"With Acknowledgements to Sun Tzu" by Brian Hodge
"Immigrants" by Mary Soon Lee
"Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at Edge of World, Scones Perfect" by Brian Aldiss
"The Chance Walker" by Lynda E. Rucker
"Leon Is Dead" by Simon Avery
"Fleeing Sanctuary" by John Aegard
"Crow Man" by Sarah Singleton
The Third Alternative is a magazine that consistently skirts the edges of genre, with a reputation for powerful stories that fall on the hazy boundary between the mainstream and the speculative. It's the kind of magazine that confounds some genre enthusiasts even as it delights others, an interesting mix of fiction, reviews, and commentary that reflects a unique, dark sensibility. This is a big, beautiful publication, impressively designed, classily produced, and with some of the best artwork in the business. In a perfect world, all genre magazines would be this lavish. This issue's fiction is a pretty good representation of the kind of ambitious work so frequently featured in the magazine, some of it very successful, some of it less so.
"With Acknowledgements to Sun Tzu" by Brian Hodge sets a brisk, hard-hitting pace for the issue. Told from the point of view of a veteran combat photographer, this gritty first person story relates one of the narrator's most harrowing experiences on the job, during a horrifying conflict in the Balkans. The first scene is a superb hook, establishing a quick pace that the story manages to keep up even as it has time to contemplate the grim fascinations of war, the horrors and perverse beauties of destruction, and the complicated mindsets of people who are drawn to engage in–or even just to witness–such graphic, gruesome spectacles. A timely, thought-provoking, unflinching look at war, this story excellently fuses its dark realism with just a hint of the otherworldly, in what might be called "the trademark TTA manner."
Next we're taken from eastern Europe to southeast Asia–and from the recent past into the near future–for Mary Soon Lee's "Immigrants." Once again the protagonist is an American abroad, an agent of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service named Bill Townsend. Searching for an immigration candidate who has inexplicably withdrawn her application, Townsend finds himself encountering unexpected intrigue and stumbling across a startling secret in the streets of Bangkok. The writing is fine, and once the science fictional nature of the story becomes apparent–it takes a couple paragraphs too many, perhaps–Lee does a solid job of painting a credible near-future setting. Unfortunately the futuristic trappings are more or less irrelevant to the story's central SF premise. All the enjoyable build-up leads to a conclusion that felt a bit rushed. Overall, a good story that felt like it needed a bit more streamlining, and perhaps some fleshing out, to become a great one.
Accompanying an enjoyable interview with Brian Aldiss is a new story, "Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at Edge of World, Scones Perfect." A post-invasion tale of humanity's desperate struggle against an overwhelming alien menace, I found this a colorfully written but not quite satisfying satire of English pluck in the face of disaster. A bit forgettable, but effortlessly read and fun.
Lynda E. Rucker returns us to eastern Europe, this time to the Czech Republic, for "The Chance Walker." This dark, eerie tale centers on the alienation of a lonely English teacher from the United States struggling to get by in the haunted, unfriendly environment of a small Czech city. The prose is very well written, the mood nicely evoked, but the momentum never really develops. A stronger plot to propel the events probably would have made the excellent atmosphere a bit more engaging for me.
"Leon Is Dead" by Simon Avery is an ambitious dark fantasy novelette that follows the travails of a man named Crews, whose mysterious power leads him afoul of an exploitative, money-grubbing corporation. The set-up is masterful, as Avery nicely establishes the story's mystery and gradually begins to pull back the shroud. What is the nature of Crews' power? What happened to separate him from his family? Who is the mysterious Miriam? And what is the significance of "Leon is dead," a phrase that Crews first glimpses as graffiti, but which later eerily insinuates its way into his life. Unfortunately, all this nicely developed intrigue is deflated a bit by an overabundance of dialogue-heavy explanation in the story's second half, where the threads all come together neatly but a bit too transparently. Another flaw is an arbitrary near-future setting which plants us squarely in 2015, then offers little if any science fictional justification for putting us there. The absence of speculation to differentiate this future from our present is a gnawing distraction, and ultimately that twelve-year time gap never achieves any story significance. Anyway, these problems are unfortunate since they detract from a story with a strong central core, solid writing, and plenty of provocative religious and sociological themes. In the end, these strengths were enough to keep me interested and entertained, if not completely satisfied.
If the previous story over-reveals itself, "Fleeing Sanctuary" by John Aegard reveals just enough. This intelligent, intriguing story kicks off as a man named Sandy prepares to leave his home–in the mysterious village called Sanctuary–to undertake an initially undisclosed mission. As in the Avery story, this one hooks with its puzzling opening mysteries: what is the exact nature of Sanctuary, what are its leader's powers, what is Sandy's true objective? These mysteries are gradually, cleverly revealed as Sandy travels cross-country to confront his painful past in a way that makes terrific use of the story's slick genre premise. An impressive piece of work, this one.
Closing off the issue is "Crow Man" by Sarah Singleton, a short story that has the feel of being part of a larger work. At the behest of her close friend Marie, the protagonist–Laurie–checks up on Marie's ex, a strange man named Julian, who is reeling from a tragic past even as he pursues an odd sort of magical science experiment in his run-down caravan. Laurie gets wrapped up in this in a most complicated way, but the story ends just as it appears her real problems are about to begin. A successful potboiler, this one seemed like it could have been more.
Complementing the fiction is some entertainingly opinionated commentary, a fun (if, in my opinion, overly generous) retrospective on the films of Brian De Palma, typically solid interviews and reviews, and the even more typically superb artwork. In general, a solid but not spectacular issue of The Third Alternative, with the stories by Hodge and Aegard carrying the day, although even the less successful tales are well-written and ambitious.
Christopher East is a regular contributor to Tangent Online. A handful of his short stories have appeared in various genre publications over the past few years, most recently in Tales of the Unanticipated and the anthology Best of the Rest 3. He lives in Iowa.