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Electric Velocipede

Electric Velocipede, Number 1
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Electric Velocipede, Number 3
Electric Velocipede
Electric Velocipede is available by subscription ($10US -- USA, $15US -- Canada, $20US -- elsewhere) or by single issue ($3US -- USA, $4.50US -- Canada, $6US -- elsewhere). Send you order to and make money orders/cheques payable to:
John Klima
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Electric Velocipede

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

Unless they're lazy arses and simply kissing the authors' arses, public critics have the thankless job of trying to help readers find the good stuff that magazines like Electric Velocipede strive to provide. But if you're going to pose as a critic, by gar, do the job justice. I couldn't agree more with Gabe Chouinard's sentiments in his essay at Locus Online: "Critics certainly aren't [making motion in SF]; while there are some good critics out there, the vast majority of criticism is still meaningless pap."

Good SF critics are especially difficult to find. Probably the best contemporaries are Gwyneth Jones, John Kessel, and John Clute. If you can, lay your hands on a copy of Jones' collection of non-fiction Deconstructing Starships -- possibly the best single non-fiction collection on contemporary SF (here you can also find her critical works).

Please understand that no particular critic is under attack. Neither do I address solely the reviews that Electric Velocipede has received thus far but, on the whole, the gamut of genre reviews. Tim Powers warns writers not to review since, no matter how fair you attempt to write them, toes inevitably get stepped on. Is reviewing a waste of time? Some days I agree, but on others I feel reviews play a crucial role in the dialogue of literature and may help, one day, get deserving SF works on Pulitzer reading lists.

Contrary to popular opinion in or out of the genre, I see the book critic serving two crucial functions. First is to get the word out. I am far too slow to do that. Thank God for all the speedy readers and writers out there! I'd hate for every reviewer to be like me. If that were the case, Dangerous Visions would only now be receiving its trickle of reviews. These reviewers have made a far weightier contribution to the genre than I.

However, the current climate of reviewing does lack. I do not mention reviewers' names because that would place focus on the particular inconsequentials and away from a larger general need. Which leads me to my second point of the critic's function: to suggest exactly where the reviewed work succeeds and, when it does not, where it does not.

With this review, I want to issue that challenge. I put a helluva lotta sweat into these reviews. Writers deserve reviews that put more effort and thought into the works under scrutiny -- maybe not as much I put into them, but more than at present. I get upset alongside (or sometimes for) the writers or editors, when they have done something well, get slighted by a cursory or negative review without substantiating precisely why.

Are critics wasting their time? Should they not risk upsetting others in order to improve the genre they love? Should they be satisfied with the status quo? I am open to have my mind changed. Feel free to email me your thoughts.

Unfortunately reviews of Electric Velocipede have not been enlightening, reading more like a laundry list of the contents page rather than an analysis of the magazine's specific strengths and weaknesses, giving a paltry handful of paragraphs mention to three magazines (averaging a sentence per work). Why write but to enlighten? What other purpose does the written word serve? Most importantly, the critics pass over editor John Klima's monumental discovery: Catherine Dybiec Holm who, if editors are willing to take the chance that Klima has, may turn out to be the genre's next Connie Willis or Nancy Kress.

The love the genre has for one-draft stories must stem from the romantic notion of effortless talent of someone like Harlan Ellison. Yet it isn't for the vast majority of great writers. Joyce Carol Oates leaked out her revisions in Jay Woodruff's most illuminating book, Writer's Guide, A Piece of Work: Five Writers Discuss Their Revisions. I say "illuminating" because I learned that writers of genius don't simply revise great stories into masterpieces, but even Oates begins with a common writer's turd. She just happens to know how to spin turds into gold.

Likewise, Catherine Dybiec Holm amazes with her ability to revise. Having seen her first drafts at Clarion, I knew she had heart, characterization, and character development down pat, but having grown used to the jerky movements of the computer-animated characters of most fiction, I hadn't known her subtle narrative genius, her ability to draw deftly human characters. After two pages, I realized Holm's "Transcendence" could have stood without blushing next to a story by Oates or John Steinbeck or any writer of literary merit. I was in awe. My god, I thought, is this our Cathy Holm of Clarion 2002? Now I wonder when (not if) the rest of the genre will come to recognize her talents. Look at her eye for detail:

