EP139: Acephalous Dreams

By Neal Asher.
Read by Stephen Eley.

“AI Geronamid has need of a subject for a scientific trial. This trial may kill you, in which case it would be considered completion of sentence. Should you survive, all charges against you will be dropped.”

“And the nature of this trial?”

“Cephalic implantation of Csorian node.”

“Okay, I agree, though I have no idea what Csorian node is.”

The Golem stood and as she did so the door slid open. Daes glanced up at the security eye in the corner of the cell and stood also. He thought, briefly, about escape, but knew he stood no chance. His companion might look like a teenage girl but he knew she was strong enough to rip him in half.

“You didn’t tell me. What’s a Csorian node?”

“If we knew that with any certainty we would not be carrying out this trial,” replied the Golem.

Rated R. Contains scenes of strong graphic violence and sexual assault.

Comments (30)

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  1. Martin R says:

    Cool sensawunda story with exo-archaeology, marred by needlessly lurid and graphic descriptions of forced sodomy and machete decapitation.

  2. Darell says:

    Please try to find good stories that don’t contain, as Martin R says, “needlessly lurid and graphic” violence. There have been quite a few of those lately, and it’s a real turn off.

  3. Rhio2k says:

    Odd…and oddly interesting. I liked it.

  4. Damien says:

    A story has to earn that kind of violence, and this one didn’t even come close. I’d go a few steps beyond lurid and say the use of violence was exploitative, just a cheap shot to get the attention of less mature readers and cover over the cracks in the writing, of which there were many.

  5. Gary H says:

    Great story. The violence didn’t bother me, it gave insight into the character. The story needed a murderer to succeed, but it had to be a murderer people could have some sympathy for. The graphic scenes explained why he did it. Actually, given the warning at the beginning I thought it would be worse. Maybe I’ve seen to many Law and Order episodes.

  6. Another Neal Asher, great choice Stephen, excellent job!

  7. Fakenger101010 says:

    Fantastic Story. Loved it.

  8. Cancerboy says:

    A modern twist on Gregor Samsa from
    Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”

  9. Neil Leslie says:


    I have to say this story made no sense to me whatever. I felt as if I’d just blundered into the middle of a movie where the characters’ histories, motivations, and reasons for being were established long before the story even began, let alone where I happened upon them, and I had no way of deducing them from context. The violence and buggery and expanded consciousness and whatnot just seemed to muddy the waters further for me.

    I dunno about you guys, but as for me, an sf story can have all the mind-bending technologies, ideas, and special effects imaginable, but if it doesn’t have characters that I can in some way relate to or sympathize with,that make all the other stuff comprehensible and approachable, I just don’t care.

    This story opens with one character beheading another in a particularly gruesome and graphic way, and, at least at first, I don’t know why. And the guy doing the beheading is (relatively speaking) the good guy! After that, everything else is a turn off.

    Oh, and did I mention I didn’t like it much? 🙂

  10. Josh says:

    It’s a bit of a pet peeve for me when people complain about a character being unsympathetic as though that’s criticism in itself. Good characterization and sympathetic characterization are not the same thing, and not all stories worth telling have a fundamentally nice, decent protagonist at the center of them. If you’re only interested in sympathetic protagonists, that eliminates some of the greatest works of literature in history, from Lolita to The Iliad. And much of the Bible, for that matter.

    I liked this story. Yes, the rape scene bordered on the gratuitous, but ultimately it served the characterization, and the story wouldn’t have worked if he was a nice guy.

    Actually, the only part that I didn’t really like was the idea that Earth’s insects turn out to be intelligent in some sort of collective way. That was hard to swallow – which I guess it was meant to be – but it also sort of telegraphed where the story was going. If we hadn’t been knocked over he head with the idea of hive intelligence, the emerging hive intelligence of the Csorian node would’ve been far more mysterious and intriguing.

  11. Me says:

    That. Was. Amazing.

    (apart from the ‘dream sequence’ as I didn’t see why it was in the story and it was probably unecessary)

    But mostly, amazing. A near perfect 10

  12. epilonious says:

    I agree with Josh in that people should stop whining that the author used gory depictions to make the character unsympathetic, and recognize that they really were quite effective in explaining the lead.

