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.

Story notes, Interzone #283

The Winds and Persecutions of the Sky, Robert Minto. Forgot to take notes at the time of reading. This story rushed back to me as soon as I re-read the first few words; the mental image of the protagonist clinging to the side of a crumbling skyscraper as they scale the vines that enfold it is a memorable one. It’s a nice story that juxtaposes two ways of life in the aftermath of a fallen civilization and has some fine moments, although I found the conclusion a little under-supported in terms of character motivation.

Of the Green Spires, Lucy Harlow. A very short story – two pages in the magazine – that nicely demonstrates what can be achieved with flash fiction. Meanwhile an alien plant spreads over Oxford, fruiting wildly. It’s respectfully invasive and although no one understands it, no one is concerned either. Eventually it retreats into a space of its own where it caters for those it has touched. Characterisation is light but enough: the main character is alienated and detached and angry at the start, and by the end has begun to forgive herself for some of what drives this. It’s nicely understated and doesn’t pretend that broken relationships can be resolved at once, or at all, but healing and positive growth is possible.

Jolene, Fiona Moore. I like this story’s conceit of intelligent vehicles that are basically AI citizens; they sign contracts rather than having owners, they collectivise for both social and economic gain, and they invest their income in themselves for maintenance and upgrade. There are a lot of stories you could tell with this idea! The story we have here involves a private investigator cum automotive psychologist who looks into a case where a driver is insistent that foul play was involved in ‘his’ truck – Jolene – leaving him. The case begins to read like domestic abuse – but is it? And is it better to know? I really enjoyed this story. Also, how about this for an opening line:

“I’ve got a case for you,” said Detective Inspector Wilhemine FitzJames. “It’s a country singer whose wife, dog and truck have all left him.”

The Palimpsest Trigger, David Cleden. Palimpsests are strange creatures with powers over memory who have integrated themselves into the seedy underbelly of human civilization. Our protagonist works for one such, delivering “pilla” – the detached cilia of one of these alien beings – to victims targeted for assassination. The manner of death so inflicted is cruel and inevitable, meaning few dare cross a palimpsest – save perhaps another ‘palimp’. Surviving in an underworld dominated by such creatures, how much can one’s own memory be trusted?

Fix That House!, John Kessel. A married professional couple seek to restore a “stately Southern home”; how far will they go to do so? This flash story is slight and I felt the twist came in too fast, with not enough force to the punch after the initial surprise, but I appreciated the dig at wealthy property owners obsessed with ‘authenticity’.

Two Worlds Apart, Dustin Blair Steinacker. James White Award winner. A story about communication, but culturally more than semiotic. Compellingly written with a lively cast of characters. I hope to read more of Steinacker’s work in future. (SG: reading these notes back they are very terse, but I did enjoy this story a lot.)

Story notes, Interzone #282

Verum, Storm Humbert. The black market narcotic of choice is “verum”, a tailor-made substance that induces dreams in the user. Our protagonist is a mixer of verum, and indeed the first who produced mixes that induced dreams greater than the unimaginative output of the “porn barons” his product displaced. But this mixer is growing old and feels a younger competitor nipping at his heels. This is a solid lead story that focuses on the relationship between the two mixers, their experiences and desires, and the lurking threat of betrayal and violated trust. The worldbuilding is just enough though it’s unclear why verum is a black market substance, save that the story demands low-output mixers who tailor their product for individuals.

Can You Tell Me How to Get to Apocalypse?, Erica L. Satifka. A striking opening, featuring a bunch of dead kids performing for what seems like a morning kids’ TV show. We soon learn that the show is largely watched by adults and that these dead kids, deceased parodies of life as they are, are some of the only kids left. This tale of a twisted Sesame Street portrays characters who are reacting to the end of children and the imminent decline of humanity in different ways – but one common element is the retreat into the past, nostalgia and innocence that the TV show represents, for all that it is made possible by animating dead children. What price the comfort of nostalgia?

