“Lady of the White-Spired City” by Sarah L Edwards

IZ222 coverAnother variation on a theme, this time the separation created by relativistic travel. Unlike Pratt’s story, there is no twist. What you see — the protagonist, returning to a remote village on a world she left half a century ago, but for which hundreds of years have passed, hoping to discover what became of the daughter she abandoned — is what you get. A character study, in other words, and not a bad one, although at points it feels a little strained. Here’s the protagonist, for instance, talking to one of the villagers just after her arrival:

I’ve visited your village before,” Evriel told Sayla, “long ago. It was … a very peaceful time in my life.” She paused, wondering how to put into words what she’d come so far to ask. “I knew a family before. I can’t remember them very well now, it was so long ago. They lived here, I think. Their name was Reizi.”

Sayla’s eyebrows rose. “There are Reizis in a village down the mountain. They are my cousins, very distantly. But none have lived here before I was born — perhaps you confused the villages. One is very much like another.”

Cousins to the Reizis.

Only years of diplomacy kept Evriel’s fingers from reaching to touch this woman, so distant a connection and yet nearer than any she’d had since … Since.

Oh, so much emotion! You can tell because of the ellipses, the one-sentence paragraph, the straining against reserve, that desperately enigmatic “Since”: this is a story that, at times, yearns to be strongly felt, to matter. To that end there are quite a lot of pointedly noted pauses and silences, and more than a few things not left quite as unsaid as they could have been; and for me at least, the result is that “Lady” engages, but doesn’t haunt.

“Unexpected Outcomes” by Tim Pratt

IZ222 coverThere’s something bold, it seems to me, about using this title for a variation on an sf theme explored so many hundreds of times it’s hard to imagine any outcome being unexpected. I don’t think I’ve read this particular variation before, but I’d be amazed if it’s never been written.

The narrator wakes up to the revelation that his world is a simulation. An avatar of the scientists running the show appears and reveals that their experiment is over. Their ethics committee won’t let them turn the simulation off, but will let them carry out certain “reductions in non-essential services” to cut down on the cost of keeping things running: that is, removing everyone’s need to eat or drink, switching off their fertility, and locking the weather in its current configuration. Everyone will get to live until they die.

As I’ve hinted, there’s a further twist, one which neatly inverts the story’s themes. But this is a piece largely carried by charm, by the undeniable charge it gains from linking the revelation of reality’s nature to 9/11 (the tell-tale sign being that the planes stop dead in mid-air, inches away from hitting the World Trade Center towers; “This is like something out of a movie” is still everyone’s first thought), and by excellent pacing: it is simply very easy, enjoyable, and satisfying to read.

Oh, and by one other thing:

It was the end of the world, sort of, so I decided to take a road trip. My relationship with Heather didn’t even last until the end of September … Our world of possibilities had been beheaded. There was nothing else keeping me in Oakland. I’d lived there for about a month, having relocated when my old contract job ran out and Heather agreed to let me live with her, so I’d hardly put down roots. I’d only been working at my new job as an editorial assistant for a trade publishing magazine for a few weeks, and the few friends I had weren’t close enough to stay for, or else they’d scattered.

I suspect you get a bit more out of the story if you know a bit about the real Tim Pratt, enough to realise that he is the narrator, and that the story starts from his life as it was in 2001: that Heather is Heather Shaw, that they are now married, with the child denied in this story, that the “trade publishing magazine” mentioned is Locus, and so on. You can suspect this from the story (the narrator is called Tim, and used to be a writer), but it’s not made explicit (the narrator’s surname is never mentioned, nor does Pratt’s author biography give away his wife’s name, or his day job, though it does mention where he lives). I don’t think you need to know Pratt is playing with his own life to appreciate the story; but I think that if you do know it grounds things, lends the tale some real emotional weight; which perhaps is enough of an unexpected outcome for variation #647 on a theme.

