The 3rd Alternative, #37, Spring 2004

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"Iridescence" by Jay Caselberg
"You Will Hear the Locust Sing" by Joe Hill
"Mission Memory" by Karen Fishler
"Rhythms and Complications" by Gavin Grant
"Terrible Ones" by Tim Pratt
"Relics" by Tim Lees

Image"Iridescence" by Jay Caselberg

He swallowed back the frustration and nodded. "Okay," he said reluctantly, moving to rejoin her on the couch and reaching for his drink again.

Later, they made love, but it was lacklustre, and they both knew it. Justin spent a long time afterwards, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling with his eyes wide open, several inches of bed separating them.


Justin and Janessa live in a city that has been bodily lifted into the clouds by a "collective effort of will." When a common friend, Ben Riley, succumbs to the meaninglessness of existence and takes the Long Walk, their relationship collapses into pain, misunderstanding and silence.

While Janessa disappears from Justin's life to take care of Ben's widow, Justin begins explorations of nature of the Long Walk, a journey that will take him to the roots of the city and the discovery of a huge colony of strange butterflies. Returning to his apartment, Justin is unable to contact Janessa. He concludes that she, too, has taken the Long Walk. More terrifyingly, he realizes the odd butterflies are the missing victims of the Long Walk.

Jay Casselberg's take on ennui feels forced. I'm asked to believe that in a city that has been lifted into the sky essentially by a miracle, so many residents are drowning under the weight of their meaningless lives that the Long Walk–suicide with a side order of mystery–is a common antidote. I had trouble buying either the meaninglessness or the frequency.

The characters are transparently conscripted to the needs of the plot: part of Janessa's despair depends upon being able to see the paradise on Earth below while not being able to either reach it or reproduce it. Yet my credulity is severely tested: in a setting in which will power alone can lift a city into the clouds, the inability of people to return to the surface feels arbitrary and isn't well explained. Residents suffer withdrawal and hopelessness because the city cannot sustain gardens or beauty yet the bar has a plentiful supply of the fruits of the field, frex beer and wine. We've all seen The Matrix, and the conditions aboard the sub. In that context, I found an entire city–as isolated as it might be–to be a poor model of despair.

My biggest difficulty is with the horrifying conclusion: those who take the Long Walk have actually turned into butterflies. As a sudden revelation, it was telegraphed quite early. As a horrific ending for Janessa… well, it is a transformation that was welcomed by the characters involved. I wasn't horrified, nor was I bound tightly enough to Justin to understand the horror though his eyes. The question that must be (but is not) addressed for this ending to be horrific is: why is transformation to a butterfly significantly worse end than suicide?

"You Will Hear the Locust Sing" by Joe Hill


Once, he and his father had gone to the dump together, with the shotgun, and took turns with it, picking off cans, rats, sea gulls. "Imagine the fuckin' krauts are coming," his father said. Francis didn't know what the German soldiers looked like, so he pretended he was shooting the kids from school instead. The memory of that day in the dump made him a little sentimental for his father–they had made some good times together, and Buddy had made a decent meal at the end. Really what else could you ask from a parent.


Francis lives in Calliphora, a town where the main industry is trash collection and the second main industry is the military: testing the Bomb. One morning, Francis is transformed into an insect. He runs away from home, learns to fly, returns home and unintentionally kills his father, Buddy, in an altercation. Francis then kills Ella, his father's girlfriend.

When Buddy reaches the right level of putrefaction, Francis eats him. Francis wanders about without purpose, finds himself at the school where he kills his friend Eric "because he loved him," nukes a bully, butchers everyone in sight, then flies off to take on a tank and the army.

"Locust" works best as an homage to the giant man-eating mutant insect movies of the 1950's and 1960's, with a faint nod in the direction of a plot as a school bully gets his comeuppance. Metamorphosis meets Them! with a little Willard thrown in.

"Locust" had the unusual effect of turning me into an Analog reader with a number of issues of fact. Crickets thrown into boiling molasses don't drown any more than lobsters drown in boiling water. You can't suck honey–or honey coated ants–up a straw. Francis is injured by a shotgun blast but then takes on soldiers and a tank with the expectations of invincibility.

Realism is not "Locust's" strong point. Rather it is a romp, re­enacting the illogical things that made the old movies both unbearable and tremendously fun. I would prefer a story that was less aimless. Everything Francis does–except attack the army–lacks direction or motivation. This is a world of random elements strung together as the author conceived of them. The accumulated mass has a certain power but overall I wished the cleverness of the author's imagination wasn't quite so in the way of narrative flow. The whole is presented in a disorganized fashion where the climax is somewhere between accident and afterthought.

"Mission Memory" by Karen Fishler


Doc pulled a pill bottle out of his pocket and began to pace up and down the aisle, shaking it gently. "You, children, are the chosen ones," he said. Jonathan wondered if he made the same speech every time they came back from a mission. "You and your fellows exemplify a great truth, which is that forgetting is more important than remembering. We human beings cannot move forward without leaving the past behind. And because we now know how to bring forgetting about, you will dispense with what you have seen and done tonight. You will be at peace. Because you will forget, you will be able to do it all again. …"


Johnathan is the member of a corps of children who are used as soldiers to kill indigents. Upon return from their missions, they will be medicated to forget. Only Jonathan has a problem: he's reacting with sympathy toward his victims. This makes him a social outcast within his corps. He also believes that his failure to perform to specification will lead to his removal from the team and his death.