The Frog’s Prince; or, Iron Henry, N.A. Sulway. Not being familiar with the particularities of Grimm fairytales I’m only superficially aware of how this story reworks its originating material, but there is a queer element to the story that is sweet if underdeveloped, and the sexual fluidity is interesting if sidestepped (by amnesia!). To be honest, whilst the central relationship is kind and tragic in equal measure, most of the time whilst reading this I was just thinking about the witch who cursed the frog’s lover. Cursing three generations to self-destruction over their inability to father daughters is a disproportionate response to a refused request to get you a bucket of water from the well you’re sat right next to. Lazy bloody witches, eh?

The Princess of Solomon Pond Mall, Timothy Mudie. Short story about a lonely little girl who lives alone in an abandoned mall, and is sent a robot to keep her company. Her situation only becomes more tragic when you discover why she is alone, and who is sending her things. Somehow she makes living, organic beings – squirrels, her Nana, and every human being who was in the mall – disappear from existence. The story sees her beginning to forge a relationship with the robot and slowly sharing more of her story, amidst fears that she might also make her new companion vanish. The story works as it is but I would honestly have liked to read more: where that relationship goes and what happens; the mystery of the disappearances; the ambitions of her distant keepers.

Heaven Looks Down on the Tomb, Gregor Hartmann. A group of scientists drawn from the Lunar colonies visits Earth in search of data and, well, gut bacteria. Among them are a dozen grad students, who are essentially scientific mules for the latter. Mei is the foremost among these ‘Collectors’ but her position does not afford her much respect from Dr. Wong, the tyrannical head of the expedition, or authority among her peers. When Mei hears that there may be problems concerning the expedition back home, she needs to work with the limitations of her position for the best interests of the Collectors and the expedition’s objectives. A solid story, nicely told, with an open-ended conclusion.

FiGen, A Love Story, Kristi DeMeester. What if you could know the chances of your partner committing acts of infidelity through cheap genetic analysis? What if your marriage felt like it was in a downwards spiral of growing detachment and disinterest? And what might happen if you could know who the most likely object of your partner’s infidelity might be? FiGen runs with these questions, skirting the most obvious story beats and twisting the tale’s direction someone more interesting – and, ultimately, cathartic.

Story notes, Interzone #281

Last year I was posting reading notes on Interzone short stories as I caught up on a backlog of magazines that built up during my relocation.

This was part of a personal aspiration to read a short story and an essay every day. Achieving something so simple is sometimes harder than it sounds. 

Sharing those notes here fell by the wayside due to holidays and work, but COVID-19 is inadvertently providing a little time to redress this…  

The Realitarians, James Warner. Apparently part of a series of tales about “feline sleuths”, this one features a woman with a tendency to get mixed up with bad sorts luring a physicist into a kidnapping, following which things rapidly unravel. She’s not a good person, and nor are any of the humans around her. Are the cats? Well, one of them at least might be a “realitarian”. An off-kilter story with an easy humour that left me wanting to read more about these feline sleuths.

Float, Kai Hudson. A very short story about a girl who thinks of herself as a “dirtworm”: a ‘natural’ human living in a zero-gravity space habitat without any modification or adaptation for that environment. She travels to Earth and we see it through her eyes. This is as much a character sketch as it is a story, primarily told through internal monologue and memory, from the point of view of someone who feels unavoidably out of place. It’s simple and it works.

Harmony, Andy Dudak. This is a dark one. A spy or agent strangles an official in a military-occupied city and then attempts to escape. The city is dominated by a song which never stops playing and captivates its listeners, making puppets of them. The song’s disorienting, subversive effects on the point of view character is very nicely handled.

