Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Blue (ed.), Bikes Not Rockets (2018)

Elly Blue (ed.), Bikes Not Rockets: Intersectional Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories (Bikes in Space vol #5). Microcosm Publishing, 2018. Pp. 160. ISBN 978-1-62106-543-2. $11.95.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

A trainee starpilot in a lonely tower. A high-stakes bicycle race across four worlds. Coastal cities, submerged. These are just some of the scenarios editor Elly Blue brings us in Bikes Not Rockets: Intersectional Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories, the fifth volume in the Bikes in Space series. While this 11-story anthology contained some pieces I enjoyed more than others, all of the stories were of a decent quality. The stories were tightly written, containing just the right amount of information without bogging down the pace. “There Were One and Many,” “The Tower,” and “At the Crossroads” were among my personal favorites.

Kat Lerner’s ‘There Were One and Many’ features Ji Aui’a, a half-human entity from Noeria IV, who comes to Earth for a visit. This story is noteworthy for its use of humor, as well as its satirical treatment of the cultural obsession with categorizing people based on gender. Ji, uncertain how to respond to peoples’ questions of whether they are male or female (since the notion isn’t one the Noerians concern themselves with), takes off to try to find some answers, and ends up finding acceptance in an unexpected place. I particularly liked the description of Ji’s attempts to learn how to ride a bicycle provided by the host family. Ji “loved the feeling of the breeze whipping around me on a bicycle, and after only three weeks of constant practice and fourteen superficial wounds, I’d finally learned to ride it without falling over.” (85) Being Canadian, I also enjoyed one of the exchanges between the characters:
“You know,” one high voice began, “we had a gardener once who was an alien.”
A lower voice was quick to answer. “Helen, I told you, he was from Canada.” (84)

“The Tower” by Elly Blue conveys a more sombre tone. Here, we are introduced to an unnamed protagonist who is undergoing rigorous training in hopes of becoming a starpilot for colony ships. Subjected to a rigorous daily routine which includes bicycle workouts, nutritious mush, and working on math problems, the protagonist, when we first meet her, is fiercely proud of her participation in the project. One early morning, when she is out for her scheduled training ride on her bicycle, she stumbles upon one of her rivals, dead, on the road. This shakes her out of her complacency as she connects the dots, coming to the realization that some of the sample trajectories in her training packet suggest, not a trip to outer space, but rather a crash elsewhere on Earth. If successful in her training, will she be the last hope of humanity, ferrying colonists to a far-off world—or merely delivering a deadly payload here on Earth? Most importantly, is she constrained to play things out the way others have determined, or are there other options? The world-building is one of this story’s appealing aspects. “The Tower” depicts a future society where racial and social divides still exist. The protagonist, a descendant of a civil rights activist, makes a wry observation about the colonists, “…few of whom—I’m under no illusions—would look remotely like me,” (98) and also notes of her personal attendant Clara “she’s one of the billions who are screwed either way; pulverized by my blast or by my landing or simply deprived of breathable air by the inexorable process of climate decay.” (98)

Elly Bangs’s story “At the Crossroads” features former Air Force pilot Callie and her sidekick Diego, who are representing our version of Earth in a bicycle race across different worlds accessed “through a rip in the fabric of the universe.” (102) Again, the world-building here is one of the interesting features of the story. One of the most compelling physical descriptions is of the fourth world. High radiation counts suggest that this particular world has been the site of a nuclear war. “The sun hangs halfway up, surrounded by concentric rings of dirty haze. The ground all around them is a bleached white color, covered in a layer of bone-dry dust. Ash? There are no plants, no people, no buildings, no wind or sound—just, impossibly, a weathered but mostly intact two-lane highway stretching out from horizon to horizon.” (112) The worlds represented in the bicycle race are starkly different, and the differences provide the basis for the author to engage in some satirical exploration of our own cultural norms. Callie notes that the inhabitants of one of the worlds bear an eerie resemblance to one another, “every last one of them bald, male, pasty, six feet tall, dressed in formless white coveralls. All staring down at her with identical blank expressions, through identical gold irises.” (100) In this culture, numerical prefixes indicate where one belongs in the social hierarchy. As 059-Blask explains, “Look, any kind of interaction between people depends on all participants knowing who is superior and who inferior. Right? Who serves who. Who commands and who obeys. Who speaks and who listens.” (115) When Callie protests that’s not true, 059-Blask goes on to say that’s precisely what goes on in her version of Earth, only here there are dozens of hierarchies, “hundreds of overlapping structures for establishing dominance and concentrating power. Male over female. White over black. Rich over poor. Able over damaged.” (116)

Some of the stories had strong elements of humor, with Lerner’s “There Were One and Many,” as well as “This Ain’t the Apoca-rich You Hoped For” by Tuere T.S. Ganges and “First the Rapture, then the Paperwork” by Summer Jewel Keown being the most notable examples. While some of the plots seemed relatively simple, others were more nuanced. Monique Cuillerier’s “Leaving” and Gretchin Lair’s “Accident,” for example, contained layers of meaning. Writing styles varied from concrete to more abstract. Some authors spelled things out, while others left gaps for the reader to fill in on their own. Nor were the writers afraid to tackle sensitive topics. Elements such as reproductive rights, racial and social inequity, and even the afterlife entered into some of the stories. I found the collection to be well-edited, although there were a couple of typos in one story and the way characters’ internal thoughts were indicated in another wasn’t as clear as it could have been. I also felt that a couple of the story endings, while adequate, could have been stronger.

In the book’s introduction, Elly Blue notes that one factor she keeps in mind in editing the series is the hope that “more readers can see themselves reflected in someone’s vision of the future.” (6) The diversity of characters and scenarios in Bikes Not Rockets makes a fair bid for accomplishing that goal. The stories include protagonists of different ethnicities, different abilities, and different social classes. There are gay characters, straight characters, and characters for whom sexual preference is not a focus of the story. There are mothers, and women who don’t have children. There are even characters who have died and moved on to the afterlife. One risk with a themed anthology is having stories that sound too much like one another. That isn’t a problem with Bikes Not Rockets. Even the way in which the authors have chosen to integrate the bicycle theme varies—there are bike races, cycling as physical training or a way to seek tranquility, or biking as transportation, as well as other variations. In most of the stories, the bike theme is integral to the story. There were only a couple of stories where it felt like the bicycle aspect was shoe-horned in, almost a peripheral item.

The stories transport us to different places: near- and far-future Earths, the Martian plains, or different planets. In some cases, the cultural and/or physical surroundings are dystopian ones—devastated wastelands, places where people scratch out marginal existences, or repressive regimes. However, regardless of whether the setting is heavenly—as it is in ‘First the Rapture, Then the Paperwork’—or more Earth-bound, there is a sense of optimism. The stories suggest that our choices can make things better, that there is support out there for those who seek it, or that at the very least, we can choose not to accept what is being forced on us.

All in all, I found Bikes Not Rockets to be a worthwhile read, delivering a varied, thought-provoking, and sometimes irreverent look at the future, as seen from behind the handlebars. Several of the stories resonated long after I put the book down. Recommended reading for those interested in a feminist take on what may, or may not, lie ahead.

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