EP125: End Game

By Nancy Kress
Read by Stephen Eley.
First appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, April 2007.

“What exactly happened in the seventh grade?” I found myself intensely curious, which I covered by staring at the board and making a move.

He told me, still unembarrassed, in exhaustive detail. Then he added, “It should be possible to adjust brain chemicals to eliminate the static. To unclutter the mind. It should!”

“Well,” I said, dropping from insight to my more usual sarcasm, “maybe you’ll do it at Harvard, if you don’t get sidetracked by some weird shit like ballet or model railroads.”

“Checkmate,” Allen said.

Rated R. Contains profanity, sexual innuendo, and chess-related violence.

Referenced Sites:
2007 Podcast & New Media Expo
California Brunch Meetup 9/30/07
Better Late Than Never (Stardust review)

Comments (35)

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  1. Bert says:

    If Allen has found the end to tangential thought, then Steve Eley has found the polar opposite. It is the rare episode of Escape Pod that I only listen to once. Typically, I find my mind wandering down the many paths illuminated by the concepts discussed only to come back minutes later to realize yet another though-provoking idea is being introduced.

    Given the choice, I’ll keep my white matter count high.

  2. pollo says:

    Amazing story – a brilliant twist on the zombie theme.

  3. Dave-T says:

    Very well written (and well read!)story. This style of SF is not normally my cup of tea, but Kress is is such a masterful storyteller that I was enthralled. It is all too easy to imagine a “cure” like this being imposed on ADHD sufferers by overzealous psychiatrists.

    Good story choice.

  4. Jim says:

    ‚ÄúEnd Game‚Äù was my favorite story so far. I’ve always been a fan of end-of-the-world scenarios, but this is a unique twist. It makes me wonder what good-intentioned actions we are taking right now that may mean our ultimate destruction.

  5. Me says:


    And it could have involved only Allen, his protege, the narrator and wife and still kept its poignancy.

    Although he might become as focussed and unaware as his wife, he ends the story experiencing as much life, and mental life, as possible.

  6. Shannon says:

    This story made my skin crawl as I listened to it. The thought of becoming so focused on one thought that it dominates your life, makes all of the zombie movie creatures look tame. The idea that brain “static” would be cut off is scary especially for a guy like me. I mean I have a mild form of ADD (Attenion Deficit Disorder) and I have learned over the years to use a fifteen-point attack system on solving problems while using my own personal “Static” to aid me. But the idea of focusing on a single thought for such a long time… Can you say Robot… and the dehumanizing of a person to the point where they just look blankly at you while they talk madly allong on a subject that you can’t seem to understand.

    Nancy Kress’s gives the types of stories that make you think about the world around you. That not every advancement is a good thing. That sometimes we lose our humanity in doing things we think are right. While in a sense, nature had worked out things that way so that we don’t kill ourselves in the process. It is how we connect and enjoy life around us. It is the Angles we have look at and view that help keep us human.

    That is how you connect.

  7. Sesquipedallian says:

    A great little story –

    that left me feeling conflicted over the fact that Allen is a character with Asperger’s Syndrome. I have AS too. And I’m sure there will be other listeners who relate to Allen.

    I’m not as bad as Allen, not now that I’m an adult anyway. But – the story did draw out anxieties, new and old. Is it really odd to say “tidied up”? 🙂 (Or, how many friendly acquaintances are merely humoring me, and I can’t tell? :/)

    Not a criticism, just a comment.

    I love the narration of Allen’s attempt to describe a stream of consciousness.

    • Leah
  8. Daniel says:

    Scary. And the second scary escape pod story in a row.

    I am a PhD student in engineering and when i look at a lot of my scientist colleagues, i once again have to think what is fiction and what is reality.

    On the other hand – i can now enjoy being easily distracted a lot more.

  9. stePH says:

    This story is remarkably similar to one by Stephen King: “The End of the Whole Mess”, anthologized in Nightmares and Dreamscapes and adapted for television in the miniseries of the same name, is another “not with a bang, but a whimper” story in which a genius takes it upon himself to cure humanity of violence — but the unintended side effect is early-onset Alzheimer’s, with death following soon after. The story is narrated by the genius’s older brother, so the voice of the story is not unlike that of “End Game” with a bit of “Flowers for Algernon” thrown into the mix.

    A good story … but I think I like Kress’ even better.

  10. Suki says:

    This story struck a cord with me. As an ADHD diagnosed adult. I take no meds and have learned to live with the “static” so to speak. But the way the author described the thoughts that go racing through the head was a perfect description of how I usually see the world through my eyes. I have often wondered what life would be like with out all this “static” but as the story explained it would not be very ideal. This story did such a fantastic job theorizing the possibilities with playing with that “static.” I also gave me a better perspective on my own and that I should embrace my thoughts regardless how flickery they are. Great story.

  11. JonnyTen says:

    The first time I heard this story was at a reading, open to the public, that Kress did during Clarion when it was still at Michigan State University.

    It was ironic in that immediately afterward, while we were perusing the bookstore for books for her to sign, I attempted to engage some of the Clarionites in conversation. Their eyes just slid right off me. One fellow gave me a one-word answer. I remember a lass in a velvet dress lying on the floor in the bookstore. I asked her, “Are you alright?” She stared through me. I fancied I could see two fingers on her hand twitching to plunge into her mouth. She returned her gaze to her fellow classmate and said, “She said I need to get closer to my characters.”

    Perhaps Nancy just wrote about what was happening during her week at Clarion.

    Anyway I think the danger in this story applies to SF fans especially. I know a gal who filters all conversation through a Stargate sieve.

