Archives » Reviews published in Interzone

Interzone 250, Jan–Feb 2014.

TTA Press

Interzone 250 cover

Interzone 253 plopped onto my doormat two weeks or so ago (complete with my review of Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea) so I thought I’d better get round to catching up with earlier issues starting with the commendable landmark number 250. Oddly the fiction in this issue seemed nearly all to be written in USian.

The Damaged by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Though the author calls them robots, PlayMatez are androids, constructed from bioengineered human muscle and a patented silicone/skin blend. Our narrator is a woman who works for the manufacturer, placing wires in the bodies. She is interested in the 1% of PlayMatez who are damaged, and why that is so. So far, so atmospheric. The USian, though, I found jarring and, technically, the shift in tense of the narration in the final paragraph compared to the first makes the story incoherent. Oh, and blood tastes of iron, not copper.

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place by David Tallerman
A man in a bickering relationship encounters strangers passing through the town. One of them tells him the world he is living in is a back-up. This story is accompanied by a great illustration of an Art Deco Diner.

The Labyrinth of Thorns by C Allegra Hawksmoor
Told in a rather distancing second person singular – a hard trick to pull off; and I’m not sure Hawksmoor does, quite – and set in a city parts of which extend out over the Atlantic, the narrator, you, has been infected with a memory by the Collective to see if you can be trusted.
Smoke doesn’t “melt” into air – even figuratively – and off of is a solecism at the best of times but it certainly ought not to be rendered as of off.

Beneath the Willow Branches by Caroline M Joachim
Takeshi is a surgeon. The story starts with him retrieving his wife’s memory unit (somewhere out of time, along its z-axis) from its attachment to her brain. She has become lost in time, looping through the same two weeks. He goes back himself to try to save her.
We’ll pass over different than as it is US usage but the text included hope for finding instead of hope of finding. And lay(ing) down for lie (lying) down – twice. Grrr. But lay down was used correctly as a past tense.

Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa
A man accompanying his wife on her work-related trip to Moscow sees strange towers appearing in the skyline – with even stranger creatures inside them.
Miniscule (sigh) but the grammatically correct though contortedly awkward, “And whom with?”

Lilacs and Daffodils by Rebecca Campbell
A story about memory, knowledge – or the lack of it – and loss. Except that it references the Quatermass serials I’m struggling to see the fantasy or SF content, though.

Wake up, Phil by Georgina Bruce
Laura Harrison is a low-level worker for Serberus, which is in mortal competition with Callitrix, both of whose armies fight against each other in the colonies elsewhere in the Solar System. Except she also lives with Martin in the late sixties and their neighbour is Phil; writer Phil, Sci-Fi Phil. Realities overlap and entwine in this totalitarian nightmare which can also be read as an homage to one of SF’s greats.

Interzone 252

This issue arrived during the past week. It contains my review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. The cover displayed in Interzone (and shown right) is a different one from the review copy I read.

In the issue too is an interview of and a story by member of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle (and also my good mate) Neil Williamson.

Neil’s novel The Moon King (left) has also recently been published. I bought my copy at Eastercon. It’s high on my tbr pile.

We See a Different Frontier: a post-colonial speculative fiction anthology edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad

Futurefire.net, 2013, 213 p. Reviewed for Interzone 249, Nov-Dec 2013.

By and large the language of Science Fiction has always been English, its explorations of other worlds in the main tending to describe their exploitation. In literature (as in life) humans have generally gone off planet to seek things, either knowledge or possessions – and damn any natives. Long past time for a corrective? A “straight, white, cis, male” might feel loth to comment.

The Arrangement of Their Parts by Shweta Naryan is a partly fabular tale of clockwork animals taken to pieces by an Englishman and the Artificer Diva who stands up to him.

The delightfully titled but pulpy Pancho Villa’s Flying Circus by Ernest Hogan tells how with the help of Nicola Tesla’s death ray Alejandro Sahagún replaces Pancho Villa and sets out to recover his sweetheart, abducted by Hollywood producers. While a slight tale this nevertheless rightly fingers Hollywood as the centre of cultural colonialism.

Them Ships by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Aliens in iridescent spacehips have taken over Earth. Our (unnamed) narrator, a former street scavenger, wonders why his cell-mate – the once privileged Leonardo – would want to escape what he regards as a cosseted life.

