Interzone celebrates twenty five years of continuous publication with this, its two hundred and ninth issue. The fiction offering is supplied by a mix of old hands who owe a part of their current standing to the magazine (most notably M. John Harrison, whose work appeared in the first ever issue) and some new hot properties.
Hal Duncan‘s The Whenever at the City’s Heart comes immediately after an interview with the man himself. I’ve not read any of Duncan’s fiction before now, although I’ve read plenty of interviews with him, as well as his legendarily verbose blog posts – and therein lies a slight problem. The thing with Duncan is that reading him talking about fiction (his own or anyone else’s) has the same sort of effect on me as descriptions of modern art shows – I’m seduced and intrigued, I long to go and have a long look around, but I’m also infected with some curious repulsion, stemming from a sense of my own inadequate qualifications as a consumer of high culture. In other words, what if I just don’t grok it? I’m somehow afraid of making myself feel a fool.
The Whenever … allays these fears somewhat. Oh, it’s a stylistic and literary experiment of bold proportions, and no mistake, but it’s not as obfuscatory and elitist as I had frightened myself into thinking it would be. That said, if it wasn’t for the tiny amount of experience with poetry that I’ve accrued in the past few years, I think I would have still been very much at sea. Duncan wrings every phrase and sentence for as much music as he can, and what might appear cumbersome at first reveals an incredible degree of attention to detail when read aloud (or at least subvocalised in the silence of your own head). Only then can you really attempt to understand what Duncan loves about writing, and how it informs his view of the world.
Which does leave him open to accusations of literary masturbation, I suppose – I can imagine that some readers might be put off by what could appear as an monumental edifice of pretentiousness. But this story, like a collage or pointillist painting, manages to sketch enough close-range snapshots of Duncan’s fictional universe to allow a reader to see that the ideas and the language he uses are, by their very nature, inextricable. Language, it appears, means more in the Vellum than a simple means of communication – it is the fabric of reality itself.
As far as being a free-standing story is concerned, it has some faults, in that it feels more like a slice from some far vaster work – which in many ways it is, of course. There’s no beginning-middle-end, no linearity to lead the reader through a series of ideas. Instead you get a gyre of images, symbols and seemingly disconnected events, a kaleidoscope (collide-o-scope?) of scenes that document a cataclysm of collapse in a city that seems predicated on systems merely hinted at obliquely. It’s fascinating and baffling at once, and I want to read more. I’m still not sure I have grokked it, after all, but I’m willing to attempt an ascent of the mountain, having seemingly conquered a foothill. It’s an expedition that will have to be carefully planned and trained for, I think.
Next we have Winter by Jamie Barras, which starts off with the tones of a Wyndham-esque cosy catastrophe, captured within the framework of something far larger. From the quiet start in a rural Yorkshire town in the years not long after World War 2, the gradual revealment of a secret neural engineering project blooms slowly in fragments as the narrative skips between the 1950s and the present day, but in the final third it all comes out in a rush of personal confession and switched identities. It’s as if Barras switched gears, moving from the measured hints of pure sf-nal storytelling to a hurried download of the entire backstory, and it’s a real shame: the story’s core is excellent, and the early stages are tantalisingly obfuscatory, but I desperately wanted the denouement to work in the same way. I felt I’d have enjoyed it much more if it had been a little longer, if it had taken a little more time and drawn out the conclusion instead of dumping it in my lap as a lump. Hence my unwillingness to talk too much about the actual plot in this review – I don’t believe in ‘spoilers’, really, but I think you’ll enjoy this piece far more if you come to it without too much foreknowledge.
Gripes about pacing aside, however, Barras has a brisk sparse writing style that serves his subject material well, and his offhand and understated treatment of technologies and novums is expert-level stuff. I’ve enjoyed his previous stories in Interzone (The Beekeeper, for example), and I hope to see more of them.
M. John Harrison is a writer who deserves far more attention than I have yet given him, another situation that I hope to rectify over time. I read Nova Swing a few months back, and was so stunned by it I couldn’t actually bring myself to attempt to review it – I was convinced I couldn’t do it justice, not without re-reading it at least once. The Good Detective is a short piece of work that, while having a uniquely British magic realism vibe to it, still captures the style and atmosphere that makes Nova Swing such a vivid and enveloping experience. You don’t read Harrison’s fiction; instead, you end up walking around inside it much like his narrators and characters – a little bewildered, but loving the scenery.
