Interzone Update

The eagle-eyed amongst you will no doubt have noticed that my reading of Interzone has somewhat fallen by the wayside in my quest to finish various books before the end of the year. (There’s something to be said about saving up a stack of highly-praised books and then reading them in an indulgent yet satisfying splurge over Christmas, it has to be said.) The new plan is to restart on Monday, and finish the last two and a bit issues by 16th January — aka the deadline for nominating for this year’s BSFA Awards. (Send in your nominations now!)

Cyberabad Days

Cyberabad Days coverAfter a novel as thorough as River of Gods (2004), any add-ons have to earn their keep. The stories collected in Cyberabad Days do so by fleshing out the timeline of the future, and (perhaps less nerdily) fleshing out perspectives excluded from River of Gods — and not just in the sense that none of the characters live in Bharat, the seat of the novel’s action. So, for example, in the first story, “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” (2007), we see the collapse of our India into the nation-states of McDonald’s novel, and the arrival of the “lighthoek” personal computing devices that will become ubiquitous; and we see it through the eyes of a village boy who becomes a combat-robot fan, is drawn into the circle of the child-soldiers who remote-pilot them, and confronted with the terrible mundanity of war. Convincing youthful perspectives are a feature of the book, actually, from the bratty Westerner in “Kyle Meets the River” (2006), whose father is involved in (redundant) nation-building efforts after India fractures, to “An Eligible Boy” (2006) caught, by changing demographics, in a wife-drought. The first-person, subjective account is also common, with slightly more mixed results: Hugo-winner “The Little Goddess” (2005) reads even better this time around, smoothly exploring McDonald’s future from the perspective of another kind of outsider, a young girl chosen as the Royal Kumari of Kathmandu, while “The Dust Assassin” (2008) is probably the closest thing the collection has to a weak story; it’s not long, but feels too long for the ground it covers. “The Djinn’s Wife” (2006) conceals the identity of its narrator until its final page, and in doing so plays with the idea of McDonald’s India as “exotic”, as a location for outlandish tales. Each story’s protagonist, however, is their own person; each provides an angle we haven’t had before, each explores new facets of the social and technological changes that run through this future.

Put another way:

India is her people and we are all only, ultimately, the heroes of our own lives. There is only one hero’s journey and that leads from the birth-slap to the burning-ghat. We are a billion and a half heroes. (297)

(Or indeed: “if it were a different man preparing to blow up the same bridge it would be a different story. Most idea-driven SF that purports to treat of character misses that.”)

The blockquote is from near the end of “Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, the collection’s only original work; although to compare it to any of the other tales in the book feels rather unfair, since at a shade under 100 pages it truly is a short novel, not a short story, and surely would be published and considered as such in any other genre. Couched as the seemingly-garrulous life story of an aging Brahmin, one of the genetic elite of River of Gods — engineered to live twice as long and age twice as fast as regular humans — it is both a brilliant study of another convincingly different character and, because a crucial part of that difference is the ability to see “the connectedness of things … the biggest picture” (236), the most complete description McDonald has produced of this future history. I did feel just a little pandered-to by this, actually; the transparency of what elsewhere is left to inference, the pulling-together of many threads, the revelation of What Happens Next. But to linger on that feeling would be to sell “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” very short indeed, since it’s surely forgivable in a swansong to a setting as rich as this, and since (among other things) the story is, without ever being heavy-handed, precisely about the act of storying a future, of standing back as an author (or a critic) and trying to get a sense of the whole (the sense that River of Gods refuses to allow its characters), trying to make sense of the whole. Easily worth the price of admission, as they say; one of the best things I’ve read all year, in fact.

