Another fascinating bunch of tales from authors in the main unknown to me.
Interzone certainly pushes the boundaries with style and is possibly redefining the structure and style of the short story. Some of the authors here do not make it easy for the reader, which is perhaps as it should be, although there’s always the risk of leaving too much unexplained.
Relationships feature heavily throughout either overtly or obliquely, and the quality of work is on the whole, very high, as one should expect in this 250th issue.
The Damaged – Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
A wonderfully compelling tale about artificial humans and how we might treat them should such a thing become a reality. Told from an odd viewpoint.
Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place – David Tallerman
This is an odd but well-done rural post-Dickian tale. How would one react should one discover that one was living in a back-up of the real world, if indeed the world is real in the first place? An excellent piece set in an entropic US midwest.
The Labyrinth of Thorns – C. Allegra Hawksmoor
There are echoes of Jeff Noon in this, but ultimately there is something lacking. An agent for ‘The Company’ (which has been a cliche for so long it becomes almost parody when employed seriously) has had memories downloaded into his head which alternate with his mission in ‘The City’. All very poetic but a tad indecipherable. Not really up to the level of quality one would expect from Interzone.
Beneath the Willow Branches, Beyond the Reach of Time – Caroline M. Yoachim
This is lovely. A scientist enters his wife’s stored memories – where she is trapped in a timeloop – in an apparently hopeless attempt to break the cycle and save her, echoed by her childhood tale of the Green Willow.
Predvestniki – Greg Kurzawa
A man accompanies his wife to Moscow on a business trip and, unable to interest her in the sights or the food, becomes obsessed with what he sees atop a domed tower. A great story which walks that difficult line between revealing too much and too little and is at the same time a deftly sketched portrait of an ill-matched relationship.
Lilacs and Daffodils – Rebecca Campbell
This is a lovely little puzzle of a story told by an AI with a convincing realism (if such a word can be meaningfully employed here).
Wake Up, Phil – Georgina Bruce
‘The Company’ in this tale is Serberus, although it could also be Callitrix, for whom Laura works. Unhappy with Laura’s weight problem Throom, the company doctor, prescribes her a course of Serberitum, an amphetamine and hallucinogen. Her life takes on another reality in which her neighbour, ‘Phil the Sci Fi man’, has two separate bodies, one of which will not wake up.
It’s interesting that Philip K Dick, some thirty-odd years after his death is still manifesting as a presence. I can think of two other works at least in which he has appeared as a character. There’s also an echo of Orwell here. A haunting story, one that clings in the head.
‘ Science Fiction is as much a victim to fashion as any art form, no matter how much it tries to look to the future.’ – Jeff Noon
What can one say about ‘Vurt’? I first read this on its first release and still have my treasured Ringpull paperback edition. It was a modest publication from a small publisher which went viral and ended up winning the Arthur C Clarke award.
In retrospect, this was no surprise. Back then, it was a revelation. Many readers have expressed the sentiment in various ways that ‘it was like nothing I’d ever read before,’ and indeed that was my feeling back in the Nineties and still now, having returned to it twenty years on.
There have been comparisons with Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in that this book pushed the boundaries of the genre into new and exciting areas. It is certainly a brilliant and original piece of work, reflecting, to a certain extent, the club and drug culture of Manchester in the Nineteen Nineties, although its influences include Lewis Carroll, often overtly, and a host of other influences more subtly. Orpheus and Eurydice play their part also, for instance.
Scribble, our hero, is one of The Stashriders, a gang of young people who spend their days acquiring feathers, feathers laced with substances which not only alter their perceptions, but the nature of reality itself and, it would appear, genetic integrity. There are various variations of humanity roaming the streets of the city, mixtures of dog, shadow, robot and human to various degrees. No doubt some will interpret these as metaphors for the mixed race residents of various Manchester communities, but I’m not sure that was ever Noon’s intention.
When one shares a feather by tickling the back of the throat with its fronds, one is transported into the world of the Vurt; the experience received dependent on the colour of the feather and the strength of its effects.
Scribble, along with the rest of the gang, Beetle, Mandy, Bridget and The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, is attempting to find a way to rescue Scribble’s sister Desdemona, who is lost in the world of Vurt. Occasionally the Vurt will take someone and replace them with something from the Vurt world, in this case, The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, a small tentacled entity whose flesh has hallucinogenic properties. Scribble believes that if he can find the right feather he can swap his sister back for The Thing.
The perennial question for me is whether this is Science Fiction at all. There seems to be no real explanation for the effects of the Vurt feathers, and the final scenes raise some questions about the reality of the entire story. Science Fiction, however, like the people of Noon’s alternate Manchester, is a morphable beast and occasionally throws out new and wonderful mutations. I for one am happy to accept this as one such.
What makes this novel so compelling is Noon’s style; fast, fresh and packed with puns and wordplay. Action kicks in from the first page when the Stashriders, having acquired a new feather, are chased by a Shadowcop and engage in a rollercoaster chase through the streets of Noon’s bizarre and colourful Manchester.
