2/11/2015

Interzone No. 3, Autumn 1982

So why am I suddenly writing about all these issues of a magazine that first came out more than thirty years ago?

Well,  I'd wanted to reread them for a long time. By the late 90s, I had more or less stopped reading short fiction altogether, although I still picked up occasional Year's Best collections and the like. I found it harder and harder to find short-form fiction that worked for me, but  I can't be sure if that was something objectively to do with the stories or, instead, something to do with me. From 1991 onwards I was a regular member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle, which often met weekly, meaning I both read a lot of unpublished short fiction and wrote a great deal of it as well. Perhaps I just hit overload.

Regardless, my memories of magazines I had first read back in the 80s, particularly Interzone and IASFM, remained exceedingly positive, and a number of stories stick with me even now. I first read William Gibson's Count Zero serialised in IASFM, and I couldn't get enough of stories by the likes of Lucius Shepard, Rudy Rucker and Lewis Shiner, all of whom published regularly in the latter during that period. And of course Interzone had Charlie Stross, Paul McAuley, Simon Ings, Eric Brown, Greg Egan and many others.

That's not to say I stopped reading short fiction altogether. I still pick up the very occasional collection. Perhaps the best I read in recent years was by Joe Hill. But short fiction magazines? Not so much with a few rare exceptions.

What changed between then and now? Had we all been living through some kind of Golden Age of SF in the 80s, or was it simply that my tastes changed?

Given all this, it's hardly any surprise I might get to wondering if I would have the same experience on rereading those stories, particularly since my perspective is now that of of someone with a book published almost every year in the last decade. Back then, the idea of being a pro writer - even appearing in the pages of Interzone - seemed nothing more than a pipe dream.

Which brings me finally to Interzone's third issue.

It's here that Interzone for me began to more clearly develop its own identity - not just through big-ticket names like MJ Harrison, JG Ballard and Angela Carter, but through the fiction published by unknown British authors who until then had little choice but to mail their stories to American magazines - a frequently difficult and often costly affair.

One story that really stuck out in my memory of those early days was Nicholas Allan's Cheek to Cheek, and it's here that we find it. It's a strange, uncanny little story like nothing else I had read before - precisely why it stuck in my mind for so long. It's the story of a young couple in what is presumably their first sexual relationship and how they wake one morning to find themselves almost literally joined not at the hips but at the genitals:

I pulled away the bed-clothes, glanced down and saw between us, lying snake-like on the sheet, a long, quite thin extension - line an umbilical cord - running from, as well as forming part of, the foreskin of my penis to the mouth of Camilla's vagina, which it enclosed in the form of a loose funnel where the enlarge lips once were. The cord itself was four or five feet long, about as thick as a finger. The skin, moist and translucent, blue veins showing beneath, was blemished by large pores, from which exuded, even at that moment, a faint smell of...sexual activity?

If you pulped the first dozen or so issues of Interzone down into a damp mash, simmered it overnight  with a dash of Ballard and a soup├žon of Delany, then left it out to cool in the middle of a British high street lined with job centres and Oxfam shops, you would get this story. It is, to my mind, the ur-Interzone story, at least so far as the magazine's early incarnation is concerned.

More than the central conceit, which reflects the physical nature of the protagonists relationship, it's the very Britishness of this story which appeals. The main characters are students, with little in the way of money, living in a kind of bedsit Britain that would a few years later become very familiar to me when I became a student. For instance:

It had been raining on and off for the last three days...I became astounded at the staggering tastelessness of the interior design: a pea-green sofa challenged a canary yellow fire place, a rose formica-topped dining-table reflected the complex tulip pattern of the rust-coloured wallpaper...

Yeah, I recognise that flat. I either lived there or visited it in multiple incarnations. And, of course, it's raining. It's a form of fantasy - or SF - or New Wave - or whatever the hell you want to call it deeply rooted in the British psyche, sharing the same mental space with the two unemployed actors in Withnail and I or the broad parodies that populated The Young Ones.

It's interesting to note this is also the first issue in which illustrations appeared. Cheek to Cheek has a very clever design, otherwise static blocks of text broken here and there by a simple curving black line flowing from page to page. Other stories have small illustrations by Ian Miller amongst others.

What else is there? A Josephine Saxton piece, a Garry Kilworth short story, The Dissemblers, about a man trying to defeat death by hanging himself over and over again and then stopping just before the point of no return (imagine finding that in IASFM!). There's an Angela Carter I must regretfully admit to passing over largely unread. David Garnett has a story called Saving the Universe set at a science fiction convention and containing parodies, one assumes thinly veiled, of pro sf authors of the time, although as to whom the specific targets might be I can't say. A war has shattered time, so one might step through a door and, briefly, find themselves far in the past. Rather than a source of adventure, it's one more thing for the British characters to put up with, along with the rain and Maggie Thatcher and the quality of the beer.  The Cold War is still hot, and here, at least, the future appears far from bright. Doleful British science fiction at its best.

And there are letters! There's a brief note about an obscenity trial involving Dave Britton of Savoy Books, and a reflection on the fact the magazine has already published both Moorcock's Brothel in Rosenstrasse and now Nicholas Allan's Cheek to Cheek. A letter by Moorcock himself regarding the trial follows.

It's here, as well, the distinction between the British sf field of the early 80s becomes more clearly separate from that of preceding decades. Charles Platt, at one point closely involved with New Worlds, has a long letter that starts with a joke about the cover design of the magazine to date suggesting that the sun is already setting on Interzone. He then goes on, essentially, to lambast the editors (you have the New Worlds authors, but you lack its spirit - its wit and its willingness to take risks), at least in part because it was then edited not by a single editor, but by a kind of collective comprising David Pringle, Malcolm Edwards, Alan Dorey, Roz Kaveney, Colin Greenland, and Simon Ounsley.

There's a reply to this "galling" letter, by John Clute, in which he pretty much takes Platt to task. He writes: Interzone is a forum minus Nero (...) and in that - to answer your final point - lies the editorial policy of Interzone, as I see it: Open all hours.

Well, jeepers. Remember this is 1982, way before the internet, when writers had to trudge through the rain to the nearest library to do that thing called 'research', or go further if they wanted to get their hands on harder to find books. Channel Four hadn't even started and there were still only three television channels. There were few, if any, ways to find out what was going on out there in the wide world of genre, whereas now we have email, Twitter, Google, bulletin boards, forums, Facebook lists, Google Hangouts, blogs, or whatever your preferred poison is.

At that time interchanges like this, in the pages of magazines and sometimes in the introductory essays of various anthologies and collections, were the bush-telegraph of the science fiction world, a brief glimpse of one tiny corner of that grand operatic mud-slinging fest we call 'genre'. Interzone, then, is the punk upstart sticking one finger up at its 'cool' dad and insisting that its way is better. With all this, and stories like Nicholas Allan's, no damn wonder I already couldn't get enough.

Those issues of the magazine available to me to reread on the blog are limited, which is why the next one I'm going to look at, when I get around to it, is the Winter 1983 issue, published a whole year after this one. I don't know long I'll keep going, and I won't necessarily look at individual issues, but so far it's been a fun ride through the past. No reason not to keep going for now.

A dedication on page 2 of the magazine reads: "This issue is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, who said three Interzones was like three Shredded Wheat." Which means...well, I'm not sure what it means. That it's bland? That there needs to be more? Who's to say? More next time. 

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