Interzone, #189, May/June 2003

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

"The Rule of Terror" by Dominic Green
"A Walk in the Woods" by Vaughan Stanger
"Screw" by John Shirley
"The Most Beautiful Dead Woman in the World" by Darrell Schweitzer
"The Waters of Meribah" by Tony Ballantyne
"Harvest Rain" by Jay Caselberg

This month's issue kicks off with Dominic Green's "The Rule of Terror", a scathing yet often funny and ironic examination of the opposed concepts of "democracy" and "tyranny", and the potential future outcome of the current social upheavals in the western world, as seen from the perspective of a journalist in a mid-21st century police state Britain. In some parts quite chilling, it gives us a possible future scenario taking us on from the ominous darkness which at the present time seems to be infecting the "free" democratic societies of the western world since the September 11th terrorist atrocities. Just how many "freedoms" can we relinquish before we can no longer consider our societies either "free" or "democratic". And will the western democracies become the world's greatest tyrannies?

The frightening potential is certainly there, and the somewhat illusory true nature of modern democracy and freedom has been recently highlighted by the ease in which The Powers That Be can restrict or remove freedoms and rights that we've long taken for granted whenever it suits their whims, and at the slightest flimsy excuse. I've long believed that we are ruled even more effectively and rigidly by the rich and powerful, by the huge mega-corporations and their corrupt political sidekicks, than are more traditional dictatorships are by their militaries. Our lot are just better at it, and in convincing us that we're really much better off and more free than the "other lot", through ultra-effective media and cultural conditioning, and granting us a few basic unthreatening freedoms and rights to keep us happy, and which they seem to be able to take away at any time if we step out of line or if some "emergency" arises. I've always been an optimistic sort, but I'm afraid my views on the realities of democracy and "freedom" have taken a few severe knocks in recent years, transforming me into a bit of a jaded cynic. And this story just hit some of the right buttons for me.

"A Walk in the Woods" by Vaughan Stanger is set in a near future project in which the protagonist is cataloguing the inventory of the flora and fauna of a wood, which will be made available online on the "Web". He meets a young woman and they take a liking to each other. She also likes the wood, and keeps coming back, but suffers disastrous allergic reactions and collapse of her immune system when a warped gene hacker unleashes a virus which begins to destroy the wood. Against the wishes of her sister, the dying woman's last wish is to be taken back to the wood one more time, a wish that the protagonist is determined to help her fulfill, with the help of a friend. Overall, a nice story, touching, with decent characters.

John Shirley's "Screw" is a bit of a strange story in which the male and female protagonists, who work at a multinational corporation, have been experiencing some strange "quakes" recently. To make things even worse, they realize to their horror that their boss, and the company, are merely an agent and a front for a race of transdimensional parasites who have been infiltrating our world for decades, leading it down the dark path to environmental and societal ruin. In the catastrophic finale the boss reveals her true self and the aliens finally make their move, sucking the Earth dry of every last vestige of energy. The huge "screw" burrowing into the Earth can be taken as a metaphor for one of my favourite pet peeves, the multinational corporations "screwing" the world and the human race, bleeding us dry, with the active acquiescence of the dominant social and political classes in western society.

"The Most Beautiful Dead Woman in the World" by Darrell Schweitzer is an eerie tale set in a weird fog-bound town full of rather strange people. Each night ships bring the corpses of the dead, and pile them up on the docks. Strangely these corpses don't decompose, and are divided up among the townspeople, and taken in as guests in the town, which is already filled to overflowing with corpses. The protagonist, a leading citizen among the townspeople, commits a grave crime by stealing the corpse of a beautiful woman. He indulges in unspeakable acts with this corpse (including a spot of necrophilia), for which he is terribly punished by the other townspeople. Where this strange town is we never find out, although we can assume that it is in some other "shadowy realm" of one kind or another as the lady corpse tells her admirer of another world (presumably ours) where the sun shines and the sky is blue, and the living are alive and the dead are buried. A strange story that didn't do much for me, I'm afraid, as I'm not much of a fan of this type of horror story. Still, it'll most likely appeal far more to those with tastes that lean in this direction.

Tony Ballantyne's "The Waters of Meribah" is by far my favourite story of this month, and joins Brett Davidson's "The Little Watcher" and Nicholas Waller's "Sandtrap" on my list of favourite Interzone stories of 2003. It's an ingenious, chilling story in the "Pandora's Box" vein, and a warning against the folly of human curiosity and our obsession with understanding the fundamental nature of the universe, particularly since the universe resists being observed at the quantum level, which changes it. Humans have ignored the old warnings, and the universe has struck back by altering itself on a drastic scale, collapsing until the entire universe is contained in a bubble only three hundred miles across.

The human race (or what's left of it) struggles to exist in this disastrous scenario, with no possible way out of their tiny prison. They also struggle to comprehend what has happened, and this is manifested in a particularly disturbing manner in which a group of scientists are performing a series of operations on a condemned prisoner (the protagonist) which will transform him into something totally alien and monstrous, while totally destroying him as a human being (they've experimented on other prisoners as well). The hope is that this new being will have a much greater understanding of the new environment than humans. The irony is that the completely cruel, ruthless and compassionless manner in which the scientists (in particular the Mengelian project leader) carry out their experiments make them even greater monsters than the creature they are creating. Of course things don't go quite as the scientists had planned, and we are left with a rather bleak yet somehow satisfying ending ("just desserts" comes most strongly to mind).

The final story is "Harvest Rain", a thoughtful and intelligent Interzone début by Jay Caselberg (better known as James A. Hartley). It examines the "reality" of strongly-held beliefs and "truths" in the wake of societal breakdown aboard an immense generational starship on a very long voyage. The crew of the ship has long been rigidly stratified into a number of distinct classes, each one providing a vital function for the survival of the ship. However, so long has passed since the journey began that the real reasons for these divisions have been forgotten.

Against this backdrop of ignorance, some members of the class which grows the food rebel against the hardship and unfairness of their lives, and against the "Cloud Walkers" who live a seemingly free life flying in the skies, and who come at intervals to steal the crops and some members of the farming population. In reality they are recruiting new members and distributing the food throughout the huge ship — another vital function — but the farmers have forgotten this and see themselves only as victims of attacks and theft. During the violent rebellion the leader of the farmers is kidnapped by the Cloud Walkers, only to return later as one of them and attempt to explain the real truth to one of his former rebel comrades. He unfortunately learns a painful lesson that old ideas and "truths" die very hard.

Overall a very good first story from Caselberg/Hartley, who has come a long way since his days in the writing group (the IMPs) of Compuserve's SF&F Literature Forum (I've been a member of the forum for many years). I look forward to more stories of the same calibre from him in Interzone (and elsewhere) in the future.

This was a strong issue of Interzone, with one excellent story (the Ballantyne), and several very good stories (Green, Stanger, and Caselberg). Even the two stories (the Shirley and Schweitzer) that didn't really push my buttons quite as much were very readable. As it was, I can't say that I actually disliked any of the stories intensely, so, overall, an interesting and entertaining 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.