Since an early age, I've always thought of reading speculative fiction as setting off on an expedition. I'd peel off the pages (or, in this case, tap the screen of my phone) and stare wide-eyed into lands outside possible realities. The setting would rush at me with intense, vivid imagery, the sounds of off-kilter cultures would swarm and swallow me, and the sentences would coil and arrest me in my place.
The first books I read, I used to re-enact in my mind. The stories would serve as stepping stones for my own imagination, and I'd picture myself as the hero of my own tale, stepping outside the lines the author had written.
Electric Velocipede #24 brings me the same sense as these first experiences with fiction - a collective of immersive landscapes that all, to some degree, draw me in.
In one sense, the stories are also united by their low-key approach. Even the boldest effort in the issue, “To Dive Into a Godling, Where Life Begins” by Jacques Barcia, has more to do with the personal implications of a character finding the "Ground Zero" - where reality became undone - rather than the greater significance of the discovery.
You have to be a fearless reader to jump into this story, because its very concept relies on you handling the antithesis of reality. At the beginning I couldn't exactly connect with where it took me, as it mainly contained maritime undertones and the (very technical) fishing for singularities. With the story's progression, more of the society revealed itself, including a subspecies of humans, the mules, which have a connection with the singularities and the Ground Zero. Although the narrative indulges with the bizarre, I adore this piece.
“Night's Slow Poison” by Ann Lecke uses a six-month long journey through a space corridor to fully exlore a single, introspective character. Inarakhat Kels' job on the freighter Jewel of Athat is to make sure the ship reaches its destination safely (including watching out for spies that may want to travel to the planet of Ghoan, Kels' home). Lecke knows her craft and understands how to make the most of the short form, because every aspect of the story - world-building, character and plot - is genius.
“Cutting” by Ken Liu is a wonder of a flash story which turns the concept of religion on its head, but going into it further will spoil it.
Several of the stories touch upon the subject of intimacy, and, as a result, the reader sometimes lacks the necessary exposition by which to navigate these strange lands. As a result, the 'different' can be overwhelming. This is the case with “The Leaf” by Erik T. Johnson. I'm not one to shy away from surreal experiences, but Johnson presents ideas which find no footing and float without a sense of direction.
The town that is Bronx that is Brookridge that is Grahamsblat houses a rotting orchard, a hypothetical family curse and citizens with gnawingly feeble minds. As the only sane person, Gideon ricochets between encounters with oddball characters, until he eventually has enough and leaves his whole family behind. My beef with Johnson is his decision to allow so much of the loaded imagery to drift along without any purpose other than contribute to the overall atmosphere.
I found smoother sailing with some other authors. Aliette de Bodard's novelette “Heaven Under Earth” is this issue's standout for several reasons. Some of these are rather personal, but then again all art runs on bias, so I might as well revel in mine. Bodard's writing runs smoothly on the screen, turns reading into an effortless act and possesses a self-restrained beauty that serves the subject matter of the story.
Bodard marries the technological advances of the future with the immortality of tradition to create the familiar, yet somehow alien, Asian-inspired colony of New Zhongguan. Here, the imbalance between women and men has birthed the caihe, a transgendered woman meant to carry the children of her husband through the help of hormones. Bodard uses Liang Pao, a caihe, to discuss questions of gender, sexuality and identity. These topics are of interest to me and I think Bodard has treated the subject with skill, respect and thoughtfulness.
Another author to portray an fascinating society is Jessica Breheny. “For They Heard the First Sound and Trembled” deals with a caste-based society. The dominant religion separates the initiated from the uninitiated based on a myth surrounding a Word that can turn people to dust. Breheny relies on small doses of exposition to point out key moments as they occur, but it feels oddly illogical to hear a character born and raised in her respective environment to think over basic aspects of her private world.
“For They Heard the First Sound and Trembled” is a visual story. Breheny has an instinct for crafting a heavy-laden image. From the glass temple to sand storms to the daily procession - even the ritual in the glass temple, I was treated to a beautifully crafted setting. However, these scenes felt disconnected and I experienced them more like snapshots from an exotic holiday rather than a cohesive narrative. To an extent, I attribute this to the weakness of the main character Francine, who was rather uninteresting to me. Her motivation to infiltrate the temple, although logical within the context of her setting, lacked the necessary conviction to make her stand out.
Francine reminds me of Michelle Muenzler's protagonist in “The Lotus Eaters”, who comes out of hiding (against all reason) in the middle of an arachnid apocalypse to check on another survivor. Muenzler hints that something profoundly human is missing from her hero. While one's hollow nature can explained with a labor-intense and barren lifestyle (such as Francine's menial work in the temple), Muenzler's protagonist has to survive in a world filled with giant spiders - not a world where you can keep all your marbles.
“The Lotus Eaters” doesn't add anything new to the post-apocalyptic genre. You still have your bastard survivor types, some false saviours and a lot of close calls. And that's not a bad thing. It felt good to have a sense of familiarity between stories in order to ground myself and, what Muenzler didn't change, she spiced up. I'd love to read more of how humanity fares against the spider menace and learn about the role played by the lotus leaves.
I'll briefly touch on the two remaining stories: “The Mezzo” by Eli Effinger-Weintraub deals with an alternative history world where human servitude has been outlawed and every service position is provided by automatons. It's a story that deals with selfishness, entitlement and desire, but it did little to excite me or provide much insight into the world. Not that “The Mezzo” lacks potential, but it felt a bit malnourished on length.
“Under the Tree” by Tania Hershman doesn't really belong in this issue, as the fantastic elements of this tale are sparse and Hershman overplays the dramatic tone. The breaking down of the characters' personal worlds in the wake of a family member's death doesn't result in the breaking down of reality, but a more melodramatic (and predictable) ending.
Overall, Electric Velocipede #24 offers diverse, innovative, well-crafted stories. I have to add that the weaker tales are only weak within the context of this issue, and the stronger ones make for essential reading material when it comes to rich, fantastical settings.
When not writing fiction, Harry Markov reviews and writes articles for Pornokitsch, The Portal, Beyond Victoriana, Innsmouth Free Press and World SF Blog among others. You can wave to him at @harrymarkov. Harry's "The Tracks that Tower Over Valleys" was published in Fire (from Jurassic London).