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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Interzone #228, May/June 2010

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United States of America” by Mario Milosevic
Iron Monk “by Melissa Yuan-Innes
A Passion for Art” by David D. Levine
Plague Birds” by Jason Sanford
Over Water” by Jon Ingold

Reviewed by KJ Hannah Greenberg

Interzone, with good reason, has often been referred to as the UK’s premiere speculative fiction magazine. In the magazine’s May/June 2010 issue, for instance, future worlds, alien worlds, and strange inner worlds come together to give readers a heightened experience of provisional realities.

Consider, for instance, “United States of America” by Mario Milosevic, an adroit story, one of this year’s best pieces of speculative fiction, about a fractious future. In this tale, it is not continental drift with which the characters have to contend, but the float of states separated along geographic lines. External forces invited the citizens of the contiguous forty-eight to drop pellets, or to otherwise employ devices, such that neighboring states would become geologically severed. The result of such machinations is that the large land mass, formerly known as the US of A, has become forty-eight islands loose in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Some of those land barges glide into favorable climes and flourish, relatively. Others get stuck in artic altitudes and witness the demise of their flora, their fauna and their humans.

Against this interesting backstory, a lone, elderly woman, who is part of her state’s border patrol, spots an adventurer from another region. The youngster she spies, like her own long departed son, has answered his wanderlust, i. e. has responded to his need for discovery, by literally jumping land ships. That he hazards being captured by the governments of other floating entities is his calculated risk. The main character, for instance, reports sighting the visitor, as is her duty, but also intentionally fails to inform her government’s visiting official about the exact route that her newly met offlander has taken.

With this narrative, Milosevic rows among ideological atolls. On the one hand, he is inferring that unity has unappreciated merit. On the other hand, he invites his readers to consider that interdependence can be too much of a good thing.

There exist many near future stories in which the USA is divided. In those tales, usually politics, and often war or natural pestilence, divides the nation. Milosevic shows his creativity in using physical separation. He disappointingly returns to standard themes, however, in that he uses his imaginative vehicle to regard the relative worth of collective mentality versus individuality.

Despite this flaw, I would recommend reading this short story as well as recommend perusing others of Milosevic’s works. It’s not too often that readers are offered the image of the Rocky Mountains fragmented or of Idaho reconfigured as a tropical paradise. Even without fresh themes, there is much to enjoy about familiar notions dressed in smart costume.

Whereas “United States of America” juxtaposes separatism and federation, the story “Iron Monk“ by Melissa Yuan-Innes, insists on the merit not of examining relative worth, but on the merit of examining combinations. In this space opera, which focuses on what to do when your captors mean to send your vibrant self as a dead “gift” to aliens, the main players, Little Tiger, and the narrator, are student and teacher. Likewise, Moon, the physician of the spaceship on which the characters are constrained, and Hunan, a clever man with enough thoughts about self-preservation to have made communication with aliens, are romantically linked.

Analogously, events in this tale are coupled. The characters have both to rescue a compatriot, Jigme, and to repair their ship’s radiation shielding. They have, as well, to declare their autonomy from their command while creating an alliance with nonhumans and to embrace the government mole among them as their hero while confronting him with his acts of betrayal.

Duality, the quality which spices this story, might seem a natural axiology to denizens of Eastern cultures, such as is represented by the story’s characters. These persons seem: accustomed to aligning meridians while administering antibiotics for aspiration pneumonia, at peace with coping with fur growth while ambulating as bipeds, and able to accept the pleasure concomitant to contraband wine while in the context of service to a strict state.

Such a twofold vista is less comfortable, though, and hence “novel,” or at least interesting, to western readers, their “enlightened” sampling of alternate views aside. More specifically, readers from portions of Oceania, from North America and from Europe will tend to be fascinated with this story’s “alien” notions such as Iron Crotch and such as being able to stand in two philosophical realms simultaneously. This captivation, in turn, will make many readers favor this tale. Hence, the freshness of “Iron Monk “is not the physical or mental feats accomplished by its characters, but is the characters’ aptitude in holding a dichotomy of perspectives.

Unlike so many action films, in which martial arts or other appealing outlook's essences are compromised in order to sell them for blockbuster revenues, “Iron Monk’s “quiet suggestion is that strange worlds are not as far away as are alien-inhabited planets. Rather, foreign mentions can be found as close by as in the minds of students in one’s recitation or as in the habits of one’s screen-sharing coworkers.

Whereas Yuan-Innes’ tale is well crafted, her framing is what sells her work. Instead of buying anime contact lens, sampling sushi or otherwise superficially trying out “alternate realities” tactilly, readers interested in zones beyond the familiar are advised to experiment with Yuan-Innes’ writing.

