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The Ant-Men of Tibet and other stories
edited by David Pringle
(Big Engine, £8.99, 266 pages, trade paperback; published 2001.)

I'll be up front about this. Perhaps more up front than I would have been before the cover scanworld shook hard and turned over for us here in the States -- the disaster we locals call 911 or 9/11. My best friend in all the UK says, "after a while you get used to it" but we haven't, yet. Whether or not you lost anybody on that day we all lost something, and Americans who write fiction are still regrouping, figuring out what any of us has to say in the time we all think of as after.

For us it seems signally important to be writing fiction about something that matters.

Which brings me to the up-front part: I love screen SF -- e.g. Pitch Black, Bladerunner and even though hardline SF people wouldn't send a kid up in a crate like that, Starship Troopers. Galaxy Quest alone. Gotta love any movie and most TV that takes place in a gaudy future here or on a distant planet, but hand me a book or a magazine and it's a different story.

So here's the truth about me. I am allergic to stories set on space ship or alien planets. Invented locations and technology make me sigh and turn the page, and here's why. Too often writers use SF details to substitute for story or because they can't bear to grapple with real issues, and then drop in a new gimcrack/dingbat/walking-talking ostracod for a quick narrative solution. Stories that are all about neologisms strike me as all surface, and given the messy complexity of life today, I don't think that's enough.

OK, I have even worse problems with one-idea SF; the kind that starts with an idea and never advances beyond it. I love literary diversions but I need them to be character-driven, and whether it's funny or tragic I need fiction that reflects at some level the terror and hysteria and excitement of the human condition.

Eeek, snotty much? Sorry. Can't help it. Call me ignorant or insensitive or... Better, please put it down to a constitutional need for fiction that matters. That reflects what is. It can draw on the improbable impossible -- pretty much anything, but I have to believe it's really about the way things are. Mode and material -- whether it's experimental, comic, Gothic, dramatic or what -- doesn't matter as much to me as where it's coming from. I want writers to work from the gut, drawing on some central concern or peculiarity or uncomfortable memory, something that matters to them personally, no matter how cleverly they transform it. If it makes you feel better, assume this is my personal weakness. I live on fiction that, no matter how preposterous, draws on the extreme complications of the human dilemma.

Not, perhaps, your ideal candidate to review the new Interzone anthology snappily designed and sharply presented by Big Engine, with a witty introduction by longtime Interzone editor David Pringle, and I will confess that at first glance I was more than a little daunted by the preponderance of hard SF. Then I started reading, and I'm happy to report that there's enough in this collection to keep me going.

Of course good fiction is often about the writing, and Stephen Baxter's "The Ant-Men of Tibet" casts its spell in the rhythm and cadencing of the prose, a first-hand account by a child caught up in a mysterious pod and deposited on the glacial surface of a world of ice in which all time -- the narrator's entire lifetime -- passes like a dream. Keith Brooke's graceful "The People of the Sea" draws the reader in many of the same ways, drawing the eternal father-son conflict and the complications of family relationships in the context of tears in the universal fabric that have people shuttling back and forth from one continuum to the next, sometimes against their wills. Both stories attracted me because of the writing, but they kept me inside the tent because the central characters seemed to be real people caught in extraordinary circumstances, proving that the juxtaposition of the human and the nonhuman can, indeed, work.

Eric Brown's "Vulpheus" has some of the same appeal because, skiffy as the setting is, the story poses a very real question: can you and will you sacrifice the life of your lover for the greater good? Nicola Caines's "Civilisation" presents a real and believable character but seemed -- to me at least -- less successful because the story isn't really about the person, it was about the thing, in this case an organic alien ship that appears to mate with a refurbished steam engine to create something new.

No SF anthology is complete without a vampire story, and Peter T. Garratt's "The Collectivization of Transylvania" is amusing precisely because it does more. Meet a petty bureaucrat in an Eastern European country and see his expectations overturned along with the extant government. It's that glint of the way things really are that gives the story its vitality.

Probably the funniest story in the anthology -- and funny is one of my priorities -- is Molly Brown's "The Vengeance of Grandmother Wu," in which a Chinese widow triumphs with an assist from the sexy ghost of her love. A neat blending of past, present and myth with wish fulfillment-- and the way things ought to be.

All told, then, there are plenty of good stories to read in this new Interzone anthology, even for a cranky, biased, opinionated reader like me.

Review by Kit Reed.
Kit Reed is an American novelist.
(@expectations) is now out in paperback from Forge.
Her SF collection, Weird Women, Wired Women, will be published in the UK in 2002; the US edition is reviewed elsewhere on this site by Simon Ings.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

  • other stuff - find out about Big Engine, publishers of The Ant-Men of Tibet and other stories, and about Interzone.

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© Kit Reed 24 November 2001