Before I get into looking at the fiction selection in the latest Interzone, I just want to mention the presentation and design. In fact, I just want to mention that I think they’ve got it nailed. The recent change in paper stock and binding enhanced the readability hugely, as has the move to having all the text as black print on white background – having great fiction is only of use if people can actually enjoy the reading of it. Furthermore, the artwork in the current issue is probably the best I’ve seen so far. The cover image by Kenn Brown is very contemporary and skilfully executed; Jim Burns’ work that accompanies The Star Necromancers is in a similar vein and fits well with the story. The other works, while perhaps not as striking as those two, contribute to a very slick finish. A visual treat, as far as this reader is concerned.
So, what of the stories, then?
Opening up, accompanied by that moody techgnostic image from Kenn Brown, is Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark by Jason Stoddard. The tagline and editorial of this issue trumpet a return to the root of science fiction’s appeal to the reader, that nebulous quantity ‘sensawunda’. While recognising that that word means many things to many people (sensawunda being very much in the brain of the beholder), Stoddard’s story merits the term from this reader’s perspective, by providing plenty of food for thought and enough ambiguity for allow for multiple complimentary interpretations.
Softly Shining… is a tale of Second Contact. A starship from Earth with a crew of two posthumans arrives at Alpha Centauri, location of the nearest habitable exoplanet ever discovered in a millennium of searching. Kim was on the first mission to the planet, named Manoa, and it was she who returned to Earth hundreds of years later to report the presence of the Ascendant, a mysterious disembodied group mind that destroyed her colleagues and nearly drove her insane, rendering her socially incompatible with the networked civilisation she returned to. The other crew member, Junno, is a member of the Aztlan, a non-baseline iteration of humanity. He is a mere youth of a few hundred years to Kim, but he too has emotional baggage to carry. The pair re-encounter the Ascendant, but they also discover the palos, which are quasi-conscious organic lifeforms whose sapience is one of the crucial factors affecting the outcome of this reconnaissance mission.
Sensawunda indeed, and a big palette of themes to draw from. The traditional sf fare of posthumanism and its effects on identity, as well as the rarity of intelligent life, is contrasted at the human scale with examinations of openness to ‘the other’ (alien or otherwise), the weight of loss and the ethics of sacrifice. The Ascendant and the palos are tantalisingly obscure, their narratives (and narration) keeping the reader guessing and filling in the gaps of certainty much as Kim and Junno might have done. The climax features the triumph (or perhaps the ascension) of the ‘I’, following the self-sacrifice of those who have nearly forgotten what ‘I’ actually used to mean. Softly Shining… reads equally well as a straight-up story and as a philosophical look at the dissolution of individual identity into more fluid forms – a contemporary and relevant theme.
The next two stories arrive as if deliberately deployed in time to chime with Bruce Sterling’s recent announcement that his Viridian Design movement has achieved what it set out to do, namely elevating the profile of climate catastrophe to mainstream everyday discourse. These tales both embody a way of looking at the world that, although long a science fictional staple, has only recently emerged to be perceived as something more than the hand-waving pseudo-prophecy of cranks and genre authors. Whether this public acceptance of climate science (and all the inconvenient truths that come as part and parcel thereof) will make near-future sf more or less palatable to the average reader remains to be seen; it certainly goes a long way to emphasising the relevance that fandom has always claimed for it.
The darker of the two, G. D. Leeming‘s Empty Clouds, looks at a not-quite-worst-case scenario through the eyes of Inspector Chen Duxin, a type of policeman patrolling the Badlands beyond the gates of Beijing. The sky boils with rogue nanotech, fighting its own factional wars for reasons unclear and unexplained – all that the remaining humans know is that it got loose and started making its own decisions, treating its creators as at best an inconvenience and at worst a potential threat to be casually annihilated. Chen’s job is to round up and apprehend those vulnerable and confused persons who have fallen victim to the vast array of viral religions and ideologies that encourage them to retreat from civilisation and end their lives before the world does it for them. The technology, like the setting, is very Sterling-esque – more than a hint of ribofunk wafts from Chen’s bioengineered animal transport and scout critters. The atmosphere is distinctly hopeless; an arid, dessicated world that appears to have little hope of redemption. Leeming turns things around neatly with the ending, though, with the interesting inversion of embodying the sunshine rays of hope in the form of rain. Empty Clouds is an economical story, rich with implied detail for such a short vignette.
