Interzone, #199, Aug. 2005

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.
“The House of the Beata Virgo” by Steven Mohan, Jr.
“Garp and Geronamid” by Neal Asher
“Sunset” by Jay Caselberg
“Bird Songs at Eventide” by Nina Allan
“This, My Body” by Jeremiah Tolbert
Whoa.  Slick new magazine look.  Perhaps the mighty frontage of the cover girl is intended to draw the male eye more than the female—I myself would have preferred that .58 Phallomatic perched so upright on her hip slung low on the lean and mean hips of a handsome hunk. Whatever.  The screaming banner across the top of the magazine—“Aliens!  Murder!  Celebrities! Dragons! Sex!  Food!”—is sufficiently crass to hint to the highbrow sci-fi geek not to put much time into semiotic deconstruction of that cover art.

So supposing the new look of Interzone reaches a wider audience, one expecting to find food, sex, murder, celebrities, and the rest inside.  What are they going to think?  The stories covered all those, even the (strictly sfnal) dragons—though I don’t know if the casual buyer is going to recognize the names of the celebrities in the TOC. 

Let me say this up front: the issue pays off for the fan, for the long-time science fiction reader who may never have heard of fandom, but has bought books with Jim Burns covers, or discovered Charles Stross’s work.  The book review section is outstanding—worth the price alone, I thought, with superb offerings by Paul Kincaid, John Clute, Rick Kleffel, Farah Mendlesohn and many others.   

Andy Hedgecock’s interview with Charles Stross is so good I kept returning to reread bits, but I suspect some of the unexplained concepts in this interview would puzzle a newcomer.  And some of the stories might puzzle the impulse buyer, particularly the curious young one. I’m thinking of myself back in the mid-sixties, first picking up a copy of Galaxy with my baby-sitting money.  My experience with young readers outside of fandom is that some will probably be expecting the fiction to be more like what we call space opera.  This is not an exhortation to print more easily accessible fiction.  Back in those old days I bought the magazines for Keith Laumer’s comedic swashbuckler Retief and Zenna Henderson’s People, but I read all the stories—and thus found my way to Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeon, etc.  More on that at the end, after a look at what’s in the issue.

The first story is Steven Mohan, Jr.’s “The House of the Beata Virgo.”   I think this is the most accessible to my putative new reader. The writing is fine and clear.  The story opens with an intriguing notion: that people can give up their identities—their lives—to become a clone of a celebrity. The question is put by the first person narrator, who arrives at a whorehouse featuring people whose DNA has been altered into versions of Madonna.  They roam a huge house, and if they provide sex, they get ten percent of the payment.  Concurrently, there is a highly publicized case before the Supreme Court concerning the orphan daughter of extremely wealthy parents. She was raised by corporate suits—and by the time she reached eighteen and could conceivably control the family’s mighty financial empire, there were seventeen copies of her running around, most of whom claimed a piece of the action.  Legal or illegal?  Everyone, from those with their own DNA to those who’d been altered into celebs or copies of wealthy people, are watching the decision on the case to find out if what these DNA clones are doing is legal or illegal.

Our heroine meets her first customer, watches the final judgment, and ponders identity and expectation of others.  Her conclusion—her final choices—are absorbing, all the more for the fact that this situation is not as far-fetched as it would seem.

Neal Asher in “Garp and Geronamid” gives us Salind, a journalist, who has travelled to do a story on a world called Banjer.  The story involves a local narcotic which kills its addicts,  people called reifs who opt for death in order to protect what is in their heads, and the imminent election by Banjer’s populace to see if they will join the Polity of worlds, governed by an AI named Geronamid.  That’s a lot of stuff to master in the opening ten graphs—which include several about the life cycle of the banaok tree, its poisons, and how that relates to the illegal drug.

There is a real nasty party named Deleen Soper who has been corrupting the police force, and possibly getting involved in the drug trade.  Salind’s attempt to interview her accelerates into disaster, and the pacing races the reader into a smashing ending.  I suspect that beautifully succinct setup might be tough for a reader new to the genre to parse.  Not the rest.  Nifty ideas underscore a theme as old as story itself, and as compelling.

If stories for younger readers are all about answers, Jay Caselberg’s “Sunset” is for grownups.   “How do you define humanity?” is how this tale about colonists on a seemingly terra-friendly planet begins.  Something here, no one knows what, has affected their second generation.  The questions are painful in this well-written story—which is all about questions.

“Bird Song at Eventide," by Nina Allan, is another story with clear, accessible prose, whose content is really for grownups.  Again, we find colonists on a planet.  In the previous story, ships come by from time to time with limited supplies; in this story,  the colonists are isolated not just by distance but by the time it took to get there.  Local fauna referred to as dragons, weird diseases, and interpersonal relations between the colonists—even memory of Earth—have all exacted their cost.  This story is about surviving—and I don’t mean just physical survival.

Jeremiah Tolbert’s “This, My Body” is perhaps the strangest story in the issue.  “Sex is food, and food is sex.”  So says Brother Antonio, a monk in an Order devoted to finding God through cooking and serving food that is imbued with the cook’s own essence—the plate being his body.  Brother Antonio, the first person protagonist, is probably their most skilled celebrant—but he is tormented by religious doubts, which follow him to a contract for personal service at the home of a difficult and demanding businessman.  He’s to keep the man’s contessa happy when the man is not home.  Brother Antonio meets the contessa’s sister, who is fascinated by the monk.  Along the way, the Brother makes friends with an old cook who has not had the benefit (or the anguish) of that exquisite training.

Though the story is beautifully written, full of observations about human interactions, the central premise never quite worked for me. Yet a younger reader might find it mind-blowing and cool.

So what’s not to like?  The stories do indeed offer plenty of weird sex, strange aliens, celebrities in unexpected forms, and interesting ideas.  It would be interesting to find out how sales go—what the feedback is among new readers—but my own experience with introducing newcomers, young and old, to genre is: the easiest gate is not actually space opera.  That’s what they tend to expect, and many enjoy.  It’s humor.  And that’s the one component missing here in an otherwise satisfying issue.