Interzone, #188, April 2003

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"Birth Days" by Geoff Ryman
"Annuity Clinic" by Nigel Brown
"Pier Pressure" by Christina Lake
"Flights" by Daniel Kaysen
"The Brutal Shadow" by Matt Colborn
"Breakfast at the Fir Tree Diner" by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

This month's issue kicks off with Geoff Ryman's "Birth Days", an intelligent examination of homosexuality in a near future world that is hostile to it, and seemingly intent on wiping it out by genetic engineering. The story is told from the viewpoint of a homosexual man and spans four decades of his life, the story divided into four sections, one for each decade, each section concentrating on his birthday (sixteenth, twenty-sixth, thirty-sixth, and forty-sixth). I found it fascinating to watch not only how the world and its attitudes towards homosexuality (referred to as "samesex") changed over that period, but how radically the attitude of the protagonist changed between each decade of his life (he went through a complete reversal of attitude between the ages of sixteen and twenty-six, which seems to be quite common for people in that age group).

Speaking as a heterosexual who has had prolonged experience working with my local gay community (almost twenty years), the final section of the story brought a huge smile to my face, and I'd bet that quite a few of the gays I've worked with over the years would let out a loud cheer at the final sequence of this tale. I've had a few discussions with gay men on the issue of science enabling them to eventually bear children in some form or fashion, and this story brought back some old memories.

"Annuity Clinic" by Nigel Brown is set a half century into the future, in a Britain where the effects of global warming and the resultant destruction of the gulf stream have caused environmental chaos. The protagonist is a remarkable old lady, a woman who used to be someone of status, but has fallen on hard times and is now an inmate in a run-down National Health home for old people under the supervision of a particularly unsympathetic and nasty lady manager. The ghoulish practice of removal of body parts to enable the oldies to pay for their stay in the home has an unexpected positive side effect when the old lady goes to the annuity clinic for the distasteful procedure of having her fancy internet-capable artificial eye removed to pay her way. She unexpectedly meets an old (artificial) acquaintance, and they both plot a daring escape from their dreadful lives.

An enjoyable story, with some delightfully amusing interaction between the old people. Some of the banter involving Betty and Arnold was very funny, and I laughed out loud at the gross scenes and complete lack of table manners during the dinner sequence. I found myself cheering when the nasty manager eventually gets what she deserves, and the old lady makes her break for freedom with her "dolly", heading for the sunnier climes of the Aegean. Despite my general preference for grim and realistic stories, I haven't yet grown so old, jaded and cynical that I still can't enjoy the occasional happy ending, and I found this a pleasant, enjoyable, Steven Spielberg sort of tale.

Christina Lake's "Pier Pressure" is a very strange and sometimes slightly confusing story set in a (presumably) post-holocaust or post-environmental catastrophe society which lives on or around the coast of Britain, specifically around beaches and piers. Apparently there are many such "pier societies" all over Britain, and there's an overall feeling that the "land" has somehow become a very dangerous place, although we're never actually told why. The setting of the story is one of those pier-based societies, where we meet an assortment of strange people, the strangest being ten clone sisters, nine of whom have been designed to be ambassadors to other "piers of the realm". Add in strange alien seal-people and the fact that one of the clone sisters isn't who she appears to be, and we have a weird mix of an unusual world and background that we (sadly) only catch glimpses of.

"Flights" by Daniel Kaysen is a tale of the trials and tribulations of three friends and (sometimes) flatmates, as they work their way through their personal and social lives over a period of several years. It's a nice story, and I liked the characterization of the three friends, and the way their lives change over that period of time. However, I have one main criticism to make. I could not for the life of me see how this story was even remotely a science fiction, fantasy or horror story (someone enlighten me if I'm wrong, please!). Some daft twaddle about stock market music and the main female character talking to buses is easily explained by common mental aberrations, behavioural problems, or sheer silliness on the part of the characters. No matter how much I tried, I couldn't see this story as anything other than a mainstream one, albeit quite a good one. It wasn't even slipstream, and there wasn't even a throwaway line to give the impression that it was set in the near future, or was a supernatural tale, or anything out of the ordinary.

