Story notes, assortments #2

A variety of stories read over a long period of time from a variety of sources.

The Girls in their Summer Dresses, Irwin Shaw. Michael and Frances are a young married couple in New York City, and in many respects they’re a sweet duo. They make romantic plans, they joke and banter easily. But Michael cannot stop looking at other women and Frances cannot ignore it. Even when she brings it up he does not stop; when she tells him how it makes her feel he hushes and soothes her. Their plans deteriorate. They drink brandy at a bar. Michael is honest and lays out why he looks at women: he wants them, all of them. He even admits he might make a move on another woman. Forlorn, Frances asks if Michael will at least keep his opinions to himself, and he agrees. They attempt to move on with their plans for the day, but a coldness has settled over their relationship.

Nothing so much happens in this story, but over the course of a short walk and a conversation we see a sweet relationship irreparably fractured, essentially by a man who has a flaw and decides to combine honesty and inflexibility rather than, say, attempt to rein himself in, or at least respect his wife’s feelings. The way he also ogles his wife in the final paragraph, eyeing up her legs as she walks away from him, speaks volumes.

The Black Cat, Edgar Allen Poe. Am I alone in finding this story… funny? Not in a sociopathic “ha ha he killed his wife” manner, but because the story lacks much emotional register from its protagonist – who, it must be emphasised, murders his wife in what we are told is a sudden fit of drunken rage – but is simultaneously told in Poe’s routinely overwrought Wo! Alas! style.

The Venus Effect, Violet Allen. I really, really like this story’s playfulness, its perspectives, its iteration through a succession of miniature narratives, the way it discusses the crafting of narrative between each tale. Successive impacts & the story’s overall force are delivered in the way each component narrative is brought to a sharp and brutal end.

I was actually slightly underwhelmed by the final ending on first read, but thinking back on it I think the open-ended appearance of it is suitably undermined by everything which has come before. I missed this story on publication in 2016 and I’m actually slightly surprised to learn that it didn’t win any awards that year, and was not obviously shortlisted for any either (source: googling for a few minutes).

The Blue Hotel, Stephen Crane. Three guys stay at a hotel, and it goes really badly for one of them. It’s everybody’s fault.

Okay, okay, there’s more to this story than that! It’s an entertaining tale of a Nebraskan hotel that’s well-maintained by its owner, who is obsessed with ensuring that no one can say they weren’t treated well at his establishment. I paraphrase, but his words are along the lines of ‘no one can say’ rather than ‘no one would be’. Anyway, one of the visitors is prone to acting out on the basis of paranoia and fear, and whilst the owner mollifies him for a time with whiskey, he only delays and exacerbates the culmination of his behaviour by reinforcing it with braggadocio.

Fun story that deftly illustrates how nothing occurs in isolation, that any incident is contextualised by what preceded it, and that people ought to consider responsibility differently to how the judicial system does. The law does not and cannot encompass the complexity of human interrelationships.

The Beast in the Jungle, Henry James. I was not a fan of Henry James whilst studying literature in my late teens and early twenties, and it was with substantial reservations that I came to this story. I remembered James’ prose being sufficiently dense and meandering – studded with caveats and ornament, a clause here and a clause there – that retaining the thread required substantial effort. He’s a writer whose stories unfold slowly and at an unhurried own pace, is another way of putting it, and perhaps I’ve always been a little too impatient for that.

Well, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ has not disabused me of that opinion, but I do like the way this story unfolds over many years to tell its unusual tale of loss. Its concept resonates, and the dialogue is more engaging than the chewy blocks of narration. I feel it is overlong, but an advantage of that length is the way it helps reinforce its central theme, and allows time for awareness to bloom for the reader – if not the protagonist.

Story notes, assortments #1

A variety of stories read over a long period of time from a variety of sources. Actually includes some non-genre stories for once…

Shit Flower, Anil Menon. One of the most interesting and entertaining stories I’ve read in ages, and it is for the most part a story about shit. Yep, the artificial intelligences running Mumbai’s sewer systems have told each other a bad joke and now the city is overflowing with shit. The people in a position to stop this are Simon, an Indian-naturalised Canadian mathematician, and Ada, a senior official in the city’s waste management department. Simon is old now, but long before had consulted on the creation of those sewage AIs. Ada, young and exploring a total identity transplant, reaches out to him to combat the problem.

This story feels casually polymathic, roving across mathematics, heterogeneity in social stability, history, cross-linguistic jokes and so on, with a conclusion that is warm and welcoming of interpretation. Hindu reincarnation? SFnal identity injection? Why not both, or neither?

Absolutely a story to come back to, and Anil Menon is an author I also now need to revisit.

Abeokuta52, Wole Talabi. This story tells of the “Abeokuta 52” scandal from the point of view of Bidemi Akindele. Akindele’s mother was one of the first responders to an extraterrestrial impact near the Nigerian city of Abeokuta, and of these responders 52 were diagnosed with severe pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer. All subsequently died.

In the ten years since the impact, Nigeria has grown prosperous by exploiting alien technology recovered from the impact site, whilst Akindele and other activists campaign for justice for those who died in defiance of official policy: “forget the past and embrace the future in silence”. The story is structured like a message board thread and begins with a copy-paste Guardian article by Akindele; the story developers in the comments that follow. These messages deftly expand and continue the story, driving toward a dark conclusion of collusion and greed.

