INTERZONE #212

Reviewed by Steve Redwood

This issue has lost its glorious colour, due it seems to some last-minute hitch (the printers were attacked by one of the Sighters from the lead story?) which is a pity, but I think you soon forget its absence. The fiction (including its fine illustrations) takes up almost exactly two-thirds of the magazine's sixty-four pages, so there's plenty of other stuff for people who want to know about SF as well as read it. A quick glance at those abouts first. Ansible Link's usual delightful snippets, and a couple of pages of writers blowing the mag a kiss to celebrate its twenty-fifth year, precede the fiction, and reviews and interviews follow it. Nick Lowe on film is as incisive as ever (I love the coinage 'heroic trudging movie' to categorize LOTR and Eragon!), this time with interesting background detail on a new version of Tales from Earthsea, and perhaps surprising views on Fantastic Four. Tony Lee reviews some DVDs, again with perhaps surprising views on Star Trek Voyager, and a nice defence of poor old Space 1999, though one does wonder why he ever bothered to get hold of some of the other abysmal DVDs he reviews. The book reviews lead off as usual with John Clute, almost comprehensible this time round, reviewing Richard Kadrey's Butcher Bird and Peter Straub's Sides, the latter of which apparently takes a poke at the great critic himself. Next, Kevin Stone not only reviews a couple of Charles Stross' books, but also conducts a small but to-the-point interview with him. Four more pages of book reviews by regular contributors follow, before the magazine finishes with a useful list of genre-related British podcasts compiled by Paul Jenkins.

So, the fiction. In general, it is good (you don't expect a bad story in Interzone!) but overall not as good as in other issues. Only two of the five stories are wholly successful.

Feelings of the Flesh by Douglas Cohen. An uneven story, with too many inconsistencies and lapses of tone and register. The very first paragraphs illustrate some of these. We have a group of armpit-scratching 'man-shaped creatures', dressed in animal skins, carrying 'monstrous' axes, with belts made of 'human skin', who nevertheless have in a nice civilised way set out a table (and two benches) laden with nice civilised food such as 'chickens, wine, eggs, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and breads'. Since they also plan to eat a woman conveniently tied to a nearby tree, one does wonder how these monsters, with 'bloated stomachs' and 'slavering mouths' ever got round to making wine, cheese, and breads, and neatly laying them out on a table in a glen. Our hero Tarrik, after watching them indulge in 'the Feast of the Glutton' in 'grim silence', rapidly does them in. 'Gore and brains' soon fly. Upon killing the fifth monster, our hero wipes 'his blade off on its flea-ridden clothes'. He then looks at the girl, who just happens to have 'long legs and swanlike neck'.

OK, I'm being a bit naughty here, and it does get better, much better, later--the scene immediately following, for example, where the girl realises she's lost her sense of taste, is well done--but this beginning does make it a bit hard to get into the more serious story that follows. Put very briefly, we're in a post-Apocalyptic world with a lot of mutants who can steal humans' separate senses, such as taste or sight. Even in science fiction this is stretching things too much, so I choose to read it as fantasy. Tarrik is a bounty hunter, his real purpose being to hunt down a super Aberrate (mutant), Olethia, who three years before killed his love, Zaleen. Weyna, the girl rescued from the tree, is very similar to that woman, but Tarrik is not open to new love, being obsessed only with revenge. This uneven relationship is very well presented. As is the plot, where Olethia is deliberately leaving clues for the bounty hunter to follow, in order to increase his suffering. Weyna seems to be receiving telepathic messages, and it turns out that not all Aberrates are mindless monsters like the Tasters. So, after a very shaky start, and once we accept that senses can be stolen, and forgiving things like the Listener's flapping ears, or Aberrates who had never realised humans didn't like their senses being stolen (or apparently, judging from the opening Tasters, their bodies being eaten), we have a strong exciting adventure story, with lots of (logical) twists and turns, and the Hollywood hero of the beginning becomes something very different and more tragic: as Weyna says to him, “you've turned her [Zaleen's] memory into a monster... and it's eating you alive.” Halfway through, the viewpoint changes, successfully I think, and we see events through Weyna's eyes, and her realisation that another way is possible. So, overall, a success, I think, if a flawed one (the illustration, by a certain Warwick Fraser-Coombe--now that's what I call a real name!--perfectly captures the initial comic book quality of this story).

