Xtra bits and pieces

Interzone Readers’ Poll 2012

Time flies by so quickly – it’s the Interzone Readers’ Poll again already.  This year I’ve chosen seven that I really liked, though there were plenty I enjoyed and only a couple I didn’t (down to personal taste rather than quality).  While votes for the artwork have been understandably cut this year (and it would have been very tough to choose anyway), I can’t not mention how much I loved the range of covers provided by Ben Baldwin, with my favourite being ‘The Hanged Man’ of issue 240.  As for the stories…

Issue 238

The Complex – E. J. Swift

This story was intriguing right from the start regarding both the narrator and the setting.  There’s a palpable heat, dry and arid, supported by a suitably sedate pace that is in keeping with the prison location.  That said, there are moments of shocking brutality (quite literally, in the scene with the shock-guns) and also moments of tenderness, be it in the description of a treasured tree or the various details of home.  These make for a powerful contrast to the  desert world, thanks to various references to water, all the while exploring the complex issues of institutionalisation and belonging.  A debut story that has me anticipating many more from Swift.  I loved it.

Issue 239

Twember – by Steve Rasnic Tem

A story by Steve Rasnic Tem is always a pleasure, but ‘Twember’ was particularly rewarding, strikingly unusual and yet completely relatable.  Strange escarpments rise, move, and fall without explanation but there’s enough in the story to suggest what they represent.  People are trapped inside the strata, and the story itself is a kind of written version of this.  The main character’s concern for his identity, and aging, and his relationships, the fragmentation of his life into “too many little puzzle piece of time, everything overlapping slightly so that at times his life was multidimensional, unfocussed”, all contribute to showing the escarpments as embodiments of time passing.  There’s a wonderfully disorientating moment when Will meets an old love interest’s daughter and the story becomes one of missed opportunities and the entropy that comes with living in a small town.  These escarpments aren’t merely the strange phenomena they first appear to be, they’re something we all recognise, and it makes for a truly phenomenal story from Steve Rasnic Tem.  Probably my favourite Interzone story of the year.  (Check out his ‘Bedtime Story’ in issue 32 of Black Static for another wonderful story.)

Tangerine, Nectarine, Clementine, Apocalypse – by Suzanne Palmer

The title’s brilliant.  So is the story.  In fact, I haven’t had a bad time yet with one of Suzanne Palmer’s stories.  This one I loved for the characters, particularly the narrator, and the society in which they live makes for an interesting Utopia.  I liked how the pomelo and its spiders was symbolic without being too overt, and I found it refreshing that the narrator’s development was not through a foolhardy act of heroism but a more considered one.  It’s the sort of story that has you hoping for sequels.  I for one would love to hear more from Echa.

Issue 241

Steamgothic – Sean McMullen

I don’t know much about engines, steam or otherwise, but McMullen seems to, and not in an annoying info-dump kind of way; it all contributes to the story and a character who only likes things that serve a purpose.  Yet ‘Steamgothic’ is not a cold, mechanical story.  There’s a love story here, too; love for machines, yes, but also the romantic kind with another person.  The narrative itself is rather straightforward but this is no bad thing, the simplicity of it in keeping with the functional focus of the story.  I took it as a message about dreaming, about pursuing what you enjoy, what you believe in, and striving to accomplish seemingly impossible things.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Ship’s Brother – Aliette de Bodard

I’ve loved all of Aliette de Bodard’s Interzone stories, and re-reading this one for the poll suitably coincided with reading her novella, On A Red Station, Drifting.  ‘Ship’s Brother’ was as good as I remembered it, the Xuyu continuity adding an exotic richness to the tale that provides a depth of background that’s rewarding for those who have read her other stories while providing a novel treat for those who haven’t.  The use of second person narrative addresses sibling rivalry and family relationships effectively so that, despite its mind-ships and time-bending space travel, this is a human story more than anything else.  I loved the invention, the community, the birth-masters, all of that, but most of all I liked the characters.  A poignant piece of fiction.

Issue 242

Needlepoint – Priya Sharma

A refreshing change, ‘Needlepoint’ is more fantasy than sci-fi, an excellent reminder that Interzone is a science fiction and fantasy magazine.  It’s easy to care for the narrator here (just as it’s easy to dislike her Queen) and Sharma sets up conflict from the outset so that the reader feels anxious throughout the story for Lady Agnes.  An embedded reference to an illustration in Animals of Lesser Albion serves to subtly foreshadow the fate of Lady Agnes – and what a fate it is!  The alternative world and its characters are expertly done, sure, but – wow – the ending…  Horrible.  Haunting.  Wholeheartedly recommended.