The story reminded me of the grim end of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine in the mid-90s, or indeed the fates of many activists around the world who sought justice in the face of authoritarian government and extractive big business.

Exhalation, Ted Chiang. My first read of this multiple award-winning story. Set within a pocket universe surrounded by walls of impenetrable chromium and populated by sophisticated mechanical beings, who breathe pressurised argon extracted from an underground reservoir. These beings are sentient and sapient but in composition more similar to the clockwork automata of past futurities and the vacuum tubes of early computing than, say, the ‘positronic men’ of contemporary SF.

The protagonist is a scientist who speaks of two things: firstly the ongoing effort by its people to understand the inner working of their own brains, and secondly a succession of strange events where town criers reading precisely timed speeches are unexpectedly cut off by the ringing of bells before reaching their conclusion. The protagonist performs an act of self-dissection, believing these events are linked, and discovers a great truth.

This story essentially makes a modern fable of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, explaining it by way of air pressure rather than energy exchange. Its phlegmatic acceptance of the inevitable, its lifting of its gaze outwards and forwards, its exhortations that pondering existence and finding common ground with the Other of a future that is impossible to know, are effective and deeply SFnal.

The Necklace, Guy de Maupassant. A “pretty and charming” girl born into a minor bourgeois family is married off to a minor government official. She is tormented by a feeling of entitlement: that her poor home and single servant are less than she is due, whilst she dreams of grand ornaments and armed footmen and vast rooms in a sprawling home, built for a life of idle leisure.

When M. and Mme. Loisel are invited to the home of a senior minister her husband is shocked that she is resentful, having little idea of her feelings, but turns over the money he has been saving so that she may buy a new dress, and suggests she borrows a necklace from a wealthy friend. With dress and necklace in place Mme. Loisel is able to enjoy the party, but on their return home she realises the necklace is lost. Visiting the jeweller they believe sold it, they are horrified to discover a replacement will cost 36,000 francs. By borrowing from multiple lenders and exhausting a bequest from M. Loisel’s father they are able to pay and spend the next decade living hand-to-mouth as they repay their debts. Subsequently, Mme. Loisel tells the friend from whom she borrowed the necklace what happened. Her friend is stunned, and tells her that the necklace was an imitation, worth a tiny fraction of what they paid.

The story obviously depends greatly on that brutal, ironic closing twist. It is difficult to be sympathetic with Mme. Loisel, entitled and dissatisfied as she is, but even so skewed a character doesn’t warrant the loss of ten years of life. Still, the point here is that she is brought low by her own character flaw.

Story notes, Interzone #287

Tim Lees, Night Town of Mars. A boy, not popular among his peers at school, has a fondness and respect for his uncle, an eccentric prone to expounding weird ideas and arguments. One Summer the boy insists that he go to stay with his uncle and aunt – it’s preferable to Scouts. Whilst there he learns of a crude plot by local worthies to un-home his uncle, who apparently is no more popular among his peers than the boy is among his. And at nights he begins to experience another place that is like but unlike his relatives’ home atop a hill, looking down upon the nearby town.

I’ve enjoyed Tim Lees’ work in the past but the only story of his I’ve read in the last few years, Soldiers Things, felt a little slight. This I enjoyed more: Lees has a knack for juxtaposing the strange and the homely, horror and humour, eccentricity and the banal. The scenes in the other world are a lot of fun and echo Alice in Wonderland (an over-used reference point, but hush for I rarely draw upon it) whilst the scenes in our reality are almost as fun. The ending drags on a little, but it works well enough.

Eugenia Triantafyllou, Those We Serve. A group of ‘artificials’ serve seasonal tourists at a beautiful island resort, but their status as artificials is a closely-guarded secret. The artificials are programmed never to reveal their nature – they experience pain and compulsions if an internal watchdog senses the possibility of revelation – and the secret has been kept for a long time. The artificials are copies of humans who, long ago, vanished beneath the seas to a hidden city. Our protagonist is one such artificial who loves – but perhaps cannot acknowledge this to himself – a woman he recognises both from the memories of the man he is based upon, and from his own memories of her annual visits to the island.

I really liked this story. It does a great job of presenting the churning conflict beneath icy calm for the protagonist, the probing questions of the tourist he loves and who, perhaps, recognises something of what he is and what his existence means. It is also evocative of the lives of those working in the hospitality sector – of exploitation and secrets and callousness behind the smiles that greet transient visitors.

John Possidente, The Transport of Bodies. Another returning Interzone writer, Possidente wrote Dead Man’s Coffee, which was previously reviewed on this blog. Er, I also found that story enjoyable but slight – a snapshot of a world, a vignette in a life. This story takes place in the same setting, perhaps featuring the same protagonist (I don’t remember and would need to check, but I believe both are freelance journalists). I think it functions a little better as a standalone, perhaps because it’s almost a self-contained murder mystery – although the mystery unfolds in a character’s monologue rather than under probing investigation. Of course, there’s always the chance there is more to a story…

Val Nolan, Make America Great Again. Nolan’s Cyberstar was a great lead story in another recent issue of Interzone. In contrast to that tale of a far future solar system and a religious cult’s bizarre plans, this is set in the ugly and violent today of America, with its resurgent fascism, vigilante violence toward protestors, and racist cops. It’s also about a WW2 soldier who disappeared and who returns, perplexed at how the Nazis he fought have also returned.

