EP147: Pressure

By Jeff Carlson.
Read by Graydancer (of The Ropecast).
First appeared in Strange Horizons, August 2003.
Closing music: “I Crush Everything” by Jonathan Coulton.

I spent the longest five weeks of my life in that tank and in a deeper pool, healing, testing, practicing. My feet and toes had been augmented much like my hands, my thighs shortened to maximize the available muscle. I was damned quick. Relearning construction techniques with my new fingers was sometimes frustrating, yet my progress was real and those periods of solitary labor became important to me.

At the surface, in the shallows, doctors poked and prodded and put me through redundant tortures. I had been warned that the study of my new body would be extensive and did my best not to fear or hate them, but I’d never imagined such intense scrutiny. During my years as a SEAL, I had been like a bug under a microscope, constantly evaluated and scored. Here I was the microscope, my body the only lens through which they could measure their work. Stenstrom tried to be my buddy, as he had always tried, joking and asking what I’d do with the money, yet his possessiveness was obvious. “We’ll be famous,” he said. “We’ll change the world.”

I wasn’t a slave or a pet, exactly, but I was anxious to get started. To get away from them.

Rated PG. Contains moderate violence.

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Comments (43)

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  1. Rich Gibson says:

    Very good story, but way way overshadowed by your almost throw away line about having the worst day of your life.

    I’m deeply concerned by that, and wish you the best.

    As a dramatic device casually leaving a line like that was like reaching into my throat and grabbing random gobs of gore and pulling just enough so I noticed, and then a bit more so I can feel the slight give as reality prepares to slip free of its bounds.

  2. David says:

    Not my favorite work; I like the isolationist mentality but the main character just didn’t appeal to me. Didn’t see a link to the sponsor you mentioned; you might want to add a link to them.

  3. JB says:

    “Worst day of my life…”

    Worried ’boutcha, bubba.

  4. andrea says:

    Hope all is well with you now. I’m sure all your listeners feel they’ve come to know you through these wonderful podcasts. I’ve especially appreciated them during some very dull database entry!

    This story is one of the best I’ve heard [I’ve been steadily working through the archives this week and enjoy each entire podcast] your choice of closing music was excellent.

    At the beginning of the story I was reminded of Brin’s alien viewpoint descriptions in “Brightness Reef” but perhaps Carlson has surpassed them.

    All the best,

  5. PK says:

    Gah, I saw the likely ending coming from the first two minutes, and hoped the author would surprise me and go somewhere else, and he didn’t. Been a cliche since Poul Anderson.

  6. Kabada says:

    I’m sorry for not commenting on the story, but:
    The audiblepodcast link doesn’t work for me. Just some kind of ad server that displays a perfectly white page.

  7. Chris in Austin says:

    I liked this story a lot. It was quite interesting and engaging. I liked the high degree of plausability in the sci fi prospects, which at the same time were quite grotesque and disturbing. The setting of the ocean is interesting to compare to space, even though life probably began in the sea, water being a much more nourishing and elemental subsstance for humans than the aether of the heavens, it really is just as frightening and foreign.

    I am new to Escape Pod, but I caught up on the last 40 or so episodes in the last few weeks and look forward to participating more in the future.
    Thanks for the great podcast.

  8. Bryan in Nepal says:

    Hey Steve, I am a huge fan and I have probably iistened to every single EP episode. I have developed quite a strong affection for this podcast. I was quite concerned to hear that you are having personal difficulties. I hope everything works out alright for you.

    Take Care

  9. I join the others in hoping all is well in your non-Escape Pod life.

    I didn’t like this story at all. Maybe the reason there are so few undersea Sci-fi stories is that the basic science and conditions are better understood – bad science is more easily noticed.
    For example: a gel to protect individual cells from the pressure? – Pressure may have some effect on liquids and solids but it’s main effect is on gases in the body. If there is no air in the body, as in the case of this diver, pressure effects are minimal or non-existent.
    What kind of radio was the guy using when the torpedoes came in? Radio doesn’t work underwater. If he was using sound, then his sonar would attract the torpedoes as well.

