EP159: Elites

By Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Read by Máia Whitaker (of KnitWitch’s SciFi/Fantasy Zone and Superior Audioworks).
First appeared in Women of War, ed. Tanya Huff & Alexander Potter.

I could’ve followed the sounds. The closer I get, the louder voices grow—yelling obscenities, cheering, clapping in approval.

These women love fights.

I used to let them do it too, without interference, until the repair bills got too much. Then the House shrink told me about the added toll of repeated trauma—the fights would often replicate something that happened Out There—and I realized that no matter how much steam got blown off, the fights weren’t worth the expense.

Still, I wished for those old days sometimes.

Rated R. Contains violence, profanity, and strong themes of war and psychological trauma.

Referenced Sites:
“Recovering Apollo 8” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
7th Son: OBSIDIAN, ed. J.C. Hutchins

Comments (36)

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  1. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    This story just fell completely flat for me. It just seemed like a bunch of whiny chick-lit tripe that just reinforced every bad stereotype: hormonally-deranged women who would rather yak about problems than really solve them.

    Much of the story was devoted to lauding “the method,” but the method was never really described. Putting a bunch of women in a house and making them scrub toilets solves shell-shock? I lost all sympathy with the narrator when she derided the government collecting metrics about how many people were helped. Riiiiight….it’s always better to feel that you’re doing good, than know you’re doing good with objective measurements. This is what Stephen Colbert termed “truthiness.”

    Bad, uninteresting story for me. Two appendages down.

  2. Yicheng says:

    Overall, I liked the story, although it had its faults. I felt the switching of roles of the sexes, although novel, did end up getting in the way of the story for me. It almost felt like the author went out of her way to make women hyper-aggressive, violent, and more masculine than men. Over-compensating much? Granted, I don’t have any actual military combat experience, but over a decade in martial arts says the last thing you want in a fight is to lose yourself to an overwhelming emotional response. At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie, fear, anger, and hatred slows down your reaction time, telegraphs your moves, makes you exhausted faster, and generally gives the advantage to your enemy. Frankly, unless the women were amped up on steroids, there’s no way they could take on a group similarly trained men in a straight up hand-to-hand. Other than that, it was good, albeit a bit cliche.

  3. Hoyajon says:

    Your commentary at the end gave additional depth to the story. As a Soldier it reminded of what my old Special Forces Sergeant Major told me while we were training at Ft. Bliss — “Captain, a volunteer Soldier is a professional, a prostitute. We do what we are told by our pimps and get the pay we are doled out by our John, the Congress. Then, after we are all used up, we are kicked to the curb for the younger set willingly coming in to take our place. Those of use who have learned the tricks, like me, become the madames of the house. We are professionals, and we volunteered for this life. Anyone who expects anything differently in this Army is either naive or stupid.” Have fun!

  4. V says:

    Loved the reading, loved the story, loved the (unreliable at some points) narrator.

    Want to hear Máia Whitaker again.

    Its only flaw was that of a number of pieces I’ve read lately; as with anything else, when you try too hard to be gritty, it rings false.

    But aside from those brief lapses of tone, the rest of this story rings only too true, and not just to psychopathology. Yes, PTSD and other illnesses can make folks errati and volatile.

    But although we may not get physically violent, all or at least most of us get irrational when somebody hits us in “home”, and the results are more or less severe depending on how we’re wired and what we’ve known.

    As Charles Ludlam once said, “The things one takes most seriously are one’s weaknesses.”

    I can testify to that. Frankly, I recommend his one-page “Manifesto–Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly” as a guide to all writers. Weaknessess are instructive. That said, as much as I may realize that our narrator here turns unreliable, I tend to agree with her on some level. The line between paranoia and reality is known to blur . . . .

  5. I enjoyed the story, but it did come across a bit as what I would expect a scifi movie on the Lifetime network to be like.

    On the ADD front; I was diagnosed as a child (back when they just called it hyperactivity), and not only had to take the meds, but had to be on a special diet… I spent many of my formative years eating carob instead of chocolate. Good luck to you on it.

  6. Sam says:

    I think it would be a mistake to get bogged down in the science -or pseudoscience- of how effective soldiers women would make in the future. Not leastly because the author had the good grace to explain that the weapons of this world were compact and light enough for anyone to use and that the most ferocious fighters of all were flying spaceships.