I’ll be honest: I was excited to read this story but it did not work for me. It engages with intense and vital events and issues, but doesn’t engage with any of the structural, material or socio-political conditions that underpin them. Rather, it engages with a mythic concept of what “makes America great” that I found banal, and is obsessed with the purity and heroism of mythic figures from the past, which I also found banal. Its climax also suggests that although things are bad there are mysterious aliens – parental figures, if you will – who are prepared to nudge events to ensure the ‘right’ timeline occurs. But maybe it’s all just a story. And maybe America is just a story. And maybe if you tell the right story, and get the right person into power, things will get better. For me, this produced a conclusion hopelessly out of touch with the dysfunction, decline and sadism of the contemporary USA.

Story notes, BSFA Awards 2019

This was a periodical sent out by the BSFA for members to review before voting in the 2019 BSFA Awards, although sadly – living overseas as I do – it arrived after the Awards had been awarded.

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate. A bunch of astronauts travelling through space in suspended animation wake up and we see some glimpses of their characters. The narrator muses on the nature of space travel and the experience thereof, and on the history that has led to their journey, in a missive home that may take fourteen years to arrive. It concludes with an underdeveloped idea of crowdfunded space travel, born of frustration with, one supposes, states and private industry, though one wonders who administered and utilised the crowdfunds to make all this happen, and what infrastructure all that rested upon?

The conclusion that the narrator’s journey is the result of “a fragile endeavour that can only stand thanks to the contributions of many” is momentarily stirring, but I can’t say I found the idea of people donating to an Escape To Space, I Don’t Want To Live On This Planet Any More patreon a bit lacking in substance. There’s so little of the concept presented here that it feels like clicktivism, where some people threw what money they could at a problem and somehow money was magically transformed into a space program.

So: I didn’t care for what was in the magazine I was sent. But then I realised it’s about 6 pages of a 136 page novella. Ohhhh. The contents page does identify it as an extract, but the text itself doesn’t. Well, I’ve not read Chambers’ work since her debut, so perhaps I should – although not on the strength of this excerpt, which doesn’t work as a standalone at all.

Fiona Moore, Jolene. I greatly enjoyed this story when I originally read it and I still liked it a lot on re-reading. See my original thoughts in my review of Interzone #283.

Gareth Powell, Ragged Alice. Another excerpt, thought fortunately I was already aware of what Ragged Alice is so wasn’t taken by surprise this time. This extract does do a solid job of setting up the story and leaving me wanting more, and whilst it also doesn’t completely work as a standalone it does at least function as an episodic slice of something larger, ending on a delicious cliffhanger. Powell also consistently delivers good character work and that talent is on display here.

A side note: this is a contemporary police procedural with supernatural elements, and an extract from a 200-page short novel. Maybe it does fit within the strict definition of a novella but I’m bemused as to why this was up for a BSFA Short Fiction award. I did like it, though.

Tade Thompson, The Survival of Molly Southborne. Another extract from another novella. Did no one read any short stories this year? Is the short story form dead? Are we doomed to only read novellas in future?

I don’t know the answers to such questions, but I do know that the idea of a woman whose spilled blood forms rapidly-growing psychopathic and homicidal clones of herself is a great conceit for a story, and all the more so when the story is told from the point of view of one of those clones.

This also doesn’t work as a standalone and the extract ends a little aimlessly, but the concept alone has me interested in reading more.

Ian Whates, For Your Own Good. Another short story! At last!

Our narrator’s consciousness is segueing between a beautiful and calm Mediterranean environment, and sitting in his car which is clearly malfunctioning. Distressed, he tries to understand what is going on, and eventually engages his car’s AI in dialogue. It explains to him what is happening, and why. The protagonist is, literally, a passenger along for the ride.

It’s a respectable execution of a spin on a hoary SF trope, but the passivity of the story and the unsurprising way it unfolds did not leave me feeling it was among the best British short SF of last year.

Amal Eh-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War. Another extract from a short novel – at 200 pages it’s as long as the novel I’m currently reading, Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation – but due to the back-and-forth nature of the story’s structure of letters and vignettes, it works better than most of the others.

There are some striking images here rich with SFnal invention, and the relationship between ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ is intriguing, although this doesn’t stand alone as anything more than an advertisement for the larger work. As with pretty much all the other ‘novella’ extracts, however, I was left wanting to read more.

This extract, or the book it is from, ultimately won the short fiction category, which I think is a respectable choice, despite my suspicion that a 200 page book is going to run to well past 40,000 words. Ah well. I didn’t nominate or vote in the awards, so why be pedantic? At least I have some more novellas and novels to read now. 😉

Story notes, Salvage #6 & #7

Katie Kane, Road Kill. A story about the narrator’s mother, a woman who is “dangerous” because she “had knowledge she shouldn’t have had and none of the context for really understanding it.” We see little of the narrator save how she relates to her mother; her mother who always carries her buck knife with her, always planning to make use of dead things: a deer, a bird, a rattlesnake.

