Black Static #42 (Sep/Oct 2014) – A Review

black static 42

Nothing underscores quite how behind I’ve gotten with my reading, as much as the new Black Static dropping onto the doormat before I’ve even finished with the last one. Yes, I confess my shame.

It’s to do with a busy schedule, I would stress, rather than any particular flaw in this issue. My reading is apparently quite heavily reliant on the two hours daily that I spend commuting to work. A sizable chunk, in fact, of my life has been spent in the company of the pages of Black Static on trains, over the years. And it can get damn spooky on a rickety late night London Bridge to Brighton, with only cutting edge short horror for company.

A good way to make the time go quicker, at least.

Read on…

Interzone #253 (Jul/Aug) – A Review

interzone #253LonCon3 (the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention) finished at the start of this week. I mention this partly out of massive jealousy of anyone and everyone who was able to attend, but also because it seems to have gotten a good amount of coverage in the mainstream press.

There is also a regular part of David Lanford’s Ansible Link column entitled “How others see us”. Here, David cherry picks recent press articles about the SF genre and world.

Now, it might be a coincidence (It is a coincidence – Ed) but that section doesn’t appear in this issue. Perhaps — just perhaps — science-fiction as a genre is starting to receive more of the mainstream acceptance that it deserves.

If it is, then we can only hope that this will extend to such organs of excellence as the short story magazines providing the lifeblood of fresh and exciting SF. Which neatly leads my into my review of the latest issue of Interzone.

Interzone #251 – A Review

interzone #251I’m sure somebody will disagree with me here, but I don’t know of any fiction magazine as consistently striking as Interzone.

Obviously a book, or magazine, shouldn’t be judged by its cover, but presentation is important, and the new(ish) design of the Interzone cover supplemented with a succession of frankly fantastic artwork, only makes the interior more enticing.

Interzone‘s in the wild are a fairly rare occasion — the shelves of W.H. Smith being stocked mainly with nonsense — which is a shame really. Actually, I think this would stand out a mile off on a newsagent’s shelf.

And if I saw it there, hell I’d pick it up! Wouldn’t you?

I’m not sure what the point of this little pre-review rant is, just that some of the best genre material is something of a secret by the simple fact of a lack of exposure. There is no reason at all that magazines like Interzone should be just for established fans.

Read on…

Interzone #249 (Nov/Dec 2013) – A Review

interzone #249It’s hard to describe the relief of seeing the first copy of Interzone waiting on the doormat of the new flat. It sounds silly, but I was somewhat worried that the change of address wouldn’t have taken effect, and my copy would have ended up back in Reading — or worse, consumed by the monster that Royal Mail is becoming.

But no, such fears are apparently unfounded, and here it is. Received, enjoyed and regurgitated in review form for your enjoyment.

It is easy to forget that Interzone, as well as being the UK’s foremost science-fiction magazine, is also a venue for top class fantasy. And this issue is a timely reminder of that — coming immediately on the heels of this year’s British Fantasy Awards. Of the six stories, I would say that fully three of them could best be described as fantasy rather than true SF.

Which is no bad thing at all. As you’ll see below, the variation of genres does nothing to dampen either potency or enjoyment.

Read on…

Black Static #34 – A Review

black static 34As with my Interzone review last week, I’m afraid I have missed an issue of Black Static in my reviewing quest. Unforgivable, I know. But I’m back to it this month, and ready to give my thoughts on the stories and non-fiction within.

One thing I will say first, though, is just how striking the artwork is. Black Static usually does showcase some of the very best each and every week,  but to my mind issue #34 is particularly bold. From the electrically chilling cover artwork (by Ben Baldwin), to the images for each if the stories. Joachim Luetke’s deeply chilling KKK-esque image for Sean Logan’s story “The Tower of Babel” is particularly deserving of mention, especially from a name I don’t think I’ve encountered before — and worth checking out.

But anyway, you all came here for the reviews of the stories, didn’t you? So let’s get on with the show!

Read on…

Interzone #246 – A Review

interzone #246Interzone time again! Emerging form a sea of top quality science-fiction, I slump over to the blog to tap out my review, fingers humming with words ingested and brain rolling with ideas masticated.

Yes, I realise that I missed out #245 in my mission to promote what is (in this blogger’s humble opinion) the finest print SF magazine currently active, but I’m going to chalk that one up to the stresses and distractions of the big move.

But I’m back now, so let’s get to work reviewing!