    Maybe I’m reading more into the story than is there, but I feel that it was a critique not just of warfare but of the actual wars we are fighting and will likely fight in the future. The hormone-induced-mother-lover-berserker behavior serves as the answer to a question the American government must at least be beginning to ask itself: how do you get soldiers to fight and die in increasingly pointless wars? That is to say, wars whose pointlessness are becoming increasingly transparent to the soldiers fighting them? After all, our government began blcoking the memories of our soldiers returning from Iraq, wouldn’t we be just a little suspicious?

  7. seanpeter says:

    The story reminded me of a great movie “Jacob’s Ladder”, 1990, staring Tim Robbins. Check it out.

    No – men are the fighters, women are the care-givers.

  8. Storman_Norman says:

    Not the most original theme, but it held my interest. Felt like the story went a little long. I think the reader could have gotten the same effect in less words. The mark of a good writer is having the most impact in the least amount of words…

  9. Storman_Norman says:

    HA HA: Good one Void: Lifetime does Sci-Fi. “Elite wives”?

  10. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    The Lifetime version of this would have a title like:

    “Not Without My Scrub Brush: The Elite Woman Warrior Story”


    “Shattered Lives, Broken Dreams: The xxx Story” (where xxx is the main character’s name)

  11. ieDaddy says:

    I really didn’t get the point of this story. PTS for women written in a way that just tries too hard. I just finished listening to the ending and I felt like it ended short without the big pay-off that I get from other stories. There was no “ah-ha” moment for this story, it ended somewhere in the middle of what was an already too long story.

    Maybe it’s just the AD/HD in me that wants the story to reach out and grab my attention. I spent a childhood raised on on Ritalin (methylphenidate) and sci-fi paperbacks – It was always reading 5 or 6 books at a time and unless the story really pulled me in, I was constantly jumping story lines (the plus side to this was I was exposed to lots of different authors and writing styles). This is one I probably would have put down and not picked up again.

    Aside from the slow moving, try to hard style – I just didn’t buy into the hormones make you a better soldier idea. Think of a police officer in a fire fight. These are trained officers who spend time at the range practicing to hit a target. Put them on the street against an armed criminal and pump them full of adrenaline and they’re lucky to hit the broad side of a barn; that’s backed up by all kinds of studies. I think the story would have been a lot more believable if it had been about women who had their emotions repressed and were now having problems coping with every day emotions rather than the residual “super hormone emotions”.

    According to the cliche, the best kind of killer is the cold-blooded killer.

  12. Ralf says:

    My main point to “Elites” is: I really enjoyed listening to the story.
    The narration was fitting and the story was interesting enough to keep me going.
    That is all I need from a story.

    I don’t think the point of the story is that “women –are better-fighters-than-man”. If this would have been just another story about a man coming back traumatised after war, well, I can read Rambo (which I did years back).
    Meaning, it’s been done so many times before. The female version, just gives it a bit of a twist, since women aren’t supposed to be going to war. When men go to war, women are equally affected by it.

    The mind needs healing and not just after wars. Also after being bullied at work, school or at home by husband, wife or parents.
    And after all the problems we human face with other humans, we grave other humans affections and we have to find a way to integrate ourselves back into society, however wrong this society might been in the first place to inflict those injuries of the mind to us.

  13. Alex says:

    I’ve listened to every escape pod story ever, and this is only the second one I didn’t finish ( I think the other was called The House Beyond Your Sky). I even made it trough that one Cory Doctorow story that was so hard to hear (Steve took the bullet for that, but I still blame the narrator).

    I just found Elites to be boring. The fight in the bathroom failed to engage me, I had nothing and nobody in the story I cared about, and then all of a sudden, there is this dull and long exposition about turning women into killing machine, and not having anything else I cared about, I just didn’t have the interest to keep listening.

    It was like having a dull story interrupted by an even duller fake history (or herstory?) lesson.

    So, I only made it to 14 minutes. For those of you who stuck it our, I hope it got better.

  14. Audita Sum says:

    I liked this story a lot. The gender stuff didn’t bother me at all; in fact, depictions of the women fighting reminded me a lot of bad reality shows. What I think I liked most about it was the sense of place. It was an interesting future, and the characters fit well in it.