Laden with metaphor, I enjoyed this thoughtful short story more than I thought I would when I read the first two paragraphs and dismissively thought “another slice of Americana about hard lives in small towns”. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

David Naimon, Being Beneath. Playful flash fiction. Crows unsettle people, with their mysterious crow ways, language, patterns and behaviour, and they are so many in their nameless masses. What do the crows want? Why do they do what they do? What if they took it upon themselves to upend the existing order? “It’s no fun being beneath”. The allegory is obvious.

Sarah Grey, Not Today. Fictionalised narrative beginning with a snapshot of Pittsburgh’s ethnically diverse social composition and the experience of the industrial proletariat, and concluding with the 2018 mass shooting at the “Tree of Life” synagogue by Robert Bower. Not today, the wives and mothers who stay home pray, fearing the day when a loved one does not return from the mill or the mine. We can imagine the same prayer in the hearts of people today, now directed toward warding off the sadistic, nihilistic or fascistic violence of mass shooters.

Between then and now Pittsburgh is hollowed out as capital moves away, but the spiritual heart of the city remains to hold its communities together. It is a vital part of this spiritual heart that a right-wing shock jock blames for decline, and it is the distribution of such memes that drive Bower to his decision.

Story notes, Interzone #286

Cofiwch Aberystwyth, Val Nolan. It’s pleasing to see a near-future specfic story set in Wales and engaging with Britain’s current political and cultural schisms and travails, even if this is largely set dressing for a story of betrayal, denial and breakdown. Wait, actually…

There’s a tremendous sense of place in post-nuclear Aberystwyth and whilst the historical events that produced this setting feel improbable, is that not always true of many events until history and humanity deliver them?

We follow a “top 500” vlogger and the rest of her team as they explore this setting, risking radiation amongst the ruins in search of footage. This story is somewhat let down by a conclusion that presents binary options for a character, and tells us only that they chose – not what – but this indeterminacy doesn’t really fit with the character as experienced, so underwhelms. Otherwise, this is a story I greatly enjoyed.

Rocket Man, Louis Evans. Launching from a simple premise – atmospheric conditions prevented the development of the unmanned ICBM – this story takes us into the world of the rocket men: USAF elite who spend their days marking time and waiting for armageddon. Our protagonist dreams of Moscow and his rocket coming down upon it; he dreams every night, and he has a secret mission, and his story changes all the time. To say much more than that would be to spoil the experience of this story, which is compact, entertaining and humanistic. Miss! Miss! Miss!

Organ of Corti, Matt Thompson. As the climate crisis eats into the Iberian peninsula, coating Madrid in layers of sand, an out of work entomologist chooses to hire onto an expedition into the new desert rather than join his girlfriend in Argentina. This academic joins five others as they journey into the new desert, and find there strange new structures, which open into tunnels, which snake deep beneath the surface.

This story is highly effective at conveying a sense of the eerie in its underground tunnels, and exercises restraint rather than tipping into outright horror. Of course, the expedition still disappears one by one until only our protagonist remains. Only his final decision lacks impact: I can see how he might arrive at the conclusion he did, but I wish it was less of a bolt from the blue.

Carriers, James Sallis. A story following a small cast of characters in a country, nation or region experiencing slow collapse. The state is weak. Factions vie for power as police and pseudo-paramilitary gangs roam the streets. Those caught between and beneath the violence of power suffer. One of our characters is Eric, a young man – a boy, really, at the time when he first kills men, in this case the soldiers who looted and abducted his small community. Another is a doctor working to help the people of his city.

In the story’s first part the doctor and Eric meet by way of an unnamed group of rebels whose ideology is never surfaced; Eric has been killing his way through state apparatchiks, or something like that. The doctor heals him. Their mutual acquaintance dies. The doctor heals Eric again, and then they part ways. In the story’s second part, we have decamped to the countryside, and follow what I at first thought was two characters but actually seems to be three as they discuss the violence of their pasts. Here the story settles further into its affective mode, where the characters spend much time eliding the details of their past lives, showing glimpses of trauma.

I must admit that the story didn’t really work for me. Its prose and psychological writing are strong, but the focus on the silences born of traumatic emotional experience for survivors evacuates meaning from events writ onto the world-canvas, producing a world where actors act to make things happen but never for reasons, and never with the intent or result of imposing meaning. Perhaps that is the point of those who are seen only as subject to history rather than actors toward its composition, but this doesn’t really gel with the character of men who kill for causes? And surely even victims and the subjects of history have interests and belief structures, even in the context of the complete breakdown of existent institutions? Still, a very engaging story to grapple with.

Story notes, Clarkesworld #161

Outer, Hollis Joel Henry. Memorably written, and a nice story with which to return to Clarkesworld. It has been a few years!

The author appears to be based out of Trinidad and Tobago and the speech patterns of characters are reflective of Caribbean English (at least in the opinion of someone who has never even visited the Caribbean), which I liked. The story itself concerns Toozen, a second generation child of “Septembers” – people who were afflicted with birth defects due to some kind of scientific experiment or contamination in the past. Many such second generation children ‘pass’ as normal until they grow out of childhood.

