Reviewed by John Saxton

I was pleased to have the opportunity of reviewing Interzone, which is a publication that regularly catches my eye (and wallet) when stalking the aisles of Borders, Waterstones, et al.

The first thing that hits the eye is the very visually striking front cover, illustrated by the featured artist for this issue, Douglas A. Sirois. The leering, leafy-green face stares out of empty eye-sockets, with a mysterious smile that intrigues and invites you in... In fact, it could have been a character from one of the featured stories--but more of that later.

In the opening pages, Interzone celebrates its 25th birthday, with a host of glowing commendations from some top names. Here are a couple:-

“...the backbone of the British SF industry...” (Terry Pratchett).

“Interzone has been a crucial showcase for science fiction and fantasy in the UK since its first issue.” (Ellen Datlow).

Well, with comments like that, I expected Interzone to impress. It didn't disappoint.

The fiction opens up with The Final Voyage of La Riaza by Jayme Lynn Blaschke. This is a completely other-worldly tale of sky-sailors and pirates. Blaschke skillfully develops the plot with characters that interact well, weaving well-written dialogue that really does let them breathe on the page. Descriptively, the piece is vivid and detailed, bringing the alien landscape to life. A real rollercoasting swashbuckler, the tale itself seemed to end a little abruptly, like a heavily applied brake. This was in keeping, though, with the style of the writing--blunt, pacey and unashamedly cold. I almost got the impression that a sequel could come after this; the characters were so strong. A great opener for the issue.

There is a complete contrast in the next story. A strange premise (far-fetched, one might say) involves the wearing of the heart on the sleeve, in the most literal sense. In Heartstrung, however, Rachel Swirsky draws the reader in with such elegant and immediate prose (she uses the present tense to great effect) that the whole premise becomes oddly plausible. The relationship between a mother and a young girl on the brink of adolescence, is set against the backdrop of a suppressed, establishment-controlled society (think Orwell's 1984, then, intensify). Emotion is removed, as the heart is taken out and stitched to the sleeve. This ritual is carried out by the girl's mother, and the twist comes as the parent herself (the seamstress) scratches her own sleeve-sewn heart, as the needle snaps. With each drop of blood spilt, a little more of the seamstress' own memories, regrets, joys, come flowing back. The ending to this tale is a juxtaposition of sadness and relief; with the mother's death comes her craved-for release. Very moving and original, and a tough act to follow.

However... For me, the strongest tale of the issue starts on the very next page. The enigmatically-titled Tearing down Tuesday, by Steven Francis Murphy, is a story of age-old sin corrupting future society. The friendship of an orphan boy, Kyle, with a dilapidated robot (the eponymously-named Tuesday) is excellently scripted, and the sense of isolation is something that is shared by them both. Tuesday's apparent inefficiency soon starts costing his owner, Audrey Young, a lot of money that she can't afford to lose. Kyle is horrified to discover that she has put Tuesday up for sale, and sets out on a quest to acquire enough cash to buy the 'bot himself. Kyle's subsequent abuse at the hands of the Reverend Robinson (“...come to my hotel room and pray with me...”) enables him to 'earn' Tuesday's price--but the Reverend pays too, with his life--hurrah! It emerges, though, that Tuesday's 'inefficiency' was, in fact, a series of attempts to self-destruct--commit suicide--as he couldn't bear the memories of Kyle's earlier abuse at the hands of his father. When Kyle returns from slaying the Reverend, he finds Tuesday in pieces, ready to be sold for parts; his own decision, Audrey tells Kyle. The final scenes, where Kyle releases Tuesday's soul brought a tear to the eye. At times brutal, at others elegant - but always powerful - Murphy's narrative is outstanding.

Harlan Ellison's sprawling part-summary of his friendship and literary relationship with Ted Sturgeon comes next, and offers a unique insight into the minds of both men. It is, essentially, an extended eulogy and, as such, a pungent mixture of the bitter and the sweet. Ellison certainly sells the case for (re)reading Sturgeon, whilst giving what is a very honest portrait of the artist as a man; though, Ellison states several times, “Most of what I know about Ted Sturgeon, I cannot tell you.”

For the majority of the time, this came across as a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to a gifted friend and to days gone by; though, here and there, it seemed a bit of a whinge at the mediocrity of the world and the people in it. Overall, though, a most illuminating article.

Dr Abernathy's Dream Theater by David Ira Cleary is a cleverly-written tale about the contrasting natures of science and dream; a scientist's attempt to capture and record the essence of dreams. A near-disastrous experiment, due to jealousy (yes, boys and girls, and all that), brings this enjoyable tale to its thought-provoking climax.

The tale of a bleak future, and the exploits of a father and his son within it, is the offering from Tim Lees. Preachers paints on the imagined-canvas of a godless society, in which the 'preachers' are gun-slinging, hard-talking thugs, basically, who bully the desperate and the weak into their own vision of God's way forward. I really liked the way that Tim portrayed the character of the father, and the sense of the son's loss at the end of the story is potent.

The final story of this issue is Toke by Tim Akers. The title refers to a narcotic substance contained in the bodies of scarecrows (no, stick with it!) that has devastating effects on those who smoke it. At the heart of it, this is a horror story--and a damn good one, too. But it's more than that; it's highly-original in its premise and its setting, and it certainly contains a clear moral tone. The terrible consequences of peer-group pressure and mob mentality are expertly-handled in this tale of regret and fractured hope. A tall order to close the fiction show in such a strong issue, but Tim Akers pulls it off, in style.

We're almost there, but it remains to come back to the superb work of the featured artist, Douglas A. Sirois. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, illustrations can prove to be an unnecessary distraction from the stories themselves; not in this case. Douglas has exquisitely realized powerful sections of all the tales. I found myself looking, and looking again. He gives an insight into his own thinking, as an introduction to each of the tales he illustrates, which is a useful accompaniment. The atmosphere and depth of the pictures are a great advert for this most talented artist.

On the basis of this issue, there seems little doubt that Interzone is going to be around for a long, long time to come. And to finish this review, I come full circle and return to the tributes mentioned earlier; I love the way that Dominic Green phrases his sentiments, and I reckon they're a fitting conclusion to this piece: “Happy 25th birthday. God bless Interzone and all who sail in her, and death dealt by ninja midgets from below to her enemies.”

Nothing more to add.

Interzone, edited by Andy Cox and published bi-monthly by TTA Press, 5 Martins Lane, Witcham, Ely, Cambs CB6 2LB, UK. A4, 76pp, £3.75/$7US or £21/$42US for 6 issues (for other countries see ordering details on website).

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