In J Y Yang’s Old Domes Jing-Li is a cullmaster, charged with despatching guardians – the personifications of buildings – before their renovation. The guardian of Singapore’s Supreme Court is unwilling to go quietly.

Fabio Fernandes’s The Gambiarra Method reads a bit like a 1950s magazine story. Time travel is discovered in 2077. By accident. In anti-gravitational lifts with an attached post-virtual environment. The mechanism is investigated using the Gambiarra method – how to do things with whatever is at hand.

Riya in A Bridge of Words by Dinesh Rao has spent most of her life in Krashnigar, the former colonial power. She is now involved in a project to decipher the tattoos of the Thuri, one of the two sects of her ancestral homeland. Over this world hangs a mysterious red spaceship broadcasting an unchanging coded message.

Droplet by Rahul Kanakia. Subhir has lived in India after his parents took him there from his childhood home in California to avoid the ever worsening drought conditions. On his return to the US he finds out what really happened.

In Joyce Chng’s Lotus most of the Earth is covered in water after an event called the Washing. Landers fight fiercely to hold on to their territories while boaters roam the Waterways, exchanging and bartering. Boater Cecily and her partner Si one day come upon a source of precious drinkable water and food, giving them a moral dilemma.

Lavie Tidhar’s Dark Continents* envisages several different ways in which the past two centuries of Jewish history could have worked themselves out. These include forging a disputed homeland in Africa, intervention in the US Civil War and a peaceful integration into Palestine.

A Heap of Broken Things* by Sonny Moraine features a planet lit by two suns, where human colonists carried out a massacre a generation before. A local tour guide is confronted with that inheritance.

Sandra McDonald’s Fleet* is set a generation after the Night of Fire when solar megaflares destroyed all electronic communication. The people of a Pacific island forge their future in isolation.

Remembering Turinam by N A Ratnyake. A scholar from a defeated people whose language and culture have been oppressed, all but forgotten, returns to his capital city to speak with his grandfather, the last remaining witness to the old days.

Sofia Samatar’s I Stole the DC’s Eyeglass is the story of Pai-te and her sister Minisare who has a spirit-eye and builds a beast of iron as a gesture of “defiance honour, dawn, tomorrow.”

Vector by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. In a US dominated Thailand where no-one has dark hair anymore, nor speaks Thai, a woman’s body has been turned into a viral weapon, both disease and vector, to undo the changes.

In Gabriel Murray’s Forests of the Night* the illegitimate son of the ex-colonial Captain Lyons, brought to Yorkshire to act as his father’s valet, dreams of the tiger that is stalking the local neighbourhood.

What Really Happened in Ficandula by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. A cultural misunderstanding leads to deaths and reprisals the memories of which are kept alive by the female descendants of the colonised as they themselves head for a new planet.

This collection illustrates how language, or its suppression, has been a primary tool of colonialism on Earth. There is irony, then, that, as Ekaterina Sedia’s afterword notes, all these stories were written in US English. (Double irony when the word “veterinarian” is depicted as being employed by a Yorkshireman.) Yet the theme of resistance, the keeping of traditions, shines through. Under the circumstances resistance becomes necessary.

As with most anthologies the standard can be uneven, but each story works as speculative fiction; and four (asterisked in this blog post) are very good indeed.

Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2013, 352p. Reviewed for Interzone 248, Sep-Oct 2013.

Valente here has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale, or perhaps several. Lack of familiarity with this source material may obscure some of its nuances but fear not. In what could have been a dizzying whirl through the unfamiliar – we have to deal not only with the tale itself but with the typically Russian patronymics and diminutives – Valente’s writing, with the occasional exception, is fluid and expressive. Her powers of description and similes can be striking, but her Americanisms stand oddly against the novel’s setting.

The story signals its fantastical elements early on. In a house on a long, thin street during the time St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad – and the street also changed its name twice – Marya Morevna knows there is magic in the world when she sees a bird fall off a tree – “thump, bash!” – change into a man and ask for the girl in the window. Twice more the same thing happens. (As in fairy tales repetition is a key feature of the novel, though the repetitions may have minor changes.) Each manbird takes away one of her three sisters. She then befriends the domoviye (house imps) who hold soviets behind a door in the stove and tell her Papa Koschei is coming.

Marya regrets missing seeing her bird “thump, bash!” into a man. This is Koschei Bessmertny, Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of life, who nevertheless, in a mechanical vehicle that is also a horse, spirits her away to Buyan, a land where his previous lovers – all called Yelena or Vasilisa – sew soldiers onto cloth and breathe them into life.