Strigoi – Lavie Tidhar

This guy’s everywhere, and scooping up all sorts of awards, and it’s all very understandable.  ‘The Last Osama’ was a favourite of mine in 2011.  For 2012 it’s this one, ‘Strigoi’.  I was wary at first – that title suggested vampires, and I’m almost as bored by those as I am zombies – but this one’s different.  No, really.  I was hooked from the first few paragraphs.  There’s plenty here to like, especially the convincingly drawn Central Station – vivid, vibrant, exotic, this is a place I’m glad Tidhar has returned to a few times.  That said, I’m also glad he returned to Carmel recently in ‘The Book Seller’.

So there they are, my favourite seven stories of 2012.  I always enjoy what’s on offer in Interzone and I look forward to many more stories for a good many more years…

Interzone Readers’ Poll 2011

I love Interzone.  I’ve been reading the magazine for about seven years now and it’s provided a great load of stories in those years.  Truth of it is, there wasn’t a single story I didn’t like (and I wouldn’t make negative comments anyway, one person’s junk being another one’s treasure and all that) but it’s time again for the Reader’s Poll, so here are my favourites.  I’ve tried to be pickier this year, narrowing it down to a top five.  They’re not in any particular order of preference, though – I couldn’t bring myself to be too be that picky…

From Issue 235, ‘For Love’s Delirium Haunts the Fractured Mind’, by Mercurio D. Rivera.  I’ve enjoyed all of his Wergen stories so far, including ‘Tethered’ from issue 236, but this one was particularly touching and I only allow myself one story per writer in my list of favourites (a silly rule, as it’s all about the story really, but let’s not argue).  I particularly liked seeing the ‘love’ concept developed in this, and the ambiguity regarding the Suppressor, the first person perspective providing a powerfully emotional sympathetic view of the Wergen race.

Also from 235, Gareth L. Powell’s ‘Eleven Minutes’.  It’s lighter than the usual Interzone story, providing an original look at the search for extra terrestrials.  Not only is the relationship between Gary and Carl presented with an effectively humorous tone, but it has some sharp exchanges of dialogue and one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a while.  I can imagine hardcore sci-fi fans having a different view of this story, perhaps, but for me it was a pleasant and refreshing change.  We all know Interzone presents stories with big ideas and clever concepts, but it was good to have so much unapologetic fun with one.  Here you get airships and parallel universes with a punch line.

Two more favourites from one magazine, this time issue 236 (which is perhaps my favourite issue of the year overall).  I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Kotowych’s ‘A Time For Raven’.  Eloquent in its execution, the tone serene and sorrowful in equal measure, this story is one that feels like it’s more than just a story.  It feels important, but it doesn’t force its ecological message down the reader’s throat and the story even manages to finish on a satisfying note of hope.  There’s a convincing exploration of character here, too, and although each has suffered his fair share of loss we get a sense of what they were before this, each rooted to the land in a similar way to the martyred tree.  Loved it.

‘The Metaphor’ by Fiona Moore is my other favourite from these pages.  It could have easily been too clever for itself, or it could have frustrated a canny reader by trying to hide too much of what may have already been guessed, but it did neither.  Instead, it provided just enough information in the italic intervals (they reminded me, suitably enough, of the pauses games have when loading the next section) that the reader felt no need to guess alongside the confused narrator; this everyman ‘hero’ explored enough possibilities that we could appreciate his confusion without feeling frustrated by it.  ‘The Metaphor’ wears its existentialist concerns on its virtual sleeve, and anyone who has ever ‘lived’ within the fictional world provided by games consoles these days will understand completely where it’s coming from.  The ending is deeply satisfying in its sudden meta-fiction possibility, too.

Finally, from issue 237, ‘Digital Rites’ by Jim Hawkins.  I had high expectations for this, having enjoyed ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter’ so much last year (see previous poll), but I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. Enjoyable from the opening page, this story manages to be funny whilst delivering a thriller that raises interesting questions about the media, mocks the film-making industry somewhat, and manages to throw in a post-modern ending brave enough to remind the reader they’ve been taking part in something similar themselves.  With a vast ensemble cast of characters, and action enough for a Bond film, I was sorry when Hawkins finally called ‘cut!’

Needless to say, there were many other strong stories in these issues of Interzone, I’ve merely picked out a top five of favourites.  I could also list ‘Noam Chomsky and the Time Box’ by Douglas Lain (232), Jon Ingold’s ‘The Fall of the Silver City’ (236), and Lavie Tidhar’s ‘The Last Osama’ (237) as particular favourites, for example, but a top eight doesn’t have the same ring to it.  And then I’d feel like adding others I enjoyed, like Chris Butler’s ‘Tell Me Everything’ (233) and Suzanne Palmer’s ‘The Ceiling is Sky’ (234).