Palimpsest

Palimpsest coverOh, this is a cold book. Its main characters, our four guides who contract the passport to the fantastical city of Palimpsest, are broken individuals all; there is almost no warmth in the very frequent sex they all engage in; and the closer they get to achieving their dream of permanently moving to Palimpsest, the clearer it becomes that for all its wonders, it is like everywhere else a place to live, not an answer. Reviews — Matt Denault, Dan Hartland, Deborah J Brannon, Annalee Newitz — rightly talk about how penetrating the novel is on the relationship between the real and the fantastic. I’m a little surprised that words like possessiveness and selfishness don’t crop up more often; they seem to me necessary to capture the full desolation of the desire that the Palimpsest virus induces, an addictive need to make a place ours, to make it us, to fill ourselves up with it: an need familiar to readers of fantasy that the novel at first mocks, with its absurdly imaginative glimpses of a city that refuse to become a whole, and then, towards the close, seems to concede. The great weakness of Palimpsest, as Dan is most forceful in articulating, is that to this end its characters are tools, not players, and they can feel a little thin, not to mention hapless (perhaps particularly the two men; the two women felt more sharply defined to me throughout). All four are victims of the story, not shapers of it — a feeling reinforced by the highly structured, highly stylised nature of the book, which clinically cycles between the characters, forcing more direction onto them than their individual lives ever seem to contain. But perhaps this is a final chill irony: an unresolvable struggle between the irresistable artifices of stories and something more fluid, less satisfying, that we have to try to recognise as life.

White is for Witching

White is for Witching coverIf there is any disappointment associated with this book, it’s that I read it too late in the year to buy it for anyone for Christmas. Oyeyemi’s third novel is, like The Opposite House, a fierce, fluid and economical tale, more explicit about its fantastic content but still laced with sufficient uncertainties that after one quick read I don’t feel able to speak authoritatively about “what happened”. I tend more to Jane Shilling‘s view of the book than Carrie O’Grady‘s, however. So, to describe its three narrators: Eliot, whose twin Miranda is at the heart of the book, and who appears to be sincerely conscientious about her worsening health; Ore, who falls into a relationship with Miranda when the two of them meet in their first year at Cambridge, and comes to visit her at home during the Christmas vacation; and 29 Barton Road, the house where Eliot and Miranda and their father Luc live in Dover, whose voice is (mostly) the voice of Miranda’s mother, and grandmother, and great-grandmother (as Dan Hartland notes, the voice of history), speaking in chorus, fearful of and prejudiced towards anyone not of the family, anyone different. Their hold over Miranda only grows. A darkly self-aware ghost story, then, with an uncommon freshness that springs from its acuity of insight into character and circumstance; a book in which the scariest thing is what the fear of other people can become, and do.

“Silence & Roses” by Suzanne Palmer

IZ223 cover“Silence & Roses” has the misfortune to be the third robots-outliving-humans story I’ve read in the last year. All three are driven by sentiment, and on that scale Palmer’s tale sits somewhere below Ken Scholes’ cloying “Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk”, and somewhere above Deborah Biancotti’s superior “King of All and the Metal Sentinel”. As in those stories, robots designed for routine are challenged by novelty (which reveals backstory, in this case that we’re in a care home walled off from the ruins of civilization outside), and their naive incomprehension drives a plot, with sentiment generated by the gap between what they understand (the residents are falling silent) and what we understand (the residents are dying). Confronted with the pointlessness of their existence, many of Palmer’s robots go a little mad; only our hero, Button-4-Circle-Peach, survives for long enough to fall into a situation where the rules he understands can apply again. It’s competently done (and the initial reveal is quite well done), but seems somewhat rule-bound itself. And that the robots’ programming recognises silence as a problem, but not strips of rotting flesh hanging off a resident’s face, is surely unlikely.

“The Transmigration of Aishwarya Desai” by Eric Gregory

IZ223 coverSkipping over the Dominic Green stories for now: I haven’t read the 1982 Philip K Dick novel on whose title this story riffs, so I don’t know if the similarities go deeper than a first-person narrator whose sense of consensus reality is out of kilter with those around her. Gregory’s narrator is an academic, travelling to an alien world to debate the nature of the first alien life humanity has encountered (and how best to talk about that life, what it means to impose human descriptions and interpretations onto it). But in travelling, she has (I think) crossed not just space but worlds. Ships seem to jump into parallel realities, leading one character to obsess about meeting versions of herself, which she believes will allow a “perfect love”, and another to insist that “we can only jump into an improbable universe”. This may be enough for one story, but Gregory adds in a psychic bond between Desai and one of the aliens, which causes trouble and may or may not indicate that she’s met a deeply improbable version of herself. It’s a curious piece, perhaps slightly too compacted, but certainly flavoursome.

