The 3rd Alternative, #34, Spring 2003

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"Finisterre" by Patrick Samphire
"The Legality of Dreams" by Alan Wall
"Li Ketsuwan" by Eric Brown
"Babies" by Leslie What
"New Life" by James Sallis
"Don't Touch the Blackouts" by Paul Meloy
"The Anti-fan" by Tim Lees
"In the Darkening Green" by Mike O'Driscoll

Image"A few bits of paper, some money, and Thomas Carlyle is gone, replaced by Evan Harris.

The stamp lifts, descends towards the paper…

And I'm on my knees in mud."

Patrick Samphire's "Finisterre" is one of the finer examples of how to turn a conceit into a story: what if something lost still exists, somewhere else?

That somewhere else is Finisterre.

Thomas Carlyle lost his lover, Jorge, many years ago when the National Guard crushed a small rebellion in Corazon del la Revolucion. Jorge was caught and hung while Thomas watched, unable to bring himself to help. Before they left, the National Guard renamed the town San Lorenzo after their commander.

At the end of his rope, Thomas may have a chance to regain his lost happiness with Jorge when a chance encounter reveals a mythical land, Finisterre, where the originals go when a person or a place is renamed. All Thomas needs to do to go to Finisterre is change his name.

What happens when Thomas arrives in Finisterre is handled with remarkable sensitivity, adventurous without becoming maudlin, true to the patriots of the Revolucion as it echoes and transforms the events of our own post 9/11 world in a revealing way.

* * *

"The Legality of Dreams" by Alan Wall

"My dreams are classified Progressive Disorder Class 2 and have been since the time I was five. I've been under surveilance ever since I could spell the word sleep. When I close my eyes, they switch on their machines.

The sky is filled with silvery, shiny UFOs that reflect back the faces of the people below: maybe a year older. The conclusion is that a catastrophic event will take place in the next year.

Everyone is represented, with one major exception–there are no images of members of government with the result that government officials panic. The dreamers are the only ones able to communicate with the mysteriously silent future selves. They are rounded up, isolated, and rigorously interrogated as members of government attempt to find out what happens to themselves, and why.

For a work entitled "The Illegality of Dreams," I expected some exploration of the role of dreams in this alternative, near future society. Instead, we have a systematic domination and oppression of a small group–the dreamers–by the government.

While I feel strongly that the conduct of a government towards its people is a worthy topic, the acts of the government in "Legality" seem almost beside the point. Mr. Wall has chosen to represent government as a monolithic, impersonal force of ill. Like the resident evil in a horror story, the government as villain never fully takes form in the light where it could be understood, absorbed and transformed. The focus is not really on the government abusing its citizens: the real focus is on suffering, specifically the suffering of the narrator.

The tone of the oppressive government evokes shades of Alan Moore's "V is for Vendetta." Where "V" can loosely claim to be optimistic–an individual can, through pain and sacrifice, arrive at awareness of and resistance to spiritual domination by an oppressive government–the vision of the future in "Illegality" is more uncomfortable. The dreamer is rescued, not through his or her own agency but through the mysterious, God-like future self and the hope for this world is through obliteration, not renewal.

The language in "Illegality" is powerful and evocative, verging on poetic as it transports the reader to this sad, dark vision of the future. I wish there were more stories that worked on a soul level as this one does.

* * *

"Li Ketsuwan" by Eric Brown

"I recall vividly how I first met Li.

The script called for some reference to Thai myth or magic, and one of the crew, a local, told Anderson that he knew a woman who might be able to help us.

Anderson gave me the task of questioning her."

Years ago, Grant met Li Ketsuan in Thailand, used her, then cruelly abandoned her. Li swore he would return. Since then, Grant has been haunted by a spirit or force that has ruined every attempt to take another lover. Now Grant has returned to Thailand to find Li.

Grant, the user and discarder of women, gets his comeuppance in fine style. The evocation of Thailand as an exotic location is lushly achieved (to really understand how alien Thai culture is, may I direct your attention to the excellent "Bangkok 8"?) and if the motivations of Li and Grant don't bear too close an examination, the "tinkling of wind chimes" is a darkly satisfying conclusion that will long haunt me.

* * *

"Babies" by Leslie What

"To form the basket she cut a circle around the top of the grapefruit rind and peeled away part of the rind. Her eyes watered from the spray of citrus juice, yet the smell was so sweet, she thought she might have cried anyway."