Ah, looks like I’ve created a favourite ten again.

As for my favourite art, that would be Ben Baldwin’s work for Nina Allan’s ‘The Silver Wind’, and Paul Drummond’s piece for (ahem!) my own story, ‘Tethered to the Cold and Dying’.  I might be a little biased there, but it was spot on for the story.

Interzone Readers’ Poll 2010

Selecting favourites for the Interzone reader’s poll is a difficult process as the standard of story quality is so very high.  Nevertheless, here are my favourite ten, a self-imposed limitation to prevent simply listing all of them.

Tyler Keevil’s ‘Hibakusha’ (226) provided a convincing world that was both familiar and foreign, with a very satisfying character development in the narrator, a character it was very easy to care for.  Despite the various hardships of the story, there was an uplifting ending that made for a very rewarding read.  Very enjoyable.

‘Human Error’ by Jay Lake (226) effectively used a minimal cast of characters in a confined narrative space (much like the rock they were mining) in which personal emotional anxieties were brought into conflict by an important find.  Technical language supported the story to create a believable place and profession for the people we cared about.  Indeed, we cared more about the characters and their problems than the artefact they discovered.  Good stuff.

Jon Ingold provided a very good story with ‘Over Water’ (228) but I’m limiting myself to one story per writer with ‘The History of Poly-V’ (227) as my favourite of his.  I’ve always loved stories focussing on memory (unless it’s about a government agent or murderer with amnesia) and Ingold blurred the real with the remembered very well here, using first person narrative to further emphasise the subjective nature of our recollections.  Original and unforgettable.

Mercurio D. Rivera provided a wonderful name for a bird and a wonderful story to go with it in ‘Dance of the Kawkawroons’ (227).  This was a great way to deliver an environmental message (lesson?) in that it was entertaining and clever at once, with a split perspective that underlines how little we understand the natural world around us.  Inspiring.

‘The Untied States of America’ by Mario Milosevic (228) had a great concept in fragmenting the country to illustrate how divided a supposedly united nation can be, and how families are no different.  The ‘science’ of the separation may not have been entirely convincing, but it didn’t need to be as the focus was on the people who remained afterwards.  Imaginative and moving.

If I really had to pick a favourite, like at gunpoint or something, Toby Litt’s ‘The Melancholy’ (229) would surely be one in the list of potentials.  An emotional story that, despite the brevity of the piece, achieved a depth of sadness deserving of the title.  It’s powered by the narrator’s personification of a machine, yet it’s left to us to decide if he’s reliable as a source of information.  Either way, we care – the only difference is whether we care for one character or two.

‘Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter’ by Jim Hawkins (229) was fun from the first line yet was not without its seriousness, exploring what it is to use, or to be, an instrument.  With great narrative voices throughout, this was laugh-out-loud in places and thoroughly enjoyable.

Matthew Cook seemed to divide people on the TTA Forum with ‘The Shoe Factory’ (231), but I thought it very good.  From the outset it was vivid and well realised, presenting a relationship that any would fight to keep hold of.  I’m likely to read this one again having felt fully immersed in this story thanks to some gently suggestive sensory images. Marvelously memorable.

Aliette De Bodard consistently impresses but ‘The Shipmaker’ (231) is one of my favourites of hers and of Interzone this year.  Continuing the idea of being held at gunpoint to really choose, this is one that would contribute in a big way to my getting shot for indecision.  Her ‘Xuya continuity’ is totally convincing and her characters are fleshed out with a restraint and subtlety that makes them all the more believable.  ‘The Shipmaker’ brings together ideas of culture and gender and relationships and technological advancement without losing sight of its main purpose, which is to tell a good story.  Aliette De Bodard does it all well here.

With three stories in one issue and five overall this year, Jason Sanford has a distinct advantage in this poll, but it’s deserved.  ‘Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep’ (231) is my favourite of his, a pulpy action piece that doesn’t contain violence so much as let it slip over the pages and into your lap, which is apt as violence is entirely what the story is about.  The penultimate line is marvellously understated in how it represents this theme and in how it brings two of the warring factions together.  Sanford’s ‘Millisent Ka Play in Realtime’ (231) is very good too but I’m sticking to my one per writer rule.  You can listen to ‘Peacemaker, Peacemaker…’ at Duensteef Audio Fiction Magazine ttp://dunesteef.com/ 

So, there’s my run down.  231 was probably my favourite issue, not because I’m a Sanford fan but because it had one of his best keeping company with Matthew Cook’s and Aliette De Bodard’s pieces.  The real winner though, corny as it may sound, is the Interzone reader who is, year after year, spoilt for choice in selecting a favourite.

