By "on publishing" I'm not referring to the article of that name on my website (although I will probably be revising it in the light of what follows) but to an item in 'Vector', the reviews 'n interviews journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This is a very long (seven page) interview of Jo Fletcher by Graham Sleight. Jo Fletcher is editorial director of Gollancz, and she gives a frank and honest appraisal of the current British SF publishing scene which is quite the best thing I've ever read on the subject. Really fascinating for all authors (actual and prospective) and readers too; it sheds a great deal of illumination on many aspects how the system works.
The disappointment came with Peter David's satirical fantasy novel 'Sir Apropos of Nothing'. This must have had some very good reviews, because these days I don't buy books without them. My problem with the story is that I found it slow and unengaging, and not particularly amusing. It was well-enough written, and I wouldn't argue with those who like it, but it didn't hit the spot with me. I read the first four chapters (86 pages) and, had it been the same length as the typical classics I've been reviewing lately, I probably would have persevered to the end. But I noticed that it runs to almost 650 pages and I asked myself "do I really want to devote that many precious hours to this book?" And the answer came "no, not really". So I stopped.
Which brings me on to Interzone 213, which I did read from cover to cover. The usual mix of news, reviews, graphics and short stories. The front cover, showing nightmarish gothic spacecraft over a contrastingly dull-looking city of packed skyscrapers, is by Kenn Brown.
Featured in this issue is a special report on the Yokohama Worldcon (that's a science-fiction convention, to the uninitiated) which gives a flavour of the strangeness of that country as seen through western eyes. In that respect, it put me in mind of 'Lost in Translation', that (non-SF) Bill Murray film. An interesting read, reminding us that there are other worlds of SF about which we know little, due to the translation problems. I have a book which gives a rare insight into this particular world: 'The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories', edited by Apostolou and Greenberg, published by Barricade Books, USA, in 1997: recommended.
There's a regular column of short obituaries, which this time includes Robert Bussard (1928-2007), the US physicist who invented the concept of the Bussard Ramjet, a slower-than-light starship drive which will be familiar to readers of Niven's 'Known Space' series, among others.
The reviews include one of a non-fiction book: 'Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs' by SF author Greg Benford and Elizabeth Malatre, which explores the possibilities of human interactions with increasingly intelligent machines. Personally I can't help thinking that an intelligent and vaguely humanoid companion is likely to prove highly attractive to a lot of people, being far more dependable and loyal than a human and more interesting than a dog. Provided that they don't "do a Hal" and go frighteningly wrong, of course…
The interview is with Gary Gibson, author of 'Angel Stations', 'Against Gravity' and 'Stealing Light', described as technological space operas (I can't comment, not having read them). He has some interesting observations on the nature of religious belief and its place in SF, plus the nature of space travel. As an occasional author myself, I read his account of the circumstances in which he wrote his latest novel with attention. He comments on the great benefit to authorial focus of being housebound with nothing else to do for months, but since in his case this involved floating on painkillers as a result of a major back problem I think I'll pass.
And so to the stories, with a familiar mix ranging from the conventional to the rather odd.
'Molly and the Red Hat' by Benjamin Rosenbaum, comes in the latter category, a bizarre present-day fantasy about a little girl's search for her red hat, which is rather more than it seems. It involves the Queen of the Owls, a visit to Outthrown Trashland and an angry version of herself. I enjoy contemporary urban fantasies, the sort which show bizarre and fantastic worlds running in parallel with our own (and if you do too, and you haven't yet read Sheri Tepper's 'The Marianne Trilogy', do all that you can to get hold of a copy. I posted a brief review on this blog: see the reviews index, lower left). This one was a bit too strange for my taste, with a dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, quality; a touch of the 'Alice in Wonderlands'.
'The Men in the Attic' by John Philip Olsen, is a story which I started out disliking. Not that it's a bad story; it featured the minds of political refugees being given virtual asylum inside the head of the principal character (while their bodies are hidden away), in such a way that he can "visit" them in their virtual apartment. What I disliked in this story is the sense of impending doom, the near-certainty that it will all end in tears. But just as I thought this was duly being delivered, an intriguing get-out scenario appeared, which redeemed the tale for me.
'The Best of Your Life' by Jason Stoddard, is one of those in which you (well, me anyway) only really figure out what's going on towards the end, so you feel you have to read it again. It's set in a dystopian near-future world in which existence is hard unless you manage to earn enough to live in a protected settlement, in which you are provided with an attractive spouse who has agreed to be 'wired', i.e. electronically stimulated to be devoted to you, in return for escaping from destitution. Which is fine until the system goes wrong…
'Odin's Spear' by Steve Bein, is a story of obsession: two mountaineers determined to climb the highest peak in the Solar System, which happens to be an ice pinnacle on Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter. To make it a suitable challenge, they wear suits which simulate the gravity of Earth plus the reducing air pressure as they climb higher.
The story section is topped and tailed by two unrelated ones which are coincidentally set in alternate worlds in which the current western hegemony did not come to pass (is it my imagination or are alternate world stories becoming increasingly common?). Both are good reads.
In 'Metal Dragon Year', by Chris Roberson, the Muslim world has spread to include Imperial China, which becomes the centre of its power. The Muslim empire did at one time cover the world, until a successful revolt by Mexica. There is now a space race in which both powers are trying to be the first to make a manned launch. We follow the tale of the Imperial Chinese engineer given the responsibility for winning that race, but something is wrong…This is a part of the author's 'Celestial Empire' sequence, which so far includes no less than two forthcoming novels plus a third in progress.
'The Lost Xuyan Bride', by Aliette de Bodard, is set in a world in which the Chinese were the first to reach the Americas, which are now divided into three; the powerful Chinese Xuyan in the west, the Aztec Greater Mexica (an interesting coincidence in names) to the south and the American (i.e. European) east. The story follows an American private detective trapped in Xuyan, who is commissioned to find a missing teenage girl of a wealthy Xuyan family. The culture clashes are interesting, and the alternate world could support a lot more stories about this character, if the author was so minded.
I have never been a great fan of short stories (and not so far been tempted to write any) but they are beginning to grow on me as a result of reading Interzone. There is something intriguing about these brief glimpses into other realities, merely suggesting worlds which would have been explored in detail in novels. I think I prefer that approach to its converse, the long epic fantasy in which a complex world is created in exhaustive detail (with an honourable exception for Tolkien, of course: the giant surrounded by a flock of knee-high wannabes), but each to his/her own.