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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Interzone, #187, March 2003

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"Sandtrap" by Nicholas Waller
"Disorder in the Head" by Zoran Zivkovic
"God in the Box" by Nick Wood
"Dawn in the Garden of England" by Gary Budgen
"Heavy Ice" by Dominic Green

This month's issue is a pretty strong one, and kicks off with the best story of the bunch, Nicholas Waller's "Sandtrap". Set in the distant future, the murders of three members of a planetary survey team bring an Arbiter (judge, jury, and executioner, all rolled into one) to a remote world in the earliest stages of terraforming, a future home for billions of human colonists. But things and people on this world are not as they seem, and the investigation into the murders conceals a terrifying conspiracy of infinitely greater scope and complexity involving proof of alien intelligence in the form of the extinct race which had inhabited this world a million centuries before, and the incredibly extreme lengths that the rulers of humanity and their AI guardians will go to in order to conceal that proof.

This is a thrilling, exciting tale with good character interaction, and a nice double twist at the end. This one has many of the things I like best in a good SF story, and is by far my favourite this month. Indeed it just edges into pole position as my favourite Interzone story so far of 2003, although it's running very close by Brett Davidson's "The Little Watcher" from the January issue. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for the name "Nicholas Waller" in future.

"Disorder in the Head" by Zoran Zivkovic is the final story in a five-story sequence of fantasies which included the recent "Alarm Clock on the Night Table" and "Line on the Palm". I found it to be the weakest of the stories I've read from that sequence, and only really makes any sense if you've read the previous episodes in the tale. Even at that, it isn't as strong as the other stories.

I also found myself developing a distinct dislike for the main character, "Miss Emily". In "Alarm Clock on the Night Table" she was a sympathetic if somewhat pathetic character, an embittered, lonely old woman, shaped and tortured by traumatic events from her past. But in this story she isn't sympathetic at all, and comes across as a thoroughly hateful old battleaxe, an arrogant, aloof, ultra-conservative, vindictive and spiteful old biddy with a mind closed as tight as a steel trap. Just the sort of person I would instinctively detest if I met her in real life. By the end of the story I found myself wishing that she would disappear, as the young girl had said she would.

Nick Wood's "God in the Box" is a strange but likeable tale set in near-future Britain, and deals with the effect a strange meteorite has on every person who touches it. They all claim to have "found God", not in the obsessive, psychotic and self-righteous way of most religious fanatics, but in a calm, serene matter-of-fact way. A literal way, because that meteorite is God, or so those under its influence claim. A psychologist is called to a military research base to examine the latest "convert", but while there she has a less direct contact with the meteorite, not quite touching it, because it's inside a sealed container, but touching the container itself, inducing a subtle change in her, less drastic than the other "religious" converts. Just enough to let her see things slightly differently, losing her fear of her overbearing boss and seeing him for the pathetic bully he really is. Her new-found defiance gets her fired, but she isn't too concerned.

A few months later she receives a package in the post. The military have begun marketing a "God-Pill", the distilled essence of the meteorite. She declines to take it, flushing it down the toilet. During a radical and successful evaluation of her relationship with her son (domestic relations haven't been too good), she realises to her amusement that the "God-Pill" will be recycled through the sewage system and back into the water supply, giving all of London a "taste of God". Although I found the premise slightly silly (God being a meteorite), the real thrust of the story, the way it looks at our perceptions of reality and relationships, and the interaction the main character has with her son and her boss makes it a much stronger tale than the premise had threatened.

"Dawn in the Garden of England" by Gary Budgen is an eerie tale set in a future England which has been divided by social unrest and war. A provincial dictator holds the county of Kent in his iron grip, and one of his more outlandish plans is to take the county back to an earlier time of nature and myth by covering it in woodlands, "cleansing" it of its non-Kentish population, and populating the countryside with strange and mysterious creatures from legend. The monstrous secret behind this seemingly innocent aspiration is that he has been carrying out radical and unethical genetic experiments on unwilling human subjects, using them as "raw material" to recreate the "mythical creatures", much in the way that the nazis experimented on victims in the death camps.

Into this scenario comes a woman who has been "adopted" by a travelling fairground troupe, and who is looking for her grandson, who disappeared in the area a year before. When they come upon the body of a strange creature in a forest, the terrifying truth about the boy's disappearance and what has been happening here becomes all too clear. The woods are swarming with genetic freaks who were once human, and who remember what they were and what happened to them. They've broken out of their prison, hungering for revenge on those who have altered them, and indeed any human they come across, leading to a bloody climax for all concerned. I liked this story, even if it did gave me the creeps a little. I've always been afraid of the darker potentials of genetic engineering coupled with human immorality and abuse of power. I simply have never trusted anyone who actively seeks power, as they are, in the main, ruthless, immoral and corrupt individuals. Decent people want no part in that kind of rat race. The idea of placing power such as advanced genetic engineering or "weapons of mass destruction" in the hands of people like these is a frightening one altogether.

The final story, Dominic Green's "Heavy Ice" is my second favourite of the month. Beyond the outer limits of the Oort Cloud lurks Nemesis, a black hole that was once the much larger companion star of our own sun, before a collision with a neutron star made it collapse in on itself. Around Nemesis orbits a single world also altered by the long ago encounter, a restless, hostile world of constant quakes and upheavals in the surface crust, a world where diamonds are as common as muck. It's also a world ready to collapse in on itself because it has a small neutron star at its core. But even here there is a human presence in the form of a colony of miners. And there's been a murder, of one of the most unpopular men on this world, an insoluable crime that nobody should've been able to commit as the perpetrator would've had to do the impossible by breaching both an impenetrable alarm network and the hostile surface environment of this world.

How was this impossible crime committed? Enter four suspects with every motive for killing the man (who was by all accounts a complete swine anyway) and the investigating team comprised of a local cop and two old adversaries -- a lady US Marshall and her long-term opponent, an honourable diamond thief. It goes without saying that the mystery is solved, the cunning criminal is eventually caught, and as a bonus the diamond thief manages to pull off the greatest diamond heist in history (without actually stealing anything) and wins the hand of his former adversary. A thoroughly entertaining story mixing "whodunnit" crime mystery with hard SF, this has an overall similar feel to the classic hard SF/mysteries that were so popular many years ago.

This was a very strong issue of Interzone, and, in my opinion, by far the best of the year so far, a view probably influenced heavily by my preference for SF (which has a strong presence this month) over horror and fantasy. There is only one relatively weak story (the Zivkovic), and the rest are very good, with the Waller story the real stand-out, and a serious contender on my list of favourite stories of 2003. While not quite as strong as the Waller story, Dominic Green's is still a thoroughly entertaining tale which gave me a warm feeling of nostalgia for the "hard" SF stories of yesteryear, and the Budgen and Wood stories are also both extremely entertaining reads set in slightly more familiar (terrestrial) surroundings. Overall, a very good month for Interzone.

Phil Friel lives in the city of Derry, in Northern Ireland. He's been reading SF since the late 1960s (his first SF novel was The Time Machine when he was eight years old), and his tastes range the spectrum from space opera to the hardest of hard SF. He's always looking to expand those tastes, and reckons that the SF magazines are the perfect place to do just that. He likes both novels and short fiction, but prefers the shorter forms.