The story concerns the prejudices held about these September children, and how this grows into distrust, fear, hatred and ultimately church- and possibly state-endorsed vigilantism. Toozen is a warm, empathetic, trusting kid who wants to be liked and fit in, but no matter what he does it is never enough for those who see him as other. There are clear parallels that can be drawn from this, although most who could recount similar stories from their lives will lack adult Toozen’s unique and violent capabilities for self-defence and deterrence.

Eyes of the Crocodile, Malena Salazar Macia trans. Toshiya Kamei. A woman discovers a crocodile’s eye growing upon her breast, and knows it for a mark of the nanobot plague that afflicts humanity like a maliciously communicative cancer. Her husband died when those same nanobots went wild during a scarification ceremony, and she expects the same fate. She knows she can no longer remain with her tribe and instead requests a vehicle to journey to The Tree, which we soon learn is some kind of network hub, a point of origin for code/instruction propagation to the distributed nanobot cloud.

The world this story portrays is one of ruin, collapse and isolation, but it is not without meaning or hope. Good story.

Mandorla, Cooper Shrivastava. Told from the perspective of Old Plant, which I came to think of as something like the “Pando” clonal colony of aspen trees in the US, this story contrasts the perspective of a extremely long-lived and slowly-reproducing species with the Kelp, who live shorter lives. The history of the Kelp evolves and morphs and thrives, surviving multiple schisms and internal conflicts. One constant is that the Kelp consult with Old Plant, even if the Kelp speaker changes as generations pass.

I really enjoyed this story and thought it an interesting exploration both of the contrasted alien perspectives, and of their problem-solving capabilities when it comes to something outside their standard framework. A great read.

The Host, Neal Asher. Contains many staples of Asher’s SF: hard men, duplicitous artificial intelligence, advanced tech, devastating guns, power armour, and of course oogly alien monsters. Although some of these tropes are undercut here!

Protagonist Ivebek is a changed man, though he does not understand why or how and his memory betrays him. He remembers being a criminal, a murderer and a slaver, but now he finds himself so full of empathy that he cannot kill. People, that is. It doesn’t take long before he’s annihilating fauna.

The story’s end can be seen coming some distance off but the story anticipates this, choosing to shift into a debate of alien and human morality, with the reader’s growing awareness of what might elsewhere have been a twist instead feeding their perspective on said debate. Perhaps a little overlong considering the payload sits in the last thousand words or so, but I enjoyed this brief delve into Asher’s Polity setting after more than a decade away.

Jigsaw Children, Grace Chan. In near future China we follow the life of one of the eponymous “jigsaw children”: genetically tailored infants designed by experts at the behest of parents-to-be, then gestated and brought to term within “birthing mothers”. The jigsaw children are raised in an almost hermetically sealed environment, and whilst their lives are rarely cruel they are certainly not free. The children are precocious enough to discuss philosophical questions around their own intellectual and physiological superiority to the natural-born, and for one rebellious child to mock their group taboos around natural birth.

Time passes: the children grow up. The woman we follow cannot but return to the fact of her creation and upbringing, the root of her identity a gravity well she cannot escape. There’s beauty and ugliness aplenty in this wonderful, thoughtful story.

Generation Gap, Thoraiya Dyer. A quite different kind of story to ‘Jigsaw Children’ but one which is also concerned with children, with generational reproduction, with questions of tradition and morality. Violence is more prominent here.

The Hapkui family live within Greenhill, growing crops and raising dogs to feed themselves and trade with the nearby city. Their enemies and rivals are the Kɜkaveə, oyster farmers who are smaller in stature. Each family plots and raids against the other until a change in regional leadership forbids this.

Meanwhile, the ‘Child’ of each family – roles within each tribe or family are linearly assigned across generations, with each person graduating to a different social role as the Child ages into their first true role – meets their counterpart in secret, and a friendship buds. Whether this friendship can survive the future planned out for them is another matter. A compelling and tragic story.

Never Stop (An Anthology of Finnish SF & F)

Published by Osuuskumma Publishing in 2017, ‘Never Stop’ collects 15 stories from Finnish SF & fantasy writers, mostly published between 2013 and 2017 (one outlier dates from 2006). The following is not a review, but a continuation of my project to share notes on my daily short story reading. If you would like to read a review there’s a good one on Strange Horizons by Duncan Lawie

M.A. Tyrskyluoto, Never Stop. I’m writing these notes almost a year after reading this story, and my memory is famously bad, but I remember this being a coming of age story in a dystopian setting, where the teen protagonist wants to escape the humdrum destiny planned out for him. One day he breaks a rule – an unthinkable act in his conformist society, and one that could ruin him and his family – but that tiny act of independence and rebellion opens him up to a whole new world. The story was engaging, but it more or less stops right after the veil is lifted from the protagonist’s eyes.

Jussi Katajala, Mare Nostrum. A random fact about me: I like cephalopods a lot. I think they’re fascinating creatures. I also won’t pretend I don’t love eating squid (although I made the decision some years back not to eat octopus). So I certainly found the idea of climate change producing hyper-intelligent Humboldt squid who begin a secret conflict with humanity over Earth’s seas a very appealing concept. This story has some fun skullduggery and its antagonists are quite sympathetic, all things considered. The story wraps up nicely, and I would actually love to read more in this setting.

