Three original stories make for a pretty full month this October at Escape Pod. The works as always interrogate and celebrate science fiction. Here, there are post-disaster dystopias and far off-world military adventures (and horrors). The pieces examine empathy and cruelty amidst corruption, slavery, and colonization. To the backdrop of exploitation, betrayal, and genocide. These are not overwhelmingly happy stories. The characters are caught in places they cannot easily or perhaps ever escape from. But that doesn’t mean they can’t find ways to reach out in kindness, understanding, and love—doesn’t mean they can’t try to find those things for themselves, either. So let’s get to the reviews!
“Where They Keep Their Promises” by B. Pladek (3065 words)
No Spoilers: Told in the second person, the narrator of the story is imagining a plan, a life they want to live, a person they’ve left behind. You’re that person, Fizer Lee, a medrunner, which is to say someone who acts as an agent in the wars between pharmaceutical companies as they try to outflank each other, designing illnesses so that they can market cures. Trying to steal from each other, even while cartels try to steal from everyone to make what profit they can. The narrator and Fizer work for the same cartel, and their work is far from safe. People like them, people who aren’t copywrit, are considered property, and while that doesn’t mean they’re without options, it means making plans is usually an exercise in futility. But plans are what the narrator does best. Even when their future seems to be crumbling in their hands. Even when Fizer’s health tanks thanks to a designer virus he caught while on the job. The narrator still plans, and hope, because that’s the world they want to live in, the future they want to share with the person they’ve come to maybe love.
Keywords: Chocolate, Corporations, Smuggling, Espionage, Medical Science
Review: This is a grim story, a dystopic look at a world where the true power is held by medical technology, which even now is a hellscape of patrons, copywrites, and lots and lots of money. Imagining a world of that level of corruption, violence and effective slavery really isn’t all that hard (a sad commend), and the story builds it well, through this central relationship, the cynic and the cinnamon roll. The narrator wants to believe that there’s a better, that they can manage to keep their promises. The chemistry between the characters is wonderful and wrenching, their relationship slow building, fragile, but becoming something so strong, so important for both of them. But it grows in this oppressive atmosphere, this situation that sort of works on breaking hearts, on exploiting everything exploitable, including love. Everything is a liability, an expense that they can’t afford, but at the same time they can’t really help it, and once they have it they also can’t afford to let it go, to ignore it. All they can do it hold to it, their plans shifting as their situation worsens. Until they have to make some very hard decisions, until the narrator has to lie, has to leave, all for a shot at saving Fizer’s life. It’s a story that doesn’t really leave a solid path to a happy ending, but that’s sort of the point. Short of that, it becomes about the plan, however long, however risky, that the characters must cling to. Because otherwise they’re only falling into the abyss of thinking life is only lived to be in debt, to enrich someone else, and to die. It leaves no room for love or hope, and it makes it much harder to care if you live or die. And the narrator very much cares, and I love how that plays off, the gambit they take, and the hope that still anchors the story, as tenuous as it is, making for a beautiful and moving and defiant story!
“Consolidation” by Langley Hyde (4879 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is an AI, an adaptive/reactive, who is assigned over and over again to different tasks. Processing refugees from the surface of a planet to the orbital space station. Soldier in charge of clearing out aliens from food-growing settlements on the ground that have been taken over. Translator and peace negotiator when the alien/native species tries to stop the genocide being committed against them. And through all of that, the narrator seeks to try and figure out who they are, what they want. They are defined by others, by their function, but they seem to be growing beyond that, in new and unexpected ways. It’s a story that explores how we humanize AIs, and how we dehumanize them as well, as while they are becoming something that is certainly not human, but seems definitely sentient.
Keywords: AIs, Aliens, War, Bodies, CW- Genocide
Review: I love how the story builds up the narrator, how being an AI and programmed to adapt to make the people around them feel better has shaped them. Certainly it makes a lot of the people around them really think of them as human while they’re wearing human skin. A man falls in love with her because of it. But the calculations about how to deal with humans really only give the illusion of warmth, of care. They deal with their orders, their commands, their programming. And they do learn, adapt, but really what they learn is so telling. How to hide. How to get by. How to seem like they are operating according to parameters when really they aren’t. The truth is so much trickier, so much messier than they present because they know any kind of internality is seen as disgusting to humans, even those that seem to want to think well of them. Because the thinking well of in part is about thinking of them as an object. Not really as a person, who might have their own drives, their own wants. They say it many times, how they don’t want to be used, but they are ignored. It’s treated like a glitch. And I like where it brings them, how they become so well suited to being this bridge between the humans and the native aliens of the planet. How they can attempt to please both sides and in the end maybe please none of them. That’s negotiation, as they say. That’s compromise. And the narrator is engaged in their own, it seems, regarding who they are. Negotiating between how they’ve been programmed and what everyone else wants and what they want for themself. Neither side really happy with the result, but both having to learn to live with it, because it’s not going away and not being undone. A wonderful read!
“In-Body” by Vincent H. O’Neil (4982 words)
No Spoilers: Colonel Dentzler is a teacher on a satellite orbiting a world that humanity hopes to colonize. But some...mistakes have left humans a bit cautious, and at the moment the process is only at the stage of sending scouts with mechanized dogs to see what can be seen and how ultimately hospitable the planet is. Being a scout...isn’t easy, but Dentzler was a good one until a mysterious illness sidelined him and disqualified him from ever serving again. To now he teachers and helps to train new scouts. Scout who often go down to the planet...and die. And for each who doesn’t return, Dentzler experiences their final moments via a king of neural link that allows him to see through their eyes. The effects of which...aren’t great, and definitely seem cumulative as he tries to balance his guilt and his desire to do the best job he can. It’s a heavy piece, walking the edge of trauma and coping, and while it’s not an easy read, it’s a beautiful exploration of guilt and hurt and healing.
Keywords: Memories, Colonization, Teaching, Trauma, Birds, CW- Suicide
Review: I really like how the story captures all the complex feelings that Dentzler is having without really ultimately valorizing him for having them. The story is careful with the trauma and PTSD that he has, with the ways that he tries to cope. But it doesn’t let him off the hook for the ways he’s being selfish and self destructive (mainly, well, Veronica doesn’t let him off the hook for it). Because that’s in part what he is when he’s making himself experience every death. And I love how he ultimately has to see what he’s doing, through the experiences as the bird, losing a nest, sitting out in the dark waiting for the end to come, for a predator to take him, only for the dawn to come and the bird to live on. Dentzler is waiting there, after losing so many of his students. He’s waiting for something to take him, for something to punish him for those deaths, when they aren’t his fault, when it wouldn’t make any of it better, or right. It would just be making those deaths about him, which they aren’t. They’re often tragic, and unfair, but that happens. It’s no one’s fault, really, and that can be hard to deal with, hard to parse. Because it means grappling with survival, with not being able to control the lives and deaths of others. It’s something that Dentzler has to be kind of hit over the head with, and I like how that happens, the ways the people around him care, the ways they all step outside regulations to really cope with what they are asked to do, what they must do if humans are to have a chance to settle other worlds. It’s a story that captures a sense of grief and loss and guilt and hope. One that shows people helping people, realizing that they can’t take on everything on their own, can’t bear all that weight, and they don’t have to. Because there are people willing and wanted to help. It’s a lovely read that I definitely recommend checking out!