Interzone, #202, February 2006

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"Sundowner Sheila" by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre
"The Macrobe Conservation Project" by Carlos Hernandez
"The Unsolvable Deathtrap" by Jack Mangan
"The Last Reef" by Gareth Lyn Powell
Issue 202 of Interzone, “Britain’s longest running science fiction magazine” (as stated on the top of the front cover), is my fourth. Oddly, those four issues are—in order of review—201, 203, 204, and 202. Why is this? Because this reviewer refuses to bow down to the vast and malignant ordinal tyranny! No more will I stand idly by as the human spirit is ground like a discarded cigarette butt beneath the jackboot of mathematics! Er . . . or maybe there was just a one-off shipping issue. Either way, it’s here now, and so, without further delay, I present the review.

This issue opens with a tale of labor, love, and envy beneath a never-setting sun. In "Sundowner Sheila" by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, Bodger and Dicko were genetically sculpted and cybernetically enhanced to turn the hottest, driest bit of the tidal-locked planet Terra Nova (or Terry Nover, since they were created by Australians) into a place where something other than flies and genetically-engineered workers could live. Things get a bit dicey between the boys, however, when the new trainer sent out by their employers/creators turns out to be a sheila.  

Usually, lack of character development is a bad thing. When I read a story, I want the characters to grow, change, or somehow be affected by the events. However, in “Sheila,” Bodger’s inability to learn from experience, and thus his inability to grow or change, allows the story to raise interesting questions about the concepts of responsibility and justice. It, along with the over-the-top, Hollywood-impressionistic “Aussie-ness” of the story’s voice also gives the story a charm that allows me to overlook the fact that the story’s exploration of racial/species relations is a bit too much on the pounding-me-with-a-sledgehammer side for my taste.

Unfortunately, the charm doesn’t keep me from being bothered by the lack of explanation on how Bodger’s DNA could be encoded to give him the memories and personalities of several long-dead Australians. I’m fairly forgiving in terms of science in speculative fiction, but the large number of stories where genetic clones magically have the memories of their original has caused me to be a bit sensitive with how memory is handled when genetic manipulation is involved. Now, I’m not saying it wouldn’t be possible to engineer DNA so that memories are somehow hardwired into a brain when it develops (and I’m not saying it would be possible), but, since the author has Bodger being retrained through cybernetic download, I think it would have been better to avoid the memory-in-DNA thing and just have the multiple personalities created via download.

But, aside from it tripping one of my pet-peeves, “Sundowner Sheila” is an entertaining and interesting read that serves to start the issue off running.

Carlos Hernandez’s "The Macrobe Conservation Project" opens with a young boy admitting that his robotic mom-substitute’s lack of butt crack freaks him out (he’s being raised by the robot because his dad is leading research on the macrobes, a species indigenous to the planet that have a nasty habit of getting into people’s brains). The asiMom, as the robo-mom is branded, was designed to shower every day so that she would seem more realistic, but surely an intergluteus cleft—or nipples, or strategically placed hair (both of which are also missing)—is more important on the realism scale than showering is, especially since she never gets dirty or sweats. It’s a nifty bit of symbolism that encapsulates the entire theme of the story in less than a paragraph. It also manages to do so from within the story, rather than being perched on top of it like a 16-ton weight with an air raid siren. The rest of the story isn’t quite as nifty, but it’s good enough to get the message across. And, since the message is, in my mind, a good one—parents cause problems when they try and protect their kids too much from reality—it’s a good enough story for me.

Jack Mangan marries gritty noir-goodness with urban planning in "The Unsolvable Deathtrap." The noir: a cabbie with an anxiety disorder knows his fare is a little too shady even before the fare sticks a gun in his face.  The urban planning: the streets of this future New York are tubes, and car tires cling to the inside of this tube, allowing them to drive along the sides or even upside-down along the top of the tube.

As interesting as the urban planning is, the strength of the story is the cabbie’s narration that notes every possible calamity that could occur as he speeds along the tunnels of New York. It’s a dystopian view of the future of traffic flow that delights in the fact that fiery death is only a hair’s breadth away—in a way that only a paranoid mind can conjecture. If the author is trying to convince me that building tube-streets is a good idea, this story isn’t going to do it. If instead, his goal was to give us a gleeful romp through an obsessive mind, he’s nailed it harder than a fully-loaded semi t-boning a Mini Cooper at 100 M.P.H. Sure, it’s not deep and meaningful, but the explosions are pretty.

Jaclyn is in danger. She was the first person to touch the Reef, a vast telecommunications array that has accidentally become sentient. It left her unconscious and somehow changed, and now Kenji, a former lover she deserted several months ago for another, has been dispatched to collect her. And so opens the final story, Gareth Lyn Powell’s “The Last Reef.”

Here is what I like about this story: Kenji doesn’t agonize over his decisions. There is no, “Oh, whatever will I do? Duty demands . . . and yet how can I deny my lingering love.” Nope. The author leaves the reader in the dark for a little bit, but from the start Kenji knows what he has to do in the situation. And, while being sent out to collect my ex-lover after she was absorbed into a sentient telecommunications array is a bit beyond my experience, how Kenji and Jaclyn’s new lover, Lori, responds to the situation feels true to me.  

Also, I just dig stories about computers becoming self-aware.

Now, by the way I phrased all that, you might have guessed that there are things about this story that I don’t like. You would be correct. Jaclyn isn’t the only one who’s been changed by the reef. No, the author stops the story to give origins to a whole bunch of superheroes that play no part in the story whatsoever. It’s a neat idea, and the fact that their comic book could be titled “The Reefers” is worth a chuckle, but it doesn’t forward the story. In my opinion, it should have been saved for another story.

That’s not the biggest problem, though. The biggest problem is that the last paragraph is missing. This isn’t a device as in, say, Frank R. Stockton‘s “The Lady or the Tiger,” where the ending is purposefully left in the air. In "The Last Reef," there is no doubt what the characters are going to do. There is some doubt about how it will turn out, but that’s really beyond the scope of this story. No, all the story needs is one more paragraph, or just one more sentence even, to complete its flow and land the reader safely on the other side. Instead, we are dropped rather suddenly into the author’s bio.

So, after all that, what’s my verdict? Do I let it off with a warning, or, as this is a British magazine, do I get a black bit of cloth for atop my wig? Well, it’s only a small bit of editing and the addition of a last line to remove my complaints. In the end, I feel the good here outweighs the bad, but your mileage may vary.

That wraps up the shorts, but I also want to mention a couple of non-shorts that are found within its pages before I go. The first is Richard Calder‘s serialized novella "After the Party," which runs through issues 201-203. This exploration of a Victorian world where the prudish clergy has been supplanted by the temple prostitutes of ancient Babylon is worth reading for the lushness of the prose alone. The second is Nick Lowe‘s always entertaining look at genre cinema, "Mutant Popcorn." Which, though I don’t always agree with him, has become the first thing I read whenever I pick up a new issue of Interzone.