The September/October 2013 issue of Interzone opens with “Ad Astra” by Carole Johnstone. A married couple has been sent together to the explore the solar system, all the way out to Pluto and back. After years of travel together with only each other for company, they barely speak to each other, though they still have sex very frequently — sex that seems more like battle than love. They’ve been steadily absorbing radiation, and the narrator, Lena, carries out monthly medical checks on them, growing increasingly concerned at the exposure levels. What Lena fears most, though, is that they never turned back after they reached Pluto, and are now in the Cuiper Belt; they will keep moving out forever, she thinks, unsatisfactory astronauts who were intentionally sacrificed by the government as an experiment in long-term space flight. But Rick will not confirm Lena’s suspicions, no matter how much she begs. Is she imagining it? Is Rick insane from years of living in a space the size of an RV? And the questions that remains for the space-loving at the end of the story: what’s really out there? Will we ever be able to see it and survive?
I greatly enjoyed “The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension” by James Van Pelt. Van Pelt’s short stories strike me as delightfully fanciful, and this one fits that description perfectly. It’s about a new school built in a farming community “on land no farmer could tease a crop from.” The school quickly becomes the focus of community life. Teachers love it there, often spending their entire careers with the same school, teaching the same subject to the same grade through successive generations of children. The school grows with the community, accreting new rooms and corridors haphazardly until few are able to find their way through the building to any spot other than their own. As the years go by, it becomes a place of memories as well as of new experiences. And it continues to grow. The story gives a new meaning to the term “lifelong learning.”
The moral of Greg Kurzawa’s “Dark Gardens” could easily be “Don’t buy a house sight unseen.” But that’s what Sam does, figuring that the looks of the foreclosed property are irrelevant to his plan to fix it up and flip it to new owners at a profit. It isn’t until later that Sam learns that the former owner was an only barely competent magician with the stage name of Kurricke. Kurricke has left behind a lot of crap, from spoiled milk in the refrigerator to composition notebooks and 8mm tapes devoted to his craft. Curious, Sam takes a look at a tape or two, and finds that Kurricke’s act was a bore, right up until the last bit, when he manipulates a full-size mannequin in a way that seems truly magical. Further exploration brings Sam to a hatch in the floor of the basement; and further exploration of what’s on the other side of the hatch leads to an eerie, watery story that seems to explain Kurricke’s act. This dark fantasy will leave you shivering.
In Ken Altabef’s “Il Teatro Oscuro,” an old man owns a pair of opera glasses that allows him to watch performances from yesteryear in the wreck of the theater in which they once took place, and where he found the glasses. He enjoys his unusual glasses for years, right up until the governor signs a demolition order for the theater. Must his enjoyment of the operas end? Is there nothing he can do? The short tale works some sad magic through the old man’s desire.
Sean McMullen closes out the fiction with a long story, “Technarion,” a steampunk tale told by Lewis Blackburn, an educated man who studied electricity, not steam, despite the fact that steam “was the foundation of every branch of industry.” Blackburn’s choice leads him to interesting employment with James Kellard, an inventor working on a giant receiver that is picking up wireless signals transmitted through space. The Morse code contains directions for building what we would call a computer, but what these men call a technarion. Working under conditions of extreme secrecy, secrecy secured with a willingness by Kellard to murder those who breach it, Blackburn assembles the machine. But is it the first step to a world in which machines rule humans, rather than the other way around?
There are nearly 30 pages of book and film reviews following the fiction, written by several reviewers and critics, all eloquent and knowledgeable about science fiction and fantasy, as well as perceptive writers. These pages include an interview with Christopher Priest following a review of his new book, The Adjacent (available in the United States in March 2014), which interview made me want to drop everything and read everything Priest has ever written. This excellent section of the magazine is as good a reason to get hold of a copy as is the fiction.