(According to Pratt, the title comes from a Buckminster Fuller quote: “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” The suggestion, presumably, is that it was chosen for its appropriateness to the literal plot. But what does the author know, eh?)

“Johnny and Emmie-Lou Get Married” by Kim Lakin-Smith

IZ222 coverStylised, sexist, steampunk-y, superficial and (this is why it gets away with it) short. [UPDATE: And online.] The Dragsville gangs don’t mix, so it’s a problem that Johnny the Fly and Emmie-Lou the Rocketeer have fallen for each other; now, to win Emmie-Lou, Johnny has to beat Billy Rocketeer in a race to the church. A death race.

Billy dove left then right. I aimed dead ahead. Billy’s Dart had the pretty face of a pro street dragster but my Chevy had lungs on it. The black shell hunkered down on an open-wheel chassis, 34-inch skins bolted on either side while the rear wheels tucked in at the tail where the fibreglass had been tubbed to accomodate them. Downshifting, I yanked a steel handle in the roof, stoked the engine then floored it. We streaked past Billy’s Daimler in an explosion of blue-black flames.

“Black Swan” by Bruce Sterling

IZ221 coverI’m not really sure why I haven’t read more of Bruce Sterling’s work. I was underwhelmed by Visionary in Residence, it’s true, and since Distraction he’s not really been published in the UK; but I like Schismatrix, of course, and a lot of the short stories I’ve read in magazines over the years. Maybe I should make it a project for 2010 to get caught up.

Anyway: this story, about a tech blogger/journalist meeting up with a source, is one of the stories I like. It’s essentially a bald argument — minimal attention to things like characterisation here — but it’s an argument that interests me, explored briskly and with some brio. Our narrator has a nice line in similes (“A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns”), for instance, while his source spends most of the story being amusingly drunk.

What’s neat is the way argument and story dovetail. This is a tale entirely without shame about its narrative conveniences; the source seems almost eager to reveal that he’s a world-hopping dimension traveller, for instance, and when he does the narrator doesn’t waste time having to be convinced: “It was hard to say why I believed him, but I did. I believed him instantly.” But it’s also a tale entirely about the place of such narrative conveniences in our understanding of the real world. The universes “Black Swan” describes — in which Italo Calvino is responsible for a twenty-first century Italian techno-cultural hegemony, and Nicolas Sarkozy is a wanted criminal — are not so implausible as to be shadow history, nor is the story’s resolution, while unexpected, so out-of-the-blue as to be fully absurd; but it is, nevertheless, a reminder of how parochial, how partial, the narratives we construct tend to be.

Yet the news never shouts that history has black swans. The news never tells us that our universe is contingent, that our fate hinges on changes too huge for us to comprehend, or too small for us to see. We can never accept the black swan’s arbitrary carelessness. So our news is never about how the news can make no sense to human beings. Our news is always about how well we understand.

(See also — speaking of speculative non-fiction vs fiction.)

“Home Again” by Paul M Berger

IZ221 coverThe last of this issue’s job lot of Altered Fluid stories is the issue’s short-short, and rather more successful than “Spy vs Spy“. A girl, Julia, welcomes her merchant father home; he flies a thought-ship, a faster-than-light vessel whose navigation is dependent on its pilot accurately imagining its destination, to trade between star systems. It’s a neat concept, and a neat character study, and both come together (as they need to) in a stinging closing cadence.

“Far & Deep” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

IZ221 coverThis is how you trail a novel. “Far & Deep” shares a setting with, but is not extracted from (or is sufficiently well-adapted to stand apart from), Johnson’s Spirit Binders novels: an archipelago whose landscape and culture are seemingly extrapolated from those of various Pacific islands. Leilani’s mother, Pineki — once an elder and a diver, but an “infuriating, unheeding, raw, wild spirit” and stripped of both roles — has been murdered. Leilani is left to solve her mother, as much as her mother’s murder; and in the process to show us their home.