In his quest to find the means to rescue his beloved sister (far more beloved than society’s norms would usually allow) Scribble encounters a whole host of bizarre characters, chimeras and grotesques, such as Justin and his lover, whose mutual dreadlocks are so matted together that they can never be parted, or The Game Cat, a creature once human who has become part of the Vurt and can seemingly come and go at will between Scribble’s world and the world of the Vurt. There are robodogs, dog human hybrids and brightly coloured snakes which have escaped the game platforms of the Vurt and infest housing estates.
It’s a fast paced no-let-up novel which contains surprises and wonder on every page.
There are, in the history of SF, novels which seem to have been written in an SF vacuum and appear to owe no allegiance to any major influence or current fashion or style of SF literature. I count among these ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Riddley Walker’, and would have to include ‘Vurt’.
The Kindle Twentieth anniversary issue contains three new stories set in the world of the Vurt, but whose style and tone is, perhaps understandably given the twenty year gap, far different from that of Vurt. These are more mature works and although they lack the fire and verve of Noon’s original novel, have a greater depth and sureness of touch.
A young girl becomes convinced that something from the Vurt is living in her flat, and consequently the Vurt may have taken something from her, although it takes a while for her to discover that what the Vurt takes is not always physical.
What is interesting about this is when she leaves the flat she passes a couple coming up the stairs, carrying something alive in a tartan rug, which is how Scribble and Mandy used to carry The-Thing-From-Outer-Space around in ‘Vurt’.
A young woman is harassed by three dogboys and rescues the entity they were searching for, a young female bird/human hybrid from the Vurt. This again examines the concept of Vurt artefacts being swapped for memories.
A beautifully written and constructed tale which plays with our sense of reality. A young couple become attached to their lodger, Milo, a man – unable to access the Vurt – whose behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre as he seeks to find a way to ‘dream’.
Again, like the other pieces, there is an oblique relationship to the parent novel.
The original version of this novel was The Nimrod Hunt, written as a tribute to Alfred Bester and attempting a Besterite style. This was revised and re-released with the title of ‘The Mind Pool’ as Sheffield was apparently not happy with the original ending.
Centuries from now, Man has moved out into space and formed alliances with a group of alien races. The aliens are all, it appears, mentally unable to accept the concept of killing sentient life and are both appalled and fascinated by Humanity’s casual attitude to killing even members of its own species.
A human scientist, Livia Morgan, under the command of Esro Mondrian, Head of Border Security, has been experimenting with sentient constructs to patrol the borders of Human space as a precaution against contact with hostile aliens.
The constructs turn on their master however and are destroyed, but not before one escapes through a Mattin Link (a matter transmitter essentially) to another part of Human space.
The alien council, having been notified, determine that teams, each one containing members of each alien race, be trained to hunt the construct.
The aliens have stipulated that the human elements must have no prior military training, which makes selection practically impossible unless one searches on the most lawless planet in space, which happens to be Earth.
Esro Mondrian has two other reasons for visiting Earth. One is to meet his lover, Lady Tatiana, a woman addicted to the Paradox drug. The other is revealed later in the novel.
Luther Brachis has a friendly but competitive work relationship with Esro, but employs devious means to achieve his ends, actions which set in motion a complex series of events.
There’s an awful lot going on in this novel which is a lot more complex – structurally and in terms of plot – than other Sheffield works. We have troubled and complex relationships, trips to other worlds, space station laboratories, the grotesques of the warrens of Earth and a set of aliens that are biologically fascinating, but imbued with cosy Simak-esque personalities. Indeed, there are elements of this that remind one of ‘The Werewolf Principle’ particularly when we encounter the Mind Pool phenomenon, whereby a mental gestalt is achieved.
We have three couples, all of whom have issues of one sort or another, the male halves being irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. Indeed, some characters undergo a form of role reversal.
We meet Chan Dalton, central figure of the sequel ‘The Spheres of Heaven’ as a physically perfect male but with the mental development of a small child. Since his childhood he has been looked after by Leah, who loves him. Mondrian, desperate for recruits, and having bought Leah and Dalton’s indenture without having realised Dalton’s deficiencies, decides to employ banned technology to try and stimulate Chan’s mind into growth.
By the end of the novel Chan is a mature intelligent individual while Brachis and Mondrian, for different reasons, have been left in a mentally vegetative state, now being cared for by their respective partners, as Leah once cared for Chan.
The Morgan Construct itself is almost immaterial to the story. It is a Maguffin around which this complex interplay of politics and relationships is wound.
It has its flaws. There’s a certain retro SF style to it, in keeping with Sheffield’s claim that the novel is an Alfred Bester tribute. This works well enough in all the locations barring Earth itself which is roughly sketched with little depth and containing characters that border on parody.
The Mind Pool element is introduced very late in the story and its genesis and method of operation is a little unclear, at least to me.
On balance though, it’s a great bit of space opera featuring a set of main characters with unusually complex motivations.
Grainger – he has no first name – was half of a two man trading team who bought and sold goods through the human settled and alien worlds of the galaxy.
