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EP116: Ej-Es

By Nancy Kress.
Read by Sheri Mann Stewart.
Discuss on our forums.
First appeared in Stars: Stories Based On Janis Ian Songs, ed. Janis Ian & Mike Resnick.
All stories by Nancy Kress.
All stories read by Sheri Mann Stewart.

Mia didn’t reply. Her attention was riveted to Esefeb. The girl flung herself up the stairs and sat up in bed, facing the wall. What Mia had see before could hardly be called a smile compared to the light, the sheer joy, that illuminated Esefeb’s face now. Esefeb shuddered in ecstasy, crooning to the empty wall.

“Ej-es. Ej-es. Aaahhhh, Ej-es!”

Mia turned away. She was a medician, but Esefeb’s emotion seemed too private to witness. It was the ecstasy of orgasm, or religious transfiguration, or madness.

“Mia,” her wrister said, “I need an image of that girl’s brain.”

Rated PG. Contains passing sexual references and graphic medical description.

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Comments (34)

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  1. Fred M says:

    As it was put in Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe: Would you rather be smart or happy? I almost always go for smart over happy (I’m getting a degree in Math if that tells you anything), but for some reason this story made me want to side with happy.

  2. Superman says:

    I keep coming back to the quote “They’re prisoners of their pretty fantasies.”
    I have never seen words that explain life so clearly. On the day we close our eyes for the last time we are awaken from this fantasy called life. But until that day comes I’ll live this fantasy under the impression I’m Superman!! (To each their own…)

  3. Jeem says:

    Is Ej-Es religion or television?

  4. This is a superb story!
    It has an O. Henry-ish type of ending. I’ve had the priviledge of reading a nonfiction work by Nancy Kress. Thus I was not surprised by her wonderful ability to weave a fabric of intense imagery and dendearing characters.

    Kudos!

  5. john says:

    I feel like I’m back in 10th grade english class. Once again I.m reading a book (or in this case listening) that I was told I would like. But it’s not to like. The martain sounding Ej, Et, Es, starts to sound like ACK! ACK! ACK! AAAACCKK! At least Mars Attacks was funny even if the martians lacked character beyond ACK!

    Because there is a grade involved (remember I’ve been transported back to high school) I stick to the end. And there I find one last ACK! AAAACCCCCK! I know my homework is to relisten the story making a map of the Ej, Et, Es so I can be in out how it ends. But screw it. I’m taking the F on this one.

  6. Zippy Wonderdog says:

    I’m thinking Ej-Es was her imaginary lover and once Mia cured her she lost him.
    Mia reminds me of the sterotypical “old busy-body” who means well but ends up doing more harm than good.

  7. Martin R says:

    I wonder how much of a difference Mia can do to the people of that planet — alone, with limited medical supplies. But then, the ship’s crew will report home about their findings, and maybe not everyone at home will agree that the infected population should remain so. Anyway, such a hospitable planet’s real estate would represent quite some value.

  8. Les G says:

    This story haunted me. So much that I’ve finally decided to leave a comment about an Escape Pod story.

    I have no doubt,morally, that Mia did the right thing for Esefeb and her people. How anyone can think that being left in a state of hallucinatory stupor is a good thing is beyond me. Still, when Esefeb cried out in despair and loneliness at the end of the story, it broke my heart.

  9. Salul says:

    I am surprised by how few of the comments above have picked up on the wonderfully nuanced meanings to this story, the principal one being very familiar to cultural anthropologists, but all too often overlooked in contemporary SF stories that pander heart-warming endings rather than tough realities; namely, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and the needs and values of different societies and peoples are never, EVER clear-cut or straightforward. Absolutely fantastic. As the story came to a close I thought that Kress would simply cave in and end on a heart warming note about the humanitarian endeavours of Mia. But then the last lines were read, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Kudos indeed.

  10. Roy says:

    Sad story.
    Makes you think…that, perhaps even an imagination has a life and soul of it’s very own. As long one someone believes that ‘it’ is real, then maybe it is.

  11. Mike says:

    I thought this was a wonderful story. I tried to read one of Kress’ “Probability” novels once and gave up halfway through, so I wasn’t expecting to like this story. But I really did! It reminds me of the best Ursula Le Guin stories–those in which a foreigner has to grapple with an unfamiliar culture and struggles mightily to make sense of it.