  15. BadMonkey says:

    This story could have been about recovering junkies or elite super fighters. Replace any war reference with drugs and it is the same story. Drugs and war could be said to share some of the same elements… I digress.
    I did want to add my agreement to those that though this story could be suited for both the SciFi and Life Time netorks, or even another installment of the RealWorld…

  16. Sushma says:

    I enjoyed this story. Like other Rusch stories it was ambiguous about whose side it was on. Like Rusch can’t quite decide if she wants to be anti-government back to the woods type or super successful scientist who works with the powers that be. Creates an interesting tension in her stories.

  17. tim callender (babylonpodcast) says:

    I have mixed feelings on this one. Steve’s afterward gave me a different (better?) perspective on Rusch’s tale. Also, Weena having to learn to let go of responsibility and to trust others had a bit of a personal ring; there have been significant moments in my professional career where I had to accept that a project or responsibility might better be handled by someone else. That can be a difficult and threatening process. That part of the story rang true for me.

    My biggest complaint is the somewhat dystopian nature of the premise. I’m not blind- history shows plenty of objectionable actions by governments during warfare, and there is no logical reason to expect it to change. I also recognize that science fiction isn’t a template for the future but a mirror for the present. And we live in a time of distrust and anxiety and fear.

    However, it has been said that the best way to attain the future you want is to create it. I truly believe that science fiction can be on the front line of that battle by offering possibilities of what may be, if we dare to hope and dream. More stories of hope, please, Steve. Let us look to the stars with enthusiasm rather than stare at the ground with anxiety.

  18. Matt C says:

    KKR is quickly becoming my favorite short fiction writer. Other notable stories by her include The retrieval Artist, Diving the Wreck and recovering Apollo 8. Her ability to create relatable characters in compelling and interesting settings keeps me riveted to every story of her’s I read. Those complaining about girls invading their sci-fi are totally missing the point of this story. While certainly not an original story device, the way governments treat returning vets is always worth scrutiny. Having lived with a father with PTSD from his experiences in Vietnam I can tell you that we can and should do more to help these folks. Keep the KKR stories coming!

  19. Ben Longman says:

    I really really liked this. I won’t try to be as wordy as the other commenters, but I really appreciated the paired themes of government invasiveness and callousness.

  20. Brog_pa says:

    I did not care much for this story. First and foremost, because as a story it just didn’t cut it for me. But also, and I’m gonna draw some serious anger from some people for saying this, because I tend to tune out whenever faced with clichéd stories about “wounded” veterans-in-healing who were asked to fight pointless wars by a conveniently faceless “government.”
    A veteran is someone who enlists by choice. A civilian is not.

    You want a moving story with a PTSD “healing” bent to it? Go read the daily newsfeeds on the hell that is ordinary life for millions of non-combatant Iraqi (or Somali, or Chechnyan, or Afghan) civilians, and then reflect on who we should really be pitying when directing our thinking to the issue of pointless wars.

  21. Matt C says:

    @Brog_Pa not really sure why I’m responding to such obvious flame bait but you do realize that PTSD isn’t new and that we haven’t always had a all volunteer army right?

  22. Brog_pa says:

    I sincerely did not mean this as flame bait, since I don’t have much patience for that sort of thing. I also do not mean to disparage the people serving in the armed forces, nor to diminish the seriousness of PTSD in anyone, whether civilian or not.

    I did not care much for the quality of this story, and perhaps should have left my comment at that. But after decades of reading and enjoying sci-fi, I also have little patience for the overemphasis that much fiction (sci-fi and other) seems to place on the unintended but predictable consequences of conflict on members of the armed forces (of any nation) by contrast with the apparent disinterest that the broad readership, and therefore many writers, seem to have in the equally unintended consequences of conflict on civilians (of any nationality).
    It may have to do with the fact that suffering/struggling and unsung war heroes make for better characters, but the fact is that the theme is repetitive and becomes dull – especially since it refers to processes of pain and healing that are far from unique to members of the army.

  23. Preta says:

    This did not even feel like an Escape Pod story. Not that it was necessarily a bad story, just that it didn’t really belong here, and I hope not to find others like it popping up in the future. I look to Escape Pod for plot-driven science fiction, and instead this time got basically a character study with only the vestiges of a speculative fiction background.

