EP166: The Something-Dreaming Game

By Elizabeth Bear.
Read by Mur Lafferty (of The Takeover and The Murverse).
First appeared in Fast Forward 1, ed. Lou Anders.

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First, there’s the pressure.

A special kind of pressure, high under Tara’s chin, that makes her feel heavy and light all at once. She kneels by the chair and leans across the edge, because if she faints, the chair will roll away and she won’t choke. She’s always careful.

After the pressure she gets dizzy, and her vision gets kind of… narrow, dark around the edges. It’s hard to breathe, and it feels like there’s something stuck in her throat. Prickles run up and down her back, down her arms where the pain used to be, and a warm fluid kind of feeling sloshes around inside her. She slides down, as things get dark, and then she starts to dream.

But not like night time dreams. These are special.

Rated R. Contains children engaging in extremely dangerous practices. Parental guidance STRONGLY recommended.

Referenced Sites:
Brave Men Run: A Novel of the Sovereign Era

Comments (39)

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  1. V says:

    I’ve read news stories about kids doing this and find Bear’s attempt to approach the topic interesting.

    What gets me more than any concept is the characters. Especially Tara.
    Yeah, the ending is a bit implausible–I don’t see the mother believing–and I’m puzzled by the whole simulation bit.

    Not sure I buy the whole ‘aliens speaking through the implant’ bit either.

    But whether I buy the hard science, the realities of mother-daughter interaction here, characters who end up surprisingly rounded in a small space . . . that’s the real success here.

    It has that in common with Tideline; characters who are easy to care about, if bits and pieces that can rub a little rough on the hard science front.

    Looking forward to hearing more Elizabeth Bear in the future.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I’m not sure what to make of this.

  3. Tom says:

    I kinda liked the story. It..uh threw me off at first. A story about children playing the pass out game didn’t seem to fit into the S/F genre until there was talk of implants and aliens.
    I will say that what i liked most about this one was the reading by Mur. Her voice is like therapy. I love listening to her read.

  4. Azure says:

    What can I say about this story? The subject matter was both intruiging and disturbing.

    I had a hard time figuring out how old Tara was supposed to be.

    I thought for sure that Tara was going to be brain-damaged at the end. Maybe she was?

  5. yicheng says:

    I loved the story. I thought the inclusion of auto-asphyxiation both to be disturbing and very gutsy in a good way. Like others have said, the characters are relate-able, which can be hard to find in this genre. The plot reminded me very much of “The Inner Light” episode from Star Trek TNG (I won’t spoil it here). Very powerful theme here, and one that was brought to life by a great reading. By the end of the story, I was physically tearing up along with Tara at the thought of her carrying the very last memories of an entire civilization.

  6. Changwa Steve says:

    Mur’s readings are always good. She has a charming hint of a southern accent, whether she knows it or not. No, don’t deny it. And her voice is cute too…wait she doesn’t like that either…did I say cute? I meant gruff and manly. Gruff and manly and not southern at all.

    The story jumped the rails a bit when the mother, who is also a physician, allows her daughter to continue asphyxiating herself because she has faith in her daughter’s intelligence. That was my only “huh?” moment. Other than that, I enjoyed this entry thoroughly.

  7. epilonious says:

    As much as I liked the story… when I reached the middle of it where the author started precipitating the premise of communication through life-threatening dreams… All I could think of was that one Star Trek TNG episode called “Night Terrors” where the enterprise is stuck and some other alien ship keeps trying to communicate what it needs by tapping into nightmares.

    The story gets hard to follow when you keep thinking “ONE MOON CIRCLING” over and over and over again.

  8. JeffS says:

    Hey, y’all,

    I added you guys to my podcast subscriptions last night, and listened to Something-Dreaming this morning. What a way to start my Escape Pod experience!

    Upon starting listening to the story, I was immediately disgusted. “But,” I thought, “Give it a chance,” and, a few minutes into the tale, I was still disgusted. Yet, I just couldn’t quite bring myself to shut it off.

    After listening to the entire broadcast, and after reflecting all day today, I find myself in agreement with “V.” The story itself had numerous bits that I don’t buy. Plus, there were many seemingly gratuitous, superfluous, arbitrary, meaningless details… Ooooh, a Bose-Einstein condensate! OMG, the doc forgot her head scarf! Who cares?

    But, what hooked me were the characters… Tara, and also her relation to her mother. The author paints a fantastic image of an extremely intelligent, extremely thoughtful girl: being especially careful about dangerous behavior, not making promises she knows she won’t keep, and playing so deliberately with the baby toys in the waiting room.

