Escape Pod, and does so in rather dramatic fashion, with seven(!) new short stories, including the four winners of the annual flash contest. With that many stories, there’s a lot of science fictional visions on display, looking at time travel, post-apocalypses, aliens, AIs, and much more. The worst also range from happy to heartbreaking, from hopeful to kinda bleak. But the works show some wonderful interpretations of what science fiction can mean, what they can include, and I am all here for it. To the reviews!
“Butterfly” by Drew Czernik (499 words)
No Spoilers: Told from the point of view of her father, the story features Josie, who begins as a young girl of eight who wants to travel through time to see the dinosaurs. And it’s such a...a sort of innocent and charming idea, an excitement and drive for something that is awesome and curious and spurned by a genuine joy. And she already seems to understand the dangers of time travel, of the possibility of changing the present by altering the past. After that, though, the story sort of turns, as the narrator finds himself face to face with a much older version of his daughter, one who has succeeding in building a time machine it seems. Only her concern about changing time seems to have slipped a little, though her reason seems achingly personal and painful, and puts the narrator in an impossible situation that’s emotionally loaded and sharp. And it’s a powerful piece, the ending not quite explicitly answering what happens next but implying it to devastating effect.
Keywords: Time Travel, Cause and Effect, Dinosaurs, Butterflies, Family
Review: Oh wow I love how this story sets itself up, building this really sweet situation of a father being rather proud of his daughter’s drive and imagination, her interest in science and her potential, even when they are somewhat beyond his own understanding of the world. And I like that it stays with him, his daughter’s enthusiasm, her love for this thing and her seriousness about changing the timeline. Enough so that when he’s confronted when her from the future, that’s still something he thinks about, and that it’s something he cares about, even when he starts to see what exactly might be at stake. It’s a clever use of time travel to put this guy who doesn’t do any traveling himself in the middle of a thorny ethical dilemma. Does he take the lifeline being offered to him, knowing that it probably will save his life, that he doesn’t “need” to die? Or does he refuse because he knows that even that kind of change will mean that the future his daughter came from might not exist. Not because he wants to prevent a paradox that might destroy the universe but because...because maybe he’ll do something that will prevent his daughter from doing this thing. From building a time machine and going back and seeing the dinosaurs. And for me that’s really what he’s struggling with. Not some giant end-of-the-world scenario but essentially is he willing to sacrifice this thing that his daughter has always wanted for his own life. And yeah, the daughter seems willing to make the trade. But is he? Knowing that it might not be the only change? It’s ultimately his decision to make, and it’s such a wrenching thing. One I think he probably decides to pass on, because for all he wants to live, for all he wants to listen to the daughter trying to save him, he knows it’s not right, and he’s not about to betray that little girl who was so concerned about the butterflies. A beautiful read!
“In Roaring She Shall Rise” by Rajiv Moté (500 words)
No Spoilers: The main character of this story is an octopus (which means I have to update my octopodes in SFF list at some point) living in a human city partly reclaimed by the ocean. Here octopuses have settled, altering their genetics, adapting to use abandoned human tools and technology. The octopuses live in a community, helping to protect each other from outside threats, but it’s not exactly safe all the same. But the main character of the story has developed a fascination with a particular human technology that might be able to help with that--that might give her access to a part of the world that has so far been out of reach. It’s a quick but fun story, one that reveals a character moving through a post-humanity world, finding the broken pieces and making something new, something wonderful, and something transforming.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Octopuses, Glass, Cities
Review: I’m a fan of octopodes in SFF, and I like the additions to the niche this story manages in a very short amount of space. The world building is actually really impressive for such a short story, and I love the subtle nods to changing color, to the ways that octopuses can contort, can fit into all manner of things. The ways, too, that this kind of curiosity is also play, learning about objects through using them, often very differently than they were meant to be used, but then, it was humans who designed them. And here the story is exploring what happens when humans aren’t really in the picture any longer. Here octopuses are claiming this space, this city, and are doing a much better job about being stewards, about making sure that everything is healthy and thriving as much as possible. But more than that, the octopuses are starting to leverage their curiosity to push them farther. Like with the narrator, whose fascination with glass allows them the tools they need to push out of the water. To walk on dry land, and explore the wider city that hasn’t yet been taken by the ocean. And I just love that sense of wonder and exploration that the octopus has, her drive to see more of the glass she loves, and finding so much of it in the ruins of the city still standing on land. It’s charming and fun, painting the picture of a world that is...healing in many ways from the destructive influence of humans. Where other creatures are reclaiming some of what humanity built, the admittedly beautiful things they’ve left behind, and giving them new life, new uses. A wonderful read!
“Death Poems of the Folded Ones” by Carol Scheina (496 words)
No Spoilers: This story centers a parent and child, Maviel and Oskar, on a moon very distant from their usual home. A moon that Maviel has taken Oskar to so she can study the remains of an alien civilization that has left behind a kind of language in artifacts, a language that is revealed by the practice of folding paper. For Maviel, it’s an opportunity that she couldn’t pass up. For Oskar, it’s more like a giant interruption in his life, having to travel so far from his friends, his school, to be surrounded by something he doesn’t really understand. And while Maviel’s first instinct and inclination is to work on the language alone, she recognizes that it’s not exactly fair, and instead reaches out to her child, teaching him about this culture, and what these folded papers might mean. Of course, she isn’t really expecting that he’ll have something to teach her back. It’s a quiet and neat story, looking at the value of connection and community and family.
