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Interzone, December 2001

Interzone, December 2001
Interzone
Interzone, Britain's leading science-fiction and fantasy magazine, founded in 1982, has now reached over 150 issues. Short-listed for the Hugo Award many years running, and a Hugo winner in 1995, it has a high reputation around the world.

Interzone has published short stories by many of the big names of the field, from Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard to Ian Watson and Gene Wolfe, but its particular strength has been in the nurturing of newer writers.

Interzone Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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My initial interest in the December 2001 issue of Interzone was piqued by the non-fiction (though the stories are equally worthy of attention), specifically Gene Wolfe's essay, "The Best Introduction to the Mountains," on the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. It has become hip in certain circles to dismiss Tolkien, particularly in light of the popular and critical success of the Peter Jackson movie, as immature fodder for the masses. I was looking for something that would provide a more sensible perspective.

Unfortunately, Gene Wolfe's defense of the Oxford don serves to make detractors even more smug in sneering at statements such as this:

There is one very real sense in which the Dark Ages were the brightest of times, and it is this: that they were times of defined and definite duties and freedoms. The king might rule badly, but everyone agreed as to what good rule was... they represent a broad truth about Christianized barbarian society as a whole, and arguments that focus on exceptions provide a picture that is fundamentally false, even when the instances on which they are based are real and honestly presented. J.R.R. Tolkien... was able to express that understanding in art, and in time in great art.
You don't have to be a political or religious conservative who idealizes some mythical "good old days" to agree with Wolfe about the need for personal responsibility in these post-Clintonian times when accountability depends only on your definition of "is." Yet you can still wince at such silly remarks as, "I had been taught a code of conduct: I was to be courteous and most considerate of those less strong than I -- of girls and women..."

Which mayhaps explains why Tolkien isn't exactly known for powerful female characters. Nor is it surprising that a medievalist and linguist would use his academic interests as the springboard for his literary work. Or that his conservatism and Christian beliefs would underpin his moral philosophy. But let's not pretend that it represents some long-forgotten social order of antiquity from which humanity has, perhaps irretrievably, fallen. The Garden of Eden is a myth. It is a powerful myth, one that literature continues to explore and expound upon. Let's just not pretend that the purpose of literature is to return us there.

After all, even if there really were such a place, would anyone really want to go?

Wolfe anticipates the argument that things weren't really as hunky-dory back in the Dark Ages as he'd like to think (and why do you think they're called that instead of the Golden Age?). Where Wolfe and I disagree is that what he dismisses as mere exceptions -- the rigidities of class structure, the power to rule by birthright as opposed to intelligence or consent of the governed, the exploitation of the powerless, and the profiteering tyranny of church and king to name a few -- I consider the hallmarks of the unfortunate tendency of our species towards cruelty, chauvinism, and plain stupidity.

In her study of 14th century life, A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchmann speculates that much of the senseless carnage of that period could be attributed to the young age of many of the nobleman. Oftentimes, a duke or a lord was a teenager, with a teenager's limited sensibilities and experience, with too much time on his hands to engage in deadly mischief. Of course, that doesn't quite explain how with our longer lifespan and older people in charge matters haven't changed all that much. Still, something about that era strikes me as less noble than undeveloped, the chivalric code (which some academics contend was more literary conceit than actual practice) notwithstanding.

What actually makes the essay worth seeking out is for how it depicts a time not all that long ago, before the near instant gratification of the Amazon "point and click" and mega-bookstores with overstuffed shelves devoted to the spawn of Middle-Earth. Wolfe invokes the sense of wonder of a "friendless young man in a strange city far from home" who finds solace in a literary work that actually took some effort to obtain, which perhaps made the reading experience all that more intense.

