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

Interzone #208

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“Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark” by Jason Stoddard
“Empty Clouds” by G.D. Leeming
“Where the Water Meets the Sky” by Jay Lake
“Islington Crocodiles” by Paul Meloy
“The Star Necromancers” by Alexander Marsh Freed


This issue of Interzone gives us an essay, “On Writing Short Stories,” by Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke, numerous reviews (including a new collection of Gaiman’s work, and a look at the movies The Prestige and Pan’s Labyrinth), and a kick-ass collection of short fiction. On to the fiction!

Intensely poetic, but with a lyricism that confuses more than it reveals, Jason Stoddard’s “Softly Shining in the Forbidden Dark” gets off to a slow and murky start. The disembodied conscious entities Kim Thompson and Junno H6 travel to Manoa, one of the few known life-bearing worlds. They conduct their exploration with great care, since on a previous mission to Manoa, Kim encountered the Ascendant, a powerful, belligerent, and thoroughly creepy alien mind. On Manoa, they meet Purest Melody, a sort of singing plant/hive mind. Junno’s attempt to communicate with the hive mind leads to disastrous conflict between Junno and Kim, the Ascendant, and Purest Melody.

Once Junno and Kim begin their exploration of Manoa, “Softly Shining” captivates and soon achieves resonance with its investigations of the origins of consciousness, the limits and meaning of humanity. Stoddard’s tale provides a vivid glimpse of the trans-human mind, reminiscent (in a good way) of M. John Harrison’s novel, Light. The opening seems unnecessarily obscure and befuddling, particularly considering the core simplicity of the story itself, which is far more idea-driven than plot-driven. But if the reader can plough through the opening, he’ll have a mind-stretching experience in reward.

G.D. Leeming’s “Empty Clouds” presents a glimpse of the life of Inspector Chen Duxin, a peacekeeper in a future China parched by drought. High above China, the world’s warring nations conduct their battles by mechanical proxy, while a globe-covering, intelligent cloud strikes dead any person foolish enough to use weapons. Wielding his smart sword and equipped with a bionic mount and bloodhound, Chen polices Beijing, looking out for acts of violence not sufficiently explosive to attract the cloud’s attention.

Now this is a cool story, a fusion of the old and new, a marriage of well-conceived setting and clever ideas. Although the plot is thin to nonexistent, “Empty Clouds” is rich enough to be entertaining with or without a plot. Hopefully, Leeming plans to make good use of this world with future stories, as “Empty Clouds” comes to a close far too quickly.

In the pastoral “Where the Water Meets the Sky,” Jay Lake weaves a thoughtful, visually beautiful story about a father and son’s bike trip to Bonneville Dam in Oregon. A Native American girl at the dam tells them the story of Grandfather Seqey, the old salmon king who watched over a lifetime of environmental changes in the local waterways. The father’s dismissal of the story as metaphor, followed by the girl’s (and his son’s) disapproval, sets the stage for the story’s denouement.

Although “Where the Water Meets the Sky” is a short tale, Lake deftly explores the idea of truth in legend. It’s a coming of age story, but the epiphany belongs to the father/narrator, not to his eight-year-old son.

In “Islington Crocodiles,” Paul Meloy revisits the struggle between Firmament Surgeons and Autoscopes—a battle we’ve seen before in his stories “Black Static” and “Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow (The Coming of the Autoscopes).” Meloy’s humor is razor-sharp as ever, but he doesn’t explain his mythos as clearly this time around as he did in “Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow.” Here’s the idea: one way or another, the world is coming to an end. The Firmament Surgeons would like to kick-start the Re-Creation, while the Autoscopes would prefer to let Entropy rule. So, gentlemen, choose your poison: universal annihilation followed by a new Creation, or annihilation followed by chaos.

As with “Dying in the Arms of Jean Harlow,” the story’s fantastic elements take a back seat to Meloy’s cast of thugs. There’s Ray Cade: small-time gangster, Kray-wannabe, a punk who would be king; Ray’s sister, Claire; and Steve Iden, Ray’s friend from their days together on the adolescent psych ward, another two-bit criminal content to smuggle porn DVDs from Amsterdam and not entirely comfortable with Ray’s plans for a bank job. Steve must conceal his relationship with Claire due to Ray’s murderously labile temper. This odd triangle provides a tense counterpoint to the bank job and its aftermath. Suffice it to say that Ray pulls off the caper, but the haul does not meet up to his expectations.

“Islington Crocodiles” is this issue’s longest and most entertaining story. Meloy crafts characters like a master; he has a real feel for the dregs of society. Newcomers might find themselves scratching their heads over talk of Paladins and Egress Gantries, but Meloy’s fans will be right at home and will welcome the new addition to the saga. Cooler still, TTA Press will be publishing a collection of Meloy’s stories under the title Islington Crocodiles. I’m looking forward to it.

Alexander Marsh Freed’s “The Star Necromancers” envisions a distant future reminiscent of John C. Wright’s The Golden Age. Earth’s Sun has burnt out, but intelligent life lives on in the form of avatars. They live contentedly under the milder light of engineered moons, and they are able to modify their planet to what seems like an unlimited degree.

To this stable society comes the necromancers, beings who have the technology to reignite the Sun. The Gardner, protagonist of “The Star Necromancers,” has reservations about such activities, particularly when he learns of the necromancers’ religious zeal for their work. But the Earth’s Gloriarch has made up her mind to allow them to work on the Sun, with the vague assertion that this will “carry our legacy for a billion years.”

Can you say, Bad idea? Yet the Gloriarch’s announcement leads to little or no discussion here at home. The Gloriarch gets her way.

Despite this early plot glitch, the story proceeds in an unpredictable and thoroughly engaging manner. Freed’s descriptive skills never falter, but he also keeps his narrative moving at a good clip. “The Star Necromancers” is a rare tale—one which offers new ideas and a worthwhile human story.