Read on…

Interzone #244 (Jan/Feb 2013) – A Review

interzone #244It’s that time again. Another issue of Interzone, having landed on my doormat, has been consumed alonside a variety of beverages, digested, and thoroughly enjoyed. And now it falls to me to relate my opinions on its contents to you, dear readers.

As on previous occasions, I will be keeping my reviewer’s gaze levelled at the fiction content, with an additional reason this time around — as (both) my regulars will know, I have recently joined the esteemed ranks of the Interzone review team. So, as well as it being confusingly self-referential to review reviews, it would be potentially disrespectful to review my colleague’s reviews, and downright weird to review my own.

  • “The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar. It hardly seems to be a real Interzone these days without a Tidhar story, so it’s fitting to open the issue with it. Tidhar is one of the best writers working in the genre today, and “The Book Seller” is excellently exemplary of that. With a flare for odd characters and quirky prose, he tells the story of a bibliophile in a VR world, bound up in the worlds of his stories as he helps a woman dangerous to everyone but him try to solve her own mystery. It’s fun, thoughtful and really rather sweet.
  • “Build Guide” by Helen Jackson takes us to a near-future orbital construction site, and deals with themes of corruption vs. honesty, safety vs the quick buck, and a host of issues with rather uncomfortable present-day parallels. In terms of SF as social commentary, it’s bang on the money. The sort of thing which, really, more people should be reading.
  • “The Genoa Passage” by George Zebrowski was something of an odd one. I could have seen it being written by Lavie Tidhar, actually. A strange little story, about an escape passage used by Nazis fleeing after the end of the Second World War — except alternate versions are repeating their flight over and over. It’s a story centred around revenge, and what it really means and gains. It’s every bit as dark and haunting as it should be, and written with an abstract precision which is hard to find, and harder to do.
  • “iRobot” by Guy Haley is one of the best stories I’ve read in a very, very long time. And if that seems like hyperbole, it deserves every word. A very short piece, it is a simple but rich description of a ruined city in a dead world, where a slowly dying robot futily acts out its protocols. It reminded me of Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandius”. It was creepingly beautiful, at the same time as being desperately sad, and said so much with so few words. I wish I could write as well as Guy Haley does here.
  • “Sky Leap — Earth Flame” by Jim Hawkins is the longest piece in the magazine, though it took a little while to get going. Two “siblings” are mentally paired with an artificial brain in a high-stakes scientific mission. It blends themes of coming-of-age with ideas of purpose in a meaningless universe — with excellently realised characters, both human and otherwise.
  • “A Flag Still Flies Over Sabor City” by Tracie Welser closes the short stories of issue #244, and is probably the most abstract of the lot. A manual worker in an oppressively authoritarian world drifts in and out of reality with the aid of drugs and what seems like PTSD. What the reader gets is a slightly surreal comment on humanity, and what it bravery really means.

I feel a little self-conscious when I give a good verdict to all of the stories in an issue, but these really all deserve it. There was not one here which I did not enjoy, and not one which I would not heartily recommend. Guy Haley’s story in particular blew me away. It is definitely one of the truest examples of the short story as art form that I can remember reading.

Interzone #243 (Nov/Dec 2012) – A Review

I haven’t done this before, but I’ve been meaning to for a long while. I’ve been reading Interzone (as well as its sister magazine Black Static) for almost four years now. When I decided I wanted to start taking my writing seriously, I started looking around for where I could find the best contemporary writing, particularly short form genre fiction. And every signpost I found pointed straight to this duo.

And the rest, as they say, is history. I am confident that there is no SF/Fantasy magazine comparable in the UK, and I have found only very few that equal it the world over. It consistently publishes the very best in a wide range of cutting-edge SF, and boasts the best names amongst its contributors.

I’m aiming for my review to be a regular feature on my blog, and I’ll be focusing just on the stories — reviewing the reviews just feels a bit to meta and self-referential to me, and threatens giving me a headache. When I come to review Black Static I may give some brief thoughts on the columns, but for me the stars of the show always have been the stories.