(For a better defense of Tolkien -- if not the oeuvre he unwittingly conjured -- see Lucius Shephard in the May Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. While reviewing [and very positively] the film version, Shephard quickly dispatches the sneering snobs as to why Tolkien's work matters:

Tolkien is, of course, not to blame for any of the semi-literate drudges who either ripped him off or tried to dress their undernourished imaginations in cloaks of his design. The Ring books were a labor of scholarly playfulness, a meditation -- it seems -- on European history, testifying to the end of Old World passions and a cultural loss of innocence...
Whether you are nostalgic about this loss, or prefer to say good riddance, is, I think, largely besides the point.)

Far from Middle-Earth and back (unfortunately) in the real world, two other non-fictional pieces ponder what, if anything, science fiction may have to say in relation to the September 11th attacks.

In "Science Fiction Has Happened," Tom Robins covers a lot of ground, from how historical events recounted through both the immediacy and repetitiousness of broadcast media dovetail with our own recollections and personal narratives (the latest riff on the baby boomer question, "What were you doing when JFK was killed?") to how the genre itself can react to the disaster. Robins is evidently an academic, and like much academic writing that tends to deal in abstractions, you have to read a couple times over to try to understand what he's talking about.

The gist of his argument, as best I can figure out, is that SF creates fictional catastrophes as a context to extrapolate and criticize social norms. Now that such a catastrophe has actually happened, it is even more essential for SF to invent radical visions of the future that question our evolving social order. Yet, for the life of me, I don't understand his concluding sentence, "In a world where towers have fallen, it is as well to remember that 1984 is also waiting to happen." Maybe I'm a bit overly optimistic, but despite the wet dreams of the John Ashcrofts that terrorist threats could become the excuse to throw out our civil liberties, it doesn't, for the most part, seem to be happening. I'd say the Brave New World of mindless consumerism is still the more relevant SF setting than Stalinist mind control, though for now we have to populate it with the additional madness of suicide bombers and wackos with a cause.

Gary Westfahl, I think, weighs in with the more sensible argument. He argues that while everyone was calling the Twin Towers destruction "like something out of science fiction" (actually, to be more precise, like something out of a sci-fi movie, which is a bit different), the event is more appropriately likened to a technothriller:

..as a long time reader of science fiction, I prefer stories that depict major innovations, paradigm shifts, in the human condition; yet the technothriller... is immediately trapped in the past, committed to the indefinite continuation of the status quo. The fact that our newspaper headlines now recall the technothriller is not, as some would have it, a sign that our world has undergone some massive transformation, but rather a sign that our world, for the most part, remains depressingly the same.
While I believe Westfahl has the better handle on current events, I'm not sure that the fiction in this issue is particularly interested in paradigm shifts than it is to critique human foibles, in contrast to what Wolfe celebrates as the Tolkienesque elevation of our better inclinations. In "Da Capo," Christopher Evans does a Huxley riff on bio-engineering that satirizes the obsessions of the baby boom generation. In another one of his fables for the modern (or is it post-modern?) era, Zoran Zivkovic offers a meditation on the limits of creative expression -- those limits being of both the artist and the happenstance of inspiration -- in pondering "The Puzzle." This story is also available in one of several collections of Zivkovic's work, Seven Touches of Music.  (Though this English translation by Alice Copple-Toscic may be hard to get from your local bookstore or even on-line; ordering information from the publisher can be obtained at polaris@eunet.yu). Two strange "coming-of-age" tales comment on the price paid for the loss of innocence in "Watch Me When I Sleep" by Jean-Claude Dunyach and Tony Ballantyne in "Real Man." In neither do the principles of good conduct win out, if only because they are largely irrelevant to just what sometimes happens to us. In fact, the only story that has anything like a happy ending is the wistful "Nucleon" by David D. Levine. Would that it would be so easy for any of us to find what were are looking for as it is in Levine's story. In the meantime, as I think Wolfe would agree, particularly in light of September 11 and world events in general, we need fiction all the more to continue to contemplate our shortcomings and our capacity for, if not outright evil, vanity and shortsightedness.

Not that it seems to have helped matters any.

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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