Mikko Rauhala, The Guardian of Kobayashi. A young man steals a spaceship in order to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps in search of adventure and, more specifically, a treasure trove aboard a pre-Fall spaceship. Human civilization is supposed to have collapsed between their generations, and space flight capability has only recently been regained by mankind. The young man finds his treasure trove, and certainly finds adventure, but this is a case study in applying caution to what you wish for. The broader setting is just enticing enough to support a fairly simple story built around a twist.

Janos Honkonen, The Air Itself Caught Fire. A six year old boy loses his parents to a house fire in 1920s Germany. The enduring memory of this formative moment is not, however, a sense of grief or loss: it is the memory of a dragon, its head roaring through the fire. An obsession with fire, and with finding that dragon again, dominates the mindset of this precocious young man. As he grows older, his voracious intellect sees him win stipends to support his university education. Later, the Nazi government recognises in him great potential for its weapon programmes – and its nuclear programmes. Although the story’s protagonist Johannes is fictional, his story is mapped closely to famous historical events, and his obsessive, single-minded attitude is well-portrayed. I shan’t spoil the ending.

Saara Henriksson, The Whaler’s Wife. A young woman is intrigued by the tales of a wannabe whaler, and after the latter is repeatedly shot down by the sponsors he sought to woo she persuades her fiance to invest in the voyage. They seek a leviathan, an intelligent whale that will lead them to a mysterious hidden land replete with new resources to exploit. From the point of view of the 21st century, a kind of whale oil that is twice as efficient seems a poor return on such extractive violence, but fortunately the whaler’s voyage doesn’t work out quite as originally planned. I enjoyed this story. For the most part very little happens, but its story of budding and fracturing relationships, of the fallacies of drive and obsession, of letting go of one’s past and future, and of coming to terms with the world as it is, have a warmth that resonated with me.

J. S. Meresmaa, The Heart That Beats in a Dream. An interesting story that blends classic coming of age tropes with a cross-dimensional tale of familial bonds. The former is the story at its strongest, with the lives and concerns of its young characters well-realised and fondly explored. The latter is a little thin, primarily serving as an sfnal version of the ‘leap into the unknown’ that bridges childhood and adulthood in a coming of age story, and injecting some nice bits of weirdness into the story. Some of these might have benefited from resisting the urge to try and explain them, and certainly the sentient bicycle isn’t critical to the story.

Markus Harju, The Silver Bride. A story with a fairytale conceit, complete with gruff blacksmith, his downtrodden orphan assistant, and a request from a nobleman to make him a deathless wife of gold and silver. The assistant – Little Man, so called for his “misshapen” physicality – is tasked with fetching water from a magical river near the town, and it is here that he sees a vision of beauty singing as she washes herself in the river. He is dumbstruck by her song and the sight of her, though it is not carnal desire that affects him so. This is for the best, given how the story later develops. The tale has some nice twists and turns although, in retrospect, the blacksmith is a shitty father, the reveal about Little Man is undercooked, and the villain of the piece could perhaps have been dealt with in a less overwrought manner. Still, fans of Grimm fairytales and the wild implausibility of mythic storytelling might enjoy the grisly vengeance that is enacted.

Artemis Kelosaari, The Wings of the Hornet Queen. A steampunkish story set in the age of sail, and following a variety of officers in the British Royal Navy, plus one French naval commander. Foremost among these is Pike, nicknamed the Hornet Queen for her nature. Pike and her French counterpart, Rene, share a contempt for the conservatisms of their governments, and for the weaknesses and frailties of humanity – the demands and weaknesses of the flesh, though they have a passionate common interest in sex. Rene, like other French officers, is heavily modified with implants that enhance his strength and stamina, and mould his physical dimensions to the navy’s exacting requirements. Pike wishes to achieve something similar, and as the story opens her conspiracy to do so has been betrayed and she has been arrested by the admiralty. There’s a lot going on there, though ultimately this is a sort of steampunk Master & Commander spin on transhumanism, complete with contempt for humanity (Pike is betrayed because she seeks to experiment on orphan children with learning difficulties and fails to imagine that anyone she trusts might have a problem with this). The story ends without much direction; Pike gets her wish but appears content to continue serving the Admiralty, and heads off to get drunk with a subordinate.

Maija Haavisto, Josefiina’s Cart of Wonders. Another steampunkish story set at some undefined point in Finland’s past. Josefiina is an extremely intelligent young girl who is struck with partial paralysis, leaving her unable to walk. Thanks to her aunt – another very intelligent woman, whose very existence impresses Josefiina’s friends because she has gone to university in Switzerland, something no woman in Finland can do at this time – Josefiina regains mobility. This is due to the titular cart: a wheelchair. Josefiina steadily modifies it, and the narrator’s admiration for Josefiina extends to her “cart of wonders”. Eventually narrator and Josefiina part, their lives pulling them in different directions, but the narrator – inspired by this young woman – defies the destiny planned out for him and sets out to pursue his own path. I liked that this story frames a physical impairment the way that it does, and that the narrator is inspired as he is.

