Interzone, #196, Jan/Feb 2005

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

"Winning Mars" by Jason Stoddard
"Ducks in Winter" by Neal Blaikie
"The Emperor of Gondwanaland" by Paul Di Filippo
"Lost Things Saved in Boxes" by Deirdre Ruane
"The Face of America" by David Ira Cleary
"Totems" by Will McIntosh

ImageThe January/February 2005 Interzone carries six excellent stories of widely varying style and substance.  This is the third issue of Interzone since the magazine changed hands, and the quality of the writing is as good as ever.  Thank you, TTA Press, for keeping a good thing going.

"Winning Mars" by Jason Stoddard
Stoddard's novella is the only one in this issue that could be classified as hard SF.  The basis behind the story is in fact realistic enough to tag it as part of the "Mundane" SF genre, whether it wants to be or no.  The novella presents one view of the role of free enterprise in the development of the (dare I say?) final frontier, in which the worst excesses of capitalism provide the drive and the opportunity to continue space exploration. 

It is an enjoyable and readable story; the readability comes from the fact that, on his way to analyzing the importance—even necessity—of greed and ambition in human achievement, Stoddard writes a credible tale with believable characters.  Love, impending death, unbridled greed, obsession with glory, the thrill of the deal, and ratings-boosting-T&A all get their fifteen minutes of fame here.

The novella follows the trail of five different groups in two time streams: The reality TV entrepreneurs who are trying to strike it rich by setting up the first manned Mars mission, and the four teams that responded to the casting call.  The teams are sent up to do or die using technology that has been cobbled together with corporate sponsorship, not technical quality, as its main driver.  The opportunities for risk, conflict, Murphy's Law, and good old human cussedness are rampant, and Stoddard exploits them all.  I won't reveal more of the story, other than to say that it reminds me of Golden Age stuff tempered with a cynical view of human motivation in our media-obsessed society.

"Ducks in Winter" by Neal Blaikie
The second fiction piece in the February Interzone is pure science fantasy, and the author does not permit the mundanity of science to intrude on his story of hope, loss, and eternal questing.  The title of the story sounded to me like the opening line of a haiku, and Japanese influences abound in the story.  It starts with the protagonist—an interstellar vehicle named Hiroshige that is seeking heat sources in a dead universe. 

Why, one might ask, would someone name an exploratory spacecraft after a woodblock artist?  There may be numerous answers to this, of which I propose two. 

The first is that the author is an MFA student, and I congratulate Blaikie for discovering an MFA that accepts speculative fiction writers (outside of John Kessel's program at North Carolina State University I cannot name a single one, though they certainly must exist).   Indeed, occasional geysers of irrepressibly MFA-ish verbiage erupt, such as: "Filaments of gold and whispering glass, twined together with soft manic urgency, filled Hiroshige with a shimmering delight, spread a soft pulsing joy through its hunkering matrices."  I might have dropped a present participle in there just for entertainment's sake, but I have to give full credit for the richness of the imagery.  Personally, though, I haven't seen a matrix hunker since the Wachowski brothers contracted fatal sequelitis.

The second reason that Hiroshige has been brought forth is the presence of Japanese motifs and impressions upon which the development of the story is based.  Here Blaikie shines; his evocation of an ephemeral world is cherry-blossom perfect and we sense the floating transience of the girl and the town that exist only in databanks, no more real than a print or a painting.

The story is melancholic, yet not at all maudlin, and the relative lightness of its message is more than compensated by the almost baroque imagery and the prose.  This story is Blaikie's first publication, and I look forward to watching as his style develops.

"The Emperor of Gondwanaland" by Paul Di Filippo
This story can be taken as many things, including a guide on how not to visit Buenos Aires.

Okay, I confess, that is just a hook line.  It is, however, entirely germane to this light tale of a daily-grind-numbed yuppie discovering the Internet world of micronations.  Micronations are "nations" that exist solely in the imagination, created more along the lines of fan clubs or SCA-type associations.  The protagonist of the story comes across one, however, that seems so realistic and rich that he really starts to wonder if he could possibly visit it…

The story is short and entertaining to read; little more needs to be said as Di Filippo is an accomplished writer in the genre.  What little I know of Di Filippo's work shows that he has great skill at presenting unusual ideas, cultures, and sub-cultures in a very understandable and accessible way.  He always manages—as he does here—to tell an enjoyable tale in a style that really gives you no desire to put it down and go do something else. 

