Interzone magazine #231

Interzone 231 coverApparently I’ve never written about Interzone here on Nostalgia For Infinity, which honestly surprises me a bit as it’s the magazine I’ve been subscribed to longest (about six years now, since Andy Cox took over as editor). It’s the only SF magazine I read regularly, thanks to a mix of factors: its persistently cool design and artwork makes it something I’m rarely ashamed to be seen reading (unlike, say, fishboobs), its fiction tends to be an alluring mix of strange, characterful, thought-provoking and oddball whether the stories themselves are brilliant and mediocre, and it has some great non-fiction writers (Nick Lowe and David Langford contributing since the early days). There are issues I care less for, but it’s not for lack of effort of the part of IZ’s writers, editors, artists and other contributors.

The cover art for #231 is the final piece of a 6-part series that has provided IZ with covers for the past year. The inside cover shows the complete work – it’s a very cool and striking piece of work that still stands up well chopped into bits. The visual style and use of colour make it really stand out, and it’s obviously not taking itself too seriously – giant robot loaded for bear, carrying bike in one hand and small girl in the other, apparently hunting down some submachinegun-toting schoolboys who are cowering behind a wall whilst spaceships and birds fill the yellow skies. Works for me. There’s been some valid criticism about the slight fetishisation/sexualisation of the only woman present (she’s wearing a gas mask, trench coat, long boots and not much else) and I can see that to an extent. But still, it’s an eye-catching and modern collection of covers and hopefully it has attracted a few new interested readers.

I should also comment briefly on the design: it has solidified into a clear vision over the years and now strikes a fine balance between being both striking and inobtrusive when it needs to be. Along with sister Black Static it’s the best-designed genrefic mag I’m aware of.

Anyway, #231 is a Jason Sanford special issue. (Who he?) He’s had six stories published in Interzone in the past including several which appeared in reader polls and one which was a Nebula finalist. Of these the one I remember best without looking through old issues (my memory is terrible) is ‘The Ships Like Clouds, Risen By Their Rain’, which I remember being a wonderfully strange and endearing fantasy of the type that blends the very humble lives of its initial cast with epic strangeness of the sensawunda variety. (Apologies to the non-SF nerds in the house, I will try to link to the stupid neologisms and slang I use.)

But first, we have several stories by other authors – including one introduced to Interzone by Sanford himself. Matthew Cook’s ‘The Shoe Factory’ is written from a young man’s perspective and partially told through flashbacks. In the present he is alone aboard a spaceship, which is experiencing serious technical trouble, and as is usual with these situations his life begins to flash back before his eyes. The parts of the story set in the past are much more evocative than the vaguely described ‘present’: the protagonist and his girlfriend, Emily, live in an abandoned factory in Guangzhou, China. They’re scavengers, picking what they need to survive from the derelict parts of the city. The time period is undefined but not too far in the future, set in China after the industrial/export-based boom has died and manufacturers have moved to cheaper places (“Somalia, or Haiti, or Mississippi”). Alas, the life of a hood rat is a cruel and brutish one. The events of past and present come together in a somewhat unexpected conclusion that will seem familiar to readers of space opera. Regardless, it’s a good story, well-envisioned and tautly self-contained. I look forward to reading more by Cook.

Interzone 231 screengrabNext up is Aliette De Bodard’s ‘The Shipmaker’. This is another story from her Xuya continuity, an interesting alternate history series where China discovered America before Columbus and the Aztec civilization still exists – although it has declined, it has taken a different path, as has China, which is now the world’s dominant superpower[*]. ‘The Shipmaker’ incorporates elements of Eastern philosophy into the idea of designing a starship; both the ship’s pilot and the ship itself must be carefully made for another. Pilots are carried to term within volunteers (whose social status differs interestingly from culture to culture; the story’s main characters are women, and their experiences are also contrasted) and ships are designed by a team led by a Grand Master of Design. Dac Kien is one such Grand Master, but her efforts are put under strain by the early arrival of the Mind-bearer and the ship’s future pilot. ‘The Shipmaker’ is another fine example of De Bodard’s talents; an organic story with a fascinating setting, cultures and characters introduced and portrayed with great sensitivity and depth, and an interesting plot concept that plays second fiddle to characters and their place in the world.

The first of the three stories by Jason Sanford is ‘Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Beep’. This is a curious story that may be slightly spoiled by its opening introduction by the author. I wonder how I would have reacted to the story had I not been previously introduced to the idea that it is based upon the analogising of sheep, sheepdogs and wolves for the public, police and criminals. The introduction characters slip into established roles earlier than they perhaps should; I wonder if some elements of tension within the story would have been heightened had I not suspected from the beginning who was and was not to be trusted in the circumstances (which are always what they seem, even if the why remains a mystery). All the same, Sanford introduces some good characters and does a decent job of portraying some of the morally grey aspects of his characters – although describing a serial killer-turned-halfway hero as “morally grey” is perhaps a bit of a stretch. This story reminds me of the recent remake of The Crazies, although here the explanation behind the weird behaviour of faceless masses is derived from pulp SF rather than zombie horror tropes. A second story in this setting is hinted at and could be interesting – although perhaps I’m just curious as to how Sanford might follow this story up thematically.

