Interzone, #186, February 2003

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"The Wisdom of the Dead" by Eric Brown
"The Runners in the Maze" by Darrell Schweitzer
"Just a Number" by Martha A. Hood
"Monsters" by Chris Beckett
"Alarm Clock on the Night Table" by Zoran Zivkovic
"Dregs" by Claude Lalumiere

This issue kicks off with Eric Brown's "The Wisdom of the Dead", the latest in his series of "Kéthani" short stories. The Kéthani are aliens who have come to Earth, bestowing effective humanity upon our species by means of an implant which allows the bearer to be resurrected after his or her death following a procedure carried out on the Kéthani homeworld (to which the bodies are taken after death). I quite like the Kéthani series, as the stories focus more on the humans and the reactions of the groups and individuals concerned to the Kéthani and the concept of resurrection and immortality. The Kéthani themselves remain relatively mysterious and in the background.

Told by a man, one of a close circle of friends, the story focuses on one of those friends who has just suffered an acrimonious split from his wife. Consumed by rage, hatred and bitterness the man becomes more and more aloof from his friends until they start to fear for him. When his body is found with a bullet hole in the chest, the estranged wife and her lover are the prime suspects for the murder. But is all as it really seems? We need only wait six months until the rejuvenated victim returns to spill the beans on the guilty parties, with an unexpected revelation adding a nice twist to the story.

Primarily an examination of the more base, intense and irrational human emotions such as love, hatred, rage, jealousy, and the insatiable human desire for revenge for hurts inflicted during emotional conflicts, the story also asks a very important question: is there really any such thing as "objective truth"? Or is "truth" a subjective concept, with each of us ruled by our own subjective "truths"? A scary thought indeed, and one with deep relevance to our species' long history of conflict. Overall, I found this a very enjoyable story that takes a look at some major issues, and examines raw human emotions intelligently.

"The Runners in the Maze" by Darrell Schweitzer is a fairly traditional gothic horror story, in which a young boy is orphaned by a shipwreck, and is adopted and raised by a distant relative. But this aristocratic relative is a ruthless, evil 300 year old immortal who has had his life extended due to his service to arcane dark entities, and he wants the boy for a sinister reason. After a number of years have gone by, the time has come to carry out the aristocrat's plan — to sacrifice his young relative to a frightening dark entity which periodically demands the flesh of a member of his family in return for the renewal of his immortality. But the young man has other ideas, and the aristocrat's plan doesn't unfold quite in the way he'd hoped.

I tend to prefer science fiction to both horror and fantasy, although I'll enjoy a good story in any of the three genres. Science fiction stimulates the intellect (and mine needs a lot of stimulation to shake me out of my daily lethargy) and introduces many new ideas, whereas horror tends to rehash the same old themes that have always so successfully gripped our emotions and subconscious fears. But within those confines this story certainly worked for me, as it oozed creepy atmosphere and other scary things. Overall, I found this an entertaining horror story, which reminded me of some of the older classic supernatural tales, which I prefer to modern gore shock-horror.

"Just a Number" by Martha A. Hood is an unusual but enjoyable story set in a future in which anti-aging medical advances have created a rigidly stratified society based on age classification. The population is grouped according to age into "decades": Teens, Twenties, Thirties, Forties, Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies (really old people have their memories downloaded into mobile mechanical bodies) and are compelled to remain within their assigned age bracket until the authorities deem them worthy of "promotion" to the one above. But in this society people are effectively immortal, and a "decade" doesn't mean "ten years" — it's only a label to signify which group you belong to. Someone who was eighty years old when the rejuvenation technology came into general use could now have the physical make-up and classification of a "Twenties". A "Sixties" might really be a hundred and twenty years old, not sixty-odd. And imagine being forced to remain a Teen for a hundred years. Yeuch!

But there is an unlikely rebel stirring the pot in this "perfect" society. He's just an ordinary guy, a Fifties, who has become greatly disenchanted with his lot in life, and really, really doesn't want to be a Fifties any more. He fights for promotion to a Sixties, but the authorities refuse point blank. He starts his own little personal revolution against the system, but quickly turns from a mere nuisance into a major embarrassment when he quickly becomes an icon for other groups, particularly the disaffected Teens, who take to "cross-dressing" en masse (in this society that means dressing and wearing make-up to make you look like you're from one of the other age groups, which I found very amusing). But there is a snake in the pit in the form of his unfaithful wife who squeals on him, and his successful attempt to age himself has unexpected and unpleasant consequences for his personal life.

