Friday, February 13, 2009

Get Thee Behind Me, 2008!

In the interests of putting 2008 behind me, this post combines my reviews of Interzone #218 and #219. They showed up in my inbox at about the same time anyway, and unfortunately I don’t have “that” much to say about #218.

Interzone #218 focuses on author Chris Beckett. He's obviously a fine author, but he's an author that doesn't quite line up with my tastes. No aspersions on him, but it leaves me without a lot to say. On a technical level the three stories here (and others I've read from him) are fine, they just don't work for me. Thus I felt that "Poppyfields" was a fine character change portrait, but it perhaps relied to heavily on knowing the character Tammy from other stories which I hadn't read. "Greenland" is well-told, but I didn't think it added much to the already much-hashed over ethics of human replications. And "Rat Island" is almost impressionistic. The character observes without acting and while there's nothing wrong with that, it's not quite to my taste.

The other stories in this issue left me similarly unmoved. "If" by Daniel Akslrod and Lenny Royter struck me as silly. Childhood brain implant companions stick around into adulthood even when the implants are removed, driving the adults crazy. The protagonist is working on a 'cure.' It seemed to be mostly surface and not much depth. "His Master's Voice" (Hannu Rajaniemi) is a heck of a story--two enhanced animals try to save their master after he's carted off for doing various illegal AI things. Amongst the things the animals resort to include having the dog be a DJ. Now, I'm a sucker for dog stories, but I had similar problems with this story that I did with one that it may well be compared to: Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age. There's something about the tone and the world-immersiveness that left me permanently confused instead of enlightened. Can't quite put my finger on it, but there's too much density and intensity and perhaps not enough reflection. #218 ends up with "Corner of the Circle" (Tim Lees) which centers on character but spends too much time on its world-building. Basically it felt like the character elements and the world-building elements fought for attention instead of one clearly supporting the other. A young man whose parents divorce visits his aunt in New York at various points as he grows up. In this world, aliens come and go and the aunt is supposedly associated with one of them. After she dies, he goes into her apartment to try to figure out whether the stories were real or if she was just crazy. The note I jotted down about this was "All the characters remain ciphers instead of gaining illumination."

So we leave #218 behind us and move on to #219. This one starts with a hell of a bang. The very first story, "Everything That Matters" by Jeff Spock begins with a man being eaten by a ginormous shark in an alien ocean. Gosh-Wow! He survives due to his amazingly-nifty-high-tech diving suit (a feat only slightly more believable than the guy surviving a fall to Earth from Low Earth Orbit in Adam Robert's Gradisil). It turns out he had been out looking for a very valuable spaceship wreck to salvage. The story follows him as various factions try to get information out of him, he tries to heal, and he plots his revenge. The guy obsesses over sex, but I dare say that after having most of your body eaten and then reconstructed, I can see where that would represent quite a bit of your self identity. My main criticism of the story is that it runs a little long, but generally this story, while not being deep, is a heck of a ride.

Jason Sanford is back with "When Thorns Are the Tips of Trees" in which people can die simply from touching each other. Those who die this way become trees. If you touch the thorns of the trees you can interact with the memories of the people they used to be, but they're static--they'll never grow. After being infected but before becoming a tree, these unfortunates go into a sort of zombie mode, hunting down other people to infect. It felt like it could have easily fit in John Joseph Adam’s recent Living Dead anthology. The narrator and his father have to fight off some of the mobile ones, who may have an actual agenda. It's a unique set-up, and the metaphor for emotional distance is telling. Also the importance of letting go and allowing growth. Nicely done.

"The Shenu" by Alexander Marsh Freed was one that I found unimpressive. This guy dabbles in magic but isn't sure if he's just insane. His girlfriend and this other guy enable him. The scenes felt like disjointed vignettes that didn't add up to much, and I never ended up caring about the main character or the two supporting cast members.

"The Fifth Zhi" is an interesting story about a whole bunch of clones who have been bred to attack a giant alien thing that's planted itself on the pole of the Earth and has been spreading horrible dreams. It has a protective field around it, and only this one guy, Zhi 5, makes it through. His mission is to implant a deadly bio-weapon in the alien plant, but as he climbs and thinks about how things have gone for him, he decides he doesn't want to do it. There's some good stuff here about free will, government control, and destiny. I think the ending is unrealistically happy, but that's not the worst fault to have in a story. A more serious complaint is that I think it's a little over-simplistic to use Chinese characters as the mass-produced-victims-of-an-oppressive-government. Sure, China is one of the few communist countries left, but it's a lot more nuanced now. This story harkens back to the time of Cordwainer Smith's story “When the People Fell” from 1959, and I think things have actually changed a bit since then.

"The Country of the Young" by Gord Sellar makes up for things with a better international perspective. Set in a post-reunification Korea, it imagines a future where Korean citizens can get perpetual-youth treatments, but foreigners can't. The main character is Korean, but her lover was Indian. He wasn't able to get a treatment, even though he was a valuable scientist. Eventually the main character begins to rail against the system and plot revenge. This has good depth as it fleshes out its world, but plot-wise it seemed a bit weak. I felt that it flinched at the end and became a bit vague instead of dealing with its consequences head-on. Still, I've been enjoying Sellar's work quite a bit, and I look forward to seeing more of it.

Finally, finishing off 2008 for my magazine reading project, we have "Butterfly Falling at Dawn" by Aliette De Bodarad. This is set in the same alternate future as her previous story, “The Lost Xuyan Bride” in Interzone #213, where the Chinese and the Aztecs uneasily share the western North American continent. The main character of these stories is Magistrate Hue Ma, who is Aztec by ethnicity but has risen through the Chinese bureaucratic ranks. The story tells a straight-forward murder mystery, leavened by the politics of its world and flashbacks to the Aztec civil war that left many scars on many psyches. There's some straight-up infodumping, but it's necessary, and there are some noir touches as the Magistrate muses on her troubled past. I enjoy these stories, but for my Chinese/Aztec dominated futures, I still prefer Chris Robeson.

My Hugo Recommendations to Follow Shortly!

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