This cunning reference to comic books just happens to lead into the next story, or stories, Ack-Ack Macaque, by Gareth Lyn Powell. 'Stories', because on the one hand we have an anime character, a cigar-smoking monkey in an airship pulled by twelve hundred skeletal oxen, turning into, or being turned into, an AI, and instead of fighting villainous red barons like Baron Von Richter-Scale (nice!) it sets about bringing down modern German passenger airliners and finally ushering in a kind of mini-Apocalypse (will you all hiss if I call this genre Cybermunk?); and on the other hand, a girl-leaves-boy story, and boy-reacts-very-badly. Of course, apart from the obvious connection that the girl in question is the creator of the original harmless Ack-Ack Macaque, there is I guess supposed to be a deeper connection, but if there is, it didn't really work for me. The girl seems entirely selfish, interested only in her anime work and commercial success, and so her conversion at the end is utterly unconvincing. The boy does indeed keep in character, not caring at all about the destruction around him so long as he gets the girl back. The Baron is good fun, but the crazy AI theme is not exactly new, and the more serious love story simply didn't work for me. One of those stories you enjoy the actual reading of, but unlike the stories on either side of it, it doesn't seem to resonate afterwards. (Someone--Jack Chalmont?--suggests that the physical destruction may simply be a reflection of the boy's disintegrating state of mind; I didn't read it that way, but I don't deny the possibility. It would be interesting if the writer answered this point on the Interzone forums.)

I read Beth Bernobich's A Handful of Pearls three times (no slacking at Whispers Towers, under the pitiless control of Peter 'the Tingler' Tennant!), looking for something which I finally decided probably wasn't there. First and most obviously there's nothing at all science fictional about the piece, and we wouldn't even know it was an alien world apart from a double mention of twin moons, green beaches, and some possibly mythological hunters, the pemburu, recalling the Wild Hunt. What are the chances of an alien world also having universities with tenures and frogs and turtles? Then I lost time wondering about the expedition members. Since they were so earthlike, with Japanese or Chinese-sounding names, I expected the expedition to have been one from Earth to the planet, and natives don't usually call their islands by names like XTI-19S137W-IA! But there is no indication anywhere that they have come from anywhere other than the planet they're now on. I pondered the possible implication of the 'solar sails', then decided this was just a detail thrown in, like so many others, that really wasn't intrinsic to the story.

OK, I thought, so let's say it's fantasy, and go on from there. After all, there's a giant called Bej Saihan with features that 'look as if they have been 'haphazardly shaped ... from a muddy lump of clay'. And he has inhumanly good tracking skills. Ah ha! Could he be somehow related to the wild girl discovered on the island? An avatar of the god Ame-no who has the first paragraph all to himself, and so must be relevant--mustn't he? Will Bej be the one to exact vengeance on the protagonist Yan for raping the little girl (I'll come back to that)? But no, in the end he's just a good hunter. Come on, Steve, think, you silly old sod! The girl, then? She can't speak because she's had her tongue cut out, apparently by other natives. But.... there are references to another expedition that discovered the tikaki people with their 'regenerative blood', and on the-revolver-in-Act-One theory, that might be a clue that this girl also has 'powers'. The protagonist has awful dreams about being pursued along a ridge (and the girl was found on a ridge)--Ah ha! (again) the nightmares the protagonist has are really her memories, and in one dream the protagonist even slips on a rock like the girl slipped when Bej was chasing her... my god, Steve, you're a genius, she's telepathic, that's what, and the irony of the story is that the expedition leaves the island not knowing they have indeed discovered their miracle! And...and, oh how perceptive I am!--even the leader of the expedition might just possibly have been 'influenced' by her (“I'm surprised, too, at how much he's willing to do for the poor thing”). But no, in the end none of this washes, the nightmares, influenced by the folk tales about this world, simply arise from guilt and fear of discovery and vengeance. All this detail, plus the setting, are all packaging with ribbons.

At this point, I wrote 'red herrings' in the margin. Neither the science fictional nor the fantastical significances I was looking for are there. This is a mainstream story about a man who has already ill-treated one woman, and now goes further, and rapes a little girl, and gets away with it. It is a study of how he excuses himself at every point. It shows how he feels no guilt (except in dreams) but only fear that he might be discovered. It is a subtly-presented judgement, because on the first occasion, he represses his desires, and later, at the end, his intention (he thinks) is simply to talk to her. It is the girl who initiates the violence. But we are seeing things through his twisted egocentric perspective. In this respect, the story is excellent, bitter but restrained, and the rape itself is sudden, shocking, and perfectly placed from a story viewpoint, with the single telling detail that when he forces himself into her, 'the stump of flesh, all that was left of her tongue, worked against his, as though she were trying to speak'. And there is the vicious irony that at the start of the story, the arrival at this island is his 'second chance'--“this time I will not stumble”--and at the end, after he has more than stumbled, as they head for another island, 'a new island meant a new chance'. On both occasions, he draws in deep lungfuls of the ocean air. This is a version of Of Mice and Men with a Lennie the opposite of innocent.

