Interzone, #197, March/April 2005

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"Dee-Dee and the Dumpy Dancers" by Ian Watson and Mike Allen
"Threshold of Perception" by Scott MacKay

"A World of his Own" by Christopher East
"Kivam" by Dave Hoing
"The Kansas Jayhawk vs. the Midwestern Monster Squad" by Jeremiah Tolbert
ImageThe March/April 2005 Interzone continues the trends of its recent predecessors; great fiction, adulatory reviews, and thorough examinations into the many ways grayscale can appear to imitate color.  (Note to British readers: ‘greyscale can appear to imitate colour’).  In addition to the fiction reviewed below there are the standard features such as an interview with Susanna Clark and Colin Greenland, Nick Lowe on films, Martin Hughes on videogames, and the venerable Ansible.

There are certain things that you can tell about a book from its cover—or, in this case, a short story from its title.  If you guessed that "Dee-Dee and the Dumpy Dancers" by Ian Watson and Mike Allen was not going to be 10,000 words of angst-ridden guilt filled with endless existentialist monologues, you would be correct.

The tale follows the plight of a few friends in a North Carolina town who have been made redundant by the closure of their textile plant.  The authors do a great job of painting the trials and tribulations of a small industrial town trying to readjust in the face of downsizing, globalization, and restructuring—in other words, in the face of people getting fired.  Upon this backdrop Watson and Allen paint the story of these women and their families; all clearly and honestly rendered and full of the little vicissitudes that make characters come to life. 

This is not the only news, however, as the world has recently been visited by aliens.  These aliens, who resemble turkeys in diving gear, are flying all over poking their noses into whatever happens to interest them.  The media and government try to befriend and understand them, but in a very nice twist we realize that the amazing presence of aliens is just a backdrop—kids have to fed, rent has to be paid, and lives have to keep going in spite of the ET’s. 

As the women who will eventually comprise the Dumpy Dancers try to figure out what they can do to help make ends meet, they come upon the idea of setting up a dance troupe.  While dance may not pay well, they are angling at least for some arts funding and a bit of local exposure.  Desperation turns to surprise and then wonder as the people who turn out for their opening performance react enthusiastically—as do the aliens who see the whole thing on TV.

The coming together of the aliens and the Dumpy Dancers, and their subsequent explanation of who the aliens are and why they do what they do, pulls together the various threads into the climax of the story.

While I found the explanations both credible and interesting, after reading the story I felt somehow indifferent to it all.  This is unfortunate, as the people and places in the tale are vibrantly and accurately depicted (Other than one instance of an Anglicism that seemed odd to these American ears—"anti-clockwise" instead of "counter-clockwise."  Though maybe it’s just me.)  Perhaps it was the fairy-tale ending, or the fact that so many wonderful opportunities for conflict and risk were set up and then avoided.  As a result I found the story to be a pleasant and believable read, rather than a great one.

The next entry in this strong issue is "Threshold of Perception" by Scott MacKay. It tells a story set in 1910 through the eyes of Georges Marcotte, an astronomer at the observatory in Meudon near Paris.  The supposition is this: What if Percival Lowell had predicted Halley’s Comet would hit Earth—and he turned out to be correct?  Lowell was indeed a famous astronomer, predicting, for instance, the existence of Pluto based on anomalies in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.  Though he was brilliant, history has been unkind to Lowell for believing that the Martian "canals" really were the relics of a lost civilization.

Mackay uses this as the take-off point; Lowell was so largely ridiculed for his theories of Martian intelligence that any warning of Halley’s Comet changing direction would certainly have been ignored…

The author touches on a number of interesting subjects that he seems to know well—the milieu of science, scientists, and the politics of their research; the history of astronomy and science; the discovery of the Martian canals and speculations on the one-time existence of water.  All of these subjects are touched with a deft hand, rerouting history with an interesting sense of what the past would have been if the future had happened differently.  MacKay treats his setting of Paris credibly as well, giving a few details that create a good sense of time and place.

There are interesting questions raised in the tale that make us wonder how research, facts, and perception can be mixed up and obfuscated by character, competition, and scientific dogma.  The story reaffirms human will and perseverance, and compares our own obstinate refusal to give up with those ancient neighbors on Mars who seemed, as the water was running out, to collect the will and the resources to carve enormous canals across the face of their planet.

I enjoyed the story both as history lesson and intellectual debate, and look forward to seeing more from MacKay.