So on to this issue’s stories:

  • “Moon Drome” by John Wallace: the most obvious thing I can say about this story is that it is fun. Featuring spaceship racing around the moons of a gas giant (like the pod-racing of Star Wars, but less, well, stupid), it chucks in an ambigously malevolent alien entity, and themes of slavery and memory. The changes in perspective are clearly signposted, but there was a little bit of timeline-hopping which confused me a touch. Happily, it didn’t get in the way of the story, and by the end everything was crystal clear. A very enjoyable story, well written and with some neat ideas.
  • “The Flower of Shazui” by Chen Qiufan (translated by Ken Liu): this is, actually, the first piece of Chinese SF which I’ve read. And it’s very good. Translated by the excellent Ken Liu, the prose is poetic and beautiful, and the characters and world that the story weaves are brilliantly realised. The plot — abused woman in love with abusive man — is nothing new, but I wasn’t anticipating the twist at the end, and thought it rounded off the story in a very fitting way which I probably wouldn’t have considered.
  • “The Philosophy of Ships” by Caroline M. Yoachim: sadly, this story did not do it for me. A post-humanist romp involving themes of identity and humanity, all mixed in with a bit of skiing, there wasn’t anything technically wrong with it. But the trouble was that I didn’t empathise with any of the characters, and some of the multiple-consciousness stuff — along with the non-linear narrative — lost me about midway through. It dragged, and disappointingly I just didn’t feel a connection to characters or story.
  • “Lady Dragon and the Netsuke Carver” by Priya Sharma: I read a previous story by Sharma in the last issue of Interzone, “Needlepoint”, and thought it was excellent. This new story lives up to, and indeed, surpasses that estimation. An alternate-history story, set in a world under Japanese and Samurai dominance (an alternate outcome to WWII, perhaps? Sharma doesn’t say), it has all the key themes of love and duty that you would expect, tied up with some very exciting characters and a world which comes alive on the page. Sharma clearly has a gift for both bold imagination and expressing it artfully through prose, and I would definitely highlight her as one to look out for.
  • “Mirrorblink” by Jason Sanford: in a way I feel sorry for any writer who ends up sharing a contents page with Jason Sanford. The man is one of my favourite SF, and actually short fiction in general, writers active today, and this little novellete is a perfect example of why. A distant-future/almost-fantasy story about sentient information and a pre-industrial Earth cut off from the galaxy at large, and overseen/menaced by god-like Observers. Yes, I too thought of Fringe when I read that, and there are similarities, but god-like beings beyond human comprehension are a staple of SF, and observer is a pretty apt description of what these creatures do. The story itself is beautifully written, and the protagonist a wonderfully constructed character. The ideas and themes in the story are exactly what good SF should be grappling with, and evoke more questions than they answer. As well they should.

Overall, this is a brilliant example of what Interzone does best. Great stories, big ideas, challenging concepts. The fact that it is beautifully displayed, with some breathtaking artwork — particularly Ben Baldwin’s cover art, and Warwick Fraser-Coombe’s illustration for “Mirrorblink” — is just an added bonus.

State of the Genre: View from the Depths

Tuesday brought some very sad news from those parts spooky and frightening of the internet. Murky Depths is closing down.

Issue #18 of Murky Depths will, unfortunately, be the last.

I realise that a lot of readers of this blog will be wondering what that is, which is sad all in itself. But for the benefit of those people, Murky Depths was a magazine. A very good magazine. In fact, it was one of the best genre magazines this country has produced. Edited by Terry Martin, it published the finest fiction alongside some brilliant short comics and artwork in a format I’ve never seen an exact equivalent of.

I first encountered Murky Depths in early 2009, when I was first embarking seriously upon writing. It was a magazine which caught the eye, and after my girlfriend bought a copy of issue #1, I decided to splash out on a subscription. Not something I’ve regretted. I have the last issue (#18) on my desk, half read at the moment, and I almost don’t want to finish it, because I don’t want it to be over.

My intense disappointment at the news on Tuesday night was somewhat offset by, on Wednesday, the lastest issue of Black Static dropping through my door. This is the only other print magazine (along with it’s sci-fi sister mag, Interzone) to which I subscribe, and is run by Andy Cox and the team at TTA Press. It takes a more traditional approach, with stories, reviews, interviews and columns, and although I’ve only read the first story of #25, I know it’s up to its usual standard.

Here we have two different examples of top-class genre print magazines. Black Static is the stalwart of the British horror scene. It publishes the best in the business, and to people who are even tangentially involved in the genre it is well-known. On the other hand, Murky Depths was superb and adventurous, but never quite seemed to gain the widespread awareness of Black Static. The world is a sadder, less exciting place  for its demise.

So what should you, the horror-interested reader, do? Well, I’d suggest two things. Firstly, head on over to Murky Depths‘s website, and buy some back issues. You won’t regret it, and you likely won’t get another chance. This is some of the best writing and artwork you’ll see in the genre, and a piece of genre history now. Secondly, take out a subscription to Black Static. Or Black Static and Interzone. They’re both well worth the money.

And there’s something about the print magazine. Something about the smell. Something intoxicating. Something…a little sinister…