Interzone Poll 2013
Interzone provided a cracking load of favourites in 2013, many of which I believe would be right at home in some of the year’s ‘best of’ anthologies. In order of appearance, they are:
Build Guide, by Helen Jackson
This was a sci-fi story that was very easy to relate to with its ‘apprenticeships in space’ idea. Jackson has created some great characters and some effective moments of tension (due precisely to those characters – if I didn’t care, it wouldn’t work). There was a moment of shift where I realised it wasn’t going where I thought it was going, though the clues had been there from the start, which led to a very satisfying conclusion. Enjoyable from beginning to end.
iRobot, by Guy Haley
Loved this. Loved it. I’ve read it several times now and use it in my creative writing class as an example of what can be done with only a couple of thousand words. This piece suggests more story than it tells, and the lack of detail, together with the brevity, makes for an emotive story that reminds us that we’re a mere speck on the planet, destined to destroy ourselves. With some effective moments of humour, this is a poignant melancholy story without descending into overt cautionary tale, and all the more powerful for it. Probably my favourite of the year.
The International Studbook of the Giant Panda, by Carlos Hernandez
Brilliant. Wonderful narrative voice, easy to like, easy to engage with, leading the reader into a scenario that is bizarre and yet utterly convincing. Using a journalist as the main character was an effective way to provide background without simply info-dumping and the terrorist angle added a frisson of anxiety surpassed in turn by the arrival of Gui Gui. The ‘transformation’ into panda was particularly well done, not only regarding the focus on the senses but also the emotional duality involved, strangely erotic and very wrong at the same time! I thought this a very inventive well-written story, exactly the kind of thing I like (and expect) to find in Interzone.
Triolet, by Jess Hyslop
Plants that recite poetry – what’s not to like? The characters are sketched in quickly but effectively so that we’re happy when they’re happy, but such happiness doesn’t last long and we’ve been with them long enough already, somehow, to regret that. It’s a story with wordplay in which plants and poems grow and the triolet “means what you make it mean”. It’s a story about how love needs careful nurturing, where plants are poems are relationships. At least, that’s what I make it mean. Bittersweet.
Sentry Duty, by Nigel Brown
What I loved about this story was how it combined a convincing sense of otherness concerning the alien Ssthra with a sense of familiarity, details of the Sisterhood and the Ra-Ki and long migrations similar enough to human experience that we can relate with this creature. It allows for a stronger sense of sympathy, too, as we watch her puzzle things out, the interplay between her and the human is suitably awkward but also touching, elevating a mere cigarette break to levels of diplomacy that become mortally dangerous. The ending is inevitable but suitably so, tragic in the truest sense; the reader feels the regret which Ssthra cannot but remains supportive, thanks to the bias encouraged by the narrative voice. Excellent.
The Angel at the Heart of the Rain, by Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de Bodard’s writing is always impressive. This story makes very effective use of a second person narrative perspective so that the reader is plunged into a new life along with Huong, added local details enriching the whole experience. It’s a very short story but there’s an intensity to it, the reader fully immersed in a realistic world of smells and sounds and tastes with that rain of the title providing pathetic fallacy to emphasise the story’s sadness. This is a story about aliens of a different kind, the strangeness of a new culture and the necessity for change, with an ending that provides a sense of hope in clinging to old familiar ways. Sadly it’s very much a story about our world now, and how it has been in the past, and unfortunately how it is likely to be again and again in the future.
The Pursuit of the Whole is Called Love, by L. S. Johnson
From the outset this is an immediately interesting story with a line that reveals its main themes, namely identity, relationships, and gender. It’s about alienation too, and though the main character/s are something ‘other’ it’s easy to recognise the human story Johnson’s telling. The concept of “us-as-I” is one many people strive to achieve in life by forming relationships, using phrases like “my better half” to describe a partner, but here such a phrase has a more literal truth. Instead of two becoming one we have one who learns the pain of becoming merely partners. There’s an erotic charge to much of this story, a merging that begins as sensual when concerning us-as-I but becomes something more sexual as the story progresses, the protagonist/s seeking comfort in the fluids of others. It allows the story to explore jealousy while simultaneously looking at the problems associated with being different, both as part of a couple and in society as a whole. Imaginative and compelling, I loved this story.
The Cloud Cartographer, by V. H. Leslie
This story is a fantastical account on one man’s exploration of the clouds, walking on the surfaces of them just like we’ve all imagined ourselves when seeing them from the window of a plane. However, there’s more to this story than simply playing with that idea, the setting moving beyond the delightfully described cloudscapes to prove it has a more spiritual and/or psychological significance as well. Leslie blends the sci-fi and fantasy of Interzone’s remit and provides a cli-fi element as well, though this is subtly done and by no means preachy. However, for all its wonderful description of setting, it’s the development of Ahren I enjoyed most (he was once scared of heights!). His journey is emotional as well as physical and coming to the end of it makes for a suitably elegiac pay-off. Great stuff.
Ad Astra, by Carole Johnstone
Any story with sex in the opening paragraph is always going to grab me, but it’s going to make me suspicious, too, wondering if it’s just a trick. No trick here, though: sex is an important part of the story without dominating it or going into gratuitous detail, and it’s just one important part. Something else that’s going to bring me onside is any reference to the movie Aliens. Not that Johnstone simply rips off one of my favourites films; her main character is a fan, and it’s a detail that brings her more to life while illustrating how the character is influenced by imagined representations of space travel and its dangers, a subtle way of saying she’s no astronaut. Except, of course, she is, though not the first choice. Or the second. Or the third… This is the story of a strained relationship and cabin fever, not a great combo in space perhaps but a great mix for an entertaining story. There are some convincing details here, and a lot of wonderful ‘show but don’t tell’ stuff that I wish other writers would do more often, making this my favourite Johnstone story so far – strong, compelling, with a superb ending that suits the story perfectly.
Dark Gardens, by Greg Kurzawa
Creepy as hell. I love sci-fi and fantasy when it has a blend of horror thrown in, and this story certainly has that. There are elements of Hoffman here, but add some magic, myth, and mannequins, plus some scuba diving in the dark, and you have a fantastically original story with a superb control of pace to deliver just the right blend of chills and reader curiosity. On the one hand, this tells a simple spooky story, but on the other it has a lot to say about big topics like gender and religion and creativity and what it is to be human. One of my favourite stories not just from Interzone but of 2013.
Paprika, by Jason Sanford
Sanford’s no stranger to Interzone (or to my choices for the Readers’s Polls) and this year ‘Paprika’ is one of my favourites. Paprika herself is a character who’s easy to care for, and together with Sanford’s connected themes of nostalgia and loss this makes for an emotive story with love at its heart. Adding to the power of this story is the fact that it takes place over thousands of years, Paprika a time angel coming to terms with various losses of her own and finally creating a world in which her memories are not only preserved but able to grow, allowing for a poignant but ultimately positive ending.
The Kindest Man in Stormland, by John Shirley
For me it’s all about the setting here, Shirley creating a world that is all too believable and populating it with characters who wouldn’t be out of place somewhere more noir. Fast-paced and just on the right side of pulpy, this story was a blast. Stormland is a place I hope Shirley returns to in Interzone, and considering the way he ends the tale I think there’s reason to hope he might.