Unlike other stories in this issue—such as "The Face of America" and "Ducks in Winter"—the setting, attitudes, and events are the sort of thing that could happen any day to any of us.  This ability to pull one into an imagined world creates a story that is enjoyable in its immediacy and is a credit to the writer's skills.     

"Lost Things Saved in Boxes" by Deirdre Ruane
Continuing the tradition of the previous management, the editors of Interzone publish winners of the James White Award.  "Lost Things Saved in Boxes" by Deirdre Ruane won this award for the best short story written by a non-professional author for 2004.  I would certainly agree that this cozy fantasy is a well-written and enjoyable story, though it may be the weakest of this issue solely on the merits of its competition.

The tale follows the nighttime visit of three friends to a strange set of storage boxes where people bring lost things belonging to others and look for their own—one lost item brought in gives the right to take one lost item away.  The owner-managers are a quirky lot, however, as an item could be filed in any one of the twenty-six alphabetical storage rooms according to any number of characteristics.  One of the characters, looking for a lost thesis on a floppy disk, is told: "…it might be filed under T for Thesis, or K for Knowledge or even S for Square, being as how it isn't actually disc-shaped…"

The story follows the trio through a charming inventory of lost odds-and-ends under a random collection of alphabet letters.  Ruane's writing is most enjoyable when describing the lost memories of other people that they uncover.

The story flowed well, though for me the ending with the chain and the protagonist's resolution did not have the sense of completion or resonance that I had hoped for.  It is a great beginning, however, and Ruane deserves our congratulations not only for her award, but also for her playful creativity and her understanding of how our memories help to define our humanity.

"The Face of America" by David Ira Cleary
Cleary has written an interesting and subversive fantasy story. The title introduces the sense of ambiguity that is present throughout—is it a story that shows how America is perceived by others, or presents one person's opinion of what America appears to be, or, or what it is about America that is most visible?  Exactly what the title means is open to interpretation, and I do not pretend to the skills of a semiotician for explaining it.  I can say, however, that this story is both unsettling and interesting in a number of ways.

The action takes place in the distant future on a craft that is a jumbo jet with the facilities of a cruise ship.  The passengers are all old and bored, and they all spend time—carefully scheduled time—staring out the windows of the jet.  All they ever see out the windows, however, are enormous floating eyes staring back at them.

Is this the face of America?  Bored and indolent people staring at each other and waiting for something interesting to happen?  Stoddard's reality TV-influenced future Earth of "Winning Mars" would perhaps agree.

The plot follows the evolution of a character that cannot escape her belief that the universe and the vagaries of human action are ultimately deterministic—we cannot really be held responsible for our actions, as all of our actions are mathematically predictable.  The numbers dictate what we do, not our own free will.  As a result, any action we take is foreordained, and thus we have no individual responsibility.  We cannot be at fault.

Is this then the face of Cleary's America?  A place where people may do whatever they feel like at any given moment because their systems of belief exclude any question of free will, and therefore absolve them of responsibility? 

The questions raised are interesting, and the way in which the unsympathetic protagonist explores them make this short story a very enjoyable if disquieting read.  The elements of the strange and the fantastic juxtaposed with concrete discussions of determinism generated a curious tension for me as the reader, and I would recommend this story especially to anyone who enjoys this sort of strange marriage.

"Totems" by Will McIntosh
The final story in the issue is a relatively longer one written by Will McIntosh, a writer who is on the "unknown but up-and-coming" list.  He has been published to date in NFG and Challenging Destiny and been a quarterfinalist (twice) in the Writers of the Future contest.

Intitially, the story seems to be about the kind of person who needs to collect things, and seems quite prepared to go to irrational lengths to do so.  Smuggling, bribery, seduction, all means are valid to achieve the protagonist's ends.  This turns out not to be the crux of the tale, however, as the mystery of the totems and the narrator's obsession with them is solved perhaps halfway through.  At this point the outer layer peels off and we see that what the story is really about is actually quite different—it is not a "Whydunit" concerning unbalanced collectors of unusual objects.  It is actually about love, and being alien, and unrequitable love, and why it maybe really sucks to have to deal with passports and immigration authorities and racially-oriented politics. 

The tale was a tad too long for my taste and the ending was perhaps a touch too HEA.  However, some very strong writing—in particular in the scenes where the protagonist Jerea is dealing with the alien Cliff-mon and to a lesser extent the doting Bryant—carried me through the slow passages.

It is a pleasure to read work by an author versatile enough to weave together threads such as music, art, love, and aliens; kudos to McIntosh for the way in which he achieved this.