Electric Velocipede, Issue 21/22, Fall 2010
Electric Velocipede is a print magazine that started as a ‘zine in 2001. This issue will be the last published by Night Shade Books, according to a post on EV’s site by editor John Klima, as the magazine moves online. This issue contains fiction, poetry, an interview, and a book excerpt, with a total length of 218 pages. According to the submission guidelines they don’t publish horror, though some of the stories are quite dark. The magazine’s taste seems to run in the vein of LCRW, very comfortable with weird, and strongly preferential of shorter stories. In this issue there is a mix of what I’d call “literary weird” and sf and fantasy stories.
“Witherking” by T. J. Berg starts off the issue with a vivid, violent post-catastrophe tale. Witherking is the gang name of a 17-year-old boy working with a crew of road pirates, run by a famous leader called Pico de Calle. The story starts off with a violent encounter between Witherking and part of a convoy his crew is planning to hijack. The wither is a disease caused by ionizing radiation from the sun. The Earth’s magnetic field is flipping, and no longer protects the population. Witherking got his name because one of his arms is shriveled from the wither. Witherking and his sister Jessa were sent to a farm where the children of the poor are sent to work the fields. Witherking managed to escape but had to leave his sister Jessa behind. This is one of the longer pieces in the issue, at 13 pages. It gets a little too melodramatic at the end, but then again that fits with the over-the-top tone of the rest of the story.
Next comes “Care and Feeding of Your Piano” by William Shunn. This is a sort of epistolary story. I say sort of because you only read the letters in one direction, not both. The letters are from the piano’s manufacturer to the famous pianist owner. Gradually the corporate excuse-laden letters reveal a series of strange accidents related to the strange high-tech piano, an nanotechnological wonder that has to be fed (and watered?) regularly and has strange proclivities. The manufacturer, for instance, counsels the pianist against performing a certain piece until the piano is ready, or else. It’s moody, and it doesn’t like children or pets; a kid gets hurt and a dog disappears. And that’s only the beginning. Strange and creepy, not sure I liked it in the end; it was just too dark for me. The sense of creeping horror is well handled, but the distancing device of the letters works a little bit too well, and makes the structure seem a bit contrived. I would call this horror, or very dark satire at least.
Many of the stories in this issue are quite short. In a general way, I’m not sure the very short story is a good venue for sf and fantasy, there just isn’t time to fully develop settings, let alone characters and plots. It’s hard enough to write a good mainstream story at a very short length. With the extra demands of the fantastic, very short stories often just fall down. I think it’s a worthy challenge, just a very hard one to meet.
“Pistols at Dawn Amongst the Evergreens” by Samuel Mae is a sort of inverted space western (check if that is a spoiler or not). An interstellar criminal and officer of the law end up in a six-gun duel, or something like it. This was one of the stories I felt was too short to really pack a punch, though it had a clever twist.
“In the Beginnings” by Shannon Page and Jay Lake is listed under Fiction rather than Poetry but reads like an odd sort of poem. It’s a collection of first story lines. Some of them are fun or interesting, but I’m not sure what to make of the whole.
What would it be like if you woke up every morning and somehow your body had drastically changed? This is the situation of the protagonist of “The Next Day” by Dave Justus. On the day in question, however, the change is unusually pleasant. He is exuding a pleasant scent, apparently from every pore. I don’t really know what I thought about this one yet. I think its length led to an ending being left off, which I found unsatisfying.
Continuing with the theme of transformation but in a displaced way, “Shoes Worn Once” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli is the story of a man, Mike, and his alter ego (I’m not sure that’s the right term, because he is Alice, Alice is a part of his identity as much as Mike), Alice, who grows from his red shoes. Or rather, her red shoes. Mike digs out the red pumps he ordered for him/her self. Legs start growing out of them. He hides the shoes and growing legs in the shed. I’m not sure what to call this one, I suppose I could call it slipstream? It’s an interesting one to read with sfnal reading protocols. It could have been published as mainstream, the manifestations of Alice treated as metaphor. Snore, right? No, this is much more interesting. I think some people will be disappointed that the story never quite reveals itself. But others will enjoy the ambiguity.