“Far & Deep” is not as firmly controlled as I wanted it to be; the stabs of emotion that punctuate the predominantly cool narrative tilt, a little too often, a little too close to melodrama for my taste. I don’t think the revelation of the world and the mystery are quite geared correctly; we don’t always learn about the possibility of a thing and the significance of a thing in the smoothest progression. And some of the description is curious:

The water slid around her body like the finest cloth from the inner islands — cool and supple. The water was not very deep here, and the sunlight penetrated straight to the coral floor. The mandagah were nowhere to be found at this time of day, but for sheer physical beauty nothing could match their island’s natural coral. It rose like a castle from the deep, built by some mad designer with a fetish for bright colours and retractable parts. A massive purple fan waved lazily beneath her until covered by her shadow. It vanished in a blink, leaving nothing but an unremarkable piece of porous grey stone behind.

“Retractable parts” doesn’t seem like a reference that would fall within Leilana’s experience, based on what we see of her island. That said, there is the suggestion, elsewhere in the story, that the “inner islands” are affecting Leilana’s home; the clearest example is cultural, but this could be a hint towards a higher technological level as well, though it still seems a little oddly placed to me.

All this is to carp, however. They are little criticisms. The busyness of the story — the many details of setting, the deft character portraits, a sense of events with forward momentum — the basic shape of it all — carries you over such details, on a first reading, and leaves you looking forward to Johnson’s next tale.

“Saving Diego” by Matthew Kressel

IZ221 coverThere is a trick to writing first-person narratives set in the future, of course. I’m not asking for Nadsat every time, but I think that either you have to make some attempt to make your narrator sound like they belong — as Jason Stoddard attempts in “Monetized” — or you have to make something of the dissonance, say as Ian R MacLeod does in Song of Time. The big problem with “Saving Diego” is that it doesn’t really do either. Here’s the first paragraph:

I had traveled twelve thousand, seven hundred and sixty light-years to see my friend, but the hardest part of the trip was the last seventy one flights of stairs. Goddamn the Nefanesh and their ass-backwards ways! I struggled to catch my breath as I moved down a dim hallway covered with dust. Oil lamps flickered from high places, and the doors sported knobs and hinges, like some virt park for kiddies, a rehash of a dead era. But no, the Nefanesh preferred their realtime antique, the fucks. Why Diego had come all the way out here, to this world at the edge of the galaxy where the planet-munching numens roam, I could only guess. I hadn’t seen my friend in six years.

The first sentence has a nice jaded-by-wonder vibe to it; the second is pure contemporary American, yet the casual space travel to a human colony thousands of light-years from Earth (and the mention of “virt parks”, and the idea that doorknobs are an antique affectation) makes it clear we are some way into the future. “Goddamn”, “the fucks”, and “ass-backwards” — that last in particular, I think — are jarring.

That said, when we meet Diego, the language makes more sense. Here he is: “smiling like the Buddha. He wore nothing but a pair of ripped shorts … A mop of greasy gray hair hung to his shoulders and his beard was long and shaggy.” This is a drug story. Diego is addicted to the local stuff, jisthmus, which really truly gives you access to higher consciousnesses (the aforementioned planet-munching numens), and he’s called Mikal to help him get clean. So there’s some hippy in the mix (and not shiny happy Rucker people, either), which explains much of Mikal’s voice (if you can choose to believe, for the duration of a story, that people like him will always talk like that), and there’s some “gritty” addiction stuff, and a bunch of sfnal literalising, as when Mikal takes his own inevitable trip, and feels “… a monstrous hand reaching across light-years of space to stroke me … Pleasurable like a thousand orgasms. And vile, because each stroke said to me I was nothing but a speck of flotsam in an infinite sea.” All of which is fine as far as it goes; but Kressel wants his future to feel slightly plausible, too, so we get other slang — oxdep, realtime, freegenes — and the two idioms don’t mesh, neither deepening nor informing the other. “Saving Diego” is stranded by its style.