    Thanks for another great episode Steve. Escape Pod gets me through the data-entry part of my job, and as Tolkein pointed out in “On Fairy Stories” that is heroic.

  12. amanda says:

    EEEK!!!! Intriguing story, but frightening for someone studying non-stop for a grad school exam! thanks for this week’s fix of provocative thoughts. 🙂

  13. Wyatt says:

    It made me better appreciate something I take for granted, that it’s inefficiency what make us human. For this reason the story was great.

  14. nick says:

    Amazing story, and thank you for the tidbit at the end… it woke me from my lost static free funk. The first thought that comes to my mind from this story ‘jack of all trades – master of none’.

  15. […] and monographs. afn:epz:Steve, sorry, I’ve been behind. I just saw that you bought another Nancy Kress Story, and I’m pretty excited about this. Woo! afn:sfwaz:SFWA can be pretty boneheaded some/most of […]

  16. john says:

    Does anyone find it odd that the author would pilfer her own story “Ej-Es” re-writing it so it taking place in the fimiliar instead of a alien planet, keeping the scrony girl that didn’t say much, then concluding with nearly the exact same ending minus the odd langauge inside joke for those that bothered to map the lexicon.

  17. I’ve read this story in either analog or asimovs. I can’t remember but both times listening to it on an nls tape and now on a podcast, both times it was well read and well done. and it was well written. It makes me think. and I’d rather have my thoughts scattered.

  18. Anonymous says:

    This one didn’t do much for me. Interesting stuff, but really not very different from some of the authors’ other stories read here.

    Sure, like others, I see that danger of being too single minded in myself. But that’s an old battle, one I now have strategies in place for, and I’m not sure this story cast any new light on that struggle, so much as just telling me the struggle existed, and I knew that.

  19. BELA AD says:

    Sweet ending.

  20. DrFloyd5 says:

    I have to admit, I found this misguided save the world story a little tired and predictable. Stephen King did a very similar story where a super genius younger brother finds a compound that removes aggression, but didn’t notice that it caused Autism.

    The only real question is if the narrator is affected or not. Is his single static free focus to have as much static as possible?

  21. chornbe says:

    Pollo said:

    Amazing story – a brilliant twist on the zombie theme.

    Wow, that was my exact thought. Subtle, frightening and (multiple)thought provoking. I can’t really express all the things about this story that I loved.

    This one is a gem.

  22. Stephen Middleton says:

    A great twist on getting what you wish for. I hate to say this, but I recognise some of my bad characteristics in the narrator. Well constructed.

  23. L33tminion says:

    I, too, think Pollo got it right on. A creeping zombie apocalypse where no one notices or cares… how creepy.

  24. Zytheran says:

    A great story. The dystopian horror of the ending thankfully doesn’t compare to my usual day with my head full of noise and ideas. I would never want to loose my distractability and wandering thoughts if it meant loosing my creativity. One thought?? No thanks.

  25. […] End Game by Nancy Kress (first appeared in Asimov’s, 04/2007) […]

  26. Dave (aka Nev the Deranged) says:

    It seems like nobody else brought it up, so I will- I don’t think this would work. Allen becomes super-focused, yet continues to make breakthroughs? I don’t think so. The hallmark of genius is to be able to pluck unrelated bits from the “static” and put them together in interesting new ways. If you became superfocused, you’d lose the ability to make intuitive leaps, to have those Eureka! moments.

    I liked the story well enough, but I had a hard time buying that aspect of the premise. But hey, maybe my understanding of how brains work is wrong, I’m the first to admit I’m ignorant.

    I’d like to note that I have a LOT of static. @_@

  27. josh says:

    The obsession breakthrough in this story reminded me a lot of the engineered Focus virus in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. I found this to be one of Nancy Kress’s weaker pieces. Unoriginal idea, and nothing too interesting in terms of plot or character development. The characters were 1-dimensional, but I suppose that was the point. Yeah, strange phenomena stripping us of our free-will are always scary, but so are unengaging stories.

    By the way, the Hunter/Farmer theory of ADD says that being easily distractible is part of the hunter adaptation. Being wired to notice and change focus to new things quickly makes one a more successful hunter. Whereas farmers need to be able to deal with monotonous repetative tasks. Too bad the story’s mad scientist wasn’t up on that theory before he went and broke the human species.

  28. :-Dan says:

    I was looking to see if someone would mention Vinge‚Äôs Focus virus. I go to that idea often when discussing where my eldest is on the Autism spectrum. I have shocked many a concerned professional with my observation that “somebody has to knapp the flint.”

    Note: it was Deepness in the Sky when focus was used as a major plot point, I don’t remember if it was mention in Fire Upon the Deep.

  29. I was looking to see if someone would mention Vinge‚Äôs Focus virus. I go to that idea often when discussing where my eldest is on the Autism spectrum. I have shocked many a concerned professional with my observation that “somebody has to knapp the flint.”

  30. I was looking to see if someone would mention Vinge‚Äôs Focus virus. I go to that idea often when discussing where my eldest is on the Autism spectrum. I have shocked many a concerned professional with my observation that “somebody has to knapp the flint.

  31. hugo games says:

    I was looking to see if someone would mention Vinge‚Äôs Focus virus. I go to that idea often when discussing where my eldest is on the Autism spectrum. I have shocked many a concerned professional with my observation that “somebody has to knapp the flint.

  32. scatterbrain says:

    Reminds me of Cat’s Cradle.

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  34. […] Fiction: Listen to “End Game” by Nancy Kress at Escape […]

  35. […] Hearts, by Tim Pratt and Greg van Eeekhout; Edward Bear and the Very Long Walk, by Ken Scholes; End Game, by Nancy Kress; and Save Me Plz, by David Barr […]