April's edition of the bimonthly SFF magazine contains the usual news column plus book, film and TV reviews (although in this case the book reviews are various reviewers' books of the year: a useful checklist to make sure that I haven't missed anything). There's a long interview of Mike Carey, author of the Felix Castor series and a comic book storyteller, exploring the way he works and the thinking behind his books. Then there are the usual half-dozen short stories illustrated by Darren Winter (who also did the cover), Warwick Fraser-Coombe and Chris Nurse.
The Endling by Jamie Barras: There is a fashion for writing stories which plunge into a strange environment with no explanation, leaving it to the reader to try to figure out what is going on as the tale progresses. This can work very well, but it requires careful judgment by the writer, who needs to provide enough clues along the way to keep the reader on board. I have to say that this story lost me from beginning to end; even after I had finished I wasn't really sure what it was all about. Too many strange settings and characters, some obviously non-human, too many unfamiliar terms and concepts thrown in with too little context to work out what they might be. I did consider reading it again to see if I could make better sense of it the second time around, but the story's quite long and life's too short.
Dragonfly Summer by Patrick Samphire: Another oddball, although for a different reason. This features two men and two women returning for the first time to a place they had visited together as students – a windmill by the sea – and concerns their relationships and the events which happened then. Except that they find there is no windmill there, and never had been. Not a bad story, but not obviously SFF.
Crystal Nights by Greg Egan: One of the world's richest men is paying the best programmers to evolve artificial intelligence by developing initially simple virtual beings then applying a carefully controlled process of natural selection. With the aid of a new generation of superfast computers, the evolutionary process is extremely quick and soon the AIs are beginning to outstrip their human creators, with unexpected results.
Holding Pattern by Joy Marchand: An airliner in a holding pattern, a harassed stewardess, and a cast of passengers including an alien in human disguise. The alien and the stewardess are the only two who realise that they've been in this situation before; over and over again.
Street Hero by Will McIntosh: A self-educated street tough tries to find a reason for existence in a dystopian near-future America; a popular setting for recent Interzone stories, in this case one in which the genetic modification genie is well and truly out of the bottle (or, rather, the secure laboratory). Lethal designer viruses strike without warning, and modified bamboo springs up with terrifying speed to clog fields and cities. However, there is a purpose behind it.
The Imitation Game by Rudy Rucker: The homosexual computer genius Alan Turing tries to arrange an illegal tryst in 1954 Manchester. But did he really die of cyanide poisoning as the history books say?
A mixed bag this time, with not so many hits for me – or, to look at it another way, a selection for various tastes.
The other week I read Vertigo by W G Sebald. This is not science fiction or fantasy, but kind of mixture of history, autobiography and travelogue, with what seems to be a large dose of fiction thrown in. I bought it because it had received glowing reviews, being touted by The Literati as one of the books Which Must Be Read. Well, it was sufficiently well-written and interesting for me to read to the end, but I can't say that it was a life-changing experience. The narrative was very disjointed, the characterisation slight, and there was no focus.
Oh well, I suppose I'd better get back inside my genre ghetto. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised to be disappointed by Great Modern Literature. After all, look at modern art (but only if you feel like a laugh). I felt like cheering when several years ago Ivan Massow, then chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, criticised much modern art as "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat". I can't find the exact quote now, but if I recall correctly he added something like: "Great art is a combination of imagination and technical skill. Skill without imagination is craftsmanship. Imagination without skill is modern conceptual art". He was forced to resign, of course: the Emperor which is the modern art establishment doesn't like anyone pointing out that its wonderful new clothes don't amount to anything.