Interzone, #185, January 2003

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"Bare Market" by Paul Di Filippo
"By Hand or By Brain" by Mat Coward
"The Smart Minefield" by Chris Butler
"Line on the Palm" by Zoran Zivkovic
"2066 and All That" by Juliet Eyeions and Paul Brazier
"Little Watcher" by Brett Davidson

This issue of Interzone kicks off with Paul Di Filippo's "Bare Market", set in the near-future world of 2022. A journalist is conducting a series of interviews with the most beautiful and intelligent woman on the planet, while trying to conceal the fact that he has an extreme case of the "hots" for her. She also happens to be just about the most important person on Earth. Known by the nickname "The Market", she has been cybernetically enhanced and now serves as the control centre for the entire world economic market, which has as a result become much more stable and successful than at any time in the past. She's a very unusual young lady, hyper-intelligent, totally self confident and in control of her emotions, and seemingly oblivious to the devastating effect she has on every heterosexual male she meets. She's also celibate, a virgin. Can't have all those disruptive hormonal stimuli wreaking havok on her wetware and the world's economic market, now can we? With the exception of frequent unsuccessful terrorist cyber-attacks, The Market is in complete control until she is compromised by a more direct attack on her person. A terrorist manages to inject her with a drug that acts as an emotion and hormone disinhibitor, her emotional and hormonal balances go crazy, and everything hits the fan. She literally rapes the (unresisting, nay ecstatic) journalist, and during their passionate sex economic markets crash all over the world, countries go bankrupt, wars break out, huge corporations go out of business, and there is general worldwide chaos. After this infamous episode the young lady is "sacked" from her position as The Market and retires quite happily to a (very wealthy) normal existence, and an implied relationship with the journalist. Overall, this isn't a bad story, well worth a read, but it isn't a real stand-out either. I quite liked the interaction between the journalist and the girl, and I laughed out loud at the images of world chaos paralleling each step of the love-making. But I found the concept of one individual controlling the entire world economic market a tad unrealistic, at least in such a near-future scenario. It's highly unlikely that the nations of the world would put all their economic eggs in a single extremely vulnerable basket, at the mercy of its own hormonal stimuli. Whatever she is, the young lady certainly isn't a robot.

Mat Coward's "By Hand or By Brain" features a clash of witches in modern-day London. It begins with a taxi driver walking into a bar to pick up a fare and coming face-to-face with a beautiful young woman from his past. Problem is, he watched her die right in front of him five years before. Flashback to the events of five years previously, we have said young woman and the future taxi driver as co-workers at the call-centre from hell. The workers suffer daily under the tyranny of a real "witch" of a plant manager, who terrorises, abuses, and sacks workers at a whim, treating them like slaves. But the young woman is a bit of a "witch" herself, and gives back as good as she gets (or better). The two co-workers rally for battle and the fight starts in earnest when they and their union friends confront the old tyrant and her "heavies" on the picket line, leading to a shocking climax. Flash forward to the present where the taxi-driver leaves his fare off at her stop, a certain young lady who should be dead but isn't, and who promises to stick around should he ever need her again. He isn't sure whether he fancies her or is terrified of her, not surprisingly. This is a strange but pleasant enough modern-day urban supernatural fantasy in the vein of Neil Gaiman. Another enjoyable story, but again, nothing spectacular.

Chris Butler's "The Smart Minefield" takes us more than a thousand years into the future and to a planet in another solar system. We encounter humans, obviously descendants of interstellar colonists, and we're obviously in the middle of a war situation that doesn't seem terribly removed from war situations in our time. Four soldiers have set off in a truck to clear a path through a minefield in preparation for the advance of their armoured forces a few hours afterwards. The minefield is enormous, but the killer problem is that it's a "smart" minefield. It's impossible to clear a path through such a minefield, as, each time a mine is disarmed, the remaining mines reposition themselves (with spectacular scenes of mines hurling themselves through the air to their new positions) to plug any gaps in the field. How can they possibly disarm the mines within the next two hours, before the first tanks arrive? The solution is an interesting one, and overall the story is both entertaining and intelligent, although I'd have liked it to be a bit longer, and go more into depth about the war and it's background. Who were they fighting, and why? How long had this war been going on? Why was the technology not a lot more advanced than ours, despite the story being set a thousand years in the future? These questions aside, this isn't a bad story. No Hugo winner, but a decent read.