Anne Leinonen, Maid of Tuonela. This story derives from Finnish mythology, wherein Tuonela is the realm of the dead and the titular maid is one of the ferrypersons transporting souls to the underworld. There are some intriguing small touches – the maid and her father appear to possess metal flesh and nails, though it’s only mentioned in passing – and whilst this afterlife is familiar enough to the more widely known Greco-Roman mythic canon there are elements unique to Finnish myth. The story concerns a mortal who comes one day to the underworld – of course it does! – but is told from the maid’s perspective, and of course it is tragic. I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Maria Carole, My Buttercup, My Everything. A creepy story about obsession and control. The narrator undergoes a bizarre procedure that, essentially, turns them into a sort of spirit or ghost that can only interact with the world through the narrator’s disembodied hand. This is sold as a sex aid to an attractive young woman. The relationship between woman and hand is rich and fulfilling, but the hand turns jealous when the woman brings a man home. Things turn out much as you imagine they might. The strangeness of the central conceit makes this story compelling even if the ultimate outcome is not in question.

Anni Nupponen, The Tiniest in the World. The smallest of all Lilliputians leaves their home town and begins to travel the world. As they do so they experience growth spurts – the first increasing them in size from a person who sails a nutshell boat to a small human – and adopt new lives. They learn, reflect, adapt and love as they live each life, but each always ends. The story is often surrealist but given that the narrator starts out as a Lilliputian there’s the suggestion that it be read partly allegorically. Towards the end quantum physics comes into play: “Quantum physics is a joke that physicists haven’t figured out yet, and supersymmetry is a longing, a desire to believe in simplicity that lives under everything and inside every perfect circle.” Courage and embracing change are put forward as the source of a richer, better life than the pursuit of simplicity and understanding. Playful and interesting story.

Anu Korpinen, Star in the Deep. A mermaid follows a great sailing ship, singing to the beautiful prince it carries aboard, and hiding whenever another might see or hear it. The ship is bound for the deepest of seas, beneath which something hungry and wild dwells – something originating within or drawn near the eponymous fallen star. The prince the mermaid is smitten must, of course, play his role when the ship reaches its destination. I liked that the mermaid is, ultimately, a somewhat selfish character, and their emotional state as they leave the scene and the story concludes I found wryly amusing.

Magdalena Hai, The Beautiful Boy. The titular boy is surrendered by his father to pirate raiders as a child. He’s taken under the wing of the brutal, terrifying and cruel leader of these raiders, and subsequently grows up among them. Eventually the two become lovers, and the boy struggles with the sense of threat he feels when the leader’s husband arrives. The pirate band is structured in two groups, with two powerful and mutually bound leaders balancing one another. The world this story is set in feels interesting and compelling, drawn with relatively few brush strokes, and seeing it through the eyes of someone who is both insider and outsider helps make it feel real. The broad thrust of the story’s conclusion can be seen coming, though the specifics present some surprises. I found the pleasure of this story was in the journey.

Katri Alatalo, A Winter Night’s Tale. A storyteller wanders from village to village, seeking food and shelter in exchange for a tale. We follow her as she visits two towns where she is welcomed, and her stories tell us something of her past as well as the myths and tales of her people. When she visits a third village, she is not welcomed. The story’s conclusion is surprisingly cruel, though I suppose it may be intended in the vein of a stern admonition toward those lacking in hospitality. Beyond that it feels awkwardly as though the petulance and entitlement of a wandering storyteller is held in higher regard than the lives of a community, and that this should be considered right.

Story notes, Interzone #285

Each Cell a Throne, Gregor Hartmann. A rich old man is prepared to die; a young policewoman has been hired to persuade him not to go through with it. The old man’s chosen form of assisted suicide is to let a possibly shady neuroscientist digitise his consciousness and upload it into the cloud. The young woman’s methods of persuasion include philosophical critiques of dualism, biology and theology, as well as the use of physical contact and reminders of food.

The territory this story roams through is certainly interesting, but I found myself uncomfortable with the protagonist’s motivations: all of her arguments were rational but none connected emotionally. The old man was unpersuaded perhaps because of this. Perhaps that was the point, since the story’s culmination involves emphasis on a very emotional human connection, but if so the irony was lost on the policewoman, who appeared inordinately committed to a crumbling old man perpetuating a life he evidently wished to leave behind. The idea the story is a proxy for critique of assisted suicide did come to mind, but the protagonist does state outright she has no issue with such things. Here she is apparently unhappy that the old man’s chosen form of assisted suicide involves the sin of vanity, and may involve digital littering and being taken for a ride by a huckster. He appears sanguine about such possibilities.

Flyover Country, Julie C. Day. Rogue genehacks that spread like plagues, editing and remaking those who contract them, have left the contemporary USA a mess of isolated communities and terrified cities (oh…). Our protagonist has removed themselves from it all, working as a janitor on a remote facility owned by one of the corporations that works to control the spread of these manmade plagues through, um, chemtrails. A sweet relationship later unfolds, albeit one that grows a sinister aspect towards the story’s end. Delightfully written.

Frankie, Daniel Bennett. A young soldier has captivated people back home with his poetic blog posts about life on the front lines of a terrible war. Following the poet’s death, his brother – also a soldier – returns home, but fame denies private grief. The narrator’s reflections on the past and storytelling suggest redemptive possibility even in the face of loss and one’s own inevitable death.

