Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Quick Sips - Escape Pod #718-721

It's a busy month at Escape Pod, with four original stories(!), which means the entire month has been originals. Aside from front-loading the year's new fiction, though, it also does a wonderful job of giving an idea of the diversity of science fiction on offer at the venue. The stories range from slightly humorous to absolutely devastating, from sharply satirical to guttingly earnest. There are stories of distant worlds and emperors of the universe that capture a feeling of vastness and stories much more intimate in scope and scale, about loss and desire. So stretch out those reading (and listening) muscles and let's get to the reviews!


“How the Emperor of All Space and Every World Awoke to the True Nature of Reality and Why it Didn’t Matter” by P. H. Lee (3130 words)

No Spoilers: This is something of a strange story, from the start drawing on the science fictional tropes of a galaxy of singular planets a ruler of all things who has become bored. Not the best dancers from the dancer planet or jesters from the jester planet or lovers from the pleasure planet can prevent him from growing bored. And so in a bid to cut through that boredom, he begins to solicit help. Ideas. Options. But no one can seem to please him (and all who fail are cruelly executed). Is there a way to snap him out of his funk? Or does the problem go deeper than one bored emperor? The piece moves with a sharp edge hidden under familiar elements, which add together to form a rather meta message on the story itself.
Keywords: Rulers, Space, Executions, Religion, Wisdom, Meta
Review: The way this story makes its meta turn is interesting and, for me, complicates the rest of the narrative, the very structure and elements the story uses. Because at first the decision to lean on the science fiction tropes where each world has one thing important about it—one thing it does, or produces, one climate—and the whole galaxy is one empire ruled by a single emperor, seems to be made earnestly. The story almost promises that this will be a story about this emperor, bored and entitled, who learns some sort of lesson or is else put in his place. But it’s not...exactly. The piece, instead of allowing the emperor to act as foil to some cleverer person who is able to solve the problem, veers in a meta direction, challenging the foundation on which the story is built and leaving the reader (or listener) with a much more complex, and perhaps difficult, task. Because what the story is pull back the curtain and basically call out the tropes that it uses, the way of conceptualizing a galaxy where planets are no more diverse than towns, where the vastness and diversity of all of space can be somehow ruled with stability by one person, one man. The story doesn’t hold back there, though. At least for me, it seems to lay at the feet of those tropes the very boredom that the emperor complains of. Who could help but be bored when the galaxy is colored in such a simplistic paint-by-numbers fashion that doesn’t really capture much of the stunning differences that exist on all levels of life. The story comes down rather strongly (in my opinion, at least) against this kind of imagining of the galaxy, of the future, essentially saying that if you want your sci fi to be interesting, walk away from the simplistic. And it’s a bold move for a story to essentially call itself out, but I think the satire there works, and a humor and a rather haunting ending that captures the fleeting nature of fiction. It’s a piece that for me rewards a close reading, and I definitely recommend people spend some time with it. A great read!

“A Hench Helps Her Villain, No Matter What” by Izzy Wasserstein (3308 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a henchwoman working for Night Mistress. It’s...almost the perfect job. Because where else can she play the game of supervillainy while kinda getting her kink on as a fat queer sub? I say almost, though, because despite aspiring to be the perfect henchwoman, she’s not exactly getting noticed by Night Mistress, who seems to only have eyes for heroines. Which is how the piece opens, with an unconscious super and an interrogation that seems to be the narrator’s dream. It’s a piece that is full of action and a compelling voice of a woman who has been overlooked and underestimated one time too many.
Keywords: Superheroes, Villains, Kink, Queer MC, Pining, Interrogations
Review: A queer henchwoman? A fat queer kinky henchwoman with some angst and pining who manages to be way more capable than people give her credit for but sometimes she’s a little too enthusiastic because she’s just so fucking hopeful in a doomed sort of way?! Yes. Yes to all of this. Seriously, this story is so much fun! And yes, that despite being a story with a lot of heavy themes and elements, with a villain who is kinda a jerk and a narrator who is mostly okay with that if only said jerk would _fucking notice her_! And the way that the dynamic plays out not just between the narrator and Night Mistress, but the messy triangle going on with them and Patriotess, who is supposed to be a nemesis for Night Mistress but seems to have some anger issues to work out and might just be in it because she wants to kill people. It’s so messed up and wonderful because for me it speaks to the dedication that the narrator has, the loyalty that is never, ever rewarded. She does so much to try and make it so that Night Mistress is happy and has what she wants, all the while hoping that Night Mistress will wise up and see what’s right in front of her. All the way not seeing what’s right in front of _her_, which is that Night Mistress isn’t interested in henchwomen that way. It’s so layered with hurt and feelings and I just love it. Throw in that the fights are intense and wonderful, that the narrator is great at what she does and manages to take down a super powerful superhero with no help from her supposedly-superior boss. And the ending is this complex but for me affirming turn in the narrator’s trajectory. One that’s tricky because it’s easy to see Night Mistress as only abusive, as actively manipulative and hurtful toward the narrator, when it seems to me to be much more about power, about what both of them want and need. And so I don’t see the ending as the narrator wanting to be with an abuser, but wanting to have this different relationship with someone she does admire and what to be with, who could be just what she wants, but they both sort of need to be okay with that. It’s complex but careful, and I love the result. A wonderful read!

