“The Lost Technique of Blackmail” by Mark Teppo
“Frayed” by Jonathan Brandt
“Darkest Amber” by Erin Hoffman
“Life at the Edge of Nowhere” by Kjell Williams
“The Boy Who Could Bend and Fall” by Ken Scholes
“A Mouse Ran Up the Clock” by A.C. Wise
“Nightlight” by Celia Marsh
“De Orso Meo Ad Veneficum” by L Michael Markham
Reviewed by Nathan Goldman
Electric Velocipede hovers at a cross-section of the short fiction market – clearly “speculative,” too formula-defiant to be traditional “genre,” too alienating to be “literary,” drifting in and out of “experimental.” I’d rather not cage it with a term. Electric Velocipede offers genre fiction for literary adherents and literary fiction for genre fans. The stories in this issue showcase impressive diversity and taste and style. They intrigue and illuminate, proving, as one quarter-page ad declares, “SHORT FICTION IS NOT DEAD.”
Mark Teppo’s “The Lost Technique of Blackmail” is a risky place to start. A minor cyberpunk epic, the story exploits the tolerance fans of that genre have for rapid-fire release of confusing lingo. The first paragraphs teem with non-words, and though familiarity eases the diction to the point of coherence by the story’s middle, the reader is left with a suspicion that he doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. Buried underneath the perplexing jargon, there’s a story worth reading, more notable for its witty and relatable characters than its simple crime investigation template. For cyberpunk fans, this is a gem; for others, it may not be worth the effort to get through it.
In “Frayed,” Jonathan Brandt tells the kind of tale that would have been without a market even fifty years ago. This SF story about reanimation is also, startlingly, about teleporting sheep. The comedic undertone marks it as unique: it’s occasionally endearing (just try not to smile as the sheep’s “Baaaa” disrupts a tense scene), but ultimately alienating. Whatever there is of a story – something about guilds and the reanimation of an assassin – is lost in the shuffle of strangeness, comedy, and drama. But the style is distinct, and not in a wholly unpleasant way; keep an eye out for Brandt’s work.
“Darkest Amber” by Erin Hoffman takes us back to cyberpunk. We consider the relationship of Kali, the protagonist, to JH, her sentient vehicle. The plot is relatively throwaway, but the characters are not. Written into flesh with deft skill, Kali and JH recall Ender and Jane from Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, a poignant human-and-machine pair. “Darkest Amber” overcomes its humdrum plot with smooth, silky prose, attentiveness to detail, and a fascinating examination of identity through its compelling characters.
Kjell Williams’ “Life at the Edge of Nowhere” is the issue’s first and only hint at more traditional SF: a Twilight Zone-esque premise, conflict driven by corporate greed, and a reflective, rebellious leading man. Wlliams’ immersion into his own world is clear, and I applaud his refusal to spell out the expository information in tired blocks of prose or stilted dialogue, but a lack of clues gives the reader only a tentative understanding of the story’s background. The result: the climax, which should be powerful, falls flat, and from that point, there’s no way the story can recover.
“The Boy Who Could Bend and Fall” by Ken Scholes is short, sweet, and masterful. It grips the reader form the first line and holds him to the last. The language, free of frilly adornments, still twists and turns, utterly original and fraught with pleasant surprises. The story – a brief telling of the life of Focus Jones, nicknamed Slinky Boy – flows effortlessly, like a children’s tale for all ages. It’s a joy to encounter.
A.C. Wise’s “A Mouse Ran Up the Clock” is part dystopian alternative history, part Jewish folklore. It follows Simon Shulewitz, an inventor and slave in a post-Hitler empire, as he is commanded to apply his tinkering with clockwork mice to the creation of governmental animal spies and, eventually, something more sinister. The prose is fresh and crisp. Simon’s accomplice, Itzak Chaim Bielski, is everything the Dr. Frankenstein of Mary Shelley’s novel should have been – raw with temptation, passionate but struggling with shame and doubt – a spot-on, evocative portrayal of the oft-caricatured mad scientist. Wise tells what could be a ho-hum SF story in a way that transcends genre, allowing it to become a distinct, human exploration of passion, fear, doubt, and kindness.
“Nightlight” by Celia Marsh shifts the issue to modern fantasy. This story is set in a world where ghosts abound and everyone knows it; some are just more sensitive to their presence than others. The protagonist, Adrian, discovers a young girl’s ghost in a park and embarks on a mission to find and inform her family and, ultimately, lay her to rest. Marsh portrays ghosts believably: they are whispering human imprints attached to objects, rather than translucent floating poltergeists. The story is simple and heartfelt – a good place to start for fans of mainstream fiction looking to branch out into the more speculative, or vice versa.
The issue’s last piece of fiction is “De Orso Meo Ad Veneficum,” which appears to be an excerpt from L. Michael Marcham’s novel, Lightbreaker. It’s more a rambling essay on the ignorance of modern man than a story, and as a result it’s hard to maintain interest. Furthermore, the story, which is revealed to be a magician’s manifesto, frequently contradicts itself, uncertain whether to extol or condemn man’s half-hearted search for magic in the mundane. It’s intriguing, but out of place. In context, I would be happy to give it another chance.
Whatever your opinion of the individual stories, there is no denying that this issue of Electric Velocipede presents an eclectic variety of unique stories. A glimpse at the frontier of speculative short fiction, the issue is an exciting testament to the fact that there are new voices in the genre with something to say.
Publisher: Night Shade Books (Fall 2009)
Paperback: 100 pages