"legs crossed in polyester pants, breasts and torso straining her white blouse. Marlyes took her Bible study seriously and sat in the sessions every week, gray hair styled, one plump finger pointed on the page... being discussed..., tracing the verse.... She dabbed a crumb with a wet finger, licked it off, and wiped [it] on her pants. Behind her the giant percolator worked itself into action, the force of its heat making it bubble like an awakening volcano."
or dialogue as keen as any of Connie Willis' (undoubtedly the best writer of dialogue in the genre [Marlyes and Lucy are two Baptists sitting in a Catholic service]:
" 'I heard that Ben Thompson takes a drink before he sings.'
" 'Maybe that's why he's always flat.'
" 'Hard to find a good tenor.'
" 'Catholics like to drink anyway.'
" 'Did you hear that Arla is thinking about leaving her husband?'
" 'No! Why?'
"A voice overrode the women. 'Welcome to the annual Christmas celebration. We gather here in the name of Christ....'
" 'Our choir puts the others to shame, doesn't it?' Lucy whispered in Maryles's ear."
Christopher East at Tangent Online points out Holm's powerful evocation of music through magic realism and that "this story effectively presents its thoughtful, heart-felt message" of, despite standing in the presence of a miracle, how we only see or hear what we want.

Holm's second contribution to Electric Velocipede, "The Last Great Chance," appeared in issue three. A cross-genre, interstitial, magic realist (or whatever rosy in-vogue title of not-quite-fantasy-yet-not-quite-realism -- A rose by any other name... (Shakespeare) -- A rose is a rose is a rose (Gertrude Stein)) story about those who can see the UFO in Bardy's backyard and the beloved perennial tale of aliens presiding in judgment over humans relies again on her strengths of heart, charm, and thematically satisfying conclusions but this time lacks her previous effort's subtlety, swinging even at times into excess: "His throat felt like a thousand molten ramrods had been shoved deep into its soft flesh, back and forth, by a laughing devil" and "Floor. Patio door. His trailer house. Did he sleep on the floor? Who cared? Me, myself and I. He giggled, then grimaced at the pain of hearing his own voice." Her lapses into nineteenth century abstract character description don't work as well, either: "By the time he drove into town, Bardy's head pounded with inadequacy." With friends like this Walters pendejo, who needs enemies? Still, it's wonderful to see an editor willing to turn new authors into veterans to be admired.

Mark Rich, who possibly appears three times in one issue with this story "Fling But a Stone," a strong poem described below and a third surrealist piece of a series concerning Mr. Brain under the guise of pseudonym Ezra Pines (at least Rich suspiciously web-hosts Pines' bibliography and little biography) co-authored with Richard Bowes, gives the readers an idea story in the discursive tradition of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ayn Rand, but unlike those writers at their worst (Robots of Dawn, Strangers in a Strange Land, and Atlas Shrugged) Rich knows when to shut his characters up. Readers, however, should temper my appreciation for Rich's discursions with the knowledge that I share similar anti-corporation sentiments home-grown from the impersonal corporate shenanigans experienced in person, on the news, and to friends of friends. News of the World corporation controls the world by choosing to let only the rich and Fortune 10 -- har! -- companies in on what's happening. Unfortunately, a poor reporter stumbles into possessing a copy of their elusive newspaper, and now the News has to stop the lower class from possessing the secrets of the upper class. Rich does a fine job slapping on a metaphorical house, twisting the story away from reader expectations, multiple times, and allowing multi-layered readings, one of which his bio on the contributor page may allude to and which never slides into a simplistic answer to a complex problem.

And another thing -- said the Ayn-Randish character who couldn't shut up -- for some readers, reading a story without multiple layers or subtlety or anything else that gives words meaning beyond their surface, is like a simple melody without harmony, or like how Dorothy felt about the black and white Kansas compared to the technicolor of Oz: there's more to appreciate.

The Richard Bowes and Ezra Pines title, "Mr. Brain and the Island of Lost Socks," probably tells the story best. Unless, as the line "'That was so long ago,' said the lampshade, 'in another time, under a different title, one never published.'" may suggest, the work relies on reader familiarity with the previous stories, this is simply a surrealist romp with playful images, implied by images such as a penguin that continue to be introduced even in the denouement (if denouement can be applied to this work). A personal favorite has to be "He grabbed his doughnut hole in one hand and slipped through it, emerging immediately onto the Island of Lost Socks." Pardon if I'm pedantic but what wonderful play on what a doughnut hole says in name but is in reality. Also, aside from word play, the story has speculative fun as well: "'I traded eyes with Mrs. Noggin'" and "she and Mr. Brain had given in to fashion of having the plastic dome atop their heads be clear acrylic, rather than colored polyethylene. The visible brain look was irresistible." Surrealism, one could extrapolate if he had read André Breton's manifesto, does not have to mean as this does not.