This story, like its eponymous narrator, hovers at the borders of consensus reality, straddling the line between the world and the way that the world is seen. What initially appears to be a simple tale about a detective who hunts down runaways becomes something far less certain, far less tangible. Harrison has a fascination with interstitial existences, as well as the skill to suggest far more than his writing ever tells you directly, leaving you with a firm idea of what you think he has tried to say but with no way of proving it. There is a peculiar strength to stories that cannot be explained in concrete terms, as if their fluidity allows them to seep into the cracks of the real world and take up a life independent of their writers and readers alike, and I can already imagine Harrison’s detective wandering London in search of a nebulous quarry for as long as there is still a London for him to wander.
Big Cat is a Gwyneth Jones story, set in the same universe as her ‘Bold As Love’ series of novels – another much fêted body of work that I have yet to encounter. The basic core of the story is a re-spin of the perennial ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’ riff, which takes on new meaning in this setting of ecological politics and the rock and roll revolution. But the story takes the back seat to Jones’s characters – or rather, the characters are the story and the plot is a mere convenience, a framework around which they can interact with one another and reveal aspects of themselves to the reader.
Much as with Duncan’s story earlier, the debt owed to Jones’s other work is impossible to ignore, but the depth of portrayal on display here acts as a great advert. The lyrical prose is packed tight with meaning, few words wasted, and the world is detailed subtly and unobtrusively by the characters, almost without you noticing it’s happening. The dialogue in particular is incredibly realistic – to the point that non-native English speakers might be a bit confused by some of it, perhaps – full of bitter banter, the snipe and snark of people who know each other’s foibles and follies only too well.
There’s a prevailing mood of pessimism, too, a sense that the world the characters are acting in has little hope of being improved upon –
‘ “Hope is not good for some people,” explained the vicar, seriously, opening her eyes. “Some kinds of hope are not good for any of us.”‘
The underlying assumption seems to be that the best that can be hoped for is a chance to maintain the fragile status quo of a world undergoing climatic, economic and social collapse. A bleak worldview, perhaps, but one that resonates well with the times we live in. I’m inclined to believe that Jones has used this bleakness as a way to show off the complexities of her characters, whose motivations are subtle and layered, and who raise what could have been a very pedestrian plot into a piece full of lingering questions.
Alastair Reynolds is another Interzone stalwart, and here he supplies a piece of work remarkably unlike the baroque hard-opera that his novels are known for. The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter could probably be read as fantasy, but follows the conventions of true science fiction at the same time – something often attempted but rarely achieved. It’s set a long way into a future where the Earth has been plunged into a deep Winter, one measured in years instead of days; a neo-medieval world where technology is a half-remembered myth, or a fairy-tale to scare young children with. The titular daughter, Kathryn, runs into the worst sort of trouble on her way to see the old widow of the town – who, like many old widows in such stories, is more than she initially might appear.
Through their conversation, and the widow’s gift to Kathryn, we discover that the strange situation the world is in is the result of a long-running war between post-humans and the autonomous robot builders they created – though it’s never couched in such terms, of course. The expertise of this story is that, while definitively science fictional in structure, it successfully masquerades as a piece of fantasy, and simultaneously describes the sf-nal elements in terms that only an experienced sf reader could truly appreciate. While praising such an approach could be viewed as praise of elitism, I feel that would be a foolish dismissal of a great piece of writing – Reynolds has produced a story with multiple layers that can be appreciated by a wide variety of readers, but has stayed true to his roots as a writer of hard sf at the same time. If there is such a thing as ‘genre outreach’, or if it is worth pursuing, this is the sort of material we need to see offered up for it.
Furthermore, it is the most complete and independent of all the larger stories in this issue – unlike the Jones and Duncan pieces, The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter has a sense of hermetic perfection, of needing no further explanation or expansion to give the reader maximum satisfaction. That’s not to claim it is superior, as such; but merely to point out the obvious descendence of the other stories from their parent canons, and to emphasise that this piece hints at backstory of similar scope without having it there to reference explicitly.
Last but not least is Tears for Godzilla by Daniel Kaysen, which elicited a groan at first when I realised it was (cliché of clichés) a story about a writer with poor people skills. Thankfully, Kaysen manages to redeem the format by creating a darkly comic Russian-doll stack of regretful daydreams, where it is almost impossible to determine which layer (if any) is the ‘reality’ of the story. A refreshing zephyr of humour, and a good way to end the fiction selection after a few weighty chunks of more serious material.
[Disclaimer: I am a book reviewer for Interzone.]