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art by Liz Clarke

Genie Electric

Andrew Kaye is a writer and cartoonist from the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia. This is his fourth appearance in Daily Science Fiction. Feel free to bother him at andrewkaye.livejournal.com or twitter.com/andrewkaye.

I unscrewed the bulb from the lamp. It rattled. "It's dead."
"What's dead?" my daughter asked.
I held the base between my thumb and forefinger, lightly shaking it to let her hear the tiny, metallic sound within. The glass was singed and clouded, obscuring the shriveled object tumbling around inside. "The genie in the light bulb died," I said, gently pressing it into her tiny hands. She cradled it like an egg.
"A genie died?"
I smiled. She was old enough to know our appliances were genie powered, but too young to know the specifics. Her knowledge of genies came from what I had told her about King Solomon in the Bible, or from the journal entries of Scheherazade I read at her bedside. And she knew vague details about Benjamin Franklin and his famous experiment, but public schools didn't teach much history at her age. "I'm afraid light bulb genies don't last more than four or five months," I said, rummaging around the drawer beneath the microwave. "And we're out of spare bulbs. We should buy more. Would you like to come to the store with me?"
She shrugged. I asked her to throw the bulb away, but she insisted it be wrapped in newspaper and placed in an empty box. She lowered the makeshift coffin into the trash bin as carefully as she could. I didn't interrupt, only watched, smiling gently.
I let her tell me when it was okay to leave.
"Are there genies in the car?"
I nodded. "One in the battery. One in the dashboard display. One in every light bulb. The engine runs on gasoline, but it's the genie in the battery that starts it when I turn the key."
She sat there quietly for the first half of the drive. Every now and then I peered into the rearview mirror to watch her listen to the rumble of the engine and the click of the turn signals, as if she was waiting for the voices of trapped genies to suddenly materialize.
Then the questions continued. Right up until we left the car and walked toward the store.
I couldn't answer all of them properly, but I couldn't let her curiosity go unanswered. I told her everything I knew. The basics.
I remember learning about genies in eighth grade. That's when they tell you the real story of Benjamin Franklin, the one that elaborates on the legend of kites and keys and storm clouds. On June 15th, 1752, Franklin discovered that genies were made of electricity. He originally planned to study the magical properties of lightning; instead, the storm had attracted genies to the skies above Philadelphia. One of them came into contact with the key he had tied to a kite string. Gave Franklin a shock. What they don't tell children is that Franklin nearly died that night. He had to be dragged home by his son.
Breakthroughs in electricity continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Luigi Galvani discovered how to reliably attract genies through animal sacrifice. Alessandro Volta created the method of siphoning genies into cylinders of zinc and copper. But it was Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park himself, who brought genie electrical power into widespread use.
Edison experimented with summoning and trapping. Perfected the techniques. By 1880, he wasn't simply summoning genies--he was breeding them. He bred them by the hundreds, housing the entire process in the world's first power plant. From then on, genies were distributed around the world in mass-produced electrical appliances and sold for mankind's use.
It sounded horrible when spoken aloud. It upset my daughter.
We walked into the store, the automatic doors sliding open, the fluorescents humming loudly overhead. My daughter's expression became a wince of pain, as if she could hear genies screaming at her from the bright white tubes above.
"Will things ever change?" she whispered.
"We'll still trap genies, if that's what you mean." I sighed, tried to choose my words more carefully. "Things could have been different, honey. When Mr. Edison went into business, a pair of men named George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla experimented with other ways of getting electricity. But their ideas never really caught on." I stopped there. I didn't want to explain why those ideas hadn't caught on: Genie power was easy. Cheap. A box of four light bulbs was only $3.95.
But my daughter wasn't in the mood for any more questions. In the lighting aisle, she stared up at the racks of bulbs, all boxed and blistered, their packaging bright under the fluorescents. The edges of her face trembled with newfound understanding. She didn't look at me, but squeezed my hand tight enough to let me know what she was feeling.
For weeks my daughter took extra care around the house, turning off lights when they weren't being used, watching less television. She stopped using the night light in the hallway. Stopped listening to the radio. Removed the batteries from her favorite toys.
Then one day I found her in the backyard, smashing light bulbs against the ground. They popped like glass balloons.
I hadn't seen my daughter smile much since that day the genie died, but now her face was joyous. She was laughing, her feet surrounded by a ring of broken glass and stubs of threaded metal, her body surrounded by a pale blue glow. There were genies everywhere. They spiraled into the sky in coils of chalky smoke, buzzing and hissing sparks. They had no faces that I could see, but I knew they were just as happy as my daughter.
At that moment, I realized that there had to be a better way, an alternative source of power. Maybe Tesla was right. Maybe sorcery was the answer.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Author Comments

The idea for this story came about after wondering what a "genie of the lamp" would be like today. Next thing I knew I was creating an alternate history of electricity. "Genie Electric" was written in 2009, but I set it aside thinking I needed to expand it into something longer. I promptly forgot all about it. After rediscovering it two years later, I realized I liked it just fine the way it was. I'll keep better track of my stories in the future.

- Andrew Kaye
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