    I disagree with Josh in the nature of the hive minded insects on Earth and find the mystery and intrigue in some of the paradoxes the Csorian node introduces, namely: Which came first, the node or the insect?

  13. Audita Sum says:

    I found this story oddly comforting, as humanity’s loss of information is one of my main fears in life. In a way, Anton seemed kind of flatly evil, but since we only saw small glimpses of his character from his victim’s point of view, I guess that’s okay. Mostly, I was glad that the other sentient “race” wasn’t just humans with extra eyes or something. If it hadn’t been for mass extinctions, after all, mammals would’ve never reached their prime, and the ones with sentient brains would be either insects or reptiles.

    And the phrase ‘zipped minds’ amused me.

  14. Phillip McCollam says:

    Story telling is an art form, and as such is not always pretty. Ever see the Northern Renaissance painting by Matthias Grunewald called “The Crucifixion of Christ?” If not, you can see it here to get an idea what I’m talking about: http://www.wga.hu/art/g/grunewal/2isenhei/1view/1view1c.jpg

    In contrast to most other works of this subject matter, it’s pretty horrific, but that’s the point. Grunewald wanted viewers to feel uncomfortable, to know what kind of suffering was involved, because it increases the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice.

    Great, you say. Thanks for the art history lesson. What does this have to do with the main character being a murderer who exacts revenge on his previous molester (outside of the fact that the man used to be a priest)?

    Easy. The author wants you to feel sick. He wants to put you outside of your comfort zone right from the start. After all, how else are you going to identify with a main character who was put permanently outside of his? The graphic description of the beheading does that (to a degree), but it also does more. It puts human physiology irrevocably, indellibly and gruesomely in the front of your mind for the remainder of the story. Think about it: everything in the main character’s past is portrayed as disgusting, visceral, uncomfortably warm and sickeningly sticky. It’s nasty.

    It’s also the mechanic by which he is contrasted to the golem – a being of logic, wires and microcircuits, and it’s the antithesis to his transformation at the end of the story to something even more sterile and alien – an insect. His humanity falls away from him in wet, soil-stained chunks of flesh, and what remains can be seen by the reader as being preferable, even desireable after everything that has gone on before.

    Going far beyond the obvious ploy of making the reader not feel quite so bad for him having to die in the end, it gives the reader pause for reflection well after the last word of the story: will his past affect this reborn species view of humanity? Is this the beginning of a future intergalactic enmity?

    I’m usually vehemently against excessive gore and sex in stories, as it usually serves no purpose aside from cheap titillation. In this case, however, I make an exception. It was not only necessary to the story’s end, but the story was actually better for it. Even if it wasn’t pretty.

  15. Damien says:

    A sympathetic character doesn’t have to mean a likeable character. It means a character you can find some level of emotional and psychological engagement with. When a character is just a mouthpiece for a hand full of ideas and some gratuitous violence that is the definition of two dimensional writing.

  16. RR Anderson says:

    I need one of those golems.

  17. Phillip McCollam says:

    Nonsense, Damien. There’s not only precedent for unsympathetic characters in literature, there’s also a long history of them. They’re called antiheroes.

    Are you saying you can find something psychologically or emotionally in common with Shakespear’s MacBeth – a murderer, assassin and betrayer? There was more blood and gore and downright gratuitous violence in a single Shakespearean tragedy than this story could dream of, but since it’s written in Elizabethan English we seem prone to excuse it. How about the main character in Poe’s Telltale Heart, or Cask of Amontillado?

    Now don’t misunderstand: I am not comparing this story to the classics of literature – I’m merely pointing out that unsympathetic characters have been widely used plot devices and certainly do not make for two dimensional writing.

  18. Tim White says:

    Although I really enjoyed the Golem, and the AI, and the concept of the picotech civilization-restorer through the body of a criminal, I felt like the violence in the story didn’t mesh well with the rest of it. It’s as if the author went back to say “Gee, I need more motivation for the main character being a murderer, let me add this flashback”.