Roni Sue is pregnant, her belly teeming with "six fernlike babies." Her husband, Marc, has grown distant, Roni Sue is both exhausted and troubled and their half of the shotgun double teems with roaches. Marc wants them exterminated but Roni Sue has avoided the exterminator bout out of ambivalence about the fecund roaches' struggle to live, and because of the exterminator's noxious chemicals.

Leslie What does a beautiful, thoughtful job of drawing out the weirdness of ordinary life; Roni Sue and her situation easily gain my sympathy. "Babies" is a powerful reminder that speculative fiction must reach out beyond readers, characters and situations of 40+ professional males, and will gain vitality when we do.

The New Wave established the internal landscape as at least as important as any far flung planet. Still, I found the story perhaps too subtle for me. I left "Babies" questioning Roni Sue's sanity more than I was enlightened abut the human condition or even Roni Sue's situation. My questioning of her mental condition dominated the gentle arc and detracted from my understanding.

This seems like a vignette–an emotional moment presented to the reader–rather than a story and the speculative elements eluded me. I could easily see "Babies" in a collection, where the assembly of works in relationship to each other would give more meaning, direction and context to my reading. Isolated among works of a very different nature, I found that it didn't move me very far from where I already was before leaving me.

* * *

"New Life" by James Sallis

"Over the past days, a speed bump has grown in the streets just outside my living room."

Ralph is a disaffected member of contemporary, 9 to 5 cubicle country. His disconnection from the banal world around him is so complete, he fails to prepare for a major presentation. But something strange and wonderful is happening to the city as he watches.

Short-shorts are, in my opinion, hampered by too much ambiguity. With only two pages to build the context necessary for a reader to successfully arrive at the climax at the same time Ralph does, most of my attention felt misspent on trying to figure out the basic foundations of Ralph's world. I have to do this for myself because it isn't laid out for me. In a longer work, the unraveling of the mystery would contribute to my enjoyment. Here, it's sadly in the way.

The banality of modern work life is probably one of the more subtle and important issues of modern life. It's easy to see the threat in asteroids falling from the sky. It's much harder to visualize the erosion of the spirit that comes from corporate lackey-hood. That said, I am frustrated by the number of stories that feature major characters who wander pointlessly through cubicle-ville. The novelty has worn off and cubicle-ville has become a boring landscape that enervates the stories set there. When I read about a character trapped in a mundane, 9 to 5 world, I need a story about struggle against the numbing of the spirit, or a story in which the loss of human potential is brought powerfully and forcefully home. The use here is confusing and I can't tell what the purpose was.

I think the reader supposed to understand that Ralph has achieved some kind of redemption at the end and to delight in and share with him the renewal of his relationship with his wife. My problem is that I neither understand it–I haven't seen it coming and I don't understand how this renewal is derived from an uncertain birth of the speed bump into an unseen creature–and I don't believe it. Ralph's changed outlook feels declared, not achieved.

The conceptualization of a city as an organic creature was powerful. James Sallis' voice takes on a tone that is different from the rest of the work: authoritative, compelling and filled with the mystery and wonder of the world around us. It might not be the open vistas of distant, uncolonized planets, but the gritty determination to grow and persevere is made more precious thereby. I look forward to his view of a living city in a longer, more developed format.

* * *

"Don't Touch the Blackouts" by Paul Meloy

"I tried to imagine the tenderness of his heart, the might of pain that drove him. I don't think I came close. I could not begin to perceive the hurt I had been unable to prevent causing him that kept him trapped in his own loop of bargaining and denial. That kept bringing him back here.

Bismuth did not subscribe to linear time and by strength of will existed at all points simultaneously. It was killing him."

Bismuth travels back and forth in time, relieving and releasing those spirits trapped by death and grief.

The mystery of who Bismuth is, why he has set himself on this eternally unfulfilled question, and his relationship to the narrator is unwound with skill and perception, a red carpet welcoming the reader into a finely crafted world of the fantastic where the Egress Lever works with an intuitive sense of rightness. Competing with "Finisterre" as one of the outstanding works in this issue, "Blackouts" arrives at its surprise conclusion with the welcome inevitability of rain falling in the desert.

In order to deliver the 220 V ending, Paul Meloy needs to withhold important information from the reader, releasing it in carefully measured increments, letting the floodgates go only in the last few paragraphs. It makes the ending strikingly effective. My only comment is that, like an O. Henry story, the value of this story is found predominantly in the first time you read it: it doesn't support re-reading too well. Although the topic is grief, and I welcome a story based on a theme other than sex or violence, the literary elaboration and discussion of grief is almost completely sacrificed to the information withholding necessary to a shock ending.