Harold Gross' short (vignette being, in my mind, a slight to the author) "Wreckage" initially excited me, demonstrating what Klima discussed as the best use of typography: allowing different characters to speak offstage, so to speak. The story deals with the victim of an airplane explosion who attempts to survive it. But the author flinched at the last second and turned the story into a mundane, albeit black, slapstick. One can only imagine how beautiful the story might have been had the author sat on it until the proper discourse chose itself. Humor can be a powerful tool, but too often in SF, it weakly plays it as an end instead of as a means to an end that builds upon all its parts.

Another promising but unfulfilled start was Jason Henderson's ghost story "Jackson Hole," beginning with a man in search of ghosts. He encounters a frightening one who trips him on a steep slope. Once the protagonist saves his own hide, the story goes downhill: why the protagonist searches for ghosts or these ghosts in particular is never mentioned.

"The More Things Change" by Michael Kelly reverses the problem of the two latter-most stories. This title harkens to a pre-Golden Age (or at least a lack of concern for SF except as window dressing) conceit of bidding on a space-transport job. A couple goes in together with a shyster who double-crosses the pair by surprising them in the Void (if they're in the Void, why didn't they see the shyster coming?). However, making the couple gay with an interloper does add intrigue, making one wonder what this story could have been with a better speculative conceit (one cannot write speculative fiction without speculation). The title -- particularly what is left unsaid in the title -- fits the subject matter like a glove.

"A Few Notes Upon Finding a Green Alien Baby Figurine in a Specimen Trap at Longitude__, and Latitude__ Antarctica: Dr. Larry Gilchrist, Ph.D. as transcribed by Jeff Vandermeer" by Jeff Vandermeer is an interesting pastiche entertainment that combines, via the title, the nineteenth century SF proclivity for authenticity, a Weird Tales penchant for mixing modern science with horror, a Poe taste in madness, and a dash of the modern absurd via the alien baby. Dr. Larry Gilchrist is a loner who hates the small company he keeps in Antarctica. They drill through the ice to study "seal shit" but find a plastic alien baby instead, the portent of which Gilchrist insists upon understanding... to the paranoid exclusion of others.

Issue Three of Electric Velocipede leads off with the aforementioned Holm story and moves on to a reprint of Neal Barrett Jr.'s first sale to Writer's Digest: a series of infamous rejection letters that might have been.

Brendan Connell's "The Goddess Cup" about a botanist who searches for the key to his eternal glory is a one-trick-pony short short (not a vignette since it has development: a beginning, middle and end) in the style of Rudyard Kipling -- not only for its prose style and Indian setting but for the arrogance of its anti-hero and the comeuppance that comes a little too conveniently.

Michael Penncavage's "North of the Sun, West of the Moon" shows enormous promise as the opening chapters of an SF novel of spot-on speculation of the indentured lower-class life aboard a space station. Having worked as a lowly wiper in the engine room of a dredge ship, I wondered how Penncavage retrieved an actual document from the future. But from there the story shifts into a denouement in which the reader feels like he's walked into the final scene of a locked-room mystery where the detective reveals the murderer -- only in this case, the pirates and conspirators. If he'd split this story and handled each idea (how a man can learn to live in such a society and how the society can spawn an equal and opposite reaction -- the heart and mind of a potentially great work), this story could kick off a fine novel I'd be eager to read (Michael, if you've got your ears on and you're interested, I'd love to share further thoughts).

What do you get when cross the sexual sensibility of John Varley, the star-riggers of Jeffrey A. Carver, and the drama of a day-time soap? The first two might have produced an intriguing Mendelian hybrid if only Franklin, the protagonist in Rochelle Mitchell "Quantum Realities," could have decided whether he wanted to meet his female dad, or whether he was happy or upset to meet his dad, or whether he actually wanted to pilot ships. Of course, indecision is a part of our tumultuous adolescence, but we generally have a reason for our choices. On the other hand, the mood swings could be clinical psychosis but are not addressed as such in the text, so the effect feels unintended.

