Monday, 15 May 2006

Interzone weekend

Having purposely let my BSFA membership lapse, I decided the money saved had to go elsewhere, anyway, but perhaps it could be spent more wisely. None of the other offers I glanced at online looked as tempting as a backdated subscription to Interzone, and my first bumper fun pack of five issues arrived swiftly. Despite being told via email that IZ #200 had sold out, the helpful staff at TTA Press managed to filch one from a shadowy parallel world and, happily, that milestone edition was included in my chosen batch of back numbers.

So slickly designed you can hardly get a handle on it nowadays, this all-singing all-dancing genre magazine for thinking SF readers has evolved to meet the marketing challenges of 21st century newsstand publishing. IZ chief Andy Cox is not to be confused with a 'zine editor who's only going through the motions. With an uncompromising determination to raise production standards and a gleeful disregard for the stuffy traditions of the last century's bi-monthly serials, "Britain's longest running science fiction magazine" today sports eye-popping colour throughout and has frequently dazzling layouts, so its overall presentation is seldom less than stunning, boasting visuals from a parade of talented artists - including Jesse Speak, 'Glitchwerk', Vincent Chong, David Senecal, Ian Simmons, and the great Rik Rawling.

Despite its occasional pomposity and relentlessly camp poeticising of answers to Michael Lohr's usually straightforward questions, I enjoyed IZ #200's generally waffle-free interview with Richard Calder, a genuinely eccentric literary stylist of impeccable pedigree whose post-cyberpunk trilogy (Dead Girls/ Boys/ Things) was - for me - one of the brightest events in SF publishing during the early to mid-1990s. Calder's fiction presides over subsequent issues of IZ with the awesome delirium of his novella After The Party sprawling across #201 to #203, shoving aside - but not without a mighty effort - even top-notch material from Paul Di Filippo, Elizabeth Bear's paired stories Wax and Wane, Jay Lake's gloomy The American Dead, and Among The Living by Karen D. Fishler (weirdly, Fishler's story is illustrated by Chris Nurse... and Fishler is dead ringer for a nurse I used to know named Christine).

All that said, and nonfiction aside, the best slice of SF entertainment in #200 is, predictably enough, from Rudy Rucker (author of madcap idea-fest, Saucer Wisdom). Guadalupe And Hieronymus Bosch tells of an unlikely romantic encounter - between a 21st century American woman and Bosch himself, that whimsically redraws the whole socio-cultural map in devastating dreamscape fashion. Of course, this being a Rucker tale, the meeting that so casually knocks the home universe completely out of whack is actually enabled by a shape-shifting, cosmos-surfing, meddlesome trickster-alien. It's an instant classic of the cheesy-but-fun variety!

For #202 and #203 the page count zooms up to 80 pages (at no extra cost), yet all the editorial experimentation of recent months has settled down a bit now, and the magazine somehow feels crash-dieted rather than super-sized. I confess that some of the fiction in IZ just couldn't hold my interest beyond a first paragraph, let alone a whole column or two. With no regrets, I neglected to finish the likes of Sundowner Sheila by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, and Joseph Paul Haines' Ten With A Flag. Well, it's simply clunky dialogues, uninspired intros, or pointlessly arty aesthetics that puts me off sometimes, or perhaps an indefinable combo of unappealing abstracts and overly familiar notions. Whatever... Probably the best story in #202 is Jack Mangan's The Unsolvable Deathtrap, delivering automotive terror with a ghastly Billy Joel soundtrack. Apart from the Lake and Bear stories, I thought #203 was largely below par. A tougher read than it ought to have been. Scattering the 32 vignettes of Di Filippo's unwieldy-titled 'Furthest Schorr...' across umpteen pages might not have been very clever, I'd say. Calder's livewire 'nymphomaniad' opus reaches its broodingly pink-skied close. Calder also brings heavyweight insight to the nonfiction, interviewing Etched City author K.J. Bishop (who contributed one of the better pieces to Andrew Hook's quirky Alsiso Project anthology).

The latest IZ is #204. The opener serves up a fascinating interview (by Steve Badrich) with award-winning cover artist John Picacio, who seems a bit surprised by the observation of 'transformation' themes in his work. The first story, Longing For Langalana by Mercurio D. Rivera, had me yawning (well, I was tired after a spot of DIY woodwork) after page one, so I flipped on to Tim Akers' haunting The Song, concerning obsessed musician, Jack. Like Glenn Miller, Jack struggles to capture a unique sound. When he finally succeeds, however, the result is something quite unexpected for Jack, but fairly predictable to me. I thought the nude-cyborg art by Ales Horak was cool, but simply couldn't get interested in the story that it illustrates, The Rising Tide by someone named C.A.L. (Personally, I think that kind of byline is dreadfully pretentious.) Summer's End by Jamie Barras benefits from the impact of Marcel Blazejczyk's full-page art, a ziggurat emerging from twisted stone, but it's a shame the mediocre story owes so much to Pohl's memorable 1970s' shocker We Purchased People. Martin Gidron's Palestina has an engaging alternative-history premise featuring a sharply etched sense of place but, as with the majority of such timeline japes, it depends entirely upon offbeat-narrative twists and a shameless punchline for its effect.

The final story in IZ #204, James White Award winner A Short History Of The Dream Library by Elizabeth Hopkinson, gets my vote for the best piece of fiction this issue. Here's the rebellious alt-history for today's Britain. Hopkinson demonstrates a fizzy, eccentric imagination, and plenty of nimble wit. Hilariously satirical, brilliantly concise, and worth the price of admission alone, this story is so bloody funny you'll probably still be chuckling hysterically in your sleep. Let's see more from this amazing writer, please!

Of this magazine's regular nonfiction section (which toplines John Clute's column on books), Nick Lowe's Mutant Popcorn deserves a special plug, if only because I hardly ever agree with his film reviews! Almost perversely, Mr Lowe tends to favour everything (Spielberg's War Of The Worlds, Fantastic Four, Disney's Sky High, Nausicaa, Alien Autopsy) that I typically dislike about sci-fi cinema, and unfairly derides blatantly-subgenre movies (like Wallace & Gromit, Serenity, Doom and V For Vendetta), which I find particularly good, albeit for widely differing reasons. So it came as a relief to note that we had, at least, similar opinions about intriguing no-budget oddity Primer and Gilliam's sadly disappointing The Brothers Grimm. Lowe is a very good writer, of course, but, normally, I find his taste in SF films is appalling.

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