Memory is another theme running through this issue.”Memories of Chalice” by Peter M. Ball is the story of a memory dealer told in extended flashback. At first I thought it would be the sf trope, selling your memories and losing them, because at the beginning of the story it’s clear the narrator has lost many. But no, this is not that story. Memories are sold on an exchange, in a vast trading hall. The narrator is a member of a trading family and joined the family business. A mysterious stranger brings him an especially valuable and rare memory. Popular memories can make vast fortunes. The mystery and gradual reveal is well handled, and the sketch of the society is credible and interesting. Though I’d seen the memory trope before, I liked this version.
“?°” by Darin Bradley is a strange one. The first time I tried to read it, I couldn’t finish it. I’m not sure what the title means. It presents bibliographic analyses of old an ancient books, bibliographic rarities. I can sort of see the appeal, the entries are clever; But the format is really off putting to me. The entries are realistic (so far as I know) and begin with detailed information about the number of leaves, printer, fonts, paper, etc. Clever enough, I suppose, and I’m sure some people will love it, but I was in story mode, not file-card mode, and it made the piece very hard to read.
“The Comedy at Kualoa” by Monica Byrne tells the story of a troupe of dolphins performing an elaborate piece of theater in a giant tank, from the point of view of a prominent theater critic. The communication scientist working with the dolphins convinces the critic to review the play, by convincing him that it is the first instance of true interspecies communication. I found it clever at first but then disturbing. Let’s just say the performance does not go well, and there’s some interspecies dying.
“The Stonecutter” by Damon Kaswell is a fantasy in which cities have stone hearts that must be maintained by master stonecutters. The stonecutter of the title is Marick, who takes care of the heart of Hektanos. He has to cut veins of corruption out of the heart to keep it pure. The fate of a city is linked to its heart — when a heart dies, the city dies. Marick holds a deep dark secret, and the source of the heart’s corruption holds his secret and his guilt over him. This was one of the strongest stories; Marick’s strong emotions are well shown; his deep love for his wife is affecting. It is also one of the longer stories, and so has time to develop the narrative and draw the reader in.
“The Portal to Heaven” by Shira Lipkin is an entertaining and very short little fable about what happens to Heaven and Hell when people stop dying. The “Heaven’s bureaucracy” trope is a bit tired these days, but this was light and fun.
“Intrepid Travelers” by Josh Rountree is a piece of psychedelic sf. AIs loosely based on historical figures control sectors, analogous to nations. They are locked in an interplanetary Cold War. The story finds a group of humans on a mission to take down one of the most powerful AI nations, called Kennedy (Kennedy sector’s mother planet is New Hyannisport. Heh). The rebels can evade Kennedy’s extensive defenses using a kind of acid trip teleportation. The protagonist, codename Cool Breeze, hooks up to his ship, the Bus, and if he gets into just the right state of mind, he can transport the whole bunch instantaneously. The rebel AI the group is working for is Kesey. Kesey is an idealist, not on anyone’s side. He’s trying to end the war by stealing everyone’s nukes. I’m not sure how well this holds up as sf, but I don’t really care. It’s good fun.
“Carte Blanche” by Genevieve Valentine is another short exercise in form. A prisoner is shown various shapes on cards, and punished, or not, according to what he says he sees on them. It’s predictable and yet, it got to me.
In the world of “Worm Days” by Karl Bunker, giant worms appear from underground and consume anything in their path. They’re not malevolent, exactly, but they eat things they don’t like, such as the White House and the Capitol. In this story, houses in a suburb are their preferred targets. The viewpoint character is a resident of the suburb whose wife has left him (I think) and new neighbors the Macombers (perhaps the name is borrowed from the Hemingway story? “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” I mean) who seem to have more money than sense, reminding me of Rudy Rucker’s famous greedheads, who can’t stop making new stuff when they get the magic alla device that makes commodities effectively worthless because you can make anything you want out of thin air (footnote: I think that’s from Saucer Wisdom). At the beginning of the story, the worm is eating the Macombers’ house, and the rest is told in flashback. The lady of the new neighbors’ house, Sheila, has been trying to vamp the protagonist, who’s trying to forget his old life and move on. It’s a well-written mainstream story about status envy, grief, and various other things, with giant, somewhat morally inclined (I think) worms in it. A good story. Not a particularly strong genre story, but that’s OK, it’s not really a genre story anyway. Another entry in the slipstream category? I suppose. I’d really call it suburban satire with giant worms.
