Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Futures Past: SF History in Leeds, P.7 Interzone Today and Tomorrow

Following on from our previous post on the origins of Interzone, Andy Hedgecock, current co-editor, kindly agreed to be interviewed, and to share his thoughts on the past, present, and of course future of the magazine:

How aware are you of the origins of Interzone?

I’m reasonably aware of the magazine’s history, but I make no claim to academic rigour in respect of this. I’m not an obsessive sf historian!

There’s a fine line between being a raconteur or a bore, but I’d like to risk relating my personal history in relation to David Pringle’s Interzone, in particular my initial collision with the magazine in WH Smith in Southampton. It was late 1982, I think, and I was working down there as a researcher for a management consultancy, doing work I found morally dubious and making myself thoroughly miserable. This was a really bad time for me: I didn’t have the insight or sense of direction to change jobs; I wasn’t enamoured with a socio-political landscape in which greed, careerism and self-interest flourished; and the post-punk cultural scene was predictable, unchallenging and trammelled by a fashionable obsession with gloss and surface. It may sound familiar to younger people in 2014.

Anyway, at some stage of my visit to the South Coast I slipped out of the late lamented Polygon Hotel (known locally as the dead parrot for obvious reasons) and treated myself to a copy of this new magazine. I’ve probably projected my own needs and views onto Interzone, but it became a little beacon of hope for me – along with the new Channel 4, the anarchist newspaper Freedom, the radical writers working in Glasgow (including Alasdair Gray and James Kelman) and, of course, Michael Moorcock, whose cultural criticism and fiction stood in opposition to the ghastliness of the early 1980s. And I’m grateful to David Pringle for his role in that.     

I became a regular but non-subscribing reader in the early years. I’ve just been scrabbling about on the top shelf on a very tall bookcase looking for copies from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I nearly broke my neck, but I forgive you as it’s provided some interesting moments of nostalgia. The work that attracted me to early Pringle-era Interzone was Angela Carter, Pamela Zoline, John Sladek, Rachel Pollack, Brian Aldiss, JG Ballard, Barrington Bayley, Keith Roberts, Thomas Disch, M John Harrison and, of course, Michael Moorcock. Many of those writers, as I’m sure you’ll have noticed, were associated with New Worlds and I think I saw Interzone as continuing in the risk-taking tradition of Moorcock’s magazine. Having said that, it also introduced me to writers whose work was new to me – Geoff Ryman, John Crowley, John Shirley, and Kim Newman, Colin Greenland, Greg Egan, Cherry Wilder, William Gibson, Beil Ferguson, John Gribbin, Gary Kilworth and Bruce Sterling. 

As the years passed Interzone became a bit too hard sf for my own tastes, but I kept in touch with it as an occasional reader and still enjoyed much of what I read. In terms of history, I know David Pringle was supported by a group that included John Clute, Colin Greenland (a massively talented writer and critic who I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Andy Cox-era Interzone) and Alan Dorey, a writer and broadcaster who does a cracking music programme called The Musical Box, for Forest FM in Dorset. Well worth catching online.     

Do you see yourself as continuing in the tradition of David Pringle and previous editors?

I can’t answer for Andy Cox of other members of the editorial group but I certainly see a degree of continuity with the David Pringle era. David Pringle took the name from a risk-taking and experimental collection of stories by William Burroughs and it reflects very well the cutting edge and eclectic nature of his magazine. Andy Cox’s roots as a publisher and editor are in the slipstream magazine The Third Alternative, which published sf, fantasy horror and slipstream stories. TTA Press’ successor to The Third Alternative  focuses exclusively on horror, crime stories are published in Crimewave and the sf, fantasy, surreal, weird and otherwise idiosyncratic genre fiction we publish finds its way into Interzone. It’s still eclectic and we still like to take risks. Like David, Andy sets high literary standards for the stories we include. We continue encourage a degree of stylistic experiment and we’re interested in behaviour in extreme situations, diverse psychologies and liminal experiences. Like David Pringle we look for stories that offer new mythologies to enable us to make sense of our experiences and thoughts. If there is a disconnect between the late-Pringle era and the Cox-era it may be that the latter is a little less focused on scientific and technological development, but I wouldn’t like to have to defend that under rigorous academic examination!

The first two editions of Interzone, 1982.

What do you consider your greatest achievement in your time at the magazine?

If I may I’ll choose something from a personal perspective that’s about opportunities I’ve been given. In terms of achievement I’d rather identify something on behalf of the editorial collective.   

