Once upon a time (about three years ago), I wrote that the most characteristic New Interzone stories are not directly about different or potential worlds, in the classic way of sf short stories, but about “characters who have distinctly limited viewpoints of different or potential worlds” — and singled out Will McIntosh’s “Soft Apocalypse” (IZ200) as an exemplar of this approach, centred as it was on a character “struggling to recognise what sort of future he was in”. Guess what “A Clown Escapes From Circus Town” is about?
There are differences. Beaners the clown struggles not because the world he lives in is so strange (although it is), but because he is raised ignorant, perhaps not really even comprehending that he and the two thousand other clowns he shares a Big Top with are slaves. He knows the world beyond Circus Town only by repute: Medieval Village, Superhero Cove, Monster World, Sextown. He knows how to be funny. He knows that he wants to know where people go, when they disappear.
And so the innocent goes abroad. His incomprehension when confronted with possible explanations of his world, as described by a narrator who knows more than he does, can be quite touching —
It was difficult for Beaners to imagine a mixed town. What were they, if they had no themes? How did the people who lived there think about the place where they lived? And what did they do there? It was like a person with no face.
— if perhaps familiar. His adventures are engaging, particularly when they get strange or serious, or best of all, both. I’ll forgive the disingenuously dramatic ending, lest I become a stuck record, and because a part of me was cheering, this time. Don’t tell anyone.