Interzone #185, January 2003
The Third Alternative #33, Winter 2003
3SF #2, December 2002
- Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Back in the 1980s, Interzone was pretty much the only game in town in terms of UK genre magazines. That first decade or so of Interzone's existence is, for me, the most exciting run of any fiction magazine ever. The energy that once fuelled Interzone akin to that of a literary movement has somewhat dissipated over the years. And now there are other players in the UK field.
Aside from a number of small press ’zines and specialized subgenre publications, three UK magazines, including Interzone, offer a broad spectrum of genre fiction (à la The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction), each featuring writers from all over the English-speaking world, and sometimes even beyond. All three of these, though, are as fundamentally different from each other as they are from their US brethren.
Here, I'll take a snapshot of the UK's three major genre magazines, reviewing one recent issue apiece. I'll be looking not only at the fiction but also at the design, the features, and the ideas that appear to drive each magazine's agenda.
Interzone #185 (January 2003)
In the 1980s, Interzone 's design managed to look both cutting edge and classic. Now... well, it looks very 1980s. Still, it's decades ahead of the American SF digests, which still look so 1950s (a baffling choice for magazines purporting to speculate about the future...). Nevertheless, the font used for Interzone's story titles and contents page seems overdue for a revamp.
Interzone uses illustrations sparingly, and for the most part that works well. The vignettes (by SMS) that signal the nonfiction features are witty and probably the magazine's snazziest design choice. Above all, the pages are designed for comfortable reading, and that counts for a lot.
Regular features in Interzone include excerpts from David Langford's Ansible Link, an invariably entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the SF world and this installment is no exception. Nick Lowes's film column, Mutant Popcorn this month, renamed "Mutant Hogwash" for Potterish reasons is written with verve and a take-no-hostages attitude. Targets this time around are Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Donnie Darko, and Simone. Always a pleasure is editor David Pringle's annotated Books Received, blending authoritative information, wry digs, and pleasantly blunt observations (an example from this issue, re: Michael Crichton's Prey: "hoary old sf").
Gary Westfahl provides an essay on the evolution of Asimov's celebrated (to me, childishly pedantic) Laws of Robotics. The piece promises a bit more than it delivers, but is still fun reading for enthusiasts of bibliographic minutiae, or, I suppose, Asimov readers.
In Books Reviewed, Matt Hills dissects, with probably more care and intelligence than it deserves, Steven Barnes's novel Charisma and offers a detailed examination of Richard Calder's Impakto, a novel that keeps going up and down in my estimation Hills's insightful comments provide interesting additions to my inner monologue on this bizarre book. On the other hand, Nigel Brown's overlong consideration of Walter Jon Williams's The Praxis (about four columns) desperately needed to be cut to capsule length. Neil Jones and Neil McIntosh take on and compare last year's Dozois and Silverberg/Haber SF best-ofs, reaching conclusions that echo the mounting dissatisfaction found on a number of genre message boards with the one-note sameness of these series. Finally, Paul Brazier's reviews, as they often do, leave me feeling like I now know a bit too much about him. I'm a proponent (and practitioner) of subjective criticism, but Brazier takes it too far for my tastes.
Fiction-wise, this is a weaker-than-average issue of Interzone. The best story here is probably Mat Coward's witchcraft-in-the workplace comedy "By Hand or by Brain" although even that one lacks a bit of substance. I couldn't help comparing it (alas, unfavourably) with two recent similar stories: Don Webb's devilishly sardonic "Afterward" (from Angel Body and Other Magic for the Soul) and Brian Stableford's heartbreakingly intense "Sheena" (from The Vampire Sextette). Coming in second place is Paul Di Filippo's "Bare Market" another comedy, this time about the global market economy. Sadly, despite several clever moments and ideas, it reads like a first draft, weighed down by unnecessary exposition and culminating in too predictable a fashion. The stories by Michael Bishop, Zoran Zivkovic, and Brett Davidson (the latter set in the world of Hodgson's The Night Land) all lack narrative drive, despite showing obvious imagination and craft. Chris Butler's "The Smart Minefield" is an unsurprising and unexceptional Analog-type problem-solving story that is woefully out of place here. Most puzzling is the inclusion of "2066 and All That" by Juliet Eyeions and Paul Brazier, an amateurish and groaningly fannish piece of future history fluff.