There are two things I’m really delighted to have been able to do. One is to have been able to take part in interviews with writers such as Ken McLeod, Michael Moorcock, Terry Pratchett, John Shirley and Susanna Clarke. The other, and the more important, has been to help find really impressive work by new and developing writers, some of whom had gone on to establish formidable reputations. And I think that brings us onto the greatest achievement element.  We’ve passed a number of important milestones: 10 years of the TTA Press ‘flavour’ of Interzone under Andy Cox’s stewardship; we’ve contributed to Interzone being published for more than 30 years; only around a dozen Nebula award-winning stories were published in magazines and one of those is a story we selected, Eugie Foster’s 'Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast'; we’re the current holder of the British Fantasy Society award for Best Magazine / Periodical; and we’re nominated (again) for a Hugo Award in the Best Semiprozine category. All of which is very encouraging, it’s nice to receive recognition, but I think the thing I’m most proud of is helping Andy Cox set very exacting standards in terms of literary worth, originality and storytelling energy when we select tales for Interzone. We have a good record in terms of Interzone stories being selected for prestigious anthologies, which is far more important than winning awards and celebrating our longevity.  Most of the time Andy and I converge very quickly on what’s promising but not quite right for us, what’s brilliant, what’s bad and what’s simply baffling. It’s a painful process at times – particularly when I get an email-based poke in the ribs for exhibiting spectacularly poor taste. Over the past 10 years we’ve worked with some absolutely brilliant writers – Nina Allan, Neil Williamson, Jason Sanford, Aliette de Bodard, Georgina Bruce, Suzanne Palmer… That list, off the top of my head, reflects something that isn’t our achievement but it is something we should celebrate. Over the past decade we’ve seen an increasing number of stories by women writers in the mag.  

Do you think that science fiction has become more ‘mainstream’ in popular culture over the three decades since Interzone was founded?

I think it’s roughly as mainstream as it was in the early 1980s. There have been some notable entries into genre storytelling by writers very much associated with literary fiction, for example Jane Roger’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But hasn’t there always been this traffic across the sf&f vs ‘litfic’ border? Anthony Burgess, Kingsley Amis, Virginia Wolfe, Don Delillo, Richard Brautigan, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain …? I suppose we could point to Haruki Murakami, Will Self and George Saunders as writers who take a hatchet to genre boundaries by mixing sf, fantasy, crime and absurd realism throughout their work. But even that isn’t something that’s developed in the past 30 years.  But all three of those writers draw on the work of Pynchon and Vonnegut, with the same cavalier approach to literary and genre tropes and techniques whose careers took off in the 1960s. 

The concerns of genre and mainstream writers have changed over the years – I’d argue more attention is paid to issues of environmental sustainability, and debt seems to be a more frequently recurring motif. We receive a lot of stories dealing with survival in extremis, the misuse of power and control and shifts of identity.  But these are perennial themes in sf and fantasy. 

I think the literary mainstream and inventive genres revivify each other by trading structures, tools, techniques and obsessions. But I believe that has always been the case.

Interzone 221; artwork by Adam Tredowski

How do you see the future of Interzone and more widely, (science fiction) publishing?

Blimey. Isn’t it interesting how sf editors fall apart and become mumbling wrecks when you ask them about the future? I don’t think we operate in a prophetic way: we celebrate the wondrous and astonishing in storytelling and marvel at the creative way writers and artists invent, remix and repurpose ideas and symbols. If we get hung up on making predictions Interzone might become predictable. It’s not our role to predict the next big thing, just to recognise it when it ambles to the door of TTA Towers.    

There is however one area in which a spot of crystal gazing is essential. Magazine production isn’t cheap and distribution is really, really expensive, particularly if you have an international readership and particularly if there is a lot of fluctuation between currencies. So the online publishing option has its attractions. Having said that, a lot of readers enjoy Interzone as an object (with, we hope, stunning artwork and colour) that drops through their post box every two months. I’m part of the generation for whom the graphic interface version of internet arrived in their thirties and I still prefer to read from paper. I think there will be a need for print publication for the foreseeable future, but the e-version of the mag will become increasingly important. Sustainability and cost will both become increasingly important issues I suspect. The big problem is whether people will pay for online literature – I suspect the shift to e-publishing will exacerbate the crisis relating to paying creative people for cultural output. People seem increasingly reluctant to pay. This is reflected, for example, by the fact that increasing numbers of writers and editors have ‘day jobs’ that subsidise the work they love doing. This is a problem for publishing in general rather than sf publishing. 

In terms of the genre, we may see another swing of the pendulum back to technology and science as a focus for sf; there may be more intense exploration of psychological inner space; we may see more satirical sf. We may plunge into a period of deep pessimism with stories that undermine the notion of progress, or we may experience a wave of high energy optimism focusing on growth, development, possibility and problem solving. I don’t know. The message to our contributors and potential contributors is – as always – surprise us.

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