  24. Cleo Aquitaine says:

    This was a very rare thing for me; an Escape Pod story that fell completely flat. And I mean completely. I had to make myself finish it. Unengaging with little better than average narration. Weak characters. What action there was provided little drive.

    Better luck next time.

  25. ieDaddy says:

    Brog_pa’s comments got me thinking about what my favorite military based story has been that has contained moral overtones about responsibility, citizenship and government.

    It’s probably Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, followed up by a close second of the Ender’s Game universe (sometimes referred to as the Enderverse) by Orson Scott Card. Granted, having several hundreds (if not thousands) of pages in which to develop characters and give the readership a reason to develop compassion for the characters is probably a huge advantage, but I think it is also this reason that gives short stories such a hard time “making it” when they are more character based than action based.

  26. A Listener says:

    Hey Steve,

    It’s just a thought but you might try Googling “5-HTP”. It’s a natural way to regulate/enhance your seratonin level. I’ve been taking it for years. Anyways, keep up the stories!

  27. Anna says:

    I really enjoyed this story. Wonderfully narrated by Máia.

  28. araña says:

    …Interesting, to say the least.
    The ending kinda fell flat for me.

  29. […] And this time, I had also just finished listening to Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s short story Elites on Escape […]

  30. Anyanwu says:

    I absolutely loved ‘Elites’. I know these primal emotions the main character speaks about. I have seen it in action when women give birth. I feel them myself. That’s why I so desperately cut all ties to my ex…..for his safety, not mine. He hit my ‘home’ and I was afraid of what I would do to him if he crossed that line again.

    This is also why I would never volunteer to be in the military. Granted, I would like the control and the organization and orders (giving them, not taking them). But, I have this fear that war would unleash social controls and I would be good at some very terrible things.

    During childbirth, a woman pushes through the most excruciating pain there is. Great talent for childbirth…but what if that talent was used for something more sinister? I like how this story dealt with that question.

  31. Oh, man, you too, with the carob, Void? I remember that crap. Man, did I hate that diet.

    All the ritalin ever did was make me full of rage I could just barely contain. And get kids to ask if they could buy some off me at school.

    The story was ok… I’m a pretty easy sell. I don’t buy the “mother instinct” crap, though. Plenty of mothers leave their babies in dumpsters or lock them in closets. And, as others have mentioned, an enraged soldier is not a thinking soldier, and therefore is most likely a dead soldier. So, I had to hand wave a lot to appreciate what the story was trying to say.

  32. Brett says:

    I don’t mind a story with a message. I don’t mind a story that is dark, but I am kind of tired of the dreary political messages in many of the Escapepod stories. If I wanted this I would tune into CNN. I want to be taken to another world. I want to escape (hence “Escapepod”). Real life doesn’t give me that break so why would I want more of the same in my entertainment? Can’t we have great stories without the constant political overtones and oppressive lack of hope?

  33. Changwa Steve says:

    Preachy, facile and smug, with dialogue that sounds like it was lifted from a bad war drama. Totally made me cringe and I had to shut it off 2/3 of the way through.

  34. […] “Elites” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (read by Máia Whitaker) is a heartfelt tale of the rehabilitation of enhanced female war veterans, told from the viewpoint of the leader of a house full of such vets attempting to prepare for reintegration into society. What sounds like a pretty glum and depressing premise is actually a powerful narrative highlighting society’s attitude—or non-attitude—to the people it asks to do its dirty work. […]

  35. Fred says:

    I’m a veteran. Luckily, I never had to see combat like some of my friends did. To make this even more of an emotional button, I listened to it a day or so after Veteran’s Day. I don’t know if this was my favorite EP or not, but it certainly engaged my attention rather strongly.

    I think I’m going to go share this one with my friends and family that are also veterans.

    Thank you.

  36. Nerraux says:

    I thought it was brilliant. Great story, perfectly read. Reading the above comments, I have to think a huge portion of the audience either has a crap imagination or an inflated assumption of knowledge of something for which they have no frame of reference. Look at Fred there. Since he’s the only one that can know if the author hit the mark or was ‘trying too hard,’ his is officially the only opinion that matters.