Keywords: Folded Paper, Aliens, Travel, Family, Language
Review: This story does some interesting things with language, imagining a civilization where they’ve left behind these artifacts, these instructions for folding, that Maviel has been working to translate, to make sense of. And it’s been going all right. Except that there’s something rather sad about the messages. The death poems. They seem to speak of a rather bleak ending for these people that otherwise are rather mysterious. Except that maybe Maviel just hasn’t been approaching them from the right angle. And maybe it’s her child who holds the perspective that will allow her to really see what these people might have been saying. That their language might have been additive, might have been building, might have been communal and familial. In a way that changes the meanings from Fear and Loneliness to Togetherness and Family. That sort of reverse those meanings, but only when the two artifacts, the two folded papers, are fit together, made into a single whole. It’s a neat idea and I love how it mirrors the way that Maviel and Oskar are sharing this moment, together, their isolation broken as they talk and as they learn from each other, neither of them the sole authority, both of them approaching the work from different ways and angles but both with something to share. It’s a lovely and emotionally punchy moment that unfolds (sorry) to the backdrop of linguistic study and sociological curiosity. A great read!
“The Day the Sun Went Out” by Hannah Whiteoak (465 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is the child of two people, the three of them seemingly the only inhabitants of a very small “world,” which seems to be some sort of subterranean dwelling. To the narrator, it’s all they’ve known, their entire world. When the light goes out, it’s the sun going dim. When it comes back on, everything is okay again! But the truth seems something deeper than that, something that their parents don’t seem ready to tell them about. But it also doesn’t seem like it’ll be able to be put off much longer. It’s a tense read, the realities of the situation such that it seems the parents are always on edge, the child ignorant of the fact that their situation is strange at all, and certainly it seems unaware of what dangers might be waiting for them in the very near future.
Keywords: Suns, Light, Family, Survival, Soup
Review: In some ways this piece feels like the beginning of something larger, because the what-comes-next is a rather interesting idea. Which of course means as its own separate thing the story does a great job of foreshadowing something it never gets to revealing. It builds this concise and interesting premise around a narrator who thinks their small living space is a whole world, that sun is something that can be turned on and off. The tension in large part comes from the things that the reader knows that the narrator does not. The dire situation they must be in, probably in some sort of place that is trying to wait out destruction or otherwise on the surface of the world. Now left with a dwindling power source. The parents’ somewhat chaotic and at times violent outbursts make a bit more sense to us, the readers, who might be able to see that the stress they’re dealing with is more than normal. Is more than even raising a child. Is about what might have happened that led them to their small bunker. And that they know and we know that it’s coming to an end. What that might mean in the larger picture, what the disaster is that pushed them underground, is a complete unknown. It’s possible that it’s just that they’re trying to isolate themselves and their daughter because of some social reason. But it certainly doesn’t seem like it. It seems like there’s something big and bad waiting outside the place where the sun has gone out. And that, like it or not, they’ll have to face it pretty soon. A great read!
“Key Component” by T. R. Siebert (1799 words)
No Spoilers: Told in the second person, you are a passenger on a generation ship, one who was genetically engineered and manipulated to be a pilot, a vital component of the ship. Without a human in the pilot chair/pod, the ship makes mistakes. Things break down. People die. It’s only with a human pilot, a human mind connected to the ship, that things can go well. Except, well, it’s not exactly healthy for the pilot, who invariably dies well before they would have otherwise. Not that anyone forces the pilots to enter the chair. Most go more or less willingly, but also moved by the reality that if they don’t, the entire ship’s population will die. The piece follows you up to the fateful moment, showing your connections to the rest of the ship, to a woman who loves you, to everything. It’s a moving piece that examines sacrifice and difference, transformation and the weight of need.
Keywords: Generation Ships, Pilots, Giants, Integration, Genetic Manipulation
Review: I really like how this story sets up the idea of being designed for something. Built in many ways with a singular purpose. But a purpose that’s still framed as a choice, because it will kill you. Because it’s known that it’s something of a terrible purpose, for all that everyone wants, everyone needs you to agree to it, to surrender to the gravity of it. And being trapped otherwise in a situation where nothing really fits. By design, because you were meant for something else. And for all you don’t want to die, you also want to know what it’s like for something to fit you, to experience what everyone else must when they move through a world that was designed for their comfort. For you, it’s something that has forever been out of reach, forever beyond you. Except for when it comes to the one thing people want you for. Your own annihilation. And I like how complicated and loaded that is, and how the story reveals, that, not hiding the fact that this is a completely unfair scenario, one that allows you no real choice, because it’s a choice between how you want to die. Saving everyone else, or dooming them all. So in the end it’s not really a choice, because you’re not the monster some people think you are. But neither is this made better by the fact that you choose it. In the end it can be beautiful, can be transforming, can really open your eyes in this whole different way. but it’s still going to claim you. It still isn’t right. And the story never loses sight of that, keeping the complexity and messiness in there, visible with each wrenching choice you have to make. It’s not exactly hopeful, not exactly bleak, but definitely worth spending some time with. A wonderful read!
