Interzone 198, May/June 2005

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“Piccadilly Circus” by Chris Beckett

“Bastogne V.9” by Christopher East
“The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green
“Go Tell the Phoenicians” by Matthew Hughes
“The Court of the Beast-Emperor” by John Aegard
There were five fiction stories in this Interzone, of which three—”Piccadilly Circus” by Chris Beckett, “Bastogne V.9” by Christopher East, and “The Clockwork Atom Bomb” by Dominic Green—could be considered as part of the Mundane movement.  They had no aliens, no FTL, no life “out there,” and all dealt with potential futures on the Earth that we know.  Of the other two (“Go Tell the Phoenicians” by Matthew Hughes and “The Court of the Beast-Emperor” by John Aegard), Hughes’s story was a retelling of a Golden Age First Contact puzzle with a taste of more modern organizational dystopia, while Aegard’s was out-and-out fantasy.  As always, the magazine rounded out with various news and reviews, including an interesting interview with Kazuo Ishiguro on the SFnal elements in his fiction.

Chris Beckett‘s “Piccadilly Circus” is rich in character and detail; it presents the plight of the few aging real humans left alive in a London where the rest of the population has gone virtual.  How do old people get around in an old city where only the virtual version has electricity and street maintenance?  As the questioning of a certain turning point in futurist science fiction, the story is intellectually appealing.  Given an interface that allows these few people to either see the virtual London or their real one, when do they choose to see which?  Why?  How do they communicate and have relationships with virtual people?  How do they view each other?  What happens if they step into a virtual metro?  Beckett has a lot of fun with these sorts of questions, poking and prodding into the grimy place where the computer-generated rubber hits the macadam road.  While I greatly appreciated the world-building and the man-machine relationships that the story brought up, the story itself did not move me much.  The characters are quite real, and their aging and isolation is both credible and poignant.  In spite of that, I never ended up being as interested in the characters’ problems as I was in the world that Beckett created.  As a result, I think that the author created a wonderful world to ask some interesting questions, but didn’t quite have the best story in which to do it.
Is that an oxymoron, Golden Age dystopia?  I don’t think so; many of the early greats were as politically cynical as anyone writing today.  Matthew Hughes‘s “Go Tell the Phoenicians” is strongly reminiscent of those old tales—a corporate trouble-shooter lands on a planet where no one can figure out what’s going on, he gets into immediate trouble with the local brass, he makes a few daring forays outside the protected compound to discover the truth… and he triumphs in the end.  Though the grimness of the corporate state in which he works and the destitution of Earth place it in a more modern era, it seemed to me that I had seen this sort of thing before.  Credit where it’s due, however; it’s a good romp even if ultimately the story feels a bit shallow.  As in other First Contact stories, the whole thing leads up to the big question of How Come the Aliens Act Like That.  The answer given here is novel, if not entirely credible, and I give the author full credit for attacking a classic story without ending up feeling stale.  As for me, however, it didn’t replace my fond old memories of Vance’s Magnus Ridolph or the ineffable Stainless Steel Rat.
“Bastogne V.9” by Christopher East is about as Mundane as SF can get—it is indeed the Battle of the Bulge, and it is indeed a simulation of the event.  The title, as such, does a nice, elegant job of putting you right into the headspace of the characters.  The tale is told from the point of view of one of the computer-program-soldier-agents in a fictitious unit of the 101st Airborne that fought that grim wintry conflict.  The unit consists of tourists who come to see what it was like, and the programmed soldiers, there to fulfill their duties.  An interesting twist that East adds is that some of the agents are aware that they are virtual, and some are not.  The even more interesting twist is that the tourists have the same choice—and some of them decide to come in believing that they are living and dying in that same war.  The action is well depicted, and the brief snippets that East uses to characterize the aware and unaware agents are great.  The names are fun as well—the agents have names like Form, Applet, Upgrade, and Glitch; combined with the military rank, we even have soldiers with the unlikely epithets of Corporal Punishment, Private Property, and Private Dancer.  In a way, the story is a lot like war—moments of lightness between the troops intertwined with moments of terror fighting invisible enemies through the snow and mist.  The balance is handled well, and the questions that East asks about the Why of it all are slipped in subtly.  An unusual mix of programming, military history, and humor, I enjoyed “Bastogne V.9” immensely.
Now we come to “The Court of the Beast-Emperor” by John Aegard, a story that is long and complex, full of pain and suffering, and selfishness and redemption.  It almost makes you think that you’re reading some sort of literary journal, except that literary journals don’t generally include stories about “beast emperors” and slaves stirring enormous underground pools of shit.  You may have guessed already that this story was an interesting one.  What gave it the most weight for me was the trope that in this world the pain of the judgment weighs on the judges; while the judges in the story make decisions that are “right” for the greater good, they bear—physically—the pain inflicted on the person judged.  This strange effect takes a particularly devastating turn for the protagonist, and John Aegard spares his character no pains.  It is a fascinating way to look at the question of moral responsibility—could you take a decision that was “right” for the society but horrible for an individual, knowing that as a result, the emotional or physical damage that results will be visited on your person?  High fantasy (and pools of shit) are unusual backdrops to ask this sort of classical question of philosophical ethics, and whether or not you like the story or find it credible, you have to give Aegard enormous credit for tackling the issue this way.  This is one of the reasons that I found the story more satisfying than some others in this issue; it is truly About Something.  Whether or not the author succeeds or fails, it is a credit to the genre and the magazine that tales like this find a place.
So you have a taste for paranoia, Armageddon, and the inevitable horrifying consequences of military technology in the hands of tinpot dictators?  Run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore/kiosk/website and make sure you read “The Clockwork Atom Bomb.”  Dominic Green has written a story that takes a solid technical and scientific “what-if”—capturing man-made black holes in multi-ton containment devices —and extrapolates the uses to which it could be put.  Here, we find poor and savage nations in Africa tapping these machines for waste management, electricity, and removing unwanted persons.  The protagonist, a UN weapons inspector, is up against incompetence, corruption, and ignorance as he attempts to prevent these devices from escaping and eating up the inside of the Earth.  While the basic scientific trope is familiar to readers of Larry Niven’s “The Hole Man,” setting the story where he did and putting together such an entertaining cast of characters (think Quentin Tarantino meets T. Coraghessan Boyle in Zimbabwe) gets Green some great credit for originality.  Solid science, a touch of “If We Go On Like This,” and good writing make for a very strong close to the issue.