Interzone, September/October 2004

Note: This post was imported from an old content-management system, so please excuse any inconsistencies in formatting.

"Song of the Earth" by Steve Mohn
"Enlightenment" by Douglas Smith
"Someone Else" by Karen Fishler
"Dreams of the White City" by Jay Lake
"Air Cube" by Antony Mann

Image"Song of the Earth" by Steve Mohn

'She's a new one,' Tyle Ryko said, stroking the round jowl, gazing into the brown liquid eye. 'Yeah, haven't seen you before.' 'This is Tonka,' Coe said, dismounting. 'Stubborn like a mule.' When the horses had been given grain and water and tied in the shade of Tyle's red maple and the three were seated at the table inside, Coe said: 'They found your Uncle Gil.'

The process of colonizing this world was never completed and the descendants were left vulnerable to rogue biograms. Climbing the Call Tree will gain you a safe biogram and a random, generally annoying, "power." Decline to climb and you are susceptible to infection by rogue biograms.

Worried that she might end up with a useless biogram, Tyle Ryko refuses to climb the Call Tree until a Gnostic–a type of communal non human believed to be tied into the Call Tree–says Tyle can climb with her friend, Coe, who has already made the trip. Uncle Gil's insistence upon tradition–Coe shouldn't climb again since she's climbed the Call Tree already; tradition requires Tyle to climb alone–brings Uncle Gil to murder the Gnostic.

When Tyle finally climbs the Call Tree, her power is not at all mundane. The Call Tree is finally able to complete it's appointed purpose, new forms of life are introduced to the planet and new climbers will, presumably, be gifted with real powers.

The story is filled with wonderful ideas and I found myself rooting for Tyle. However I had trouble with the world building. There were several examples where it doesn't reflect being "lived in." Uncle Gil beats the Gnostic to a bloody pulp and Tyle claims Uncle Gil has killed it. Yet the Gnostic isn't dead. I would be more sympathetic of the lack of specific knowledge if the colonists had recently landed. This isn't first generation. Tyle should know that it isn't so easy to kill a Gnostic as should Uncle Gil. The colonists should already know what happens if Coe climbs a second time as well as have an idea of what happens if Tyle climbs with accompaniment. The resulting emotional context felt forced.

I wasn't convinced by Tyle's resistance to climbing. If I lived in a society where you might grow claws if you climb but until you climb you are a vector through which horrible rogue biograms can enter the community and destroy anyone who hasn't been inoculated–for example, all children– Tyle's extended delay is irresponsible at best.

While Tyle is a commanding heroine rising repeatedly to the occasion, Uncle Gil wasn't persuasive as an antagonist. His motivation appeared driven more by the needs of the plot than by character.

I could wish the enclosing frame–Uncle Gil's remains are found–was more in line with the main narrative. The frame convinced me I was about to read a story centered on the circumstances and mystery of Uncle Gil's death. Instead the story is about Tyle discovering her true power and has vanishingly little to do with Uncle Gil's death.

Overall, "Song" abounds with ideas and there's a good story to be had. The narrative occasionally loses steam and seems uncertain of its direction. I have to wonder what "Song" would have been like with some judicious prunage.

"Enlightenment" by Douglas Smith

I'll go to them soon, to try to keep a promise. If I fail and if Ta'klu was right, then what happened here will happen on another world. And another. But first I must prepare Ta'klu in the manner of her people. She used to laugh when I called her Ta'klu, a name never meant for a human throat. Little here was meant for humans. We aren't capable of understanding. Beside me, Fan nods in agreement.

The military arm of a conglomerate–the RIPpers–arrives to relocate the indigenous peoples–IPs–and secure the valuable natural resources of their planet. The RIPpers are both fueled and controlled by a drug–Scream–that inverts normal emotional response. Pleasure remains pleasure but pain and violence are also made pleasurable. Scream is also highly and irreversibly addictive: withdrawal is both painful and lethal.

The indigenous people, the Be'na, possess advanced technology, including teleportation and complete control over their biosphere. Their technology is so sophisticated none of the Earth experts can figure out how these feats are accomplished.