    My best adjective to describe this story is “mature”: this feels to me like the writing of an author in her prime. The characterization was handled with a subtlety I don’t ordinarily come across in short stories. I really felt Mia, really empathized with her as if she were a real person. This sense was so strong, in fact, that I started to wonder how much of herself Kress had poured into the character. How else could she have made Mia so full and believable? But, having read a little about Kress, it doesn’t seem to me that Kress and Mia have all that much in common, so Kress must just be a masterful writer :-)

    I think this story ranks up there with “Cinderella Suicide” among my favourite EP stories.

    I liked the reading, too. Escape Pod has had a lot of good readings lately.

  12. mjn9 says:

    I really liked the work of both Nancy and Sheri and hope you will have more from both.

  13. Linger says:

    Escape Pod does a wonderful job of picking interesting stories. Thank you Steve! For me, I most enjoy stories (or movies) that capture my attention and don’t telegraph how they’re going to end. This was, like all the others, just such a story. And as another has already said, wonderfully read to the point I literally got chills at the end.

  14. chornbe says:

    An absolutely heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, almost-too-real-to-be-fiction type of story. BRAVO!!

  15. Elias Gant says:

    I liked this story a lot, though the ending of Mia deciding to stay did seem a bit sudden. And how old is Mia? At first I thought she might be in her 40s, then 50s, then God knows how old. If her memory is failing her, should she still be on active duty?

    That aside, I enjoyed the moral ambiguity of the piece: is Mia’s motivation at the end altruistic? Or, is it a self-serving delusion of grandeur because she always wanted to make a difference and here’s her change. Is Esefeb really better off being cured? (Here we have shades of Europeans “civilizing” Native Americans, and I think this story did it better than “Cloud Dragon Skies”.) Did What’s His Name sleep with Esefeb or is the disease spread through other means? How long has the settlement been in place versus the collapse of the city? Few things are answered, but that’s not the point, is it?

    Plus, Ms. Stewart’s reading of the very end just slew me

  16. Samantha says:

    This was a truly excellent story. The moral ambiguity extends well beyond the end as well. All of us who’ve had extremely traumatic emotional experiences in our past know that sometimes, much later in life, the way we feel about them is very different from how we felt when those wounds were fresh.

    Ten years later, how did Esefeb feel? Perhaps consumed with hatred either for Mia or her disease. Perhaps she’d found new joy in the love of another or her people or her own children which she could not have experienced with the disease. Right and wrong are such funny concepts.

    Excellent story.

  17. Hysteria says:

    Wow, I feel kind of out of place right now…a lot of people liked this story, and apparently liked it a lot.

    Personally, well…I hated it. Really hated it.

    The main reason I hated this story so much was because it was based on a song, and from that, I could pretty much tell that the prelude verse was going to enter into the story somehow, which made the story seem very, very forced. It didn’t help that Nancy Kress put the quote in, literally, at the very end of the story. I get that it was meant to be a twist ending, but I knew it was coming. I knew it when Mia didn’t react to Esefeb saying Ej-es. At the risk of sounding pompous, after that, Esefeb missing Ej-es was obvious. If she didn’t, the verse at the beginning would have made no sense.

    I was really hoping that there would have been something more to the story. However, in the end the story seemed designed only to use that verse, and nothing else. Mia had an entire backstory that was glossed over because this verse had to be said. The science of relative speeds should have been explored more. For that matter, Nancy Kress could have at least added something to the verse at the end to give it a sense of genuine feeling, instead of just being tacked on.

    I’ll also be honest here–I think trying to write a story based on a song is generally a bad idea. Most songs stand up by themselves, or aren’t deep enough to warrant a story behind them. Sure, you could have fun writing the backstory behind, say, Alice Cooper’s “Elected,” or try to make a coherent story out of Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” but do you really need to?*

    So, yeah…bad idea, bad execution, in my not-so-humble opinion. Sorry!

    *(It would, of course, feature the Mirror Queen and the Manor King.)

  18. Leadhyena says:

    First, I have to comment to Steve: Thank you so much for such a great podacst! I’ve been listening since around the 50th episode or so, but never visited the website. The stories you provide make me love sci-fi again, regardless of its definition, and I can’t thank you enough for that. The Giving Plague was the best story I’ve heard in forever, and the reading of Nightfall gave me shivers.

    As far as this story, I was surprised by the ending, mainly because I had half expected Mia to attempt to contract the diesase herself, with all of her comments on loneliness and feeling so voyeuristic when watching over Esefeb and her imaginary lover. Age and the suffering of loneliness are directly proportional, and having two ages (one chronological and one physical) seperate herself from the rest of her crew would be too heavy a cross to bear.