In Buyan Koschei’s mother/sister/sometime wife Baba Yaga – relationships there are somewhat involuted – sets Marya tasks to assess her worthiness as a wife for Koschei. These include subduing Baba Yaga’s traditional method of travel, the mortar and pestle. A nice touch during one of these was the scene which is effectively Little Red Riding Hood in reverse. A character Marya befriends in Buyan expresses to her what is perhaps a very Russian sentiment but with universal application, “You will live as you live in any world; with difficulty and grief.” Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of death, turns up uninvited at the marriage and thereafter there will be war between the brothers.

Birds or eggs occur frequently in the text. Marya kills a firebird; in one of her tasks she fetches an egg she believes contains Koschei’s death; a friend turns into a bird; she spends some time in a place named Yaichka which turns out to be an egg; Alkanost, a firebird-like creature, imparts words of wisdom; she is told the world tries to make stories turn out differently – as perfect as an egg.

In a sudden temporal jump we find a human man, Ivan Nikolayevich, wandering into Marya’s life. In the interim she has become one of Koschei’s generals, but the war is going badly. (The war is always going badly.) Koschei is dismayed as Ivans habitually take his wives from him. Marya chides him for his attitude and takes Ivan as her lover, despite his confusion. She tells him, “What passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Whatever her title may be, Valente’s story is not deathless. Escaping the war in Buyan, Marya chooses to return with Ivan to her childhood home and is shocked that a house in Leningrad is painted with characters from her story. With all the fantastical events that have gone before and come after, though, the impact of the German siege of the city and its attendant horrors of starvation and suffering is lessened. The stripping of wallpaper to make bread, its paste to make butter, are not as horrific, not as devastating, as they could be; as they should be. We have not felt, not been shown, enough of the long, slow descent into abjection and desperation that survival there would have entailed. That Koschei has also turned up and is tethered in the basement only adds to the distancing effect.

An interlude in Yaichka features barely disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, the last Tsar and his family and a priest with whom his wife may (or not) have had a liaison. Two of these have dreams of a war between red and white ants. Russian history hangs heavily.

The human time span of the novel relates to that of the ascendancy of the “wizard in Moscow with the moustache.” There is the necessity to believe, “there has never been another (world)” – “can never be another.” An explicit message is that living under totalitarianism is like death; but a death where, “You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.” But, to use one of Valente’s repetitions, life is like that.

Addendum: The following did not appear in the published review.

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

Sunk count = 1; plus “off of,” “hung” for hanged, “all of who” – and stalactites might, but stalagmites can not, teeter above your head.

Interzones 251 and 252

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August cover

My contributor copy of Interzone issue 251 arrived today. It contains my review of The Copper Promise by Jen Williams.

My review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North has now been sent off and is set to appear in issue 252.

Interzone 250

The 250th issue of Interzone has now been published. This is the one that contains my review of Alastair Reynolds’s On the Steel Breeze.

I’ve just received my contributor’s copy. 7 pieces of fiction to read.

The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett

NewCon Press, 2013, 239p. Reviewed for Interzone 247, Jul-Aug 2013.

This is Beckett’s second collection, containing twelve short stories – with a few commonalities in background – that have been published during the past five years. Four are from the pages of Interzone. They span a wide range of perennial SF concerns – social or technological extrapolation, global warming, enigmatic aliens, their strange worlds, parallel universes, stargates, altered histories – plus a genuflection to Arthur Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God.

Atomic Truth contrasts the seeming connectedness of the digital world with the distancing it carries along with it. Everyone wears bugeyes, interactive goggles that form an interface between the real and virtual worlds and display emails, ads etc. Everyone, that is, except Richard, who has no need of goggles to see visions. His encounter with Jenny provides a small moment of humanity in his disorientated world.

The style of Two Thieves is reminiscent of a fairy tale – a form which has less than cosy attributes. The thieves, exiled to a remote and totally secure penal colony, start work on an archæological site, where they uncover a relic of the Old Empire. It’s a spatial gateway, which of course they jump through. There is some nice foreshadowing here that is both blatant and subtle at the same time.

Johnny’s New Job is set in an Orwellian society with a Stakhanovite labour force and a justice system to gladden a tabloid newspaper proprietor’s heart. Offenders against the public good (who all seem to work in Welfare) are demonised by the authorities. These unfortunates are named and worse than shamed, guilt by association is afflicted on their families. Johnny goes along with the general mood, then gets an unrefusable job offer.