“The Anatomy of Miracles” by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko (5948 words)
No Spoilers: This story focuses on two main characters--one, Lucy, is a young woman splitting time between Seattle and Tokyo, where her parents have labs dedicated to some experimental physics; the other, an alien known as the Miracle Worker, who uses the same kind of physics Lucy’s parents are into in order to carry out miracles for his masters. As different as the two characters are, they are united in a number of ways, not least of which being an intense curiosity and a desire to communicate across the boundaries of reality. And while the Miracle Worker is old, and has lost a lot, he still wants to return to his home, to the planet he left so very long ago. Which is something Lucy can understand as well, at least when she becomes snowed in on a very important day. The piece is fun and complex, looking at communication and interaction between alternate dimensions that isn’t wholly scientific, that enters the realm of miracles because it’s about asking and waiting rather than force or math.
Keywords: Aliens, Alternate Dimensions, Translocation, Family, Queer MC, Science!
Review: I love the way the story sets up the two characters, who on most levels are very different. Lucy is young, fresh, full of excitement for the world. She’s going out with a boy in Seattle, a girl in Tokyo, and she has a lot of interesting ideas that take her parents’ research and push it in directs that might seem “unscientific.” The Miracle Worker is old, and has sacrificed most of the things that mattered to him in his life. He misses his home acutely, and yet it’s not a place he can return to, not really. The place really brings up some big Science but I like that it still grounds itself in what might be close to...not magic, really. Miracles. Just not really the religious kind. But miracles are essentially asking some other being for something that should be impossible. Or improbable. That shouldn’t be able to happen, given normal circumstances. But for the other being it’s no big deal. Miracles work via prayer, by beseeching the beyond for a wish and then hoping to be answered. This tech works...similarly, with the person essentially asking into the multiverse for something and finding a place, a universe, where the ability exists with relative ease. Somehow energy can be leveraged and the impossible becomes possible. People can move instantly between places. Communication across vast distances can happen with a thought. For the Miracle Worker, it’s his life’s work. What has made him important to his masters. For Lucy, it’s something her parents are on the cusp of, but not quite getting. Because to them it’s all purely science. And I love that it takes someone like Lucy to push it to that new place, where science gets fuzzy and it’s more about connections. About feelings. About desires. And suddenly finding them realized. It’s a fun piece, with lots to think about, and an excellent read!
“More Than Simple Steel” by Aimee Ogden (4917 words)
No Spoilers: Micah is going on sixteen, which makes him one of the oldest people alive after a disease killed off all the adults. Which makes him something of the leader of a group of thirty-four kids all trying to survive in what’s left of the world, worried that the disease that killed everyone else will claim him, too, when he gets old enough. That concern, though, sort of takes a back seat to the day to day needs of the group. And those end up taking a back seat to a new threat that invades the school they’re all living in, which comes in the form of a girl with a gun and an infant. And suddenly everything that Micah was barely keeping contained...stops being contained. But the story, heartfelt and compassionate, looks at the unfairness of the role he’s been put into and the way he excels despite that, not realizing that in his attempts to live up to the adults that have been lost, he’s actually surpassed them in caring for his group, his family.
Keywords: CW- Disease, Schools, Repairs, Guns, Family, Post-Apocalypse
Review: This is a tense read! Like, as a piece of post-apocalyptic SFF it hits all those notes, the scarcity, the danger, the uncertainty, the fragility, but it does it with just kids. Instead of having a Lord of the Flies situation, though, the kids actually show that they’re pretty good at getting things done, at maintaining order and cohesion. Micah is at the heart of that, helping basically everyone, but under that he’s just a mess, and really understandably so, as he’s trying to be something for everyone else that he’s not getting himself. If he is everyone else’s adult, then who is his? And the story really digs into that, showing what a strain it is, how scared everyone is, but how he’s not supposed to show it, not when dealing with small issues, and not when dealing with larger issues, like a girl with a gun wanting to take whatever she wants from him and his family. And really that feeling of family does come through, and though in a different form than it might have existed before the disease, before the apocalypse, in some ways the model here is better exactly because it’s not based on the ultimate authority of parents. All at once that authority has been lost, and what’s replaced it is...well, let’s be real, better. It’s a family of people who are helping each other, and even though Micah shows that it’s not perfect, part of that comes from trying to emulate what they had, instead of embracing that they are a bunch of kids, a bunch of siblings, a family with no definitive leader, and in that able to come together as a solid whole perhaps better than if there were adults present. At least for me it’s a story that holds this hope for humanity that without the supremacy of a central authority, people (and perhaps especially children) aren’t going to just fall apart. In fact, they might build something better than the way things were before. A beautiful read!