    @Hysteria: I agree that usually a story that bases itself on a song is bad when it only acts to tie itself into the story. I didn’t look to the song as an anchor as much as it was a seed, and as such I pretty much ignored the song throughout, so I was surprised to have it pointed out that the end words were translated (even missing the obvious Ej-Es=Jessie translation). I guess that by not myopically focusing on the song I was able to soak in the rest of this story that had so many angles on non-interference, medical morality, and solitude.

    I’ve used this trick before to write stories, by choosing some song or quote or event or some other seed and watched a story blossom and spread well beyond the boundaries of the original thought. Many times it’s satisfying to write this way, and usually you won’t find it necessary to include the seed at all in the final work. I guess the reason I’m going into detail here is this: would your impressions of the story been different if you didn’t know that it came from a song?

  19. Hysteria says:

    LeadHyena–

    I’m going to say “maybe.” If I hadn’t known it was based on a song, then I would have suspected that the verse had something to do with the story, but probably in a more tangential way. Honestly, at this point it’s kinda hard to tell.

  20. Connor Moran says:

    Hysteria:
    I also expected the ending because of the quote, but that had the opposite effect for me. It didn’t feel like a twist ending but like a Greek tragedy–the inevitability of the conclusion colored everything that came before with a beautiful sadness. When Esefeb seems to be happy at first it just twists the knife further. I knew she would ache. It’s not totally clear if she hadn’t noticed Ej-Es’s absence or if she was just acting nice because she knew that Mia meant well and didn’t want to show her pain. Either way, it’s the kind of aching beauty that I’m a sucker for.

    Excellent, excellent story.

  21. Frank says:

    I liked this story. It reminded me of Equus. What happens if the patient doesn’t want to be cured? Are we really helping someone by removing their source of happiness?

  22. B.Ruhsam says:

    I liked the story, but I didn’t like the story. It was well told but horribly depressing. It reminded me of The Watching People from a few months ago.

    I listened to this back to back with Ishmael in Love and I had to go to bed afterward. They were both too depressing…

  23. TimE says:

    First time commenter… I really liked this story–almost as much as Cloud Dragon Skies. Seems like Steve is really on a roll here with good stories.

    I’m starting to wish that EP came out more than once a week as I find myself jones’n for the next fix all too often.

    Keep up the great work. Love the podcast.

  24. Mitch says:

    Am I the only one who saw this planet as a giant drug den?

    Think about it….

    Liked the story, predictable ending and all. Great reading. The questions left for the reader to discuss (where they better off? was it right/wrong?) seemed to almost ruin the story though.

  25. Bruce Wayne says:

    I loved this story… listened to it several times, and I am always nearly brought to tears on behalf of Ej-Es, the community, and for Mia… with her tragic decisions.

    The great tragedy of HUBRIS. In this case, brought to you from loving heart.

    I am writing another ending in my head- Mia contracts the disease before she gets too far along. I normally steer clear of tragedy.

  26. Sheri Mann Stewart says:

    I want to thank the listeners who have complimented my reading of the story — and those who simply commented on the story at all. It’s such a rare treat to get to hear directly from “the audience”. This was my first time reading for a podcast after being a professional actor for many years and I really enjoyed it. I’d love to do more of it. As a loyal union member, I always have to work out creative ways to adhere to union policy and still work with producers with limited funds. Feel free to contact me through Steve if you have a project you’d like me to consider. And keep on enjoying this fabulous site!

  27. [...] “Nightfall,” story. To drive this home, in the next week or so I listed to Nancy Kress’ “Ej-Es” on Escape pod. Which was amazing, and then I realized that of course it followed the basic [...]

  28. [...] of older stories and are thus ineligible for many awards. I wouldn’t want you to miss Nancy Kress’s “Ej-Es” just because it can’t win a Hugo this year. Have you ever listened to a podcast or a book on [...]

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  31. Mia says:

    Besides the pleasure of hearing that (until) recently unusual name said over and over in very well-written SF, I enjoyed this story because it seemed to be bursting with possible readings. My first reading of it (in the solid anthology) brought up my doppelganger as a well-meaning secular scientist (probably atheist or agnostic?) who tries to be compassionate with and yet undercut some believing theists.

    As I listened, hearing the story read aloud in the podcast, I was prepared to change my reading: surely the squalor and lack of community would not recommend the edenic, bioreligious reading? However, after I thought about various asectic practices across spiritualities and religions, the religious reading did not seem far off. I’m an American from the South, and in both readings, I thought of “Jesus” when I read “Ej-Es.”

  32. Mia says:

    Also worth comparing is the short story/novella Pamela Sargent, “Behind the Eyes of the Dreamers” in the collection of the same name.

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