The Girl With Glass Feet

The Girl With Glass Feet coverA brief break from Interzone to say that I agree with everything Kari Sperring has already said about this book in her review for Strange Horizons, except that I gulped it down in a couple of days. An intense, entropic, ugly-beautiful fable; heavy with the cold, crisp details of remote St Hauda’s Land, tangled in the quasi-incestuous closeness of the community that lives there, people both exquisitely and exasperatingly broken. A book about ways of seeing, about what we don’t see of other people, or choose not to see, or are incapable of seeing, and what we lose in consequence; and therefore about the power of glimpses, where the fantastic lies in how something is seen as much as in the images breaking through a convincing quotidian skin: “Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialized faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle … In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles” (62). And a cruel story that chooses, uncomfortably, to pay more attention to its men and its landscape than its women; a story that does address this uncomfortableness and this cruelty, but doesn’t escape either. Somewhat in spite of myself, I am transported.

White is for Linking

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“Mother of Champions” by Sean McMullen

IZ222 coverI mentally graphed my reactions to this story in my head as I read, not unlike those audience-interest graphs that accompany some reviews in Total Film. “We Champions do not write, neither do we read, but we are very particular about time, numbers, family and memories. After all, we are perfect”: promising start! Interest grabbed by the promise of the construction of an alien consciousness; this continues through the jargon of the next few sentences — “I watch the scavengers”, “echospeaker arrived in her shelter engine”. Then: “Mike, how are you?”: nice shift in registers, although interest dips slightly with the following realisation that the narrator is an animal (in fact, a Cheetah) with a “machine collar”. “Substitute a pack of wolves for a coalition of cheetahs and I could believe what I just saw”: interest perks up again, although partly based on fond remembrance of Jurassic Park‘s raptors. Mike leaves, and the visitor (Ella) sets about framing him: interest dips, although if the narrator’s not going anywhere, neither can the story. “⟨I am not the scavenger you call Ella⟩”: nicely creepy, slight up-tick in interest. “You — you bred humanity as tools?”: Uh-oh. Cats-domesticate-humans is good for a joke, not so good for a story. “Thirteen thousand cheetahs, and one mass mind!”: I suppose if you’re going to go there, at least go gonzo! “⟨It amuses cats to control you for us — nothing can use a cat⟩”: and oh dear, down into the ravine of boredom we go. A certain commitment to the narrator’s arrogantly cruel demeanour is something, but can’t compensate.

“Ys” by Aliette de Bodard

IZ222 coverAfter the precision of Allan, this inevitably feels baggy, and the first half of the story is routine: woman impregnated by goddess; husband doesn’t understand, blames her; she turns to a friend (that she knows has feelings for her); he agrees to help her visit the goddess. There is a novel note in this — the unborn baby is diagnosed with a congenital heart defect — which is nicely paid off later, symptomatic of the story’s generally more interesting final third. The characters reach Ys, the city of the goddess:

Ys is a dead city. No, worse than that: the husk of a city, long since deserted by both the dead and the living. But it hums with power, with an insistent beat that seeps through the soles of Francoise’s shoes, with a rhythm that is the roar of the waves and the voice of the storm — and also a lament for all the lives lost to the ocean. As she walks, the rhythm penetrates deeper into her body, insinuating itself into her womb until it mingles with her baby’s heartbeat.

This dredging of the story’s subtext to the surface, and the image of a barren goddess — driven to create life, but unable to sustain it — does linger, beyond a final confrontation that starts to surrender potency to long-windedness. But I don’t think it’s enough.

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