    Bad science, bad father, bad story.

  10. Hawthorne says:

    First off I send my best wishes and hope all turns towered the better

    I am still not sure how I feel about this story. The beginning was very interesting and caught my attention, my mind going “hey what a cool idea, where can i sign up?” However when the bad soap opera family problems kicked in you lost me. The pseudo science was not as upsetting to me as the simplistic predictable ending.

    All in all I thought it was a decent story to listen to at night while doing other work, but not one i am going to listen to again and again.

    I still think he should have run into the Nautilus and Captain Nemo.

    I am also wondering about the intro and the audio book site, thanks for pointing out the site but it still sounded a little too much like an advertisement and sounded out of place in what i have come to know as the EP intros

  11. Jacob says:

    Worst episode ever; this is a horrible tale of escapism. Which I find even more ironic since Graydancer read it, and isn’t he Poly and there for by definition bound by open honest, communication, in a non-monogamous relationship by its very definition? Somehow I find it hard to listen to a poly person read about, intolerance and not being able to trust someone, don’t you?
    If it wasn’t for the fact that the main charictors swam-off and spared the rest of our futures from having him in it. I would point out the unlikely hood of nuclear to be a problem now and in the future, and how it still looks to be our best solution. That is only if you like having the lights on, and in the years to come too.
    However, I must agree. Even with a huge leap in solar tech, it will always be lacking, not to mention hydro, wind, or bio-mass (If I could afford to fill my tank with Whiskey, I don’t think I would waist it by driving to and from work).
    You know every writer is a political activist, and I’m sorry to see this one go so ill-informed, just like the authors Green-charictors.

    (and as always) please send more Jonathan Colton…

    Thanks Steve,

  12. Rob Whyte says:

    This story reminds me of the Rifters books by Peter Watts, which also feature people who are technologically modified so that they can survive in the deep ocean. They also feature a world starved of power and spiralling out of control and the protagonists are a group of psychological basket-cases who are sent to the bottom of the ocean to tap the heat from volcanic vents and set up geothermal power stations.

    Deeply disturbing, bleak and depressing – but some of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. They’re even available for free under a Creative Commons license on his website at http://rifters.com/real/shorts.htm

  13. mrgoldenbrown says:

    Seconding the Rifters series as a much deeper look at the concepts introduced here. Pun intended. They are deeper ocean depths wise, plot wise, and science wise.

    Best wishes Steve.

  14. araña says:

    liked the story, LOVED the narration, and especially liked the marines>SEALs bit.


    hoping you’re well, you big damn geek.

    johnathan coulton+EP= all sorts of goodness.

  15. Cindy in Reno says:

    Like everyone else, I too hope all is well with you. I also saw the end coming from the beginning of the story and was disappointed. And I appreciated the marines>SEALs bit. hah!

  16. micah says:

    I hope everything is OK with you and yours. We’re all concerned about you.

    Generally I just enjoy the stories and leave the comments to others, but since I’m here, I feel obliged:

    As a diver myself, I appreciated the the underwater beauty of the story. It was soothing to remember the feeling of flight and exploration in such a serene environment. However, the plot itself was telecast from afar and the ending left me flat. Also, the protagonist’s desire to be alone seemed at odds with his strong need to remain in contact with his family.

  17. Nuchtchas says:

    I don’t usually comment on the episodes because normally I am in the car or not near a computer, plus I listen so late commenting doesn’t seem worth it.

    This time is different, I was near the computer and working, and well we all know how much people crave distraction when working….

    All I could think about during this whole story was the South Park episode where Kyle’s dad gets turned into a dolphin. I wonder if that is where the author got the idea?