On the planet Lutania lies The Caramel Forest, a malodorous place of grey, brown and pink vegetation contrasted by the bright green of settlers’ lawns. The Lutanian indigenes nicknamed goblins can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds. The Agency running the planet tries to protect them but the original human settlers have their own way of dealing with them. Cassie, the child of a constantly arguing Agency couple on a tour of duty, is influenced to escape the rows by running off into the forest.

Greenland. Juan Fernandez is a refugee from Spain scraping an ever more insecure living in a slowly submerging south-east of England flooded both by global warming and the so-called beachrats, illegal immigrants lucky to escape the machine-gunners on the shores. He loses his crap job but his future is determined by a lucrative offer to copy him in a hazardous matter-replicating machine.

The Famous Cave Paintings on Isolus 9 depict a God fashioned, as all gods are, in the image of the locals. He is imprisoned and can only dream of escape. The narrator’s Uncle Clancy, a famous womaniser who has finally fallen in love, sees them, and is terrified.

Rat Island is a take on our reckless consumption of fossil fuels. A child whose civil servant father confides to him the inevitability of the consequent crash and likens us to introduced rats on an isolated island eventually eating all the seabirds’ eggs, finds his only consolation is the taking of photographs.

Day 29. Lutania again. Stephen Kohl is coming to the end of his tour of duty for the Agency and is frustrated and worried by the thought of the memories of 29 days he will lose when he undergoes Transmission back to civilisation.

England is occupied, taken over by Brythonic Celts expelled from Britain by the Romans into France, Iberia and the Americas. They have come back to the land they claim that God gave them. The scenario has implicit and explicit parallels to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and, in common with that, isn’t resolved. Beckett’s framing device lets its story, Our Land, off that hook, though.

Jacob Stone is The Desiccated Man, transporting cargoes over the solitary spaceways, accumulating money till he can retire to a life of indulgence. But old habits die hard.

In Poppyfields, a brownfield site subject to a development delay, waif-like Tammy Pendant – who has taken slip, a drug which pierces the membranes between universes – materialises in front of bird-watching Angus Wendering. Angus is easily led.

The creator of a fabricated world called Esperine finally enters it. The copy of himself he installed there comes to confront him wearing The Peacock Cloak, a shimmering all powerful device he has used to rebel against Esperine’s tameness.

Some of these tales have an overly conversational tone, parts have a tendency to be told rather than unfold, info dumping can be intrusive and there are occasional disjunctions where story elements seem to clash but, in all of them, Beckett never loses sight of the humans he is writing about. Here we are in all our folly – and occasional glory.

Interzone 249

I assume I was sent this as a contributor’s copy (my review of We See a Different Frontier appears within) but it’s uncommon for me to receive one.

Interzone 249 cover

Unknown Cities of America by Tim Lees
The fantastical element of this story concerns parts of the US which do not appear on maps and which you stumble into by accident while travelling. The unnamed narrator meets and forms a relationship with a woman from one of these towns who fears she will be taken back there by a man known as the Turk.

Paprika by Jason Sandford
Paprika is a time angel, built to access people’s memories and store them in her pocket universe. Satori the toy maker manufactures toys from the recovered memories of the olds who are all that is left of humanity after rejuvenation treatments mean there is no room for children any more. But the olds are dying off and the memories of time angels are all that is left.

Filaments by Lavie Tidhar
R. Patch-it is an old priest/rabbi of the Church of Robot, wearing out, parts no longer available, reflecting on its legacy and on faith. The story is replete with references, SF and otherwise, – to God’s nine billion names, the sands of Mars, Louis Wu, the Merchant of Venice.

Haunts by Clare Humphrey
Alekra is an ex-duellist, the last of her duelling school to survive, though she is hamstrung due to her one defeat. She is reduced to selling off her fingers one by one to survive. Her former (dead) schoolmates remain in her garden as haunts. A new patron enters her life.

The Kindest Man in Stormland
by John Shirley
Eight hundred miles of the North American coast is a perpetual stormland due to the sudden effects of global warming. A serial killer is on the loose in the flooded remains of Charleston, South Carolina. A detective from Search in Person, of Washington DC, is called in to find him. The setting is atmospheric, but the story is resolved perfunctorily.