Salvage, Andy Dudak. A long story for Interzone and worth the pagecount. This story follows a traveller named Aristy who explores a civilization frozen in amber by the alien Curators. Deep breath: the universe was dying as the result of observation itself, and after the Curators’ pleas and information sharing met with limited success among other species, they took unilateral action and locked every sapient being into an underclocked and individual simulation of their lives at the time of the locking. With us so far?

Generations later Aristy, one of the human survivors aboard lightspeed arkships at the time of the “Turning Inward”, explores the minds of those so trapped and offers them a choice: join a community of their liberated fellows in another simulation, continue as they are but with whatever simulated enhancements they may desire, or oblivion. The civilization Aristy explores was a brutal ethno-nationalist dictatorship, and a desire for justice among those she frees intersects with the laws of her own people and her own past as the story moves onwards. It’s heady stuff. Alas, I felt the conclusion drew awkward moral equivalence and felt overly brief and passingly over-concerned with its own metaphors. But the journey getting there was worth every second.

The Dead Man’s Coffee, John Possidente. Our narrator scrapes a living aboard a space station, and one day meets a visitor who is happy to tell them the story of a court case that unfolded on a distant world. A group of photovores – photosynthetic humans – are brought under the magnifying glass because others feel they are not sacrificing during a period of fasting. The story is interrupted, as the title suggests, but our narrator still finds a satisfying conclusion.

And with that, my Interzone backlog has been cleared. And what a pleasure it has been to read through so many issues!

I will keep posting these story notes until I decide I don’t want to do so any more. From now on, the sources of these stories will be more diverse. 

Story notes, Interzone #284

The Kindest God is Light, Joanna Berry. A depressed poet is stationed at an alien psychological treatment facility as part of a diplomatic endeavour. Alongside a select number of other human beings, this poet has been asked to sync with a device called an Echo, which will record the full range of their emotional personality. The poet blames themselves for their inability to achieve sync, particularly in contrast to those at the facility who are actually receiving treatment. To move forwards, they must revisit the fundamental reason why they are here. Strong writing and an optimistic message.

She and I and We, Timothy Mudie. A struggling young poet – hang on, another one?! – believes that she is being stalked by an older woman, and confronts her. She’s quite right: she is being followed, but the woman claims that it is to protect her, and further that she is the future version of the poet. The poet believes her. When a third party enters the game, and the poet’s life is threatened, the truth will out. A fun story about reservation and obsession though the poet’s occupation plays no role. The closing moments of the story are the nicest touch.

Dent-de-lion, Natalia Theodoridou. A tired space exploration (and exploitation?) outfit has sent a pair of astronauts to a remote planet in search of a cure for “Flower Flu”. Both the organisation and its staff have seen better days. What they find planetside contains secrets beyond the hoped-for cure. A simple story that seems like a classic SF mystery, though the focus is more upon human hopes and fears than it is unpicking the secrets of alien biology. I enjoyed it.

Parasite Art, David Tallerman. A human artist has bonded with a creature called a Zobe; a symbiotic lifeform with a lifespan measured in millennia. These creatures share with their hosts the memories of their myriad past lives, and during these dreams of memory the host can enter a sort of narrowly-focused fugue state. These characteristics and states of being make Zobe-pairing particularly attractive to artists, who routinely produce masterworks that leave non-Zobe art seeming pale and shallow by comparison. Our protagonist shines brightly, but has begun to question the loss of individuality and the near-absolute conformity inherent in bonding with the territorial and antisocial Zobe. The conclusion is somewhat open and raw, inviting personal responses, and focused on a sense of absence. An interesting story that is provocative about art and selfhood.

The Duchess of Drinke Street, Tim Chawaga. This shares the same broad setting as The Fukinaga Special Chip Job (IZ #279), which I wasn’t keen on. I like this story more, focusing as it does on the value of food both as a memory trigger and in local culture. The interplay between protagonist and sort-of-antagonist is good, and I like that the story touches upon gentrification pushing out what made the food culture of a place unique in the first place. I like less that the city’s most famous food critic is opposed to gentrification and “tourists” eating in “local” eating areas, and at no point does anyone question the role of famous critics in driving such phenomenon. This is having your cake, eating it too, then leaving a bad review on Yelp. Nor does the story question what it means for a critic to champion food “authenticity” in the context of culinary hybridity and fusion. The story implicitly suggests that authenticity is a byproduct of class, so this is frustrating only in that the story under-develops the interesting ideas lurking right beneath the surface.

Dream of the High Mountain, Daniel Bennett. A dying planet, a man trying to understand his reactions to it. An introspective story set in an introspective place: a retreat promising “inner space, not outer space”. Elsewhere in the world the rich freeze reproductive materials and shoot them into space; some sort of project attempting to perpetuate the human species, otherwise marooned on the planet that it – its rich – have brought to ruin. Ennui and uncertainty dominate. It’s a moody story, but also feels disagreeably idle and passive. The secondary character Elena, who seems to exhibit some motivation and anger, is more interesting than the alienated and vaguely guilty protagonist. Nice character writing overall.