“Unlocking the God” by L. L. Hannett is another body transformation story, but of a different sort. A young man named Steward (not sure it was necessary to give him that name, I find that a leetle heavy handed) wakes up with a city growing out of his right palm. Well, at first it’s a weird mass, and he fears it’s from “the wanking.” But it grows and grows. Meanwhile, a parallel story unfolds inside the city, Novander, where an assassin pursues an elusive target in a house that moves. I found the inside-the-city story extremely compelling. I didn’t really fancy the frame story, even though they do connect together eventually. Is this perhaps an example of fear of genre, of needing to wrap a fantasy in something else, in the modern grotesque? I thought the fantasy was just fine, great even, and would have quite enjoyed it on its own without Steward and his antics. I guess some readers will feel the opposite way though. But still, this makes me want to say, hey, it doesn’t always have to be weird or weird. There’s nothing wrong with a good sf story, or a good fantasy story. Stitching genres together can be great but sometimes you can see the seams, and I think that’s the case here.
“My Lovesick Zombie Boy Band” by Damien G. Walter is fun in the spirit of the forshadowing title, and a bit contrived, also forshadowed by the title. The main character, Fred (who has another name I choose not to give away) is a high school girl and a witch. She has a habit of letting boys fall in love with her, and they give her rings, and then they turn into zombies and show up outside her window in the middle of the night, trying to serenade her. It’s a bit funny; it’s a bit sad, I didn’t have a strong reaction to it either way.
“Beata Beatrix” by Jenna Waterford was another short odd one. I think I’ll call these impression stories. A woman is dead, and then isn’t, and then is, and it’s all about atmosphere. There are beautiful images, but I don’t really get it.
I’m having trouble deciding which story was my favorite. A good thing, due to the presence of several strong entries. “An Abiding Memory of Scarecrows” by William Knight is one of them. Remember how I said earlier memory was a theme in this issue? In this fantasy, a sorceress has taken the children of the city of Calgeron in retribution for a rebellion. The children’s memories are contained in scarecrows. Rogart is a father who goes to visit his daughter Pahani’s scarecrow. On the way, he encounters a man driven mad by loss and an agent of the Sorceress. It’s hard to describe why I liked this story so much. I think it’s because Rogart’s emotion really comes through; the feeling of loss is real. The writing is careful, but lush, with plenty of detail, but not too much. I hope this story is read widely; it’s a great example of what’s right with fantasy, I think.
Um, okay. “Pie in the Sky” by Michaela Roessner is a story about desserts. A woman and her problem with desserts, that is to say. When she tries to eat them, they try to escape—often with disastrous results. It’s cleverly done but somehow the device, the whole desserts escaping thing, just never worked for me. I was just never drawn in to the story as a story because I couldn’t buy into the premise. Perhaps others will; or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for dessert.
“Gaining Traction” by Jonathan Wood is another short impression piece. Maybe what I’m trying to say with that term is just flash fiction, but I feel like flash can have a more structured narrative than these do, so it makes me think of leaving an impression, rather than telling a story. In this one, a man is slowly trapped in ramen noodles that coccoon him. I didn’t really like it, the ramen vortex thingamagig just made me feel kind of nauseous, honestly.
“Checkmate” by Brian Trent is a nice bit of steampunk. Warriors based on chess pieces defend the great nations in lieu of war. A Russian Rook is advancing on London and a heroic British Knight, Edward, prepares to defend his nation. Rooks are more powerful than Knights, so he seeks out a mysterious weapons dealer, Thoth, who lives beneath London, to try to gain the advantage. The story builds nicely to the duel, and the duel itself is well described. The setting is sketched well enough for the reader to buy into the whole thing, as long as you’re okay with a feeling that you’ve seen some of this before (a problem in general with steampunk I think). Another fun story.
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