Readers are advised to look into the writing of David D. Levine, author of “A Passion for Art,” too. In his contribution to Interzone, Levine fashions a brief fiction around the concept that persons immortalized in two and three dimensional art might want to live as flesh and blood entities. A little stealth, a private security officer and a femme fatale enable Levine to actualize his case of “what if.” That his main character meets with an ill-fated end is a mere detail of his dark story.

Levine means to show readers that money and status are less valuable than are the abilities to breathe or to walk. That he uses anthropomorphism to vitalize his contention is what stylizes “A Passion for Art” and is what likens this tale to the writing of Lovecraft and of Poe.

An entertaining read, “A Passion for Art” made me cheer for the main character and minimalize the rationalizations of the foil. The story concluded too quickly for the likes of me. Yet, I found this story’s finale sadly predictable; I would have liked a less certain resolution.

Another macabre tale in this issue is “Plague Birds” by Jason Sanford. In this near future story, the descendents of biogenetically altered humans crave a return to their simple physical heredity. While they fight their DNA legacy, a birthright which has bestowed upon them attributes of various beasts, local, benevolent AI systems monitor and discipline their behaviors. In addition to such stationary guardians, the late day, hybrid, generations are distantly shepherded by plague birds, by blood AIs that roam from outpost to village to ensure that humanity’s return will be, if not peaceful, then equitable. The work of the wandering fantastics is to settle, often in grisly fashion, unpunished humanoid crimes.

Plague birds are persons who have incorporated powerful systems of AI adjudication into their bodies. In exchange for providing ambulation for those devices, the persons who shelter the intelligences manifest terrifying powers. Those persons can subdue other individuals with a mere gaze or can level a population with a simple open wound. While those persons’ microcomponents are lethal to their petitioners, in a rather vicious cycle, it is the blood of the convicted that sustains those human/AI fiends. Accordingly, entire warning systems go into play when one such creature is found within a population.

The story’s main character becomes a plague bird, but only after struggling with the ramifications of her former lover having gone, literally and figuratively, wolf on her. Crippled at least in heart as much as in mind, by that brutal young man, the young woman is, nonetheless, able to sufficiently restrain the intelligence that newly swims in her blood to effect her former lover’s escape. Her real power is not the might of the parasite within her, but is her ability to harness it.

Whereas many folk mull over revenge for small slights, Sanford gives us a character justified in and capable of exacting retribution. He also provides us with an example of strength that is superior to that of sinew or sword. Sanford invites us to look at the might of righteousness and of the might of truth.

This story is no allegory. “Plague Birds” fails to parallel popular explorations of morality, too. Simply, this narrative, at some level, is yet another weighing out of humanity’s vile and principled attributes. What makes this tale work, beyond its confoundedly good technique, is its creative scaffolding of theme in the casing of amalgamated creatures seeking salvation via devolution. Ingenious fiction’s a pleasure to read.

I’ve yet to read, as well, too many tales about wanderers intent on spreading “the gospel.” In “Over Water” by Jon Ingold, a story that could be mistaken as a coming of age narrative, a traveler returns to a land mass, which is part of an archipelago, to encourage international unity. Though he speaks multiple languages, comes equipped with maps of impossible places, and has firsthand knowledge of rarities such as The Library of Future Knowledge, he presents himself not as a soothsayer, but as a man of peace.

The story the narrator gives over to his assembled listeners is a tale of people mighty in heart faced with ongoing pillage from people mighty of brawn. The narrator’s father dies in the narrator’s story so that there can be an end to the raids. Thereafter, the narrator does not revenge his father by fist, but flees to further domains to revenge his entire race with knowledge. The narrator, it seems, believes in a higher good and believes in the importance of transmitting his conviction.

To wit, he warns his listeners that their failure to grasp the big picture, to see their island as one among many, is their failure to ricochet beyond intellectual (and spiritual) isolation. He offers his humble self, descendant of a man who “walked” on waters, as an example of how individuals can shed harmful paradigms.

Over Water” ends without us readers learning how the narrator’s island audience responds to his mysticism. Maybe his listeners kill him. Maybe some of the listeners’ idealistic youths join him. To Ingold, the resolution of the narrator’s fate is not as important as is the message the narrator heralds that we community members, whether part of small villages or of entire planets are neither alone nor adept in our isolation. Ingold means for us to integrate ourselves with our neighbors whether such beings occupy the next island or the next star.

Numerous analogs to popular religious doctrines can be drawn to this story. Such comparisons are useful but are not the stuff of great speculative fiction. What makes this tale rock for lovers of fantasy, of science fiction, and of horror, is its possibilities of supernatural goings on and its allusion to a post-apocalyptic world. Such a story is worth our time and our consideration.

As seen from the above stories, a publication such as Interzone deserves to pride itself as a modern contender in the realm of genre work. We ought to look to this British literary power for further illuminatory bits.