Sandra McDonald's "Opening Night" is a cute short short recasting a familiar scene in science (though it fails to recognize true interactions between labeled "races," as Hellie is the kind of gal not likely to cause tension while her boyfriend and fellow actor Hy should actually play her uncle/half-brother and is undoubtedly multi-sexual).

Vincent Sakowski bares his quirky synesthetic side in the hazards of literally trading in your ears and radio eyes for a pair of "Television Shoes." Add a little more descriptive talent, and Sakowski will be one of those writers to watch.

Much of the better poetry from Electric Velocipede have politics at its heart. "The Copernicker Rebbe," for instance -- the poem that Rich Horton points out in his review -- has a lunar colonist lunatic enough to believe still in Mother Earth's apocalyptic recovery (whether from pollution or war, it doesn't hint). But politics are difficult to manage in a form that strives for subtlety. The poet has to make it new somewhere -- whether through language or perspective or idea -- but this one didn't quite pull off the Evil Knievel Stunt of the Century though we shouldn't cast aspersions since few can (if you'd like to read good American political poetry, try Carolyn Kizer or many of the Eastern European poets like Czeslaw Milosz or Paul Celan).

As another critic recognized but failed to comment on why, the poem of interest is Mark Rich's asking the fools' question, "Where on the River They Cannot Build" (unless this reviewer is ignorant of building on rivers, the question is reminiscent of -- or perhaps the next illogical step in -- the parable of building a house upon sand)? The answer is equally foolish: "on the ice." And why would one build birdhouses upon the river since they have not been housed there before? "[T]he cawing crow/laughs at this newly solid footing."

Neither reader nor book critic should judge an author by one story or poem (likewise, an author shouldn't believe himself judged). If a maxim stating the opposite were true, I'd have never investigated Martin Amis past his inane cell-phone tale "State of England" in The New Yorker (the story does have its moments, like the protagonist talking on his cell to his wife who is a few feet away).

And so I foolishly nearly dismissed Kevin L. Donihe's poetry -- like his "Identity" in issue two, a watered-down cyberpunk version of Jorge Luis Borges' "Borges y yo" -- until I read his poems as a whole and discovered the thematic key that makes them work: the interstitium between man and machine. This new understanding brings up the question of whether the true heart of SF poetry's art lies in the thematic chapbook. The vast majority of SF poems are trite, discarding all the history and potentials of the genre outside of SF and weighing heavily on a single speculative idea, which is like Superman using nothing more than heat-ray vision to fight criminals or Batman neglecting to use his utility belt. Donihe's are generally a cut above the norm for SF poetry standards, but still lack. However, taken as a whole, the alternate takes of man and machine at play makes me look forward to seeing an entire chapbook of Donihe's investigations. Publishers take note and forward me the final product for my eager consumption and public touting.

John Klima turns his hand at critical analysis, reflecting on Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen in issue three and typography in six different books in issue two. The articles are well-written and are the main hitch in my spending money I don't have on Vandermeer's and Mark Danielewski's latest labors.

Bill Braun is a critic who seems to have turned a new leaf. His non-fiction in issue two about filmmaker Dario Argento, while occasionally insightful, babbles two out of four pages too long, using several paragraphs just to tell the readers what he doesn't know. Braun in issue three, however, redeems himself by sticking to specifics about the band Dream Theater and its story in album form. Although Braun and Klima feel some guilt about publishing this in a fiction magazine, their choice was a wise one, pointing readers to new avenues and, hopefully if the band's fans read about this review, pointing music fans toward other media avenues.

Since the majority of the reviewers compare the Electric Velocipede's choice in apples to Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet choice in oranges -- compared because we judge magazines by their covers? -- this reviewer may as well. Both utilize strong characterizations, but LCRW leans heavily toward style while EV leans more to idea or theme in its character development. EV is all over the map in genre and subject matter, but if a predilection for a style exists, it is the kind of erudite and knowledgeable narration of nineteenth century masters such as Wells, Kipling and O'Brien.

If the object of the written word is to inform about the world we live in, then the Electric Velocipede writing crew have succeeded. If, however, for you more discerning readers, the object of a magazine is to rise above the competent work that tells a good story, then Klima offers a sampling larger than most: Rich's multiple layers, Holm's narrative subtlety, and Donihe's cumulative effects.

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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