"Line on the Palm" by Zoran Zivkovic is a fairly average story with a rather predictable ending, one which reminded me a lot of those old 1960s Twilight Zone episodes. A fortune-teller has a visit from a very intense young man who wants his palm read. But during the palm reading session he pulls out a gun with the intention of committing suicide. He is convinced that he will soon die, something which he thinks will be confirmed by the fortune-teller, but he intends to cheat predestination by killing himself there and then during the reading. The fortune-teller talks him out of it by confessing all and convincing him that predestination and foretelling the future is a load of old superstitious hogwash. The young man leaves relieved, walking off into the mist. But shortly afterwards another man appears at the fortune-teller's door, begging to use the phone. He's just knocked down and killed the aforementioned young man, not spotting him in the thick mist until it was too late. Coincidence, or…

I've long been a fan of Michael Bishop's novels, and when I saw his name in the contents listing, I was expecting a good story with his "Cicada, Inc". In the end, however, I was rather disappointed by it. A feisty old lady is relating her past to her psychiatrist as part of her therapy, outlining a history of iniquities suffered at the hands of three crooked fellow members of a law firm, who have abused and imprisoned her for decades, whilst milking her talents for keeping their law firm successful. Aside from a strange encounter with one of her abusers at the end of the story, that's pretty much it. The story didn't do much for me, I'm afraid. Aside from some amusing dialogue, I found it essentially silly and pointless, and barely SF at all, with the exception of a gimmicky, tacked-on ending reminiscent of some dodgy old 1950s hack SF story. If this is typical of Michael Bishop's short fiction, I'd definitely have to say that his strengths lie at novel length. I'm really hoping that I'm wrong, that this one is a glitch, and that Bishop gets a chance to prove me wrong somewhere down the line. In my opinion, this was Interzone's weakest story of this month.

"2066 and All That" by Juliet Eyeions and Paul Brazier is a rather bizarre if sometimes amusing replay of 1066's Battle of Hastings, but set a thousand years later – for all the non-Brits who don't know their British history, the Battle of Hastings is where England and its King Harold got their come-uppance at the hands of the invading Normans led by William the Conqueror. Now, a thousand years later, history repeats itself, as England is again being invaded by the all-powerful European Union, led this time by Guillaume (French for William) the Conkerer (a "conker" is British slang for a "big nose", a stereotypical outstanding French attribute). This time fortunes are reversed as Guillaume and the Euros are defeated at the Battle of Caburn Surprise by Harold the Golden Worrier, the Caburn Attack Sheep, and the Fairlight Flamingoes. Just in case you're wondering what the hell this is all about, I must warn you that the humour in this story is very whacky and very, very English, poking sly, light-hearted fun at the European Union and the French in particular. Those of us from the British side of the Pond will probably find it very amusing, whilst our transatlantic cousins in the US and Canada will most likely be totally mystified by it. Personally, I laughed out loud at many parts of it, while still considering it a bit short and ever so slightly silly and not to be taken seriously.

Now we come to what was by far my favourite story in this issue of Interzone. Brett Davidson's "The Little Watcher" is one of a series of stories written by various authors set in the world of one of the greatest classic fantasies of the early twentieth century, that of William Hope Hodgson's eerie and outstandingly original masterpiece The Night Land, which was published in 1912. Directly inspired by the final haunting "far future" sequence at the end of H. G. Wells's classic The Time Machine, The Night Land rivals or surpasses Wells and the later classics of Olaf Stapeldon in portraying a truly alien and incomprehensible distant future, from which viewpoint we and all our works are nothing but a footnote in the fossil record or mythology (if even that). In this unimaginably distant future the sun has grown dark and cold, and the teaming millions of the human race have retreated into humanity's final refuge, the Last Redoubt (or Great Redoubt). The Redoubt is an immense pyramid eight miles in height, but with levels stretching hundreds of miles underground, contains over thirteen hundred cities, and is surrounded by the Air Clog (in effect a heat barrier or force field, an amazing concept way back in 1912) which has, for millions of years, protected them from any influences and intrusions by the monstrous denizens of the outside world, the Night Land. The Night Land is infested with weird and wonderful creatures, some off-shoots of humanity and some not, and all of which besiege the Redoubt on every side. By far the most dangerous and unfathomable of these are the huge, mountain-sized Watchers, who are attracted to the Redoubt like moths to a flame. No-one knows what they are, where they came from, or what they want. Nor can anyone look at the gaze of a Watcher, which alters and corrupts all it touches. Any who are infected must be immediately killed, lest they infect everyone else, and any inanimate object which shows signs of being altered by a Watcher's gaze must also be destroyed. Only the Air Clog protects the Redoubt and its inhabitants from the gaze of the Watchers, but it can't do so forever. Very few humans have ever survived a journey Outside, as these usually end in death, insanity, or worse.

