Interzone, #206, October 2006

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"The Beekeeper" by Jamie Barras          
"Distro" by Tim Akers
"The New Chinese Wives" by Will McIntosh
"Karel’s Prayer" by Chris Beckett
"The Ship" by Robert Davies
"The Nature of the Beast" by Jae Brim        

I never understood summer reading lists. For starters, I don’t have reading lists so much as I have a reading pile that has conquered the entertainment center and is considering blitzing the breakfast bar and annexing the kitchen. Next, to me autumn feels much more like the reading season than summer. It’s colder, darker, and rainier, perfect for staying in and sinking into, oh, I don’t know, Interzone #206, perhaps?

Issue 206 opens with a xenoarcheological expedition that takes a bad turn in Jamie Barras’s “The Beekeeper.”

OK, let’s stop right there for a brief message from the reviewer: I like stories about xenoarcheological expeditions. There is just something about crawling around in the ruins of a star-faring civilization that died out long before our ancestors started drawing dirty pictures on cave walls that trips my sense of wonder. Therefore, as long as it’s relatively well-written and doesn’t do anything spectacularly annoying, philosophically troubling, or deeply lame, I’m going to like the story.

So, how does “The Beekeeper” stack up? It’s well paced, explaining just enough of its history and environment to keep you from getting lost without getting bogged down in exposition. There isn’t a big message, so it passes the “not-philosophically-troubling” test. The ruins of the ancient civilization are an interesting mix of terraforming stations and biotech factories, where ecologies rather than assembly lines produce starships and store data (for example, the expedition is searching through the ruins for a seed that will grow into a faster-than-light ship), so no deep lameness there. As for the annoyance measure, well, “The Beekeeper” does tread into dangerous territory here by lacking a final resolution. That’s more unsatisfying than annoying, and it’s made up for by an interesting reveal at the end. So, I feel comfortable putting “The Beekeeper” in the liked column.

Four people, one self—this is the concept behind the next story, “Distro.” Author Tim Akers gives us a future where four people can share a single personality via the magic of the Internet. Notwithstanding the fact that the magic of the Internet is largely—based on a random sampling of my email—made up of barely-legal, endangered, Nigerian heiresses offering “personal enhancement” products to barnyard animals, this concept of distributed personality is philosophically interesting. Of course, the story isn’t all questions of individuality. It’s got danger, action, and mystery enough to keep even the least philosophical amongst us happy. My only real complaint is that the ending is a bit too deus ex machina for my tastes, but not enough to keep me from recommending the story.

In "The New Chinese Wives," Will McIntosh visits the future of the Chinese "One Child" policy which has unintentionally lead to there being so many more males than females that the males are having to marry holographic women. That said, it’s not really about the dangers of single males or the problems of holographic wives. McIntosh is more interested in how the generation gap is a permanent feature of society. He does a nice job of pointing out that someday, if not today, you will be just as unhip and clueless as your grandparents were/are, that teenagers have always been and will always be snotty little ingrates that will only recognize their grandparents wisdom when they are grandparents themselves, and that that’s all OK. There is also a dash of the gender gap thrown in for good measure, suggesting that women are more likely to smile and nod in the face of mass stupidity and that men are more likely to tilt grumpily at windmills. While I’m not sure I agree with that, I’m stilling giving the “The New Chinese Wives” a hearty recommendation.

So, how much am I allowed to dislike a story just because the main character’s name—Karel Slade, in this case—bothers me?

Well, OK, it’s not just the name that bothers me in “Karel’s Prayer”; it’s also that the entire story is just one long interrogation session, told linearly, with an ending twist that is telegraphed way in advance. Not my idea of a fun read, but author Chris Beckett makes up for it with well-written prose, interesting ideas, and—given that there is actually a debate in the U.S. over whether we should be interrogating people—pertinence.

The name, however, remains an issue. Karel Slade. I don’t know. It’s like running purple fingernails down an orange chalkboard while chewing aluminum foil. It’s just wrong somehow. But, I can’t justify holding the story responsible for my weird aversion to the name. So, if you don’t mind the name Karel Slade and you dig stories about interrogation sessions, this is the story for you.

A big metal sphere arrives in the sky above Boston Harbor, and . . . and, well, nothing. This is the ship of Robert Davies‘s "The Ship." Yes, this is a story about nothing happening. This is almost always a bad idea, but in this case it works. Why? Three reasons:

Reason the first: It’s short. In fact, it’s not just short, it’s a collection of eight or so ultra-shorts. Give me twenty pages of nothing happening, and self-trepanation starts sounding fun and profitable. Four paragraphs of nothing happening, I can handle.

Reason the second: It’s amusing. Just like in life, you can get away with a lot in a story if you are amusing. "The Ship" has a nicely bitter Douglas Adams-esque vibe that more than makes up for the lack of happenings.

Reason the third: Things happen. Yes, it is about nothing happening, but the fact that nothing happens causes things to happen and the story to progress.

Therefore, even though I’d hate to encourage spec-fic authors the world over to start writing stories where nothing happens, "The Ship" forces me to admit that they can, if done properly, be good.

The final story of the issue, Jae Brim’s “The Nature of the Beast,” is about a clone—whose only “imperfection” is that she is female when the original was male—being raised to take over the original’s corporation. Given that premise, I was expecting to be met at the end of the story by a very large, very angry message bearing a sledgehammer and, perhaps, a branding iron. I was wrong. Rather than going with the heavy-handed, monochromatic, easy path, “The Nature of the Beast” veers of to somewhere much more subtle, nuanced, and interesting. Combine that with the wonderful style in which the story is told and you’ve got a winner.