“Fishermen” by Al Robertson

IZ221 coverAnd then there are the stories which seem as though they should strike some chord, but don’t, and instead just lie there, inert, unwilling to co-operate. This is one such. The narrator — Interzone does seem fonder of the first person than any other sf short fiction venue I can think of — is an artist in an alternate (?) Renaissance-ish (?) Europe. He is captured by pirates, taken to their home base, and ends up painting their church:

I showed the storm that blew up. I scraped lines in the wall, jagged and terrible, creating a violence that could not be withstood. I showed the fishermen afraid in their little boat, men who knew the sea too well to pretend that they could be saved.

So there is Stuff about Art, and Stuff about Religion, and Stuff about Story, and the lightest breath of the fantastic, and Robertson even finds room for some Stuff about his narrator (fear not!). It’s on the self-concious side (I don’t really believe for a second that the voice is authentic, in the sense of really being how this sort of person would narrate this situation), but I’ve enjoyed my share of this sort of thing; just not this share of it, it seems.

“A Clown Escapes From Circus Town” by Will McIntosh

IZ221 coverOnce upon a time (about three years ago), I wrote that the most characteristic New Interzone stories are not directly about different or potential worlds, in the classic way of sf short stories, but about “characters who have distinctly limited viewpoints of different or potential worlds” — and singled out Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse” (IZ200) as an exemplar of this approach, centred as it was on a character “struggling to recognise what sort of future he was in”. Guess what “A Clown Escapes From Circus Town” is about?

There are differences. Beaners the clown struggles not because the world he lives in is so strange (although it is), but because he is raised ignorant, perhaps not really even comprehending that he and the two thousand other clowns he shares a Big Top with are slaves. He knows the world beyond Circus Town only by repute: Medieval Village, Superhero Cove, Monster World, Sextown. He knows how to be funny. He knows that he wants to know where people go, when they disappear.

And so the innocent goes abroad. His incomprehension when confronted with possible explanations of his world, as described by a narrator who knows more than he does, can be quite touching —

It was difficult for Beaners to imagine a mixed town. What were they, if they had no themes? How did the people who lived there think about the place where they lived? And what did they do there? It was like a person with no face.

— if perhaps familiar. His adventures are engaging, particularly when they get strange or serious, or best of all, both. I’ll forgive the disingenuously dramatic ending, lest I become a stuck record, and because a part of me was cheering, this time. Don’t tell anyone.

“Memory Dust” by Gareth L Powell

IZ220 coverStop me if feels like you’ve met this chap before (you haven’t):

“Before that, he’d worked his way across the sky, serving time on freighters and troop transports, slogging all the way from the core to the rim and back again, saving up the money to buy his own ship. Over the years, he’d hauled every sort of cargo. He’d seen the sun rise on a dozen different worlds, had his nose broken in a bar, and married twice. He’d lost his first wife to infidelity, the second — Amber’s mother — to complications during childbirth. There had been nothing permanent in his life. He remembered it as one long series of farewells. Even now, at the end of his career, he was saying goodbye to his only daughter.”

That’s the rather splendidly named Caesar Murphy, space pilot extraordinaire, setting off on his final flight: a record-breaking trip through “the pitiless fires of hyperspace”, driven by a recurring dream to return an alien creature to “the ruins of an ancient citadel, on a dying planet circling a swollen star”. The first half of the story is a brisk-to-the-point-of-abbreviation collection of scenes that introduce Murphy, his situation, his spaceship, and his love, Maya (“an accomplished jumper in her own right”, of course). The second half is more detailed, more interesting, features the titular dust, and culminates in a moment that could almost be a knowing evisceration of what has come before: Murphy, born in two dimensions, utterly unable to cope with the more emotionally ambitious situation he’s ended up in.

But the story doesn’t know what it has, and doesn’t have the weight to make it work. Murphy turns his ship, and “in the harsh light of the dying sun”, with “the throttle wide open”, it leaps “like an arrow into the empty sky”. It needed to cut the sky like scissors.