Tangent Reviews

Interzone 131, May 1998

from Tangent online

All right. I give up. I'm baffled. I know that we reviewers are never supposed to admit to anything less than omniscience, but I'm also a writer and I've decided I never will understand what goes on in editor's heads. What was David Pringle thinking when he decided to publish Thomas M. Disch's "The First Annual Performance Arts Festival at the Slaughter Rock Battlefield"? Yeah, Disch is a science fiction legend who almost never writes less than brilliantly, as he most certainly does here. But the story is not science fiction, not even fantasy, not even by the usual slip-a-weirdness-in-at-the-end standard that is all the rage in magazines today, Interzone definitely included (see below). The story is absolutely pure mainstream, a present day cultural satire that is dynamite right to its very core. So the story at least satirizes something universal, if not a verity near and dear to British hearts? No, it satirizes the peculiarly small and in-groupish world of American performance artists and their critics, a segment of our cultural life so remote and distant from even most New Yorkers' sensibilities as to almost qualify as life on a little known planet. The characters are vividly three-dimensional, the satire is knife- edged in a dozen different directions, the prose sparkles. If you want to start an argument over whether sheer excellence regardless of content makes a story suitable for a publication whose masthead reads "science fiction & fantasy," lay this Disch on the table and wait for the decibel level to rise.

The issue's other novelette starts out equally mainstream in tone, but is ironically far less successful overall. The hero in Paul J. McAuley's "The Secret of My Success" is a writer who seems to have it made after his first novel becomes a bestseller. But he's not quite ready to move up into the world of the glitterati and all goes bust in the big shock ending which reveals that: the very rich are different from you and me. A major disappointment.

Madelaine Cary uses a similar approach in "Red-Eye" in that she starts out explicitly mainstream before throwing in a bit of fantasy at the end to veer the story into genre territory. The mainstream half works. Cary uses picturesque and telling details that vividly portray the wary joy of a single female traveling in Java. The fantasy plot is too little too late, revolving as it does around an absolutely crucial snapshot that goes unremarked upon until the author decides to reveal its meaning.

Alexander Glass returns with another vignette, "Upgrade." Reminiscent in structure of Asimov's "The Last Question," Glass follows a woman upgrading over long periods of time into better and better artificial bodies, each change losing her just a bit more of her humanity. There's neither story nor character here, but the short piece works impressively on its own terms.

I wish I could say the same for "Man of Steel Saves the World." Don Webb's alternate world joke involves Stalin (the man whose name means "steel") making a pact with the Martians before their Halloween landing in 1938. Too long for a joke, too thin for a story.

Stephen Dedman also treats us to a Westerner in an Asian land in "A Single Shadow," completing a web in which every aspect of every story seemed to have a twin elsewhere in the issue. Like "Red-Eye," this is also a fantasy, dealing not with Cary's Javan witches but with the Japanese rikombyo, apparitions created by unrequited love. Dedman nicely contrasts the inner emptiness of Tony, the globe-trotting teacher who seeks the seeming completeness of the host family with whom he is staying, with that's family's own lacks and needs. As in the best genre stories set in our here-and-now, the fantastic element is totally integrated into the psychological underpinnings of the story rather than tacked on for a frisson at the end. Neither Dedman's nor Disch's stories are even remotely new wavish in the sixties' sense, but the New Wavers' notion that there is more that is alien in the heads of those inhabiting the planet with us than in a dozen outer space epics still has the power to evoke fine stories from those willing to look around them.

Copyright 1998 by Steve Carper

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