The Redoubt has withstood the direct sight of the Watchers for many millions of years now, but "The Little Watcher" takes place at a time when the human population is starting to dwindle and the Electric Circle, the power source that maintains the Air Clog, is beginning to weaken. The Watchers sense this and are beginning to draw nearer to the Redoubt. Their gaze is beginning to penetrate the walls, and lately projected images have been breaking through and manifesting themselves in random places throughout the various cities. There is great concern among the citizens that humanity might at last be losing their near-eternal battle with the Watchers. Few can withstand the gaze of a Watcher and live, and almost all who do go insane. The corruption of the Watchers can break into the Redoubt even through the dreams of the infected.

The story revolves around Kore, a young female, and her mentor, the famous warrior and hero Master Pallin. Kore is the most important of a gifted elite, the Watchmen, seers who serve as living spyglasses to look upon the Watchers from the Tower of Observation. These observations are essential if the human race can ever hope to find out enough about the Watchers to combat them. Mostly the seers can look upon the Watchers safely, but this is not always the case. Sometimes infection can still break through, and does so during one of Kore's observations, which goes badly wrong. She becomes infected by a Watcher's gaze, and begins having strange dreams, most focusing on a mysterious "Little Watcher", and is becoming the focal point for an increasing number of intruding images and signs which appear throughout the city, corrupting and unsettling the population. A number of others are also infected, becoming "attractors", focal points for weird images depicting infinite possibilities. As Pallin battles to save Kore from the Eugenicists, who wish to terminate her, the situation escalates dramatically when Kore begins to physically alter, existing in a series of superimposed states. These signify alternate possibilities of human evolution which have been until now suppressed and eradicated by the strict rule of the Redoubt Eugenicists, who permit no "abhuman" deviations from the human norm. Kore finally changes into one of the alternate evolutionary forms, the "Little Watcher", and promptly vanishes, the first of many similar metamorphoses all over the Redoubt, many of which are aided by Pallin who has begun to understand that all is not what it seems to be. Certain members of the human race are evolving into something else, and escaping this world and the trap that the rest of the human race is caught in. Under the strict control of the Eugenicists the rest of our species will remain unchanged, eventually losing their struggle with the Watchers, and will become extinct, a strong condemnation of the Eugenicists' interference with and altering of the natural evolution of the human race. Questions are also raised about long held beliefs about the Watchers and the "Little Watchers". Are they really the enemy, or actually allies, trying to help the human race by putting them back on the proper evolutionary path?

I generally do not like authors writing stories set in classic worlds created by other authors. For the most part these recreations never manage to live up to the originals. However, that said, I found "The Little Watcher" to be an enthralling read, full of much of the mystery, imagination, and sense of wonder that made Hodgson's original classic so memorable, whilst being unburdened by the florid, pseudo-archaic biblical literary style that Hodgson for some strange reason imposed on the original novel, and which makes it pretty much inaccessible to all but the most determined modern reader. Stripped of that hindrance, we're now getting a good look at what makes The Night Land such an incredible creation – the ideas, imagination, the sheer originality which even yet has few equals in fantastic literature (remember, the original was written more than ninety years ago), and the portrayal of a distant future Earth environment so alien and incomprehensible that it sends a tingle up your spine. This is one of the most incredibly original and truly alien environments ever created in fantasy or SF, and full marks to Brett Davidson for creating such an excellent follow-up to such an unusual story, no easy task by any means. I'll be looking out for more from him in the future, especially if it's another Night Land story.

Overall, this was for me a fairly average issue of Interzone, with the exception of "The Little Watcher". Several of the other stories were reasonably decent reads, in particular the Mat Coward, Chris Butler, and Paul Di Filippo stories, with "2066 and All That" also being pretty good for a laugh. But the remainder were relatively uninspiring and average, and I'd have rated this issue even lower but for the inclusion of Brett Davidson's excellent story which was easily the stand-out of this month, one which I'll have on my short-list of best stories of 2003.

Phil Friel lives in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. He's been reading SF since the late 1960s (his first SF novel was The Time Machine when he was eight years old), and his tastes range the spectrum from space opera to the hardest of hard SF. He's always looking to expand those tastes, and reckons that the SF magazines are the perfect place to do just that. He likes both novels and short fiction, but prefers the shorter forms.