Encountering problems in the Halcyon Drift – a nebula where gravitational forces distort the laws of physics – Grainger crashlands on an unknown planet, killing his partner, Lapthorn and wrecking the ship, ‘The Javelin’.
He is eventually rescued but not before his body is invaded by a sentient alien parasite. His rescuer, Axel Cyran of the Cradoc Company, having been pulled away from his mission of finding a legendary lost ship for the rescue, lands Grainger with costs of twenty thousand. Twenty thousand what is never made clear.
The lost ship ‘The Lost Star’ is the Maguffin in this novel, a semi mythical wreck believed to be carrying priceless cargo.
Grainger then gets an offer by which the company who wish to hire him will clear his debts if he agrees to pilot an experimental ship for two years.
The ship is a hybrid of alien and human technology, an odd reflection of Grainger and his alien mindrider now fused into one body. The ship is called ‘The Hooded Swan’.
Its test, and its first mission, is to beat Cyran to ‘The Lost Star’ and claim the cargo.
From this summary one would assume a fairly standard bit of space opera of the time, but it is far more than that.
The setting is an interplanetary culture, bound by the Laws of New Rome, where Earth is becoming a backwater as other worlds become the centres of trading and industry, carrying out business with at least two other alien cultures. Stableford’s aliens, if humanoid-ish in physiology, are suitably alien in other senses, although the crew of the Hooded Swan do encounter truly alien life during their search for ‘The Lost Star’.
Grainger himself is a fascinating psychological study. There’s possibly a little of the sociopath about him since his frequent memories of his dead partner, with whom he spent fifteen years in close quarters, are resisting any emotion, any grief.
He has an awkward meeting with his partner’s parents who tell Grainger – to his surprise – that their son worshipped him.
Indeed, it is the alien presence in Grainger’s mind, from which no secrets can be hidden, who forces Grainger to face some of his self-deception issues.
There is a solid reality with Grainger that one seldom finds in genre novels of the period and particularly within Space Opera.
Stableford, a very important figure within the SF world, is paradoxically very under-recognised by SF readers in general in my view which is a terrible injustice.
If you have never read Stableford, give this series a go.
This sequel to ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’ was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 and revised for novel publication in 1952. It is set some seven years later where Robert Hedrock, immortal agent of the Weapon Shops, discovers that he is to be sentenced to death by The Empress Innelda Isher following his lunch with her and her advisors. However, he manages to talk his way out of this, but finds himself also under sentence of death by the weapon Shop Council who have discovered his immortality and suspect him of being an alien spy.
The main plotline hinges around the suspected invention of an interstellar drive, the disappearance and search for its inventor and attempts by all parties to get their hands on the technology for their own various agendas.
There is genuine excitement in this novel, and a semblance of plot, since Hedrock has to use his weird-science inventions and his ingenuity to get him out of a series of cliffhangers. Many of them are, to be honest, Deus ex Machina plot devices which do not bear close logical or scientific scrutiny, but with van Vogt, it hardly matters as it’s what he does best and it seems somehow to work.
At one point Hedrock, having escaped Innelda’s troops in a small ship powered by the revolutionary drive, is captured in interstellar space by an advanced race of telepathic spiders and for a time exists in a world of virtual reality while the aliens test and examine him.
It is revealed, somewhat obliquely, that Hedrock not only founded The Weapon Shops but has also been the husband of previous Isher Empresses and the father of their children, which brings a somewhat disturbing and incestuous flavour to the mix.
Again, in terms of regular van Vogt devices, we have the fifty-mile long spaceships, the great phallic building (within which is hidden the interstellar ship), powerful female aristocrats, the superman/logical hero and van Vogt’s annoying philosophy of masculine superiority.
Hereditary monarchies and aristocracies pepper van Vogt’s work. I have mentioned elsewhere that those writers who exhibit a fondness for monarchist systems tend to be those who live in countries without them, and don’t have to suffer the reality of it. This may not be true of van Vogt, being Canadian, although he did move to the US in 1944.
The Empress is the only female character in the novel. Her ‘court’ is exclusively male, as is the Weapon Shops Council and although this reflects the attitudes of the time and is related to the demographic of the readership, van Vogt regularly appears to emphasise the inferiority of women. It is not so evident here although not entirely absent. The Empress Innelda, ruler of Earth, Mars and Venus, is essentially a powerful dictator but in van Vogt’s view is not complete until she has found a man to sort her out. That man, as is suggested early on, is Hedrock, a man who is also some kind of ancestor several times over.
Putting aside the innate sexism and some rather complex incest issues, it is one of his better novels, remains highly engaging and hasn’t dated too badly.
What has made this novel in particular one of van Vogt’s most discussed works is the final line, uttered by the interstellar spider-beings. ‘Here is the race that shall rule the Sevagram’.
It’s a brilliant and original touch, as the Sevagram is never mentioned anywhere else and would have left readers of the time, and up to the present, somewhat open-mouthed at this lack of conclusion, this vast open question guaranteed to leave the book hanging in one’s mind. As John Clute points out in his overview of van Vogt in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia ‘this resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader’s gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.’