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It's the near future, and an explosion has opened a cave in the side of a mountain in Iraq. A mysterious cave at that, filled with yellow flowers of an uncertain nature. Specialist Fourth Class Charles N Wilson is assigned to one of the patrols sent into the cave to investigate, in part for the now-anachronistic reason that it might be Saddam Hussein's hideout.

Despite the first impressions given by this setup, 'A Walk In The Garden' doesn't seem to be particularly interested in political commentary. Oh, there are some jibes at George W Bush (out of office but remembered by Iraqi children as the 'great satan' (p36)), and there's obvious resonance when the mission goes south and the surviving soldiers seem to be trapped in the Islamic hell (literally fighting terror), but none of it cuts deeply. Instead, Shepard seems content to offer a gung-ho tale of military adventure played out against a colourful, fantastical backdrop.

There's nothing wrong with that, as such. His soldiers may be typical future soldiers--full-body battle suits and a variety of mind-enhancing substances on tap--but his backdrop, all brass forests, wolf-devils and giant pearlescent spheres, is as impressive as you could ask for. The main problem, I think, is in the pacing. The amount of plot doesn't match the length of the story; there isn't the punchiness that this sort of story demands (or alternatively, there isn't the length to develop a more thoughtful tale), and as a result no real tension ever develops.

I read 'Walk...' when it first appeared at SCIFICTION last year, and was somewhat disappointed by it then. It doesn't gain much from a second reading, particularly not when following directly on the heels of 'Only Partly Here'. It is loud where the other is quiet; clumsy where its predecessor is elegant. It's still not a bad story is such, and it does have some effective moments. My own favourite is when Wilson, realising that it's their belief systems that have to adapt to the new situation if they are to survive, redoctrinates his comrade:
"Do you hear what I'm saying?" he asks, and GRob says, "Loud and clear, man!"
"Where are we going?"
"What're we gonna do there?"
"Walk in gardens of silver and gold!"
"How we gonna get there?"
"With superior firepower!"
It's not the answer he wants, and he repeats his question.
She falters and then says, "By the grace of God!", but she almost makes it seem another question.
"By the will of Allah!" he says.
"By the will of Allah!"
"Allah be praised!"
He pounds the message into her, motivating like he's never done before, but it's not his usual bullshit. He feels it; the words sing out of him like silver swords shivering from their sheaths until at last she's singing with him, delirious and shiny-eyed, and she lifts her rifle above her head with one hand and shouts, "There is no God but Allah!"(pp67-8)
It's a nice highlighting of the insanity and doublethink involved in so much warfare, or any situation involving dogmatic thinking, but it's almost alone as such in the story. In the end it's not enough to lift 'A Walk In The Garden' above the merely average.

[Back to Trujillo index]
It sounds to some extent as if this story is a re-tooling of the South American jungle warfare stories that Sherpard was doing so effectively back in th 80s, when the Sandanistas were the enemie du jour.

Have you read these earlier works, especially the novel Life During Wartime? How does it stand against those? Does it need those to be properly understood?
Have you read these earlier works

No, I'm afraid not. But, though I don't have Life During Wartime, I do have The Jaguar Hunter and The Ends of the Earth--if there are any stories in those collections that you think would make an interesting comparison, let me know and I'll have a look at them.
Its been a long long time since I read The Jaguar Hunter but I recall one story's name in that, Delta Sly Honey I think, that seems relevant. There were several others in there that are from the general 'south american Vietnam' series, but I can't recall their names.
I'll try to read it this evening (googling suggests it's in The Ends of the Earth). This interview also gives 'Fire-Zone Emerald' and 'R&R' as war stories. The latter I've seen mentioned more than once, so I'll try to read that as well.
Those extra titles are definitely in the war series. I though DSH was in JG, but maybe I'm wrong...
I read 'Delta Sly Honey' last night (it was in The Ends of the Earth); didn't get around to the others.

I thought it was better than, but not that similar to, 'A Walk in the Garden'. There are differences of focus; DSH's protagonist is an observer, mostly, and the real story happens to Randall J Willingham. In 'Walk', Wilson is directly caught up in the events that happen. More importantly, it seems to me, the nature of the events is different. Where 'Walk' has a clear external threat, DSH is more about internal conflicts between soldiers, and the supernatural bits are highlighting. That's a reflection of the differences between Iraq and Vietnam, I guess.

Actually, the story DSH reminded me of most strongly was 'Barnacle Bill the Spacer'--both of those have the same observer-tells-about-the-camp-simpleton setup.