 

Shadows & Tall Trees (Issue 1, Autumn 2010)

Edited by Michael Kelly

Featuring stories by Geordie Flantz, Adam Golaski, Sandra Kasturi, Joel Lane, Nicholas Royle, Simon Strantzas, and reviews by Michael Kelly.

I was a bit late off the mark getting this (according to the front sheet, I’ve bought number 92 of a batch of 125) so if you’re reading this there’s a good chance you’ve already missed out, but do try to get a copy, just in case.

First off, it’s a beautiful little book.  Slim, stylish, with an evocative black and white cover photograph by Mitat Seferi, it’s a joy to hold and look at.  Okay, alright, don’t judge a book by its cover and all that, but with so much genre fiction available online it really is a pleasure to read something so tidy, something you can be proud to have on your bookshelf.  Signed, too, by Kelly and Strantzas.  As for the stories themselves, I’ll try not to give too much away, but I’m not very good with secrets so consider this a spoiler alert.

The first story is Joel Lane’s ‘Crow’s Nest’.  It’s not without humour, but mostly this is a story of collapse, a bleak journey in which every step Kevin takes has him lose something else, or realise he lost it some time ago.  There are ghosts here, but it seems Kevin has carried them with him for some time and though he tries to leave them behind, the reader can suppose he’ll only find them again when he gets to wherever he’s going.  Kevin wants to “scatter the pieces of home over the slope, then go down there and put them back together again” but seems ill equipped to do so.  Thankfully Lane’s more than able to piece together such fragments so we get a seamless narrative in which one man deteriorates in ways we can all recognise, sometimes with sympathy, sometimes not.  It’s a great opening to the collection and one that sets expectations high for the rest of the journal.

Adam Golaski has promised to send a “one-of-a-kind personalised postcard” to everyone purchasing a copy of Shadows & Tall Trees.  I haven’t received mine yet, but his story ‘Stone Head’ makes up for that so I’ll let him off.  It’s the story Michael Kelly recommends people read for a flavour of the journal before submitting work of their own.  In that case, it seems he wants stories that are conceptually bizarre, surreal in the execution, without foregoing narrative cohesion for the sake of weirdness.  Golaski has the reader wondering with every page turned where on earth the story can be heading, yet manages to deliver an ending that satisfies.  So strange is the story (a twelve foot jellyfish falls from the sky!) that I feared an ‘it was all a dream’ conclusion but I need not have worried.  Indeed, there’s a strange feeling of having been shown a truth, something we should have known all along, or at least suspected.  It’s like hearing someone you thought paranoid say ‘See, told you’.  Kafkaesque is used too much in reviewing genre fiction so I won’t use it.  But it is.

Despite its brevity, Sandra Kasturi manages to pack an awful lot into her story, ‘The Coming of Ghosts’.  Like the containers her ghosts are meant to inhabit, this is a beautiful story and it holds something of far more substance than the ghosts themselves.  It’s about what we relinquish and what we hold onto, for though the mother may have been willing to give up her ghost, spit it into a bottle of green and gold, her daughters seem less able or willing to part with theirs.  Kasturi offers something original here, and though I was a little wary of a story quoting Jodi Picoult in its epigraph, I found the tale that followed wonderfully convincing with some excellent descriptions of each spirit’s occupation of its host.  With a focus on female characters across two generations it seems Kasturi wants to raise issues about gender, but there’s a suitable sense of ambiguity to the entire piece that allows a different reading, an ambiguity that is carried right through to the final line, forcing the reader to do more than simply sit back and enjoy.  My favourite type of fiction.

So far, my only experience of Simon Strantzas has been via Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror anthologies (the last three consecutive editions at least, probably others) but that should tell you already the kind of quality to expect from ‘Everything Floats’.  Like other stories here, this is one that uses ambiguity to offer a tale that can be considered supernatural or psychological, though perhaps it is more accurately described as occupying the space existing between both.  A young couple starting a family purchase a lovely house for a bargain price, at which point alarm bells should be ringing for any reader familiar with the genre, and sure enough it’s a place where something’s not quite right.  Here things don’t so much go bump in the night as pad quietly through the corridors, opening and closing doors in the periphery.  I felt it could have been trimmed a little, but living in this house was enjoyable enough that I didn’t care too much about that.  The ending does not come as a surprise, but I don’t think it’s meant to – Strantzas seems to play with our expectations so that you spend most of the story hoping it won’t end in the only way it really can, one that settles heavily in the heart.