    I liked the interplay between Geronimous’s fear of the aliens AND his fear of the Daius, but I felt like the imagery tried too hard.

    And, as someone else mentioned, there have been too many of these violent-really-more-like-pseudopod type stories on here lately…

  19. Damien says:

    I clearly said a character DID NOT have to be sympathetic to be engaging. It does have to have a level of psycological depth however which this stories characters lacked. As for Macbeth, most humans can find something psycological and emotionaly engaging with Shakespearea villains. That’s why Shakespeare is a great writer, because he can present the extremes of human behaviour whilst showing how any person might take the same course. I’ve no objection to the depiction of violence if it even comes close to the intelligence and depth of Shskespeare. This story falls a LONG way short of that.

  20. Phillip McCollam says:

    Really? I took what you said to be the exact opposite. Since what you said was that a sympathetic character doesn’t have to be likeable, I mistakenly thought it was implied that a character must be sympathetic to the reader. My mistake, and I’ll ask your forgiveness for it.

    A couple of points, however, by way of curiosity: first, you mention that Shakespeare is a great writer because he can present extremes of human behavior while showing how any person might take the same course, and I quite agree. I also quite agree that this story falls far short of the bard’s standard – and I think I would be safe in assuming that the author would admit that his sights were nowhere near that high. But is it so implausible to believe that the main character’s actions in the beginning aren’t justified – within the realm of his own scarred psyche? Can you honestly say you wouldn’t react the same way should such a thing happen to you? I know I can’t.

    Motivation and justification aside, the way in which it was communicated by the author is obviously the more controversial point – and I do like Tim White’s point regarding the flashback seeming like it was inserted posthumously to add motivation for the murder. The timing of and the transition into that part of the story could have been implemented better. I will happily concede that the author probably didn’t have to go as far as he did with the descriptions, but I’ve already described why I found even this level of graphic description acceptable within the context of the larger story.

    Which brings me to my second point: You’ve mentioned several times that you do not think the plot and the writing justifies the violence, mentioning once that these scenes were there merely to cover over cracks in the writing. I’m curious as to what those cracks are. Why do you feel the prose falls short?

  21. Me says:

    Given the excellent description of the world(s), history and setting of the story, I don’t see that the author couldn’t have conveyed character motivation in another way.

    I’m sure this could have been done, since the rest of the story was such a high level (I think), so describing the abuse and murder scenes explicitly seems unecessary.

    If the author was less talented, it might be the best they could do…..

  22. Nate says:

    excellent story. this was so good, i had to listen to it twice (one of the very few stories that get that honer from me). 4 thumbs up (2 for each listen)

  23. Nate says:

    After reading all the comments, I have to agree…. while this story WAS a 2fer, the flashback was unnecessary. We knew that he killed a man. Thats all that we needed to know.

  24. Eric Conrad says:

    I have to admit that I barely noticed the character. I was too enthralled by the picture that was painted regarding the alien’s history, how the AI seemed to have control over humanity, and the neat little spiders that were to become the next step for the aliens.

  25. […] of rain on and off Listening: Escape Pod (EP Flash: ‚ÄúStuck In An Elevator With Mandy Patinkin‚Äù, EP 139, and the 1st part of EP 60, which had technical difficulties) plus some running music. Nice end w/ […]

  26. […] Re: News and Stuff You can find two of my Mason’s Rats stories in the The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann. And you can also listen to my story Acephalous Dreams on Escape Pod. […]

  27. Mari Mitchell says:

    Golem wanted: Apply within.

  28. HC says:

    Looking back on this story a couple months later, it’s my single favorite story. It’s nice hard SF, with no magic. I didn’t even remember the violence. I can’t believe people would get their panties in a twist over fictional violence, when they don’t think much about it happening every day in real life.

  29. […] Escape Pod began with Neal Asher’s “Acephalous Dreams” read by Stephen Eley. Set in Asher’s “Polity” universe, this is a revenge […]

  30. […] http://escapepod.org/2008/01/04/ep139-acephalous-dreams/ Posted by Blue Tyson 4.0, science fiction superhero, t short story, z free sf Subscribe to RSS feed […]