Thursday, 9 April 2009

Interzone 221's fiction reviewed

About 20 minutes' walk away from where I grew up, there was Pineridge Driving Range and Bowling Alley.  When my uncle came down to visit, he'd sometimes take us down there to whack a few buckets of balls, and bowl a couple of games.  One time when we were down there, a few allies down, there was a guy there with his kid.  The kid couldn't have been more than eight.  They were both kitted up to the nines:  shirts; their own shoes; silly bowling gloves.  The kid was throwing gutter balls almost every time.  He had this really weird way of throwing the ball, sort of twisting his hand and only taking a step before releasing.  If he bowled like a normal person, he could be getting strikes and spares.  But he was doing this weird twisting hand thing.  Every once in a while, though, he'd throw a perfect ball.  Straight down, pins to the wind with more accuracy and strength than an eight-year-old should have.

I think about that kid quite a lot.

Interzone 221 didn't have much for me.  The cover was absolutely beautiful but the fiction left me luke-warm at best.

A Clown Escapes from Circus Town
, by Will McIntosh, followed Beaners the clown as he escapes his own circus hell and wanders through various themed villages, looking for a Truth.  The world seemed a bit like Westworld drawn in crayons, so maybe more like Red Dwarf's Waxworld.  The characters, prose and plot all seemed to be going through the motions, which is a shame because the Truth Beaners finds is an interesting idea.  It just gets a bit mangled by the story.

Al Robertson's Fishermen is an evocative story which reads like poetry.  In a renaissance-era world, an artist gets captured by savage pirates and forced to painting their church.  The artist discovers that the pirates aren't savage and, through living with them, discovers the true face of his faith.  It's just as long as it needs to be and makes a worth-while read, but I'm still trying to work out why it was in Interzone--there's hints of something extra-ordinary at the end, but other than that it seems pretty straight-forward and mundane.

An ex-junkie drops his dead-end job and travels across the universe to help a friend from his high-days get clean in Matthew Kressel's Saving Diego.  Set on a world that boarders on a stereotypical Mystical Middle-East (kind of like Tatoonie with daily prayers, bazaars, socially isolated locals and mystical herbs), the titular Diego has become addicted to the mind-enhancing substance the locals use as part of their religion.  His friend, Mikal, slowly weans him off while getting addicted himself.  If we assume the visions the herb induces are real, and not just hallucinations (which is what we're told is happening), then this story of co-dependants becomes a bit more interesting, but not much.  There's no big ideas and no empathy with the rise from and fall into addiction.  (Maybe that's because I'm holding it up Aerosmith's Walk This Way autobiography, which hits me like a cannon ball in the gut every time.)

I was worried that Alaya Dawn Johnson's Far and Deep was falling into the same cultural stereotype habit as Diego for a while.  Island culture, diving for precious gems, all a bit Philippines without the grinding poverty and human rights abuses.  A rebellious elder is murdered, and her daughter sets out to find the killer.  No, she's no Philip Marlow.  Johnson spends her time showing us the island and it's relatively complicated culture, it's social divisions, expectations and rituals, and I came away glad I'd read it.  It was sort of like eating a Bounty bar:  Sweet and tropical; and wickedly indulgent.

Paul M. Berger's Home Again sees a traveller return to his family after a long space trip.  The hook is the ships travel the interstellar distances by altering reality somehow, allowing the pilot to just think about being somewhere, and then the ship is there.  It's an interesting idea, but the story felt like it was missing a couple of hundred words somewhere.  The idea, the family, or the world isn't given enough space to breath and I'm not sure which of those the story was about.

The headline piece for the issue was Bruce Stirling's Black Swan.  Yes, BRUCE STIRLING.  I'll confess my sins and admit that it was the first piece of his I've read.  I have the Difference Engine in the bathroom, waiting to be read...  The prose in Black Swan was a pleasure and the plot took the reality hopping computer geek trope for a spin.  It was all going great until the end.  Then it all went a bit wtf. Massimo, the geek with the magic laptop, takes our narrator through the looking glass, explains the differences between the parallel worlds and then gets killed so he can pass the baton on.  The story didn't prepare me for an ending I'd have to re-read.  It's probably just me being stupid, but it's my blog, damnit.  With a different ending, this story could have been great.  As it is, it feels like a vehicle for a great idea which is dumped by the roadside when it's served its purpose.


I don't know where the kid from the bowling alley is right now.  I don't know if he's even still bowling.  I just remember him doing his weird twisty-hand thing and throwing gutter ball after gutter ball, maybe hitting the odd pin.  When he scored a strike, though, it was a blinder.  Interzone could consistently print good fiction that gets warm reviews every time.  But they have their own style, their own twisty-hand thing.  When they hit a strike, it's amazing.  All the gutter balls are forgotten.  What's the point in being good, if you can shoot for brilliant? 

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