When Jonathan is pursued by an indigenous woman from the marketplace, the tension within the team comes to a head. She also has special knowledge: the team members are actually children of killed villagers, stolen and programmed to kill in the service of the oppressors.

Johnathan is forced to decide where his sympathies lie when Doc takes the unusual step of accompanying the team on their next mission.

The story strives so hard to make an impact that ultimately it was hard to take seriously. I would normally be interested in the exploration of any of themes of children as soldiers; the use of memory altering drugs; the meaning of morality in a culture of propaganda of soldiers; the oppression of indigenous peoples; the hopelessness of being on the wrong side of a technological gap. Instead of being justifiably horrified at any single theme, I feel like I'm being shotgunned with social hot-button topics until I fail to experience the intense and profound fear these subjects should invoke.

Still, it's good–startling even–to see original ideas and social conscience at work in the genre.

"Rhythms and Complications" by Gavin Grant


A quick and surprising Sunday morning war had much thinned the global population. It had solved a lot of problems, Jeremy thought, in the same way a battery hen might think getting decapitated would solve a lot of problems.


This strange little story, subtitled "Synethesia, and Other Additions, Companions and Subtractions of War," takes place in a cafe that has survived a clean war. The survivors make their way from one day to the next in an emotional vacuum and their lives are largely untouched except for weird, unexplained side effects. These are toned down superpowers, the mutant spider bite for the post-modern generation. It is a sign of our current genre sensibilities that its hard to tell from the narrative there's even been a war; the war might nor might not have used "dirty" weapons; and the narrative is more akin to dream than the substantive, concrete horrors we normally associate with global war.

While not every examination of war and the attitudes towards global conflict has to be Dr. Strangelove, this felt like listening to Charlie Brown's parents: the rendered world is so completely removed from the affects of war the story acquires the aspect of a conversation above or outside of my world.

"Complications" is an entertaining piece that makes powerful use of the striking and unusual. Ultimately, "Complications" doesn't carry me far from where I started except to admire the strange, alien atmosphere.

"Terrible Ones" by Tim Pratt


The Greek Chorus first appeared on Thursday night, as Zara lugged two paper bags full of groceries into the gravel parking lot.


Life is never comfortable when the Gods take an interest in you. "The Terrible Ones," by Tim Pratt lives up to that promise. Zara is a dedicated struggling actor with a paying gig as a dominatrix. The Furies have been set on her trail and Nikki, a mysterious benefactor, knows more than she's telling.

A straightforward story told well and one of my favorites of this issue.

"Relics" by Tim Lees


Their poverty seemed quaint and picturesque at first. I loved the smoky little cottage where they crowded with their hens and goats, three rooms for a family of five. It was a lark for me, to squat there on the earthen floor. I couldn't even dream of how it must be through the long, drab winter months, in rooms lit intermittently by oil lamps, cold and draughty, never any privacy… No wonder Julia had come to live with me.


If there's an archetypal TTA story, this is it. A businessman travels to an exotic location, shacks up with a local, almost goes native, fails the relationship, pulls out and regrets it for the rest of his life.

Aliens made their home on Earth then left suddenly. The narrator makes a living searching for artifacts carelessly abandoned in that unexplained departure . Searching for a crash site, he finds Julia and her brother Juan who have an uncanny ability to locate wreckage that's washed ashore. The narrator conjectures Julia and Luan are descendants of the wrecked aliens. He bails on the relationship with Julia and the story wraps with his reminiscence, years later, on his one perfect love, his abysmal treatment of Julia and his inability to get over it.

The concerns are real enough and universal: great sex is confused for a true relationship; the closer the narrator comes to obtaining the wreck and the financial reward he claims to want, the more uncomfortable he becomes until he finally flees. Ultimately this a ghost story, about almost having a love, about narrowly avoiding a life. If children once used daisies for divination–she loves me, she loves me not–"Relics" exists in a world in which the victims of advanced culture need a dowsing rod to identify their own destiny, a map to their own emotional highway. Do I love her? How can I tell?

The narrator's loss-in-retrospective is real and compelling but I could so use a dose of direct action.: go native instead of toying with the idea from a distance. I appreciate a character who is internally conflicted; however the narrator is so incapable of commitment–even to himself–he fails to make the evolutionary step up from putty. He achieves the ultimate magician's trick of turning invisible in his own story. The ending feels less like an unfortunate mistake that might evoke my sympathy and more like the inevitable consequences of the laws of nature.

Overall, I found "Relics" to be an elegant and persuasive evocation of place and environment.

TTA is consistently the best print magazine I've read this last year. While, in my opinion this issue isn't quite as strong as past issues have been, the stories are still thoughtful, well written and head-and-shoulders above most of the fare out there. If you haven't picked up a copy, you owe it to yourself to give TTA a try.