One of the things I like best about Interzone is that its fiction is usually more diverse than that found in the US genre mags, while remaining firmly within SF and fantasy. Editor Pringle favours writers with distinctive voices Richard Calder, Brian Stableford, Sarah Singleton, Kim Newman, to name a few prominent examples among Interzone contributors and, I must admit, that's the aspect of fiction I find most seductive. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this review, this issue's selection of fiction wasn't one of Interzone's strongest.
The Third Alternative #33 (Winter 2003)
Possessing a peculiarly baffling moniker, TTA is a very ambitious publication. For one thing, it's one of the best-looking and best-designed fiction magazines ever produced. The often sloppy design choices of most fiction magazines reinforce the idea that short fiction is only of interest to an insular presold audience. In contrast, TTA is sexy and beautiful, looking hip, fashionable, au courant, important, and absolutely pertinent. TTA's cutting-edge graphics are provided by a large and diverse stable of artists not bound by the rebarbative conventions of SF and fantasy art. The content of TTA doesn't always live up to its presentation, but it does try, with heart and vigour.
Recently, TTA started opening the magazine with a guest editorial (full disclosure: I was invited to write the first of these, Fear of Fiction: Campbell's World and Other Obsolete Paradigms, for TTA #31) on controversial and topical issues in fiction. This installment, "Tolkien Is Not an Issue" by M. John Harrison, is a stirring call to arms for fantasy writers, to altogether ignore the Tolkien tradition and its questionable politics, to create new and brave fictions that don't waste time opposing a subgenre that isn't worth our time and attention.
On the top left corner of TTA's cover, there's a heading that reads "science fiction * fantasy * horror", and, judging from the content, I think that's a mistake. A mistake because it inaccurately describes the content, and also a mistake because, even if the content all fell within these genres, it's not written and selected to please a genre-only audience this is a magazine for readers seeking something new and different, and its genre content is often of the kind that nongenre readers wouldn't recognize as genre (much as most of Will Self's readers would be shocked to learn that they're reading SF and fantasy).
There's no question that all the fiction in TTA #33 is ambitious, but not all of it is successful, and, as I hinted above, not all of it is SF, fantasy, or horror. Brian Hodge's "With Acknowledgements to Sun Tzu" and Lynda E. Rucker's "The Chance Walker" are both deeply serious political fictions. The Hodge is in no way SF, fantasy, or horror, and, sadly, the writing isn't up to the tale's ambitions. Hodge provides a completely superfluous beginning section, introducing much too bluntly details that will be made clear as the story develops. He also injects, rather clumsily, a layer of allegory that gives this story a pretentious aura without adding anything to its resonance. The Rucker is a ghost story about Eastern Europe whose languorous slowness I found off-putting, despite the story's otherwise heartfelt immediacy. The stories by Mary Soon Lee ("Immigrants") and John Aegard ("Fleeing Sanctuary"), although pointed and imaginative, lack dramatic impact. The worst contribution here is Brian Aldiss's "Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at Edge of World, Scones Perfect" a surrealistic (?) road story that makes as little sense as its title. Sarah Singleton's "Crow Man" is a moving cross-genre fable that subtly challenges some of the paradigms that govern the dominant anthropocentric worldview. The highlight of the issue is Simon Avery's "Leon is Dead", an enthralling and bizarre tale surrounding the mystery of the eponymous graffito.
Sadly, my enjoyment of this darkly inventive story was marred by overenthusiastic and ill-conceived layout. Much too often, I could not easily figure out the proper order of the paragraphs, an annoying and jarring effect that is in no way the author's fault. "Fleeing Sanctuary" also suffers from this to a ridiculous degree: the story starts on page 51 and then continues on page 50 which I only found out after reading from page 50. TTA rarely falls into this trap of sacrificing legibility for the sake of the design. Sure, snazzy design is great, but great design enhances and eases reading; it should never hinder it.
Accompanying the Aldiss story and immensely more rewarding is a feature interview with the author by Andrew Hedgecock. Hedgecock's passion for Aldiss's work shimmers throughout this compelling article.
This passion is echoed in TTA's superlative book-review section. Its contributors are too numerous to list, but the reviews are without exception thoughtfully argued and imbued with the kind of historical context about author, genre, and/or subject matter that I always find gives reviews depth and perspicacity. In addition, many of them are about obscure books I would not otherwise know about. Seriously intelligent reviews by seriously passionate readers: I love it.
