The 3rd Alternative, #36, Autumn 2003

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"The Park Sweeper" by Lucius Shepard
"The Automatic Circus" by David Ira Cleary
"Miko" by Karen Fisher
"Grief Inc." by Andrew Humphrey
"Phantom Limb" by Martin Simpson

ImageOverall an excellent issue, stylish in production, featuring besides the fiction three excellent columns and an interview with Trevor Hoyle. The editorial by Justina Robson up front touches on the recent "genre war" discussion in Tangent's SFF.NET newsgroup, her views both sensible and well expressed.

Leading off the fiction is Lucius Shepard's novella "The Park Sweeper." Though I enjoyed the other stories to varying degrees, this one alone is worth the price of the magazine. Shepard's stories often begin with a guy in an exotic locale. This time the guy is an artist, and the exotic location is Trujillo, Honduras. The narrator is there for a two week fling with his girlfriend Sharon, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, the bars being both her self esteem and her perceived responsibility for her two children. Two weeks' flyaway freedom is fun at first but will be over too soon, and she's feeling the pressure of responsibility when the story opens. To give her space, the artist sits in the public square, sketching, people-watching. Not just people, but trees. Along the fence backing the square are a row of gray-trunked trees with dense, round foliage into which the local park sweeper occasionally sticks some of the trash he continually sweeps up: "gold foil from a cigarette pack, a shard of brown glass, the arm from a broken doll." The only variation in this park sweeper's routine is when an old derelict tries by various means to sneak in near the trees, there is always a struggle and the sweeper drives the derelict away, sometimes with a machete.

That's the setting. The story tightly weaves Sharon's and the narrator's changing relationship with a curious mystery involving the park sweeper, the derelict, the trees, and a local legend about the centuries-old massacre (or was it a magical rescue?) of a Mayan village by a Spanish colonel. Shepard never resorts to cliché in describing the narrator's love affair; the same exquisitely realist detail he uses to paint the hot, dusty streets of Trujillo is evoked in describing the relationship. So realistic is the detail that it's easy to accept that Sharon sometimes has premonitions (even if she doesn't believe in them), and that the narrator's attempt to see just what's going on with the trash stashed in the trees seems to suck him into a microscopic world as if not just seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

The story's beats are marked off by occasional news flashes from the States, focusing on the Iraqi conflict and the absurdity of the color-coded danger levels; the subsidiary characters converse in orthogonal arcs that remind one of a David Mamet play. Shepard's unsentimental narrative (he's scrutinizing sun-boiled roadkill while listening to an account of long-ago magical legend) leads us unaware to a weird, and finally transcendent, denouement.

David Ira Cleary's delightful "The Automatic Circus" reminds me of the best of Jack Vance. Cleary has written several stories about Jaromir Stavan, an academic carrying on a brisk feud with a colleague named Evaristo Berrenz Monij (even the names are Vancian). The place is Wensceslao, the time feels like the late nineteenth century. In this story, Stavan leaves his desk to seek amusement, and discovers a ticket to a circus purported to be performed entirely by automatic men of metal, starring an Iron Queen.. Determined to steal a march on Monij, who might visit the circus and seize the public eye by writing about its uniqueness and fame, Stavan hurries to the circus in Crabcake Square, his intention to rush into print a debunking article. But to his dismay he finds Monij already there-speaking an offer to take him back stage after the show, to meet the Iron Queen. Cleary details Stavan's subsequent adventures with an irony that escapes Stavan, his earnest narrator, adding considerably to the enjoyment this story gives.

I would have liked "Miko," by Karen Fischler, a lot better if the central trope wasn't so familiar–especially in romance novels–that is, a single night of hot sex somehow, barring any real communication, becomes love forever. Miko is a young woman at Gateworld City, which is apparently in negotiation with aliens for political precedence; Miko is unconcerned with her city, the world, the culture, confining her energy-and thus the reader's focus–to cruising the streets in search of alien sex. She meets an earnest, thoughtful alien named Ajjer, who struggles to express himself in an alien tongue-his conversation the best characterization in the story-before they have their night of whoopee. Unfortunately what seemed an innocent enough encounter (despite Ajjer's oblique warnings) is a possible political threat, but Miko's emotions have been engaged. She resists her boss's attempts to conciliate her taste and freedoms with the needs of the community, and brings in others to help monitor Miko: the situation rapidly worsens both personally and globally for Miko, leading to an ending that might very well be grand scale for some readers, but for me was a splash into the bay of bathos.

"Grief, Inc." by Andrew Murphy also has as its center a relationship: in this case, a merry young woman named Josie who sings for people in civil-war-torn London, and Carter, a cynical, selfish guy who-amazingly enough-has a talent for taking the pain out of people's grief by giving them a hug. This is a strange alternate England, divided into warring camps, with the sounds of gun and artillery fire popping and crumping on adjacent streets, and people vanishing with depressing regularity. Carter uses his ability to make money in an otherwise grim economy; he pays Josie for their time together, but keeps her at arm's length emotionally. Josie's gift is discovered by Carter from others-he did not know about her extremely popular performances, a precious enough commodity in an otherwise nasty world. She finally leaves him, and a former customer, bereft of a grief that had given her meaning, sends an assassin after Carter . . . The story is gripping right to the end, impossible to predict, and except for a tendency for Josie to signal her emotions with Christmas-tree lights behind her eyes, the writing is taut and vivid.

The last story, Martin Simpson's "Phantom Limb," is short and quite strange. The protagonist lost an arm by accident, and finds his way into playing victims of various types of violence in films, by having a prosthetic blown off. He meets a production assistant named Kate and they end up together, and things might have gone on easily for both, except that the narrator keeps feeling increasingly intense phantom limb pains. After his last job, as victim in a slasher movie, the pain becomes so bad the laws binding time and physics no longer seem to apply to his life. A tight, minor key sort of story, bringing the issue to a satisfying close.