Canada, which, in a near future where climate change has desertified large parts of the planet, has become independent in order to trade its increasingly precious water. The new non-military state has been invaded by 'transnationals', who are no longer willing to pay for the water. The story centres on Jo-Jo's son Ian, who once worked on 'moles' to target cancer cells, etc., his estranged daughter Dahlia, member of a militant eco group, and Saul, an eighty-nine-year-old former member of Jo-Jo's nationalist party. These three have been sent by Jo-Jo into the Valhalla mountains to find a 'mole habitat', which contains an antidote to the moles which are about to destroy a good 80% of the world's population. As the antidote can only work by direct physical contact, the three will only be able to save a limited number of 'chosen' people (Jo-Jo sees herself as the Angel of Death, and the three as the Angels of Mercy). The narrative itself consists of these people journeying into the mountains and finally meeting up.

This is a tricky one to comment on. There's a fascinating extrapolation of current economic and climatic trends, interesting ideas about how far you go to 'purify' a planet, beautifully realised settings, and a worthy concentration on the motives of the characters. But the latter, precisely, is one of the problems: because of the plurality of POVs, there is a lack of narrative focus, and each combination of characters only seems to repeat what we have learned almost from the beginning listening to another combination of characters. The only narrative progress is towards the mole habitat in the cave, and we have already been told more than once what it must contain, so it's hardly a surprise when we find out what it does contain! In addition, the characters tend to have too many visions or dreams, and to be reflecting all the time on their pasts. The blue glass pebbles themselves are used to represent too many things. There is repetition too in the type of imagery, some of which might well excite the mighty Thog himself: 'a sudden terror dripped inside him, spreading a cold puddle of fear'; 'sudden cold fear had coursed electric through her chest'; 'Saul's heart dropped like a stone in water'; 'paralysing him with a squirming, liquid fear'. And so on. I feel cruel writing this, after all the effort the writer has obviously made to produce an original story and well-rounded characters with their own histories, but the sense of repetition, of seeking too much for effect, was niggling me all through the reading, and the final section concentrating on a rejuvenated Saul seemed off-key, almost trivial, considering we already have two billion dead by this time. But nonetheless, a story well worth reading.

There are four pages (half taken up with pics) of Nick Lowe's Mutant Popcorn film reviews, and as usual, it's the way he says it as much as what he says which is the attraction: 'The story archive is reviewed for two or three available villains, to be stitched together into a single plot by brutal rounds of narrative Darwinism in which writers and drafts get crunched up by a development machine that eventually spits out its preferred composite of everyone's incompatible ideas'. Here we get the Lowe-down (ouch!) on X-Men: The Last Stand, Silent Hill, The Thief Lord, and Slither.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Andrew Hedgecock is giving up interviewing, which would be a great loss. His style of interspersing information and opinion in his own voice with the interviewee's own words always makes for a rich and rewarding experience, even when, as in the case of Steve Erickson, I haven't read a word by the author. The first in-depth interview, for instance, touches on such diverse topics as fusion of literary styles, the 'meaning' of Los Angeles, the Promises and Betrayals of American history, the dangers of both secular and spiritual ideologies, and sexuality as 'the last battleground' between progressive and puritanical forces in the US. Hedgecock's second interview (and review) with Paul Di Filippo is likewise interesting, as is David Lee Stone's with the helpfully 'c'-less Steven Erikson.

The other reviews start off with John Clute lambasting Adam Roberts for allowing a determined dedication to a thesis to spoil both his fiction (Gradisil) and his criticism (The History of Science Fiction). Clute argues his case closely and with his usual erudition, but I would like to see Roberts given a chance to reply in the pages of Interzone. For me, it would be like Jason looking up at Harryhausen's monsters locked in mortal combat. The other major review is of Julie Phillips' new biography of James Tiptree, Jr. The book is examined by two reviewers, though the presence of a 'Kincaid' in both names suggests some connection. The reviews made me wish I had access to an English library, in order to reread Tiptree on the spot. There are four more pages of shorter reviews, all of the standard one would expect of Interzone.

In short (the long-winded old sod said at last), another fine issue of Britain's longest-running science fiction magazine, with fiction and other sections to appeal to a wide range of readers.

Steve Redwood is the author of Fisher of Devils (Prime Books) and Who Needs Cleopatra? (www.readreverb.com), and a contributor to the Thackery T Lambshead Guide and The Mammoth Book of New Comic Fantasy.

Interzone, edited by Andy Cox and published bi-monthly by TTA Press, 5 Martins Lane, Witcham, Ely, Cambs CB6 2LB, UK. A4, 68pp, £3.75/$7US or £21/$42US for 6 issues (for other countries see ordering details on website).

Website: - www.ttapress.com


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