    Cute how the song matched

  18. Icepick says:

    Mostly underwhelmed by the story. Not 100% sure why. Now that I’ve got to write it down, I think it is because I was never convinced of the protagonists emotional vulnerability, so I really didn’t care too much what happened to him.

    It is the protagonists who give up some of their selfish defences that draw me into a story.

    Speaking of which, Steve, I share the rest of the sentiment around the board in hoping that everything will be well with you.

  19. Dan says:

    Steve, you mentioned in the intro that the Ocean could be a vast realm for Sci-Fi just like Space already is. You’re probably right but this story didn’t quite get there. Most our time was spent exploring shallow waters and not getting into the mystery of the Ocean.

    It’s as if the entire story spent all of it’s time in the upper atmosphere, never exiting our solar system let alone our own planet sphere.

    That said it was still a good listen and well worth the time. Way to try something different 🙂

    PS Hope you’re feeling better, just look at the comments, everyone loves you.

  20. Void Munashii says:

    It is hard for me to be totally fair with this story, coming as it does a week after “Edward Bear”, but this one is likely not to be one of my favourites down the road. It’s not as if it were a bad story or anything, it’s just a little bit of a letdown after stories like “Friction” and “Edward Bear”.

    I did enjoy the story, although the ending seems a bit like a punch out ending. It’s as if the author was not sure exactly how to get to the ending he wanted, so he just threw in this completely out of nowhere eco-terrorist attack to give the protagonist the escape opportunity that was needed.

    For me, the best parts of the episode were not the story itself, but the Coulton song at the end (Johnathan Coulton = win), and the way you described The Ropecast being about BDSM in the same way one might say a podcast is about cats.

    I hope your RL situation improves. Your mentioning it has clearly made a lot of us listeners concerned.

  21. Dan says:

    Void Munashii, you like Johnathan Coulton?!

  22. Void Munashii says:

    Well, Jonathan Coulton, yes.

  23. Julio says:

    I kinda liked the story. I felt horrified that somebody would allow his body to be changed so much, but that’s just how much the story involved. I wanted to comment also that I did go to the audible promotion you hosted, and I picked a book at random, which doesn’t usually work out… But i got Titan by Ben Bova, it turns out to be a great book.

  24. Dorene says:

    Steve, I’ve never thought to leave a comment after a podcast, but your mention of the worst day of your life concerned me. Whatever has happened, I’m sorry for it and hope that you have the support you need to deal with it.

  25. ThermonuclearPenguin says:

    Hope you are having fun now Steve.

    The story did nothing for me. The main character gave me no reason to empathize at all. From about the second minute I felt like he was selfish and really uncaring. In addition the ending was quite predictable.

    I do agree with you that the inner space of our oceans have been neglected by Sci-Fi writers. When they do decide to write about it the story generally turns in to a we down here versus them up there story. Perhaps that is because when it comes to our oceans truth is really stranger than fiction.

    Bringing this back around to Pressure, I would have respected the cyber-merman more if the reason for not surfacing was an unstoppable urge to find out what is out there and how he could join with “it” and become a better human. But in the end he did it to avoid his lack of humanity and only wanted to hide. Pathetic.

    Thank you for everything, keep up the great work Steve.

  26. MadJo says:

    I’m sorry Steve, this was the first EP story that I cut off, well before the ending. I didn’t like it, it depressed me. Which I can’t deal with at the moment.
    The narration was good, it’s just the underlying themes in the story were too much for me.

  27. not supergirl says:

    I’m a regular listener and a rare commenter. This story didn’t do much for me, but like a lot of the other posters here, I was concerned when I heard your comment about having had the worst day of your life. I hope things are improving.

  28. Joe says:

    Dear Steve,

    I know it has been about a week since your “worst day”. I’m sorry to hear that. I’m a first time poster/commenter to this site. I was turned onto podcasting recently at work, as I was told we could not listen to streaming radio online, but podcasting was okay. Previously, I had heard about it, but never partook in its magnificence. After listening to all I could stand of NPR podcasting, I searched around a little bit and stumbled upon this place. I ravenously gobbled up the audio of every story in the subscription list and am working my way through all the past stories. Needless to say, I’ve been greatly inspired by your work and am taking up writing again because of its direct result. To that, I say thank you. I hope things are going well for you.

