Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Quick Sips - Escape Pod #722-725

It's another full month of original fiction at Escape Pod. And not gonna lie, it's a bit of a strange month of stories as well, with tales of artificial lives and discoveries on distant moons, augmented veterans looking to live in a world of peace and people who've become unstuck in reality. There's a general...trippiness(?) to these stories, to the situations they reveal. People building wings and flying over an alien landscape. People trying to change the laws that govern multiple realities. People fighting back against a violent oppressive state with more violence. People seeking enlightenment through the advancing technology. But there are no shortcuts to be found here. Perhaps that, more than anything, links them all. There's no getting around the difficult truths and choices out there. But there are ways through, for those willing to put in the time and effort. To the reviews!


“His Stainless-Steel Heart” by Jeff Reynolds (5993 words)

No Spoilers: Viktor is a former warmonger, a technologically enhanced soldier used to kill, who over the course of his military career has perished hundreds. Not that he remembers all of it. Between the memory wipes and everything else, mostly he is putting it all behind him, trying to slip away back into some remote part of the world to avoid the fighting and the killing. But a couple with an illegal pregnancy has a different plan. One that involves kidnapping him and coercing him to do one last mission. The piece is fast and brutal, a splash of action and blood mixed with an interesting future vernacular and style that lands for me somewhere between military lingo and punk slang. It’s an interesting if messy piece about war, trauma, and hope.
Keywords: Cyborgs, Body Modifications, Veterans, CW- Pregnancy, Heists
Review: It’s always interesting to me when stories build their own future “lingo” to accommodate a different feeling. In some ways it feels almost...retro? And I like how it works into this story about a soldier being pulled back into conflict after he had tried to leave it behind him. And how in some ways it’s about him finding out that he can’t just leave it all behind him, that whatever else happens, he’s going to be carrying it with him, has always been carrying it with him. It’s an action-y piece, to, that starts with a spot of calm and then gets progressively more and more chaotic. Of course, along with that I appreciate how the narrative voice starts off a bit loopy, a bit disorganized, and then becomes more and more focused as the actual violence increases. Viktor doesn’t really know what to do, what to be. But he does come to know what he’s good at, and maybe how he can use that to do some good. To start steering himself rather than just accepting orders. Rather than just being a weapon. Because if he has to be a tool of war, he maybe could be a shield instead. And, I mean, I’m not hugely into stories about this kind of redemption, where the focus is on his reform when he’s done a lot of bad shit that he now feels he has to in some way make up for. I get it and I think the story does a good job of it, but it’s a trope I’m just not all that fond of. Especially because it sees all this hope in a child that...is just going to grow up in the same system that produced Viktor. There is no real emphasis on facing the reasons he became a soldier, the pressures and the ways that the military abused him. The hope here is a generational kind, that maybe Viktor can use his fallen status to protect an innocent unborn baby. It’s just not a hope I connect with very much. But it’s a nicely paced and rendered military science fiction that makes for a rather heart-pounding read. Indeed!

“How Did it Feel to be Eaten?” by Amit Gupta (3687 words)

No Spoilers: Sam is a reporter come to a mountain outpost to investigate claims that those who go there can find enlightenment and reach Nirvana in a single human lifetime. It’s a claim that they go eager to disprove, to reveal as some sort of hoax or scam. What they find, though, is a kind of virtual reality that makes for a strangely compelling experience. And instead of debunking a myth, they end up plunging into an experience of reincarnation, suffering, and (perhaps) wisdom. The piece is strange but builds well, Sam guided through a myriad of lives, touching them and provoking them in different ways, pushing them forward on a path they don’t at first realize they’re on. It’s a deep, complex story, one that looks at time and virtual reality as spiritual tools that can act not as easy shortcuts, but routes nonetheless toward a better understanding of the universe.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Reincarnation, Journalism, Enlightenment, Teaching
Review: This is a wonderful story that explores the nature of time and wisdom, that creates in the micro and macro a cycle of lives Sam goes through on a road to greater awareness and peace. They start in disbelief, but there’s something compelling to the simulations, that can compress time so that in mere moments they can “live” as a plant, as an insect, as a person, as an inanimate object. And each time there are lessons to be learned. Not always only with the greater universe, but in relation to themself and their journey. They always start as a child, new, without knowledge of who they are, without knowledge of Sam. They are the beings in the simulations, and that’s how the piece is able to find this authentic balance, where Sam is able to surface from these experiences having gone through a sort of life and death, back to the between state where they can contemplate their life on a more profound level. Again and again and again they go, as rich and poor and everything in between, all the while hurting and learning through their suffering different things about themself. Until, finally, what they learn is peace, taken while experiencing extreme pain, a life without relief or power. They realize that they are caught in the cycle, that it exists outside of them, and it’s a really beautiful moment for them, captured in a lovely way by the story’s prose. It’s a philosophical piece, and while it might seem like a story summarizing various lives a person goes through in virtual reality wouldn’t be entertaining, for me it works. The language is great, and I really do liek the feeling it builds as Sam grows closer and closer to realizing the what and the why. Of realizing that this kind of living and dying isn’t a short cut, even as it technically allows a person to reach Nirvana in a single lifetime. But it takes as long as it takes, and the relative time is the more important. And the way that works, and the way Sam learns and changes, is just wonderful. It’s warm and it’s provocative, and it’s definitely worth spending some time with. A great read!