In short, as a mainstream study of self-deception, and an acknowledgement that far too often justice is not served, this is a very good story, and powerfully told, but I feel that either there should have been no attempt to wrap the thing up in borrowed SFnal clothes, or, on the contrary, much more attention should have been paid to this aspect.

Change of pace with Dada Jihad by Will McIntosh. Another Apocalyptic piece, though here showing only a segment of the beginning of what may turn out to be the end. The near-future President of USA obviously hasn't listened to Al Gore, despite his Nobel--“'We have to keep the economy going', the President says, while the fucking ocean is lapping at our ankles”, as one character puts it--and there's also a war on with China and the stock market has collapsed. Various groups of urban terrorists roam the streets, some like the totally dispossessed Jumpy-Jumps who simply want to kill and maim randomly, some eco-terrorists who aim for less destructive disruption. A secret cabal of scientists calling itself the Science Alliance of Atlanta intends to cause havoc through various means such as GM bamboo roots which will grow overnight, lift the streets of Chicago, and bring commerce to a halt. But their main weapon is Doctor Happy, contaminated blood that will make people (especially 'pro-business or pro-Government-looking types) too happy to do anything at all.

The main character, Ange, is connected to, but apart from, this group, partly because she wants her Ph.D at all costs (mainly to put one over on her family who see her only as a druggie drop-out), but also because she is more genuinely concerned about 'collateral' damage to innocent civilians (for instance, those who might starve if food supplies are stopped). A subplot concerns a slimy university professor, Ange's doctoral supervisor, who has made it clear he won't allow her to get her doctorate unless he gets to fuck her. And a further subplot concerns a local psychotic Jumpy-Jump who constantly menaces Ange. When her beloved dog, Uzi, is killed, and the violence touches her directly, Ange finally has to come off the fence and decide whether to fully join the rebels or opt for the Establishment.

This is perhaps the most successful story in the magazine. It's true that the Science Alliance don't seem to be doing anything actually constructive (can you really prepare for utter destruction by encouraging minor destruction?) , but this is not a political essay, but a story centred on a group of well-differentiated people who make their choices for different reasons, and a 'snapshot' of a society in freefall. (Though dog-lovers won't be very satisfied with the 'revenge' wreaked on Uzi's killer.)

Finally, we have The Algorithm by Tim Akers. I was reminded of a wonderful old trilogy of novellas edited by Silverberg, The Day the Sun Stood Still, where it is postulated that God proves his existence by stopping the sun, and the writers were asked to imagine the consequences. The three stories produce radically different scenarios. In one of them, after initial shock, people simply deny the proof, work their way round it, and go on as before. Here (this is the fourth story in a series set in the weird alternative reality city of Veridon) the proof of God's existence is far more dubious; in fact, there is only a mountain that appears to be made entirely of clockwork, and every so often cogs and other bits of machinery come floating down the river which passes the city, and 'priests' take these as messages from their god, fish them out of the water, and try to assemble them into some meaningful pattern or 'algorithm' in their 'church' made up entirely of such assemblages. Like theologians spending their whole lives studying sentences written on bits of parchment by people suffering sunstroke in the desert, these priests have evolved a system of belief based on their interpretation of the meaning of the bits of mysterious machinery. But one day in one of the caskets floating down the river appears a girl who may really be from the mountain, and the whole theological structure trembles. Most of the Elders wish to discredit her, as a way of leaving their beliefs intact. And when she proves to be much more than a girl, and a real messenger from their 'god' with a message that is completely unacceptable, a message that destroys their life's work, the elders have to choose between a real god and the god they have constructed. Think of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor when he has Jesus in his hands... A superb ending, and the more powerful since it is one of the more open-minded priests who initiates the denouement. Something difficult to capture after the event, the real strength of this story is in the process of reading, in the sense of mystery as it unfolds, as if you've come in on a conversation, and the words make sense, but you still don't know what the others are talking about: a strange fisherman expecting something to float down the river, the opening of a cask and its mysterious contents, the fisherman's mysterious work, the mystery as to why certain elders should fear the girl, the mystery as to why at first she can remember nothing, the mystery as to whose (or what's) messenger she really is... An odd experience, like being off balance all the time, but at the end, highly memorable, potent, with a shocking ending that you realise afterwards ought perhaps not to have shocked you at all. Excellent, perhaps the best story in the magazine. And yes, I know I said that about Dada Jihad, too! I am not from Veridon, allow me my uncertainties.

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

Steve Redwood is the author of Fisher of Devils and Who Needs Cleopatra? His latest story appears in New Writings in the Fantastic ed John Grant.


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