Despite the advanced technology of the Be'na, the RIPper landing and occupation goes smoothly. The Be'na are so passive as to be unresponsive. Their speaker, Ta'klu, is assigned to our narrator. The narrator learns of the Enlightenment, a universal power that supplies the Be'na with their teleport ability as well as the rest of their amazing technology. Enlightenment is so important to the Be'na they choose occupation rather than take action that would endanger that Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, the commander of the occupation forces, Keys, also learns of the Enlightenment and will stop at nothing to obtain the secret. Firing squads, torture and even an engineered plague are unable to break the Be'na wall of silence. When Keys threatens their Place of High Places, Ta'klu finally transfers the secrets of Enlightenment. The result is horrifying, for it turns out the Be'na were allowing themselves to be killed in order to protect us.

I found the story to be overly long, and the needs of the plot tend to constrain this otherwise excellent story. The conclusion arrives with a lot of impact while the beginning drags and wanders. There is a minor character, the guilt ghost Fan–a victim of a previous IP relocation–who follows the narrator everywhere. I found Fan's presence to be a distraction without contributing to my understanding of the internal landscape of the narrator or the events as they unfold.

Passive characters must work extra hard in order to hold my interest. The only action of the narrator is to withhold information–his knowledge of the Be'na Enlightenment. The circumstances are challenging for Ta'klu and the other Be'na–Keys resorts to brutal methods of persuasion–yet present no personal challenge to the narrator. The lack of heroic involvement on the part of the narrator made it difficult for me to credit Ta'klu's parting gift–immortality as an Universal redeemer and advocate. While I enjoyed the emotional uplift of the end it was not matched by the same fulfillment on an intellectual level.

The narrator as hero starts a child-man. He allows the adults around him–Keys and Ta'klu–to direct his thoughts and actions. For me to accept his endorsement by the Be'na, I need to see him become a full human, capable of making his own decisions–even if they are wrong–and accepting the consequences.

I'm generally sympathetic to stories that test a character's moral resolve in the face of great difficulty. However, the monolithic disinterest of the Be'na seemed driven more by the requirements of plot than characterization or reason. They act as if they have no value for life–including their own–instead of valuing life—including that of their invaders–above all other considerations.

Pacifism is an activist ideology. To take no action is far different than to choose not to fight back. I find "fatalism" is a better fit for the non-response of the Be'na. This willingness of the Be'na to accommodate their own deaths made it difficult for me to believe the Be'na had attained a level of greater moral development. The Be'na come across as–forgive me–sheep rather than noble. I don't imagine too many readers will go out tomorrow saying "I think I'll become a Be'na."

When you get down to it, the Be'na have superior technology. For example, they can teleport, an ability that should render conventional military technology irrelevant. They have complete control over their biosphere, which would suggest that a simple thing such as an engineered plague was well within their ability to overcome.

"Enlightenment" reaches far past the muddled mediocrity of swashbuckling tales forgotten before the page is turned to the next story. I enjoyed the alien anthropology and the details are tremendous. "Enlightenment" is perhaps most effective with the storm of images forged in the cauldron of Keys' excess. Yet this combined with the Be'na fatalism to create the unintended and unfortunate consequence of leaving me desensitized and I wish I had found more in this tale of tremendous sacrifice that ennobled the reader.

"Someone Else" by Karen D. Fishler

The first time Dea saw herself, it was from half a block away. At first she didn't realize what her eyes were following through the crowd. Then she slowed and froze in the middle of the crosswalk just outside the East Village zoom station, the music from her implant storming through her head.

Dea thinks she's seen herself but its hard to tell after all the years of drugs. She is emotionally injured by her history of drugs and the life she's lived, topped off by the loss of a lover she can neither forget nor come to terms with.

Acting on a tip from a friend, Dea tracks her duplicate to an apartment where Dea confronts her clone, Phillipa. Her ex-lover has resurrected the flesh–if not the relationship.

A fight ensues when he returns. Dea easily recognizes the jealousy Phillipa has for her, the original. It is more painful to admit her own jealousy for a substitute who has not been damaged by the side effects of the drugs Dea has taken, who can feel and maintain emotional intimacy she cannot.

The language in "Else" is skillful and rarely let me down. Dea is a credible effort to render the difficult effect of being unable to feel. There's less extraneous material and the narrative arrow has landed much closer to the heart than the previous "Mission Memory," reviewed in The Third Alternative #37 (Spring 2004).