I started off thinking that this story was a bit strange, and that I wouldn't like it. But it really grew on me because of the unusual premise, background, and characters. Definitely one of my favourites of this issue.

Chris Beckett's "Monsters" is a rather "soft" science fiction tale in the vein of Ray Bradbury. It's set on a fairly provincial colony called Flain (I assume it's on another planet rather than Earth, a fact which is implied but never actually stated) which could just as easily be any provincial rural settlement on Earth. Indeed, if we ignore this vague implication and the "fire-horses" (the "monsters" of the title), the story would barely be SF at all. The POV character is a distinguished writer and critic from the huge "Metropolis" who is being entertained by a small group of Flainian wannabe cultural and artistic elite (he doesn't rate them at all — he's more interested in seeing the "fire horses" and local ball games), hosted by a seemingly obnoxious and pretentious "upper-class" elderly invalid woman and her poet son, who seems to be quite the opposite, a sensitive, likeable type. But nobody is as they seem among this false and pretentious social grouping, and the writer leaves us with a rather ambiguous thought — who are the real monsters, the fire horses or the humans?

Overall, a nice, well-written story that takes a scathing look at elitist social groupings in society, and the pretentions and falseness that encompasses them. A bit "soft" for my liking (I prefer my SF "hard" or at least to be more overtly SF), but a good story nevertheless.

"Alarm Clock on the Night Table" by Zoran Zivkovic is a haunting tale reminiscent of older traditional supernatural fantasies. It deals with an old lady who pays a visit to her local watchmaker when her clock stops working, and who takes a step left into the Twilight Zone on the journey home when her trip down memory lane becomes more real than she'd ever have expected. The walk through the mist during which she literally relives her past life and decisions, including the tragic final encounter with her lover that was to set in stone her path for the rest of her life, was quite eerie. The constant voices (her own) coming at her from all directions out of the mist and her physical witnessing, powerless to prevent it, of the final argument and bust-up between her much younger self and the soldier who went off to war (and death) was quite touching, as was her later look at the mementos which are all she has left of him.

The story really emphasises how we relate to getting older, and the tendency to dwell more and more in the past and our memories as we approach the end of our lives. The past is all old people have, as there is little future left for them. The old lady in the story seems stuck in a time warp for the last fifty years, her life rigidly set in stone by the events that have shaped her life, and one event in particular. Her entire life is lived like clockwork (the obsession with clocks is an ironic one), imprisoned by the same old regimented routines and fixation with the old clock and book of love poems (parting gifts from her soldier boyfriend) that have ruled her life for so long. It's a sad look at the inevitabilities of advancing age, how we are able/unable to deal with them, and the truly unimaginable impact that even one vitally important personal event or tragedy can have on how the rest of our lives unfold. A nice story, and one of my favourites for this month.

The final story in this month's Interzone is Claude Lalumiere's "Dregs", a rather strange and disturbing fantasy in which an extremely intense (and graphic) sexual encounter with a mysterious young man while on holiday changes the life of another young man, changing him from a shy, sexually-repressed individual into a selfish sex-obsessed predator. The mysterious stranger also leaves him with a parting gift — a really weird bottle of booze which induces highly erotic hallucinations, and which will perpetually replenish itself if even a few drops are left in the bottom of the bottle (the "dregs" of the title). For many years afterwards the man embarks on a rollercoaster ride of sexual experiences with both men and women, but finds himself curiously having lost any kind of ability to have emotional attachments with anybody, including his parents, with whom he was previously very close.

Many years later a sexual encounter with a young woman and a second drink from the long-forgotten bottle (which induces yet more hallucinogenic erotica) bring many repressed emotions to the surface, and a realisation of just how empty a life he's been leading and how he needs something more. A second chance(?) encounter with the now older mysterious stranger who had changed his life so much, and memories of a childhood mythological story (he hunts the book down) bring an incredulous realisation that the stranger isn't quite human, and that he and the bottle are figures from a fairy tale.

I don't know quite what to make of this story, or whether I like it or dislike it. It's very well-written, and some parts I do like, such as the characterisation of the protagonist and the close look at sex without emotion, and just how empty it really is. On the other hand, this type of fantasy has never been my cup of tea, and I found the graphically explicit sex scenes just a bit jarring and gratuitous. A decent story, but not one of my favourites of this month.

This was a pretty solid issue of Interzone, with no real clunkers, and several pretty strong stories. My own personal favourites would be the Zoran Zivkovic, Martha Hood, and Eric Brown, with the Darrell Schweitzer also on the radar, even if I'm not a big fan of horror. The other stories were also decent, but not really in line with my own personal tastes.

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.