Trans-Siberia – an account of a journey by Sarah Brooks
An orphan who has just become a man makes the dangerous journey on the railway from Beijing to Moscow. He encounters an enigmatic woman around whom strange things happen.

Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

Everness Book 1. Jo Fletcher Books, 2013, 373p. Reviewed for Interzone 246, May-Jun 2013.

Tottenham Hotspur supporter, school team goalkeeper and fine Indian cook, Everett Singh witnesses the kidnap of his physicist father, Tejendra, just before they were due to meet on an access visit. He provides the police with mobile phone photos of the kidnap. When his dad’s boss, McCabe, turns up asking if Tejendra had left Everett anything, Everett knows something more profound is afoot. Moreover, when his pictures are returned they have been altered. And he is being followed to school and back. As we are immersed in Everett’s world his mistrust of the police and the strained relationship with Everett’s mother these encounters engender are portrayed well, though like all young protagonists Everett is perhaps just a touch too knowing.

Soon a mysterious folder marked “Infundibulum” and obviously left by his father appears on Dr Quantum, Everett’s laptop. Everett knows infundibulum means “bigger inside than out” – references to Doctor Who follow – and recognises the contents as a representation of the multiverse. His father named him after the creator of many worlds theory and he has always been able to think in up to seven dimensions. This facility allows Everett to tie the Infundibulum topologically into a map of the many worlds. Another of his father’s colleagues has given him clandestine information about the success of the many worlds project and footage of other universes from beyond the Heisenberg Gates. Ours is E10 in the Plenitude of Worlds but none of the others has a map, only Everett. This scenario may have been too much for most writers to pull off but McDonald’s exposition of the arcane details is lucid and he uses all this only as a jumping off point. The necessity for plot to rumble on, though, for action, marks this out as a YA novel. Indeed there are echoes of The Northern Lights – not the least of which is the increasing presence of a powerful villainess, Charlotte Villiers – which, given the target audience, is no bad comparison. Echoes of this kind are almost inevitable when the necessity of holding a young audience’s attention is taken into account. There is plenty to keep the adult reader going too, though.

Armed with his knowledge Everett contacts McCabe and is transported to where the many worlds project has its base near the Channel Tunnel. Diplomats from the Plenitude are present as Everett demonstrates the ability of his map to target contact with other worlds. One of them threatens him with a strange gun and he jumps through an open gate into E3, a world with no oil-based technology, where rugby is the main spectator sport – and where Everett only has himself to rely on. This is one of the (arguably necessary) perennial features of “children’s” fiction: the adventure can only begin if no parents are around to prevent it. The stories are usually the better for it.

Everett finds a library and researches his new environment, quickly working out that the Plenitude is probably keeping his dad in the Tyrone Tower.

Later, on the underground, Everett meets the wielder of a strange tarot deck, a young girl called Sen Sixsmyth, who tries to filch Dr Quantum, but Everett decides to befriend her. Sen turns out to be an Airish – crew of the airships which ply the skies of E3. Her home is the Everness, whose captain is her adoptive mother and whose crew includes a “Southern” gentleman addicted to quotations and a Scottish accented guy in charge of the engines. “Captain, I canna get full power when there’s no engine…” Due to his culinary skills Everett is accepted as a crew member and the real fun starts.

To communicate with each other the Airish use a version of Polari, in our world an argot of gay subculture. (This reference would surely go over the heads of most YA readers were an explanation and glossary not supplied at the end.) The Airish have their own customs and loyalties and not a few colourfully named individuals. Any discrimination Everett experiences on E3 is not due to his skin colour but that he is now Airish.

The details of this other world feel right even if they are a touch old-fashioned but it is a kind of steampunk scenario after all. Moreover it is one which McDonald clearly has enjoyed creating. Set pieces including Sen penetrating the Tyrone Tower, the inevitable pursuit by Charlotte Villiers and a battle between airships for arcane Airish reasons keep things moving nicely.

Being part 1 of the Everness series nothing is truly resolved by the end of Planesrunner but the dénouement and the setting up of the sequel have a logic of their own, consistent with what has led up to them.

Planesrunner is bona stuff. One might even say fantabulosa.

Latest Reviews

Interzone 248 (Sep-Oct 2013) with my review of Catherynne M Valente’s Deathless has been out for a few weeks now.

My review of We See a Different Frontier: A Post-colonial Speculative Fiction Anthology for Interzone 249 (Nov-Dec 2013) has been submitted.

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