I first subscribed to Interzone a few years ago when I was writing short fiction. For the unfamiliar, Interzone is a British science fiction magazine, established in 1982, and a paying market for writers.
In a few days, I’ll be starting a Masters in Creative Writing with Tibor Fischer, so my mind is turning to sources of interesting short fiction. Interzone, which lands on my mat with some regularity, is a good place to start.
The problem of acting like a critic is its endoscopic nature. You’re always at risk of disappearing up your own arse. In my defence, as I perform this age-old trick in the paragraphs below, I’m at least doing it positively.
Some comments, then.
In this story by Carole Johnson, we join a female astronaut called Lena on an expedition beyond the solar system. She is accompanied by her companion Rick, who is going bonkers, as is she. There is a sense from the first paragraph that thinks are not going to end well for either.
We have a lot of sex because it’s a way around the things we can’t say. The things we can’t do. The things we don’t want to think. We’ve always been very good at that; even when we hate the very thought of one another, we can still fuck.
Lena engages the reader with her direct style and her thoughtfulness is consistent with her role as a person questioning her situation and her existence. The prose is tight, the pacing rapid. From the beginning, the story is on pole for a podium finish.
The work reminded me of the novel The Explorer by James Smythe, in which a lone astronaut contemplates the oncoming juggernaut of oblivion. Where The Explorer got into difficulties by being too long and difficult to believe (on its own terms), Ad Astra does not. They reach a similar resolution.
In a story that asks us to face the mystery ‘What is out there?’ there is a risk that, as the final card of the hand is turned over, the reader asks, ‘Is that all you had?’ This is, of course, preferable to the storyteller keeping the cards to her chest as we FADE TO BLACK.
Ad Astra succeeds by making the last card a personal one for Lena. She has not bluffed. She wins.
The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension
In this effort from James Van Pelt, we have the history of an American school from its Victorian inception as a collection of buildings to its far future form: a sprawling, mysterious institution that is nevertheless characterised by an essential benignity.
Half way through this story, I was becoming worried that the whole thing was an infodump. At the end, I knew it was an infodump, but I didn’t mind. Van Pelt had won me over.
That’s not to say the story is without puzzling blemishes.
Explorers reached both the south and North Pole. They plunged the ocean depths.
Maybes. But wouldn’t ‘plumbed’ work better than ‘plunged’?
Another uncomfortable metaphor:
Whether [the janitors] know it or not, their hero is John Kapelos, an actor who played Carl, a janitor, in The Breakfast Club.
Can you really have a hero you don’t know?
A spanner-wielding line editor would have tightened the nuts on this story in a few places, but I liked the overall sense of it. Someone wrote that education is what endures when knowledge has been forgotten, and it would be easy to see this (half-remembered) quote as the inspiration for this story. The Hareton remains…even when all else is lost. Because education, like culture, is a continuity.
The more I think about this Greg Kurzawa piece, the more I enjoy its images. These I will not describe. I will say that the one image—mine, not his—is an elephant, and it is standing in the room of his story. Said elephant is The Prestige—or Christopher Priest, depending on how you like your images.
Sam is a person we know little about. He has just purchased a foreclosed house with the intention of gutting the place, doing it up, and selling it on. Before any of this can happen, he discovers that the house formerly belonged to a stage magician named Kurricke, and many of his illusions remain about the house.
This story is unusually engaging. Its mystery is compelling and the steps that Sam—and his scuba-diving companion, David—take are logical explorations in its resolution. What sets it apart are the ways in which the solution to the mystery are realised, and the humanity with which the non-human elements are handled. I have little doubt that the correct term adjective for this story is Lovecraftian (I write ‘little’ because I have never read that fabled horror writer, H P Lovecraft).
The magician had vanished after living in a the two-bedroom ranch for seventeen years, leaving spoiled milk in the refrigerator, dishes in the sink, and all the tools of his trade in unlocked trunks.
In the basement, Sam discovers a hatch that opens on black water.
What’s not to like?
Which Reminds Me
Il Teatro Oscuro
This story by Ken Altabef is a shortie. We open on an old man, sitting alone in a theatre.
The old man’s back aches. This is not unusual, despite his having the best seat in the house. Third balcony, directly centre stage, a seat which still clings to some fair portion of crushed red-velvet cushion where the brass studs haven’t yet chewed through.
But this does not matter. All thought of worldly concerns, discomforts or otherwise, fade quickly to obscurity…
What of the old? Do we stand on the shoulders of our past giants, or do we trample them? Altabef’s story takes an interest in nostalgia and obsession. The old man character has an interest in opera—itself a niche art form kept alive by a small but dedicated fanbase—and there is a sense that its lack of meaning grows meaning as it matures. A simple cabinet, after all, gains value by virtue of its antiquity.
This a sharply judged and affecting story where the metaphors, place and characters bring out the best in one another. While, for me, the ending did not work well (we observe the rebirth of a character in whom we have little investment as readers), the inevitable trampling of the giant tuned this story to just the right pitch of melodrama.
Sean McMullen’s story is a mystery with a traditional plot, by which I mean the protagonist is good man doing his best in bad circumstances. Literary qualities are minimised as the author concentrates on leading us through a fair whack of story material. Its atmosphere is very Conan Doyle. If the story stands on a giant, that giant is Jules Verne.
In the spring of 1875, I was a right and innocent young man. Although steam was the foundation of every branch of industry, I had chosen to study electricity when I had entered the mechanics institute. By chance I had been given a good education, and this has kept me out of the mills and the mines.
Lewis Blackburn is invited to meet with a mysterious, rich individual who wishes to harness his electronics genius. Before long, Lewis is tangled up in a plot to push computing technology forward at a startling rate.
Interzone will want to appeal to wide demographic, and will include a variety of stories. It’s not likely that all of them will be to my taste. So, of all the stories in this volume, I liked this the least. That’s not to say it doesn’t have good elements. The plot is consistent in small chunks (less satisfying in larger units) and contains some good dialogue.
However, there are uncomfortable tonal shifts. For example, following a quite staggering revelation, the main character says:
How does one reply when one’s fiancé says that?
That made me laugh, and the author, too, I expect, but the character would not; this juxtaposition is cheap.
We have character reversals, too, and a framing narrative that rolls too many marvels into one.
What’s not to like?
Overall, some great short fiction in this issue. You’ll like at least one of the stories a lot. And, at £4.99, you can’t argue about that’s not value for money. I’d like to see more use made of the illustrators. Their work is good, as usual, but repetition of the same imagery gives the impression that more money needs to be spent on them.