    Best Regards,
    Joe Arndt

  29. TheSpore says:

    Two really depressing Escape Pod stories in a row?!?

    First, the extremely sad Edward Bear story. Now this one where the author goes on and on in graphic detail about how lonely and depressed and mutilated the main character is. This is the first Escape Pod story I couldn’t finish despite trying several times.

    As a long time fiction reader and Escape Pod listener I’ve built up a tolerance to stories about murderers and lesbians and zombies and other violent or sexual themes that would get an R or X rating if they were a movie. But please, Mr. Eley, leave the psychologically damaging stories for Pseudopod where your listeners expect that sort of thing.

  30. Virion says:

    Did anyone suddenly flash on “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” after the line “You did it for a chance to finally be a fish!”? Afterwards I couldn’t help but imagine Don Knotts narrating.

  31. Alex says:

    Right, and that is really how he took care of the torpedoes. Mr. Turbolimpet just let loose a big WOOOGA! and they all blew up! He did not bring it up, because he did not want to toot his own horn.

    Sorry,could not resist.

    By the way, I would have liked the character better if he was a bit more emotionally accessible; like Mr. Limpet.

    I sincerely hope your bad day did not turn into a string of them. I will pray for you tonight.

  32. Gary H says:

    Add me to the list of those who didn’t like this one. The string of wonderful stories had to end sometime, for me it was with this one. Being a father I can’t empathize with characters who abandon their family. Hell, I can understand why people have jobs where they travel more than a few days a month.

    On a production note, the computer voice was unintelligible, and unbelievable. Present text to speech technology is much better than that, and would really be advanced if people can be turned into fish.

  33. Martin R says:

    I liked the story OK, it made my weekend vacuuming so much better. But I too had a really hard time understanding the distorted voices, particularly the woman’s, which kind of left me guessing about what their relationship was like.

  34. L33tminion says:

    Okay story, but I agree with the comment on the computerized voices. That really detracted from an otherwise good tale.

  35. Phil McT says:

    Well, I for one thought this was the best Escape Pod for a long time. The story lingered for me – the grotesque descriptions and the ending (which I didn’t see coming…I’m not an “ending-guesser”)

  36. Marius Cross says:

    Cool story, but one point keeps bothering me. They have enough technology to totally alter and adapt a person’s biology, but they can’t find a program that can read text in a human-ish sort of way?

  37. A well written, engrossing story, superbly voiced, excellently produced (the computer voices were fine and appropriate once I got over the initial annoyance); hampered severely by an unspeakably cliche and thoroughly predictable ending.

    So close. So damn close. Rework the ending into something meaningful rather than boring, and this could be a first class, grade A story.

    Just my 2 cents, naturally.

  38. Gregor Samsa says:

    I think there has been some sort of cock up. Some of these comments seem to relate to “Edward Bear” from the cast previous. In relation to the story “Pressure” I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. A surprise ending is not always necessary for enlightenment. I think this is one of the best since I’ve been listening.

  39. Audita Sum says:

    I loved the story but saw one anomaly: if this is really set reasonably far into the future, how does the protagonist not know what emoticons are? I mean seriously. Any person who grew up in this day and age would know what 😉 stands for.

  40. Mari Mitchell says:

    I guessed the ending. I sure he would stay in water. Not that they story was bad. After all it is journey that matters almost if not more.

  41. simon says:

    pc grow rooms for your growing needs , growing made easy for you

  42. […] with humans engineered for ocean working and living: “Pressure” by Jeff Carlson (also available in audio format) “The Mermaids Singing Each to Each” by Cat Rambo “Green Leopard Plague” by Walter Jon Williams […]