"Else" is still longer than necessary. Memmer, Dea's therapist, seems unnecessary. The story would change little in his absence. Memmer's sections tend to embellished prose, as if as if the language alone must provide the tension.

"Else" follows in the footsteps of the New Wave writers who found in the human psyche panoramas more vast and strange than any Barsoom adventure. This was one of my favorite pieces in this issue. Karen Fishler does an enviable job of visualizing the inevitable future, transforming the everyday act of confronting your ex's current lover into an alien encounter, discovering within the Normal a landscape of the imagination more foreign than a hundred colonized planets.

All in all, Karen Fishler's richly textured worlds propel her to the top of my list of writers whose name on the cover makes me flip straight to their story.

"Dreams of the White City" by Jay Lake

For some years Marga's duty had been to move among the slumbering poor, marking with secret sigils that the Civic Guard would later investigate. Her selections were as random as the investigations that followed–one of the many penalties for poverty in the White City.

Marga becomes a victim of her own secret signs when the Civic Guard seizes her. She has appeared in a dream that was apparently shared by all Citizens. Brought before one of the last remaining founders and guardians of this colony, Marga is charged with finding out who broadcasts these dreams, who is "coming home" and what their return will mean to the White City.

Fearing for the safety of her sister and her sisters family, and hoping to leverage her unique position for advancement, Marga sets forth from the White City to the lighthouse on the shore and the source of her dreams.

"Dreams" is vintage Jay Lake: by turns achingly pragmatic, surreal, occasionally vulgar in the way that Shakespeare renders the "common" in the common man, and always surprising. The tone is more myth than realism and Marga is a Prometheus of the future, returning to the White City with knowledge that will bring mixed blessings.

Mr. Lake has a justly deserved reputation as one of the genre's leading word painters. With more twists and turns than a mountain road, "Dreams" swoops through this sordid off-world colony that has constrained and embittered its citizens to the needs of an insensate ruling system. In a time when economists justify a host of social and economic ills by claiming people can "always shop at Walmart", stories in which the individual can rise up from their place as a nameless, powerless cog in the engine of their own spiritual destruction to regain control over their lives and fortunes have been few. As such, "Dreams" is a welcome respite, leaving the pack well behind.

"Air Cube" by Antony Mann

AIR CUBE said the ad, above a photo of an empty transparent cube of indeterminate size, filled with what may well have been air. Below the photo, unlike any of its neighbors, I could see no persuasive exhortation in twenty words or less describing the incredible benefits that would immediately accrue upon purchasing this life-altering device. There were just a price (L7.99) and a corporate trademark symbol (ATMO) and three words: REDUCE. IMPROVE. PREVENT.

Doug's life is invaded by the ATMO Air Cube. First his wife gets one for each of them. Then they start to appear at work, on dashboards, everywhere.

When just about everyone had an Air Cube, ATMO produced the Air Sphere, the Air Pyramid, and finally the Air Dome. All priced at L7.99, all apparently filled with air, all with no apparent function, and all purchased because we can't resist a deal, not even when we know better.

Until the day when ATMO's Air Domes dissolve in unity and their customers start getting bills for the very air they breathe.

With a keen eye for social commentary, "Air" succeeds at traversing the narrow line between biting social satire and farce. Delightful, refreshing, funny and even gentle without losing its biting edge. However, it's quite unnerving to believe–in the age of the "Chia (R) pet"–right now, somewhere, a marketing exec is trying to figure out if they can get away with just this: selling the air we breathe.

* * *

I would like to wish David Pringle the best and thanks for his many years of hard work on Interzone. Founded in 1982, I understand Mr. Pringle took the helm in 1988 leading Interzone to numerous Hugo nominations and finally winning in 1995.

This was the first issue of Interzone under the leadership of Andy Cox and his team from Third Alternative Press. There were some one-time questions of aesthetics with this issue. Other people have commented on them, Mr. Cox has responded and I don't feel the need to discuss them further. TTA is a visually striking magazine and I'm sure future issues of Interzone will also come to meet that standard. We can all look forward to stories of the quality we have come to expect from TTA.