On the other hand, utterly baffling to me is Allen Ashley's rambling comment column, The Dodo Has Landed. Sure, this time around he makes witty points about "top ten" lists and national identity in the UK and it's well-enough written but the point of it all eludes me.
Similarly rambling is Christopher Fowler's Electric Darkness. This installment of Fowler's cinema column appears to want to make a point about film festivals, but Fowler's freeflowing cascade failed to ever coalesce into anything.
More satisfying is TTA's third regular column, the somewhat ponderously named Japan's Dark Lanterns: An Examination of the Shadows Beneath the Rising Sun, by John Paul Catton. Every issue, Catton reports, with wit and probing curiosity, on a different aspect of Japanese culture. This time around: "Japlish", the fashionable yet often disastrous use of English in Japanese marketing. It has nothing to do with the genres announced on the magazine's cover, but it's good writing.
Finally, Mike Sutton dissects the career of director Brian DePalma. It's a great article about a director whose work I find utterly uninteresting. As in Hedgecock's Aldiss piece, Sutton's passionate and knowledgeable approach transcends the subject matter.
The Third Alternative is not perfect and not all to my taste, but it's hard not to admire the dedication that goes into it. There's always lots of good writing here, and curious readers should definitely at least sample this stimulating and lovingly produced magazine.
TTA, despite its claims, is not a genre publication. Certainly, it's more daring, pertinent, and entertaining than mainstream literary journals, and its subject matter includes the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror, but its scope is broader than either genre mags or mainstream lit journals. For example, its film coverage goes beyond the SF and fantasy genres, covering quirky auteurs of all stripes. TTA should abandon all pretense of being a genre mag and embrace fully what it really is: a cultural magazine that emphasizes daring and imaginative fiction.
3SF #2 (December 2002)
3SF is the latest player in the UK genre mags arena. It's clearly aimed at fandom, and it's too early to tell if it'll find its audience.
For one thing there's the frankly odd and off-putting title (what is this obsession with "3" in UK magazine titles? maybe David Pringle should rename his magazine The Third Zone or Zone 3) explained by the tag line, "SCIENCE FICTION * SPECULATIVE FANTASY * STRANGE FACTS". And for another, the covers so far have been spectacularly garish and ugly, with loud primary colours clashing violently. Also unfortunate is the text layout of the fiction: three narrow newspaper-style columns per page. It makes for extremely uncomfortable reading.
I'm not going to spend much space on the fiction, save to say that none of it left any lasting impression. For the most part, the stories followed a fairly transparent writing-workshop style of introducing characters and ideas and then ending on a slight twist or "humorous" observation. Even "The Last Robot", by David Langford (a writer I usually admire a great deal), falls to the level of fanfic.
The regular features include no fewer than four columns by Alex Stewart In Media Res, Re:Media, Re:Play, and Who Goes There? all of which I found either irritating or boring, or both. Who Goes There? is particularly annoying: a question-and-answer feature in which Stewart plays both the role of the ignorant and the knowledgeable, answering his own questions about a popular character in screen SF.
I somewhat liked and somewhat disliked Steve Mohn's film column, Re:Takes; its four capsule reviews are at times sparkling with ingenious concision, but every once in a while, I got the feeling I was being screamed at when he ran out of cogent arguments (especially in his review of From Hell).
The book reviews are supplied by Gwyneth Jones, who tackles UK releases in Re:Views, and Rich Horton, who takes on the US scene in Re:Instate. Jones's reviews are fine, if unexceptional, but Horton's, as always, are perfectly structured, and he's particularly adept at getting, in very little space, at the heart of a particular work's raison d'être.
Other features include okay if somewhat by-the-numbers interviews with Joe Haldeman and Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm; Fanbase, about conventions; and a feminist SF reader's guide by Cynthia Ward, which lacks surprises and whose capsule listings could and should have been more intriguing and illuminating.
The high point of this issue is a reprint: fantasist Philip Pullman's beautifully and eloquently argued "The Republic of Heaven". Pullman condemns the fantasies, religions, and worldviews that, by demonizing worldly pleasures and promising a fictitious afterlife, stifle the utopian impulse to create heaven on Earth, and he calls for a new mythology, a "republican" mythology, based on storytelling that celebrates the sensuous wonder of the world, one which tries to make sense of moral questions without resorting to divine intervention.