"A World of his Own" by Christopher East is one of those stories that grins slyly at people, our attitudes, and our dogged refusal to leave well enough alone.  A bachelor opens an odd toy that slowly takes over his apartment—and his life.  It is a "Puddy Buddy," a small pliable doll that turns out to be the one pulling the strings.  Like Pandora’s Box the protagonist is unable to control his curiosity and lets his Puddy Buddy upgrade itself; he soon becomes overrun with thousands of Puddy Buddies as the original replicates and begins to take over the apartment block.

I was put off by seemingly gaping holes in the plot—Where did the toy come from?  Why would this toy be built, permitted to upgrade itself, and then have no "off" button?—until I realized that it was science fantasy, not science fiction.  I blame the author for this; his depiction of the average bachelor’s life was immersive enough for me to expect that the science and the plot would also be real, or at least realistic.

They are not.  But they are loads of fun, and it is entertaining to watch the hero (literarily speaking only) try to figure out how to get himself out of his mess.  The message of the story is more like one of the good old 50’s horror movies where mankind tampers with nature or science to devastating effect.  For me the echoes were of Tarantula, or Ants, brought up to date with a modern anti-ish hero and setting.  The author seemed to be saying that we should watch out; anything that we do to our environment could come back and haunt us.  Yesterday’s atomic weaponry has become, in East’s hands, today’s nano-engineering.  It is a very credible message, though the fantastic elements of the Puddy Buddies made it a bit hard for me to take the theme seriously.

On the other hand it was a very entertaining read, and if they ever make a movie it deserves Harryhausen special effects.

I don’t often—ever, actually—use the word "haunting" to describe a story.  "Kivam" by Dave Hoing is one of those rare jewels where the word is quite appropriate, however, and there are a number of reasons for it:  The setting is a cold and lonely outpost of civilization, the people living there have become chattel to the rebellious slaves they had brought in to work the mines, and the protagonist of the story is a combination traitor and prostitute.  The people and the protagonist are haunted by dreams of warmth and humanity and belonging; they are also haunted by their past and their treatment of the Drun slaves that put them into this situation.

The main character is Kivam—not a very uplifting person and yet, as drawn here, intensely human and believable.  She has betrayed the humans and become the lover of the leader of the Drun.  Yet, with a human army coming to free them, she is squeezed between wanting to see the humans win—upon which she will be treated as a traitor—and seeing them lose, and being forever stuck in the role of whore.  Unlike other stories in this issue you can’t read this one with a sense of joy, or awe, or giddy pleasure.  A dislikable yet understandable Kivam lives a life and makes decisions that become inevitable for her, awful though they may be.

I think the average reader would be haunted as well after finishing this story; wondering if, in a similar situation, they would do the same thing for the same reasons.  More than that other stories in this issue "Kivam" stayed with me after I read it, and to me that is the mark of a great craftsman.

The final story in the issue, "The Kansas Jayhawk vs. the Midwestern Monster Squad" by Jeremiah Tolbert, is about as much fun as you can have in fiction without it turning ludicrous and cartoonish. 

What can I say?  We’re back to the case of the title telling you all about the story.  Tolbert manages here to walk the delicate line between over-the-top humor and credible characters and motivations, weaving it all into a great ride.  There are a lot of threads sewn together in this patchwork tale, starting with geeky President Pointdexter who, in these times of plenty, allows state governments to create genetically engineered monsters in order to entertain and provide an economic boost.

The rumble in question is between the Kansas Jayhawk and three opponents: the Missouri Tiger, the Nebraska Noog, and Iowa’s Cornfed Carnage.  The protagonists are a gang of enthusiasts; nut cases who load up the latest technology and get as close as they can to the actual fight in order to experience the adrenaline thrill—and set records for their daring.

There are lots of tongue in cheek laughs in the story, including references to Toho movies, a New York Times headline declaring "p0ind3x+r°r0x0rz°by°1@Nd$id3.°+3ch°$+0x0rz°uP°30°p0in+z.°d00d!," and cloning being promoted as giving people "save" points.

The tale continues in the same vein; it’s an entertaining chase across the mid-west as the giant Jayhawk tackles the Tiger, the Noog (a sort of Blob), and the Cornfed Carnage (some sort of tentacular monstrosity).  It’s about as much fun as you can have without plugging in an old cassette of Destroy All Monsters.