* * *

"The Anti-fan" by Tim Lees

"He did a chat show on TV, determined to talk straight for once. No script, no jokes, no silliness. He owed them that, he thought: or owed himself."

Downey is a comedian who's struck it big. Now he's second guessing his success, starting an archaeological expedition digging through the layers of false personality that have accumulated through the years. On the darker side, he's being hunted by anti-fans, the "equal and opposite reaction" to his rise.

Downey is a first class jerk but Tim Lees has drawn him with a gifted, sympathetic eye. The brief meeting between Downey and an older entertainer who has his own experiences with the anti-fans is inspired. The story droops in the middle a little. Downey's personality and situation are nicely and quickly established, followed by still more of the same. The repetition didn't contribute to my appreciation of the ending quite as much as it increased my desire for it. Once you get there, Tim Lees returns to form. The quick sketches of the additional anti-fans who have fastened themselves to Downey are a case study, accomplishing more characterization in a few words than some writers will achieve with pages of description. I don't think anyone will envy Downey his success, nor will the bookies be taking bets on his longevity.

* * *

"In the Darkening Green" by Mike O'Driscoll

"Family Day is all about making an impression and that is what they are all trying hard to do."

Impress a Carer, get a good home. That's Mother's lesson to her young charges. Conformity is the law and there is no recourse. Only Adu isn't buying it. She believes the children are altered when they leave Happy Kidz. She's afraid of changing, of forgetting. She plans to run away with her closest friend Eric. When he is Chosen, she runs away by herself.

I had difficulty with this story: the plot doesn't seem to unwind right. Adu is suspicious enough to place not only her happiness at risk but that of Eric without any evidence. The author plans to shock us by revealing a graduate of Happy Kidz near the end. In the meantime, Adu must act from the beginning as if something important were at stake, even though she won't have concrete understanding until very late in the story. Dread–the inexorable slide of a beloved character into a fate known to be horrid–could have been at least as motivating for the reader as shock.

Adu attempts to convince Eric of his danger through her fears. Repeatedly. Although she is surprised and disappointed when no one accepts her unfounded revelations, she takes no action to collect concrete details or proof.

The flashbacks did not materially contribute to the unfolding of the plot, my sense of the setting or my understanding of the characters. This story is not as tight or focused as most that appear in these pages.

The ending is supposed to outrage the reader, and probably will. Adu escapes from HK and encounters her teen friend, Tassie. Tassie is escorted by a "Daddy" who is defends her from Adu whom Tassie can no longer remember. "Daddy" exudes menace: his physical relationship with Tassie suggests a sexual relationship, not a parental one. Adu reports them to the police, who merely return Adu to Happy Kidz. In the concluding scene, Adu is sitting next to her new "Daddy" with his hand on her knee.

The problem is one of information hiding: in order to achieve maximal stun power in the ending, too much information is concealed from the reader. Falsely, in my opinion. If Happy Kidz is busy handing out teen ass to pedophiles, why is it that we've seen no hint until the last few paragraphs? It feels like a cheap magic trick: the story is clearly about the sanctity of personal identity for the first 4 1/2 page. Surprise! It's really its about institutionalized pedophilia.

The surprise worked: I didn't see it coming. And the yuck factor is high enough that uncritical readers won't look any further. But this was a story that grows from the same garden as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" or Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" and could easily have been just as disturbing and more eerie. Instead, "Green" comes off as muddled, an effort that doesn't know its true direction.

* * *

The visual design of TTA is always a strong element, from the cover to the typefaces and layout. It's a joy to have in your hand, to appreciate even before you dig in to the stories and articles. This issue was eclectic, bringing together slices of the specfic realm as diverse as po-mo, light horror and socialspec SF.

For some context, this issue of TTA was released just after the invasion of Iraq. It starts of with a raucous, biting guest editorial by Muriel Gray about life in a modern world that pits an indifferent, entertainment saturated public against major world events, such as the invasion of Iraq. Several of the works here–"Finisterre" and "The Illegality of Dreams"–examine the post 9/11 world with a heartfelt, if pained, eye. It's an attitude that is sadly absent on this side of the pond, where the response that I've seen in the genre has been limited to introducing terrorists as all-purpose villains.