“Child and Orb” by James Dunham (2400 words)

No Spoilers: The main character of this story is referred to simple as “the child,” and they survived a rather harrowing experience, rescued from an exploding something that killed everyone else she was with, including her parents. It’s some big emotional artillery the story is using, but it’s still careful to ground the experience in the fears and feelings of the child as she deals with her trauma, her grief, and her feeling of isolation with only two AIs for company. It’s a difficult read, showing how trauma can do some awful and complicated things, especially to children. But through the difficulty there’s also some beauty, and an ending packed with hope and warmth.
Keywords: Space, Children, AIs, Care, CW- Trauma, Accidents
Review: This story does a lot of good work dealing with a child processing guilt and trauma. She’s waiting and almost wanting for there to be some sort of explosion, wants the...almost familiarity of parental censure. Wants maybe to be told that things will be okay, or that they won’t. Perhaps most of all wants to be punished for what she feels is her crime, for surviving when so many other people did not. And that’s such a hard thing to bear, such a difficult thing for a child with no assistance. And the AIs are just not prepared for it. They defer and they obey and they treat the child’s demands as literal. Which on the one hand is profoundly good, because she does need to have control in a time when so much has been taken away from her. Having an authoritarian presence would be a very bad thing, and that she wants one speaks to how much she’s hurting, how much she feels that pain isn’t enough. But the AI won’t violate her, and in that she’s angry at them, sees them as unfeeling, uncaring, and seems to want to hurt them in order that they might understand, in order that she might not be the only one so devastated. At least for me it speaks to this isolation she has not physically but in her grief, where she wants to know that other people hurt, because it would make her feel less along. But the AIs can only do what they do, and the situation escalates until she goes too far and realizes that she doesn’t want to hurt the AI, that she’s grateful to them, but that in her grief she’s lashing out. It’s complex and fucked up and all sorts of painful but beautiful, too, and tender in all the best ways. It’s not exactly heartwarming, but it’s about comfort all the same. The hollow comfort of sublimating pain into violence, and the much more satisfying comfort of accepting help and reaching out to close the distance keeping everyone alone in their loss. A fantastic read!

“Hustle” by Derrick Boden (5098 words)

No Spoilers: Violetta Yamamoto’s main hustle is a gig as a bounty hunter. She’s good at it--good enough that she’s aiming for the max rank, a status that would afford her luxuries like health insurance. Having just brought in a pedophile, she feels pretty good about the trajectory of her day, but that’s before a series of notifications that put her in the strictest of dangers, and reveal just how fragile the whole system is for the people trapped running the maze of gig and hustle, trying to live when every element of their life has been monetized and leveraged against them. It’s a well imagined, tense, tightly paced story that starts off almost all right and quickly becomes an unrelenting avalanche of oh fuck no.
Keywords: Employment, Bounty Hunters, Conspiracies, Gig Economy, CW- Pedophilia
Review: It’s a bit scary how plausible this story feels, not precisely in its action and specifics, but in the way that it builds this future world, where everything is a gig, everything a hustle. Where Violetta is by so many standards a success story but doesn’t own anything, not even really her own body. It’s all on lease, on loan, subject to terms and conditions. The grid is something that no one is really allowed to slip through, but it offers nothing in support or assistance. And Violetta has made a life being a bounty hunter, trying to align her own sense of justice to the letter of the law, and trying to make good on having served time herself. She’s so close to reaching something that would be better, that maybe would give her some real security, when she runs into the true face of the system, the truth beneath the promises. That there is no way up. That there’s only the furious thrashing to try and keep above water for as long as possible and then...well, and then not. And then slipping under the surface and never rising. And it’s so unfair, a shock in part because she wanted it to be fair, needed to be fair, closed her eyes to any other possibility not because it didn’t make sense (it’s not like she really trusts any of the system) but because without that golden ring to reach for, she would have to face that the only thing she’s doing is being slowly squeezed to death, wrung for every drop of profit by people and institutions who care for her not at all. It’s sharp and it’s fast and it shows a keen understanding of how this kind of exploitation works and how its corruption works. It’s not a happy story, though it has a sort of wry charm and sarcasm that are often necessary coping mechanisms, and it’s not an updated punkish feel, full of anger and disillusionment and a sudden desire for cause trouble on purpose. A wonderful read!


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