I have a personal beef with this sort of thing. I don't take a favourable view of SF&F magazines publishing mainstream stories, no matter how high the quality. It just isn't cricket, and I feel like I've been cheated every time I read a story like this in an SF magazine. Nothing to do with the quality of this story (it's a good story), but still a major misrepresentation on the part of the editors. I read SF magazines to find SF stories. If I want mainstream I can always find it elsewhere. Just not in SF magazines, please. The species is endangered enough without SF&F stories being displaced from their own venues by mainstream stories that shouldn't even be there, no matter how much the editor likes them. And don't even think of giving me any old rubbish about there not being enough good SF&F stories out there….

Matt Colborn's "The Brutal Shadow" is a strange mix of the scientific and supernatural, a cautionary tale warning not only against cloning but also against disturbing the dead. A scientific expedition to Siberia suffers a strange and frightening experience, but manages to return with fossilized mammoth remains, and scientists attempt to clone a mammoth using the fossil DNA. But they've brought back more than fossils, and something dark and terrifying begins to make its presence felt before the two scientist protagonists have a final fateful encounter of the supernatural kind.

For some reason this story reminded me a lot of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or any of the myriad of old anti-science sci-fi movies from the thirties, forties and fifties, warning against science and scientists messing around with things they don't fully understand. "There are things Man wasn't meant to know" and all that old rubbish. Despite the Jurassic Park angle (Pleistocene Park? Groan!) and several quite overt movie-style clichés (the author poking fun at these movie clichés? I certainly hope so) — most memorable being the young protester who gives the protagonist a lot of abuse about how immoral his work is, and who later turns up dead, murdered and horribly mutilated by something strange while trying to break into the elephant enclosure — it's not a bad story, quite well-written and atmospheric, even if it's not one that made me jump up and down and scream "More!". It also addresses a couple of important issues, most notably the "morality" of this particular branch of science, and the nasty evolutionary propensity of our species to render other species extinct, despite the best efforts of a minority of well-meaning conservationists. "We've been murdering species for a long time". I liked that line.

The final story, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's "Breakfast at the Fir Tree Diner" is my favourite story of this month. It's a very visual story, one which reminded me a lot of cyberpunkish stories and movies such as Johnny Mnemonic, with lots of action and violence, and is something I think would make the basis of a screenplay for a good action-adventure sci-fi movie (I don't know if the author or readers would thank me for saying this, or put out a hit on me). It has many of the elements needed. A ruthless assassin who switches bodies, downloading his personality into other (expendable) bodies which then go out and perform the "hit". The constant pursuit by the cops, who can never prove a thing. The wealthy existence covering up his "real" occupation, a cheating wife and her thuggish lover, and the spoiled brat step-daughter. Add in one or two memorable assassination scenes, which highlight the cold efficiency and ruthlessness of the killer, and a couple of graphic body switching scenes as each of his new personas "rise from the dead", and we have a nice start to a potential blockbuster sci-fi movie.

To make things even more complicated, we also have an added softer, more sympathetic side to our otherwise compassionless and ruthless assassin. He feels trapped in the life he has chosen, for all the wealth and power it's given him, and he also has a fixation with the only victim he ever shot by mistake (aside from this he's never missed his target), a former police officer forced to retire due to her injuries, and who now lives a far different kind of life. He visits the run-down diner now owned by the woman, and it's obvious that he's been keeping up-to-date with everything that's happened in her life since the incident. He feels obvious guilt and remorse over her accidental shooting and maiming, and the way the incident has ruined her life. For possibly the first time in his life he has come to care for someone else other than himself, and wishes to in some way make amends for what he did to her.

So he decides he wants to disappear for good, to get out of his current life of wealth through murder and corruption, and away from his wife and step-daughter. An elaborate plan involving yet more body switching and transfer of his personality to another body, which then assassinates the original "real" him brings the story back full circle, with him back in the diner (which is how the story began), in his new body, looking for a job and with obvious future plans in mind for the woman whose life he's ruined.

This was a solid issue of Interzone, with the Grimwood just shading it from the Ryman as the stand-outs of the month, and Nigel Brown's story coming in a close third. The others were also decent reads, and, aside from the complaint about Daniel Kaysen's story being mainstream and not SF&F, I was quite satisfied with this issue.

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.