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a regular member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle, which often met weekly, meaning I both read a lot of unpublished short fiction and wrote a great deal of it as well.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. 

2/03/2015

Interzone Summer 1982 (Number 2)

I wrote about Interzone Number One here. That naturally led me on to re-read the second issue, but actually acquiring it proved...less than easy.

Back in 1982, wanting to know more about the magazine after having found that first issue, I kept my eyes out for its second which, being a quarterly publication, was due sometime that Summer. My primary memory of that year is somehow winding up at an Ultravox concert during their Rage in Eden tour because someone gave me a spare ticket for free.

It was the first real gig I'd been to, unless you count seeing the Wombles at the Glasgow Pavilion sometime in the mid-70s. The Ultravox concert took place in the Glasgow Apollo, across the road from the Pavilion, a long-notorious and now sadly missed concert hall that, in fairness, looked as if it was constantly in danger of collapsing. I can't tell you much about the gig except that it was okay, and I only really knew the one song Vienna because you basically couldn't escape it if you happened to be passing by a radio. I was still at school, but the end was in sight. A year later and I'd be into Hawkwind and Iron Maiden.

I made a point of dropping by Futureshock frequently, in order to keep my eyes out for Interzone and, indeed, new books. I had developed a habit of walking long distances around Glasgow, frequenting different book shops and walking from the city centre to the West End. This was back in the days before giant superstores like Borders came to - briefly - dominate the publishing landscape. Bookshops were smaller, and frequently secondhand. I can't remember if the Glasgow branch of Forbidden Planet had yet opened up in Sauchiehall Street, but it was in roughly that time period as I recall.

I kept checking back, but there was no sign of Interzone issue number Two. I gave up waiting and asked Neil Craig, the owner of Futureshock, when it was likely to come in.

'They're not publishing it anymore!' he spat around a jam tart half-wedged into his mouth in a tone of voice that told me what he really meant was go the hell away, kid. He didn't even lift his eyes from the tatty paperback wedged into one hand as he crouched behind the filthy counter. Bits of pastry lay on the counter from yelling at a little boy, all cherubic in his neatly pressed school uniform, who'd made the unfortunate mistake a few minutes earlier of asking for advice on which comic to buy.

I thought about asking him are you sure? But I had a feeling that wouldn't be a good idea.

In the end, I didn't lay my hands on that second issue until some years later. I departed that day, feeling sad yet another magazine had bit the dust before it had even started.

Later that year, in the Autumn, I dropped in again and found Interzone 3 wedged, like the first issue, so tightly into its wire rack next to the counter the top half drooped limply like a body left hanging after a lynching. I stared at it in confusion. I looked over at Neil Craig, who darted a furious, thin-lipped look at me, then breathed loudly through his nose before turning back to the paperback that was, as ever, wedged in one hand. He avoided my gaze, staring hard at the pages, as if he could see something concealed behind the words.

You tosser, I thought.

Many years later, I had a conversation with,  I think, Jim Steel, some time after I became a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writer's Circle - indeed, Jim is now Interzone's reviews editor. Jim briefly worked  in Futureshock in the late 80s/early 90s.

'Yeah, he just tells people stuff isn't published any more because he can't be bothered,' he explained with a shrug (or words to that effect). 'It's just something he does.'

So what did I miss in that second issue? Stories by JG Ballard, Rachel Pollack, Tom Disch and a small handful of new names. And reviews! A few, anyway.  According to the editorial, they'd received hundreds of submissions from hopeful writers. It states they're glad the material veers away from space battles and futuristic kung fu. This is a touch ironic since, much later, in the post-cyberpunk era, it was variations on such things in the context of New Space Opera that Interzone became a major influence on, albeit with a slightly more literary bent.

Ballard's Memories of the Space Age is exactly as bonkers as you'd expect classic Ballard to be: all bizarre, empty urban landscapes, strangely altered states of mind and temporal and spatial shifts. Ballard would later go on to write some genuinely science fictional stories for Interzone that are amongst my very favourite stories published in that magazine. Here, Cape Canaveral and much of Florida has been abandoned due to a strange stretching of time perception so that single moments seem to last an infinity. Naturally, we have a protagonist who for reasons known only to himself is drawn to precisely such a moment, hoping to find in it some kind of apotheosis. The whole thing is set against the backdrop of a failed space age. It's a damn shame, you know, that Kubrick never filmed a Ballard story. It would have been a masterpiece of filmic art and borderline sociopathy.

Andrew Weiner's Third Test is a neat enough story about, of all things, cricket and aliens, at least one of which bores me to death. But, it's serviceable. The Rachel Pollack story, Angel Baby, was my first encounter with her fiction, and a brilliant introduction at that, as a young woman has to find a way to deal with becoming pregnant after being sexually assaulted by an angel. There's also a very short piece by Alex Stewart whose brief bio tells me - like a fair proportion of Interzone readers of the time, or so I suspect - that he was unemployed at the time of submitting. Try admitting that nowadays without losing all your benefits immediately.

Tom Disch has a short poem to the memory of Philip K. Dick, who had recently died, which means that's the summer that Bladerunner came out. What a time for an sf magazine to start. I'm clueless about poetry, but it seems an effective enough tribute. Finally, there's a couple of reviews, of recent books, and it's also interesting that all of them are now regarded as stone-cold classics: Little, Big by John Crowley, The Divine Invasion by Dick, and Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss. Of the three, I've only actually read the Aldiss. I might have made an attempt on another Crowley book, but left it unfinished. Maybe I should try again.

It's clear even this early the magazine was slowly building its own identity, synthesising pulp tropes with literary sensibilities to terrific effect. Some time soon I'll read issue three and post here about it.

Another thing: the covers, with their shifting sun, are quite brilliant, and perfect examples of how to do a lot of effective work with little in the way of graphic resources.