A Dreamer Arrives in the Occupied City, Malcolm Devlin. Surprisingly close to the conceit of the story that directly precedes it. Another city, this time occupied by mysterious, never-identified creatures called “lopers” which – somehow – mean people do not dream. But a woman who returns to a club and the friends she once sought to escape with her new love finds, performing there, a singer who does dream. The story is more concerned with suggestion and implication than anything pointed. In this sense it is both a little like dreams, and is delicately written in that it deftly leaves a lot up to the reader. Despite admiring some elements I found the lack of resolution dissatisfying and the closing character moment unearned. (I did read this story in two halves, on opposite sides of a weekend, so perhaps I missed something important!)

Scolex, Matt Thompson. An addict and former gene-drug producer is tempted by one huge payday to act as a mule for a mysterious new high called Scolex. His employer turns out to be a figure from his past, and his trip – both physical and pharmacological – will take him back home – literally and figuratively. The story’s conclusion is fitting, and the setting left me intrigued.

Cafe Corona, Georgina Bruce. Very short piece that seems to be derived from the biggest moment in astronomy in 2019: the photographing of a black hole, complete with corona. A strange flash story that superimposes that image everywhere, and imagines that said image can be… pushed through? (I didn’t really get this story. Maybe I should re-read it when I’m less dog tired.)

Our Fathers Find Their Graves in Our Short Memories, Rebecca Campbell. Damn, this is maudlin. An epitaph to deceased humanity, crumbling away as capitalocene climate change eats away at the foundations for civilization and, ultimately, life. As humanity declines it retreats into memory. The counter ticks down. The lights go out. The story should be bleak but in its nostalgia and in its personal storytelling it feels more like a farewell, a tidy shutting-down, than the trailing off of hope and human life.

Story notes, Interzone #280

Cyberstar, Val Nolan. Humanity has expanded across much of the solar system, and – wouldn’t you know it – our societies are riven by state violence and deep-rooted inequality. One strange and at times horrifying religion is sending out its missionaries, promising something different and recruiting those it needs for its cause. One such is our protagonist, a laid-off engineer, who at the story’s outset is having his eyes removed by his brothers and sisters. Making good use of its protagonist’s shifting worldview, this story quickly establishes an evocative and exotically familiar setting, feels scientifically grounded despite its wild invention, and delivers in style with its conclusion.

And You Shall Sing to me a Deeper Song, Maria Haskins. Our protagonist is a Singer, an orphan built into a war machine designed to disable ‘bots with song. The war against the bots is done and won, and she may be the last of the Singers. In victory the Singers’ leaders have chosen to dispose of them as, one assumes, a potential threat. The Singer encounters a rogue village living apart from said rulers and, despite mutual suspicion, stays with them. Affairs degenerate and we read of the Singer’s song. The story is entertaining and well written but, as surely as leaders betray followers and enacted vengeance is just, delivered no surprises.

Coriander for the Hidden, Nicholas Kaufmann. This initially seems to be a mildly wacky take on biblical myth and the hypocrisy of the Garden of Eden, told from an angel’s perspective – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – but briskly moves on from this familiar set up to the angel questioning the monstrous tasks that an Old Testament God demands of His host. Angel Suriel’s solution to the moral quandaries it faces is devious and nicely reflected in the structure of the story.

Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again, Sarah Brooks. People are dying, and when they die a black butterfly escapes their body. Butterfly-catchers and black markets emerge: are people simply unable to let go of those they love, or is this a darker phenomenon? This moody, sad story feels like a winding-down of anything that once mattered to people, and whilst personal bonds seem more potent against that backdrop they are not untroubled. A potent short story receptive to intriguing interpretations.

‘Scapes Made Diamond, Shauna O’Meara. A tale told from the point of view of two men, once employed by an extractive corporation as handlers of the psychic alien beasts that produce the drug allowing humankind to spread across the stars. They have returned to bid farewell to the dying matriarch of those imprisoned creatures, and the projected visions and memories of “True” drag into the light an ugly story of exploitation, mass murder and loss, studded with fleeting pinpricks of kindness and hope. There are no simple and morally comforting resolutions here.