The yang to Leeming’s yin is Jay Lake‘s Where the Water Meets the Sky. Again, we are in a post climate-change world, this time set in the Northwest US. A father takes his young son out to see the old (and largely decommissioned) Bonneville dam, to show him how things were before more efficient and sensible approaches to power generation and ecology were developed. One of the dam’s curators, a girl of Amerindian descent, tells the son an old folk tale about the avatar or god of the river’s salmon, a metaphor for the foolishness and greed of the past. This is very much a story of character – the setting is almost incidental, and therefore in some ways all the more striking in its inferences. The dynamics between father and son are realistic and sympathetic, and in total the tale manages to be positive without being trite or cloying. Compared to its bedfellows, it’s not an especially remarkable piece of work, and is probably the least ‘sensawunda’ piece in the issue, but it demonstrates the power of unobtrusive and thoughtful writing to portray emotion and setting without beating the reader senseless with the theme.
Following this ecological diptych comes a real change of tone, in the form of Islington Crocodiles, a long piece by Paul Meloy taken from a forthcoming TTA Press anthology of his work. It starts off as a gritty British near-noir-future crime caper, chronicling the exploits of the inmates (or players, or both) of the easily-gamed UK youth penal system – for atmosphere, think Guy Ritchie doing Bill Gibson, just with less technology and with more Cockney rhyming slang. A young sociopath and Ronnie Kray wannabe has been nudged into stealing the legendary Stone of London, using his ‘boys’ to prise it from the wall of a Chinese bank with a bulldozer, so that he can use it to fulfil what he is told is to be his destiny as the new king of the hill. That is where things start to reach a whole new level of weirdness. Despite some foreshadowing, the reader is caught by surprise with the change in events, largely because the preceding descriptions of small-time petty criminals and their doings is so intimate and detailed. When supernatural oddness starts coming from every angle, the cognitive dissonance centres of the brain hit high gear very quickly, bombarded by an influx of interdimensional beings, gods and demons, ultrapsychic children and the avatar of England’s soul itself – even Jack the Ripper gets a brief look-in.
Meloy’s writing is strong and effective, not just in his ability to turn the narrative through impossible angles just when you think you know exactly where you’re standing, but in the characterisations of the losers and ne’er-do-wells that populate the story. From a personal perspective, the vibe was a little bit too Guy Ritchie – an overly violent and almost-cliched ‘eel pie and a cor blimey, guvnor’ slice of the British underworld that this reader remains to be convinced actually exists as portrayed on the ‘true’ crime shelves of bookstores and libraries. But the writing makes that irrelevant – even if you don’t believe in the characters that much, you’re still curious to know what happens to them next. It will be interesting to encounter more of Meloy’s work in future, if only to see whether or not he has the diversity to work the same magic in front of different backdrops.
Last of all we come to The Star Necromancers by Alexander Marsh Freed, and step back into the sensawunda vibe we started with. Freed has used that Wolfe-ish trick of going so deep into the future that science fiction becomes hard to accurately distinguish from fantasy, at least as far as narrative is concerned. A posthuman civilisation is visited by the titular Necromancers, who beguile and flatter the planet’s leader, the Gloriarch, into letting them tinker with and resurrect their dead sun. Throw in a few betrayals and changes of role, and a good dash of scientific side-salad, and serve as a parable about hubris.
The minor problem is that which accompanies many such deep-future posthuman tales, in that it’s hard for the writer to humanise the characters enough to encourage any genuine empathy in the reader. To be sure, there’s a great story here, and some immense ideas and conceits – but it all feels very removed and dreamlike from the reader’s point of view, and hence disappointing in a way that a more pedestrian plot would not have been. It’s as if Freed set his own bar a bit too high – which in many ways is no bad thing, as it’s good to see writers really stretching themselves. Perhaps the piece merely suffers from following something so close to the bone and street-level as Islington Crocodiles. Whatever the cause, it would be a mistake to dismiss The Star Necromancers as a poor or shoddy piece of writing, when in truth it just lacks a certain indefinable something to make it really shine. Perhaps it is merely to Freed’s minor misfortune to have had a perfectly good story placed in a magazine loaded with exceptional ones.
Another very satisfactory issue of Interzone, as far as I am concerned. As this is the magazine’s twenty-fifth year, we are told to expect a celebratory tone to the next few issues, and if this one is anything to go by, I don’t think I’m going to be disappointed. I work on the theory that if half of the stories in a magazine get my brain turning, that issue has been a success; by that metric, any magazine that has a full complement of fiction I can enjoy is batting above average.
(Full disclosure – I am a member of Interzone‘s novel reviews team.)