His second offering, ‘Memoria’, is a better story, one deeper in SFnal weirdness. Its theme is broader – memory, as is obvious from the title – and it is set in a multiverse where one Earth is surrounded by some sort of godlike entity that prevents anything non-organic from leaving. It also forces the souls – or complete memories and personalities, if you prefer – of the dead into the minds of those who attempt to leave Earth. Human ingenuity has produced the following solution: organic starships and human ablative armour in the form of criminals who have volunteered to accept the minds of the dead in place of the ship’s more valuable crew. The protagonist is one such volunteer, on his fifth and final tour, whose mind remains relatively intact. The personalities of everyone ever forced into him are still present, and he segues between interacting with – or being controlled by – them and the rest of the crew. The ship is engaged in visiting other versions of Earth elsewhere in the multiverse, and during one such visit the crew find themselves inadvertently bringing something back. It’s a tense story where the stakes gradually become higher at the same pace at which the reader’s comprehension grows, a solid mix of mystery and excitement. The conclusion is gratifying, too, on both a personal level for its damaged and sympathetic characters, and the way in which threat is tackled. It’s very much a deus ex machina, but one which had been sitting upon the mantlepiece all along.

Interzone 231 screengrabThe third and final piece by Sanford is ‘Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime’, which in terms of ideas is the most interesting story in this issue. It reimagines the world’s economic system as one in which all anyone can spend, loan or owe is time, literally the time of their lives, with their balance recorded by some convenient tech. Of course, the nature of economics hasn’t been wholly reimagined, and in fact the capitalism that birthed this alternative economic system has ironically produced a reversion to a fuedal system of vassalage and indentured servitude. The inventors of both the tech and the new economic system are among the most powerful lords of the new world, and their obsession is with music, so they focus most of their vast wealth upon acquiring and breeding talented musicians. Oh yes, children raised in this world must eventually repay the generosity their benefactors have shown them in feeding and educating and owning them – it is truly a horrible future to imagine, especially as it is one where music, a traditional panacea for slavery and servitude in all their forms, is the focus of the loss of liberty. The story’s protagonist is the daughter of two moderately successful musicians (not successful enough to be free or retire, of course) but displays little musical talent herself. The story follows her as she grows up, befriends a eunuch (a truly enchanting singer and one of the great prizes of their little kingdom’s lord), and – thankfully – finds a way to challenge the status quo. The story’s ending is a too upbeat to be entirely convincing, but thematically it feels quite right to me. “This is the only future we have. Might as well make the most of it.” It is change that makes music what it is, not the notes themselves but the transitions between them, and in a world informed by both music and power it is not impossible that the latter might learn something from the former.

Leading the non-fiction there’s an interview with Sanford by Andy Hedgecock which is of the usual solid standard, being a mix of biographical, exploration of theme and influence, the present state of literature and where SF can go from here. Apparently Sanford has identified an “emergent storytelling form, ‘SciFi Strange’, which sets high literary standards, experiments with style, is infused with a sense of wonder, takes the idea of diverse sexuality for granted, focuses on human values and needs and explores the boundaries of reality and experience through philosophical speculation.” This doesn’t sound particularly unusual to me; in fact it sounds more or less like the sort of slipstreamish SF that Interzone has been publishing for many years, but I’ll leave such judgements to more informed commentators. Regardless, the only thing in that quote that I think unnecessary would be the label.

There are the usual mix of book reviews, with the best as usual provided by old hands like Paul Kincaid and Maureen Kincaid-Speller, but none of them are bad and there’s a pleasant mix of personalities among the reviews (or so it seems to me, but then I have been reading this mag for years). Nick Lowe’s ‘Mutant Popcorn’ is, as always, the non-fiction highlight for me, combining his insightful criticism, cheery disposition and gentle wit in examining recent cinema releases with more kindness and thought than some of them might deserve.

Next: Tony Lee’s Laser Fodder. Disorienting quick-fire reviews, conjunctions mostly dispensed with. Hard to keep up at points, especially with lengthy run-on sentences compressing plot of film into unwieldy clauses upon clauses, but better method of conveying hefty quantities of information and interesting, well-supported if not always agreeable opinions about new DVD releases I don’t know. Recommended? Recommended.

A conclusion feels unnecessary as I don’t think I’ve said anything particularly negative above. Interzone is a good mag and well worth the price of admission, and if you need to start somewhere then #231 is a good place to do so, as I feel it’s a fairly strong issue overall.

Interzone | TTA Press

[*] China is a major player in a lot of Interzone stories, perhaps more so than the USA or any EU nations, but my favourite story about a new world superpower was one that put a high-tech African nation front and centre. I was sure this was an Interzone story, perhaps in an optimistic SF issues, but I’ve just flicked through a year and a half of back issues and not spotted it. Does anyone recognise this story? Not knowing will vex me…

3 Responses to “Interzone magazine #231”
  1. Hi Shaun,

    Thanks for the kind words on my story–very much appreciated!
    I’m not sure, but the story you’re asking after sounds like “Chimbwi” by Jim Hawkins, in IZ227–it had a European immigrant seeking to become part of a wealthy African nation and going through an extensive rite of passage.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Hi Aliette,

    You’re welcome – always look forward to reading your work.

    ‘Chimbwi’ is indeed the one, thank you! I think I leant IZ #227 to a friend which explains why I couldn’t find the story. :)

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