“The Season of the Storm” by Jonathan Edelstein (5958 words)

No Spoilers: Misozi and Elias (the narrator) are Zambian scientists and astronauts and the first humans exploring Titan. They’re there first in part because they’re there without all the bells and whistles, with the bare essentials and outdated tech, but taking the risk because it might mean getting ahead of the curse, what with every major space power building palatial compounds for when their humans arrive. And it might just have paid off, as the two (part of a larger Zambian team there) drive out to learn more about what might be a new lifeform they’ve discovered. One that could have untold uses...or one that might be leading them right into disaster. It’s a fun story of survival and innovation on a distant moon, in a very hostile situation, but where new and exciting things are possible--and hopefully not just innovative ways to die.
Keywords: Space, Exploration, Bugs, Storms, Accidents, Flight
Review: I like the feel that this team is out there because they want to be the first. Because they know that they’re the underdogs, underfunded and underestimated because it seems like everyone else has more tech, more experience, and more chance of success. What they do have, though, is scientific know-how and a definite hunger for discovery. Is it a hunger that might lead them to make less-than-safe decisions? Well... I mean, I don’t necessarily think that the story valorizes the abolition of safety standards or precautions. It’s not, to me, a story that complains that too much care taken to protect human life ruins science or anything like that. What I am saying is that there is something about human exploration that carries a bit more possibility for breakthrough, for really understanding what is going on. And where humans consent and volunteer to go into dangerous situations for the sake of exploration and knowledge, I do think that it’s not...immoral or unethical really to utilize humans in situations where the dangers are real, where the chance of disaster is not zero. Because humans are resilient, and sometimes can do things that are just...wow. As here, where the Misozi and Elias are able to get a very different and new perspective on the situation, snatching something joyous and beautiful and new from the jaws of death. And they are able to do that because they have the tactile feel of the environment, because they are able to feel the winds under their wings. Without that, it’s doubtful they would have been able to make the breakthrough they did. If they did, it might have been reached through meticulous and safe methods, though much slower. And sometime speed is important. Sometimes it’s worth the risk. And it makes for a thrilling and awesome read!

“Falling Through” by Steen Comer (5206 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has become a bit unstuck in reality. At least, things keep on changing. Mostly small things. Candy bars are different colors than he remembers. But not just different, but changed in all of time. His job shifts, or his apartment. What city he’s in. Things that let him know that it’s not Okay. That it’s not just a faulty memory or his imagination. It’s something that weighs on him, that’s a constant fear, especially when he meets and falls in love with Claire. He’s not the only one that is bouncing through realities, though. There’s another man who seems to be in the same boat. A man who ends up maybe having a plan for how to fix things. The piece is strange and heavy with grief and loss, the situation one of constant anxiety but the cure perhaps worse than the affliction.
Keywords: Alternate Realities, Relationships, Science, Time Travel
Review: I like the way this story plays out like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the grief that the narrator carries not just because they’ve loved and lost, but because in many ways it’s their own fault. Which is a complex situation, because it’s easy to go from that to getting into a situation where trying to lessen his own pain is somehow bad. When it’s not like he’s making up the situation. This isn’t anxiety, isn’t doubt or fear. Nor does it seem like it’s something internal to him, something that helps to define who he is. There doesn’t seem to be a way to reclaim this, to find a way of looking at it as anything but a burden, anything but something he wants to get rid of. At the same time, it might be that his fixation on the uncertainties and things he cannot control is something that he needs to work on productively, not because it isn’t a pain and a weight on him, but because there’s no way of getting around it. And that is something that resonates for me, that this might be a story not about managing a condition, but in navigating a world and situation where there is no “good” option. No way of waving a hand and having options that are actually “healthy.” All that is left is figuring out how to still live, how to still maybe be happy, or as happy as possible. And I think that’s where the story goes for me, where the character goes from hoping that there’s a way to “fix” everything, and then having to realize that there is nothing so simple as a “fix.” That it’s about how he lives, and about giving himself, past or present or future, the greatest chance of being happy. It’s a strange story but one that cycles nicely, that might be stuck in a loop but might also be on the verge of starting something new. It’s a heavy story for me, but not one without hope. And though a lot of it is about reaching back for what has been lost, that reaching back also becomes reaching forward, and holding on, and all things in between. A great read!


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