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Third Alternative, The

Entry updated 19 February 2024. Tagged: Publication.


UK Semiprozine published by TTA Press, Ely and edited by Andy Cox; 42 issues, #1 [January] 1994 to Summer 2005. After a two-year hiatus it was reborn as the dark fantasy and horror magazine Black Static. The first ten issues were in A5 size, but from issue #11 (Winter 1996/1997) switched to A4 format; Black Static retained this format from #1 (September 2007) to #28 (April/May 2012) and from #29 (July/August 2012) changed – with what was now its sister publication Interzone – to the small standard size of 9.5 x 6.75 in (240 x 170 mm). Ceased 2023.

The title neatly established that the magazine was not publishing straightforward sf, fantasy or horror, but a third alternative, stories of the mind, of the psychological and human condition. These stories might be impelled by scientific or technological advance, but always one step removed. They were stories arising from societies affected by change, uncertainty and distrust – the results, some might argue, of a relentless but misguided progress of civilization. Initially the magazine was labelled "new crossgenre fiction", though this almost contradicted the phrase "third alternative" by suggesting a mix of genres rather than something additional. Cox found it convenient to label these stories as Slipstream, though retrospectively it seems more the case that the stories helped define slipstream than vice versa. If anything slipstream might be seen as too introspective, too expressionistic – which a number of the early stories were – but as The Third Alternative developed and authors became accustomed to the freedom it offered, the fiction became more surreal, more externalized, observing the strangeness beyond as much as within. Stories like "Airbabies" (Summer 1995) by Tim Nickels and "London Wall" (Autumn 1995) by Nicholas Royle jar the reality of the world. In effect the magazine's contents were sui generis, and though some could be labelled Horror because of their effect, the content was closer to Fabulation through an exploration of Perception. This was the true "third alternative", a revisionist outlook on society. The magazine had already captured this essence in its artwork, especially its cover art and notably the work of David Mooring and Alan Casey. The covers all depicted faces, often masked, staring back at the reader, or just beyond the reader: the hidden world looking outwards. This approach highlighted the alien within us all, an aspect of the magazine's fiction encapsulated in "The Galaxy by Torchlight" (Spring 1996) by Hick Turnball. The magazine, in this early phase, provided a new market for the work of various emerging writers including Neal Asher, Peter Crowther, Rhys Hughes, Chris Kenworthy, Tim Lebbon and Justina Robson.

With the growth to A4 size the magazine itself grew, and though it now described itself as "extraordinary new fiction" and its covers emphasized the strange and disturbing, the content began to acknowledge the more rational tradition of sf – especially after the switch to colour covers from issue #14 (undated but Winter 1997), which softened the magazine's hitherto stark, sombre almost decadent image. Author profiles, which included J G Ballard and Christopher Priest, neither too surprising, also included Kim Stanley Robinson and Greg Egan. The Third Alternative was retaining its dark core but coating it in a veneer of science-fictional optimism, and a degree of hope. "Dancing About Architecture" (1997 #14) by Martin Simpson, the opening story in the first large issue, was a charming story about how a young boy learns to hear the music of the world. It won the British Fantasy Award as that year's best short story. This change made for a more complete magazine, less abrasive than the early issues but also less potent. For the rest of its existence, until it returned to the dark as Black Static, which was closer to the magazine's original outlook, The Third Alternative became a genuine third focus for the more extreme elements of science fiction. Christopher Priest's novella "I, Haruspex" (1998 #16) is a fine example of this repositioning, a story that uses certain sf images like frozen time, alongside the more fantastic imagery of a man seeking to stave off the horrors of the World War by absorbing the world's cancers. Other major contributors include Brian W Aldiss, Chaz Brenchley, Jay Lake, Joel Lane, Tim Pratt, James Sallis, Patrick Samphire, Lucius Shepard, Ian Watson and Leslie What, all writers one would expect to push the envelope. The magazine also extended its coverage to all media with columns on the Cinema, other art forms and other cultures, primarily Japan. The art in the magazine was particularly striking with work by Vincent Chong, Camille Kuo, Richard Marchand, Edward Noon, Chris Nurse and Bruce Richardson. The magazine won the British Fantasy Award for best small press in 1996 and 1999 and the International Horror Guild Award for best periodical ion 2005.

The magazine was constantly struggling with its identity, briefly calling itself TTA, running a series of covers that suggested stories more akin to streetwise punk and urban fantasy. The Third Alternative was never a magazine of Cyberpunk, though it did Interview William Gibson (2000 #22). In fact it carved itself a very deep niche as the magazine of alternative literature, always on the edge of genre, but never dipping its toe too deep into the conventional. It was what China Miéville in his guest editorial for issue #35 (Summer 2003) called the New Weird. By whatever definition, The Third Alternative had helped develop and establish the New Weird in Britain. In issue #40 Paul Meloy appeared with his award-winning "Black Static" (Winter 2004/2005), a story the captures that elusiveness of dreams as Dr Mocking, the Firmament Surgeon, seeks to defeat the demon of nightmare. The story has all the stuff of nightmare and illusion but at the same time a glimmer of hope. It was decided that this image was ideal for the new magazine that was reshaped out of the old when Andy Cox also took on the publication of Interzone and so returned The Third Alternative to its base as Black Static, where it continued to do what it did best: unsettling reality. Publication became irregular after 2020, the final year of bimonthly appearances. 2021 saw only two double issues, #78/#79 and #80/81; there were none in 2022; and #82/83, released in July 2023, was declared by Cox to be the final issue.

A selection of sixteen stories from the early issues is Last Rites & Resurrections (anth 1995) edited by Andy Cox. [MA]

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