There’s more Simon Strantzas following the story with a review of his Cold to the Touch collection.  It’s a succinct piece, Michael Kelly providing an overview and brief assessment of each tale without skimping on the reasons for his opinions, and many of the titles will be familiar to those who read genre anthologies – taken with Kelly’s views, that’s a good recommendation.

Ah, ‘The Ghost Days of Melody Brown’ by Geordie Williams Flantz.  This one is my favourite of the six.  I’d not heard of Flantz until this, but I’ll be keeping an eye out from now on, and actively seeking some more of his work.  There’s a deceptive simplicity to the voice of this piece, and I’m reminded of something I heard about writing (I say ‘reminded’ but that’s only part right as I can’t remember who said it) which went along the lines of ‘a good writer makes it look easy’.  Flantz makes it look easy, conjuring a sense of place with a precise and economic use of language, whilst his characters seem to erupt whole from the page with only a few lines of description.  You read this aching, thanks to Flantz’s depiction of Melody and her ordeal, yet it’s an ache I know I’ll return to as this certainly deserves a second reading.

As well as six great stories, Shadows & Tall Trees offers a brief selection of film reviews, written by the editor, Michael Kelly.  I’ve always been an ‘each to their own’ kind of guy when it comes to reviews (and the irony of that statement in the body of a review does not escape me) but I do enjoy reading them.  If I’m told something’s good, I’ll give it a go.  If I’m told it’s bad, I still might.  For me, a good review is about the tone of voice.  It needs to be one I can relate to, one that offers an opinion and supports it with suitable reasons without forcing an expertise that borders on pomposity.  That’s why I liked these.  I agreed with some (Moon is a great film) and disagreed with others (Paranormal Activity wasn’t that bad) but most of all I liked how each was presented as friendly personal advice without any other agenda.  My only quibble would be its placement among the stories, rather than at the end.  But that’s probably because Kelly wants us to finish with Nicholas Royle.

He likes his birds, does Royle, and if you haven’t read ‘The Obscure Bird’ than I urge you to do so as soon as you can.  I believe there’s a collection of bird-themed weirdness coming somewhere down the line as well, which I’m sure I’ll get.  The bird story here is ‘The Blue Notebooks’ but really the focus is on a character whose degenerating eyesight warns of an unreliable (or at least shifting) narrative perspective.  So when I say focus, I guess that’s a pun.  It plays with ideas of identity and reflections and loss, so references to Jorge Luis Borges within the tale are apt.  Our view of what’s happening blurs as much as the protagonist’s view of the world around him and reaching the ending is like getting the focus on a pair of binoculars just right only to suddenly slip.  The blurriness of this story, the constant stepping outside of things to look back in, is well controlled by Royle.  I felt like I’d just woken up and had to wonder what I’d been dreaming about, which makes ‘The Blue Notebooks’ a very satisfying conclusion to the collection as a whole.

So there you go, Shadows & Tall Trees.  A weird dream.  I didn’t realise I’d write quite so much so here’s the short version: I really enjoyed it.  You should get hold of a copy, or get in line for the next issue.

4 Responses to Xtra bits and pieces

  1. Ray,

    Wow! Thank you very much for the thoughtful, detailed analysis of the journal. I really appreciate it.

    Very gratifying to know you liked the journal’s aesthetic.

    I hope you don’t mind – I’ve linked to the review from my Facebook account. Should push some visitors to this site.

    All Best
    -Mike

  2. Adam Golaski says:

    Got word of your review while traveling in DC, while researching crinoids for a prehistoric garden I hope to plant when the ground thaws. Visited the lion’s mane jellyfish that slopped into “Stone Head” (and for that matter the stone head!), too. Thanks for the review. Very kind.

    A postcard was sent out at least a week ago, my good sir, tho thanks for overlooking its absence when considering my story. I suspect your delivery person may have put it up for sale on eBay. It is, indeed, one-of-a-kind, and black market demand is high. Mr. Kelly has me chained up in his cellar, cranking out 100 a day. You can tell if your card is the real thing if beneath my signature is the legend, “please help, I’m chained to the wall in Mr. Kelly’s cellar.”

    Thank goodness he has a spectacular amontillado down here.

  3. Michael Kelly says:

    Ray,

    Gemma & Steve’s story is a stunner, to be sure. Gemma never disappoints.

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