Interzone, #209, April 2007

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.
"The Whenever At The City’s Heart" by Hal Duncan
"Winter" by Jamie Barras
"The Good Detective" by M. John Harrison
"Big Cat" by Gwyneth Jones
"The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter" by Alastair Reynolds
"Tears For Godzilla" by Daniel Kaysen

The April 2007 issue of Interzone commemorates the magazine’s 25th anniversary.  In addition to the six stories below, it also "includes" an Edward Morris novella, Journey to the Center of the Earth, which can be downloaded as a free PDF from the website (reviewed separately).

The first story in the 25th anniversary issue of Interzone, Hal Duncan‘s "The Whenever At The City’s Heart," is a striking mix of "clockpunk" and fantasy, a sense of grand Baroque whimsy coming through in both the telling and the details.  The kaleidoscopic structure of the story centers on the great clock tower, the titular "whenever" in the heart of his imagined, nameless city.  All glittering glass and brass and mirrored cogs and grinding gears, the tower contains inside it a microcosm that keeps the streets around it following "their paths through time" in an apparently clockwork universe.

As the story begins, however, the watchtower’s bell is inexplicably out of synch, and the world around it grows chaotic, the city "adrift upon its rock, a myriad of singularities spiraling around it."  The narrative switches back and forth between those spiraling singularities, fanciful and surreal, and the tower’s watchman as he struggles desperately to get the universe back in order, but alas, order may be just something "tossed out by chaos as a glib aside."

Duncan’s imagery is razor-sharp, and his prose playful and poetic, all but making verse out of the vocabulary of today’s physicists.  Additionally, while it may initially seem impenetrable, the story holds together better than much of the High Modernist poetry it reminded me of stylistically (and happily, its tone is far removed from their overwrought aristocratic gloom).  "Whenever"’s complexity and sensibility will certainly not be to every taste, but even if you’re initially skeptical, you may find it growing on you with rereading, and even if you come away feeling the whole is less than the sum of its parts, there is much to enjoy in its richly imagined fragments: the sandminer listening to a blind boy’s song; the battle-scarred veteran soldier losing himself with a dreamwhore for a little while; the ruling angels and human rebels battling in the streets.

Jamie Barras‘s "Winter" is a tale of alternate history which takes as its POD (or Point Of Divergence) a mid-twentieth century Singularity driven by intelligence-enhancing procedures that came out of Nazi experiments.  The "Wintermen" of the title are those who embraced that Singularity through their sharing of virally encoded memories.  Driven out to space by fearful publics in the 1950s, they are, in 1998, coming back to a changed world—which despite itself, has remade itself with the same technologies.  (Here the flying cars arrived, and we really did make it out to the stars by century’s end.)

The main character, Dr. Manfred Christian, is an elderly scientist whose services British intelligence has called on in the face of the resulting crisis, and the story cuts rapidly back and forth between 1998 and the earlier crisis of 1953.  Unfortunately, Christian seemed to me little more than a cipher, there mainly to facilitate a narrative that is mostly exposition capped off with a twist ending.  Still, this structure serves to develop an interesting idea, and with comparative elegance, offer a compelling stream of invention that made this story worth the read.  Reminiscent of some of Alan Moore’s writing about superheroes, supervillains, and pasts that never quite were, the world intrigued me enough that I wouldn’t at all mind returning to it again in a later piece. 

M. John Harrison‘s "The Good Detective," set in contemporary West London, has for its speculative elements the strangeness of our everyday world—one in which people typically choose to go missing "in their own lives."  The narrator and protagonist, a private detective who specializes in tracking down missing persons, takes up one such assignment, which offers more of a framework for his meditations than a tale of mystery, and it works on that level.
Gwyneth Jones‘s "Big Cat" is set in Cornwall in a near future where Nature—the "angry Environment"—reasserts itself with a vengeance.  This takes the form not just of ecologically calamitous global warming ("A third of the world fries, Western Europe gets sent to Siberia"), but the total reshaping of human life.  In politics, there are only different shades of green.  Religion is "re-primitivized," with "Rituals not ancient but newborn"—bog bodies, stone circles, human sacrifice raves in the Midlands—the Anglican Church’s own priests converting to neopaganism, and the "Green Man" occupying the crucifix’s former place.  In this setting, Jones’s principal characters (farmer Tris Lancoffe, ex-rock star Eval Jackson, various friends and relations, the Reverend Moira) react to the apparent predations of a mysterious "big cat."  Some of the story’s speculations are interesting, and the characters are comparatively well-developed, but for me the story worked more on a symbolic than a dramatic level.

In Alastair Reynolds‘s "The Sledge-Maker’s Daughter" the English setting is clearly postapocalyptic, a rural, agrarian one on the other side of a fading "Great Winter" from a technologically advanced "old world" of which only relics remain—a single, broken flying machine, "winking bridges," the "iron road" to London.  Against this backdrop, Kathrin Lynch, the humble sixteen-year-old daughter of a sledge-maker, is initiated into a larger world by the mysterious Widow Grayling.

Grayling’s revelations, the core of the tale, raise the reader’s interest without giving the whole story away, there being a great deal that the story’s simple villagers, Grayling and Kathrin included, cannot fully understand (not least of all, the presence of the "jangling men").  For me, the story’s bounding by their comparatively limited outlooks is one of its most compelling aspects.  It has long been common for science fiction writers to present familiar technologies as appearing magical in less technologically advanced societies, but rare that the line between science and technology appears equally ambiguous to the reader as well.

The last story, Daniel Kaysen‘s "Tears For Godzilla," is not science fiction strictly speaking, but more a lighthearted look at the way that the tropes of science fiction have invaded our unconscious lives, our daydreams and fantasies.  As it starts, the narrator, a writer of horror novels, is meeting an old crush from school for coffee—and as it happens, even a zombie apocalypse may seem like a relief next to the tribulations of human relationships.  It may not be a knockout, but that theme is nonetheless an appropriate way to cap off the magazine’s anniversary issue.