    And, the way her mother immediately knew what the deal was with the grape, demonstrates a very close relationship.

    So, all in all, a compelling story. Thanks for sharing, though I hope future Escape Pods are less disturbing. I plan to continue listening just to make sure.

  9. […] Mur Lafferty reads Elizabeth Bear’s “The Something-Dreaming Game” […]

  10. rcrisp says:

    I’ll go with the ‘disturbing’ comments made above. The opening did disturb me a lot. It helped later on that the mom was in the medical field as it sort of mollified the language and attitude. True, Star Trek:TNG did use a similar concept, however, nothing new is under the sun. If you don’t believe that, try writing some science fiction some time and make it original. Your wife and kids look at you funny after a few days.
    The concept of the memory/experiences of an alien culture being imbeded in you is interesting in its sort of reverse-Christian motif. Many stories borrow from the concept of incarnation where God comes in the form of man so that we can understand Him and relate to Him on human terms. In this story, as in the other, the human gets to be a god as it were and is incarnated into the aliens body, life and culture. No disrespect meant to anyone, just an observation.

  11. Audita Sum says:

    I liked this one a lot. And the whole time I thought of Tara’s name being spelled Terra for some reason.

    Um, anyway. My brain focuses extra well on things that Mur Lafferty reads for some reason, and the story was pretty entertaining. I don’t see the point of the auto-erotic asphixiation thing at the beginning, because the choking game wasn’t described as sexy later on.

  12. otakucode says:

    I’ve been listening to EscapePod for awhile, but never read or contributed to the comments here. I knew from previous episodes that any time sex is mentioned in any capacity, the prudes come out of the woodwork and wail about gratuity. I’m glad to see that the authors handling of that aspect in the beginning of the story was done well enough to at least get all of the prudes hiding their irrational shame complexes under vague cries of “disturbing”.

    The relationship between the mother and child was excellent. I only know a few parents who respect their children enough to treat them as a full person as the mother in this story does and it’s one of the saddest developments of modern society in my eyes. I’m glad to hear stories like this that present it as a well-working scenario as it almost always is in real life. A lot of people refuse to have frank discussions about parenting, getting extremely emotional and letting that drive their attitude toward the subject, but hearing it in a story might allow them to entertain the idea of asking questions and reasoning with their kids rather than handing down unquestionable edict after unquestionable edict.

    Now I’m sure I’ll be offending people with this post, but I wanted the author to know that there are people listening that very much appreciate her writing as well as her treatment of these subjects. Particularly the part at the beginning when she asks the audience if she is the only person who remembers their preteen sensuality. That’s a topic that will get most people flipping their lids. If the author was male, he’d probably be reported to the authorities for the story. But those things need to be said because everyone out that that will flip their lid at it didn’t forget either, they’re just feeding off of the shame produced by others who deny their own experiences and it leads them to deny their own and everyone elses, leading to more and more people too ashamed to deal with the subject objectively. Yes, it IS an emotional subject, but that is all the more reason to suppress those emotions as they will rarely lead you anywhere but astray.

    Audita Sum: I imagine that the reason it’s only mentioned at the beginning is because it’s not really a major point. Neither for the story or for the character of the girl, it’s just an explanation up front of part of the sensation and why kids try it and why they continue to do it after they’ve experienced it.

  13. Gord says:

    I didn’t even finish listening to the story. I was too disturbed by Steve’s warnings and the topic. I guess I just don’t like stories involving (even potential) danger to kids, especially when seen from the parents point of view.
    I’ll look forward to the next podcast.

  14. Norm says:

    It’s good that some people were open minded about the subject matter, but taking an old, over-used idea and dressing it up with something edgy does not a good story make imo.

  15. rcrisp says:

    Comment on otakucode’s comment

    The flip side of the child rearing as an adult pendulum (if I can mix about 3 metaphors at once) is that I see so many people scared to be a mom or dad and accepting being responsible for their children and using “treating them as an adult” as an excuse. 10 year olds are not small 20 year olds that are pushed into societal roles by evil white males. They are, in fact, 10 year olds and should be treated as such.

    At 10, you don’t like the rules, but when you are scared, you run to the one that makes the rules, not the one that treats you like an equal.

    Homily ended, you may now pass the plates as we sing our ending hymn…

  16. christian says:

    That was probably the creepiest story I’ve ever heard here. This was the first time I almost stopped listening. But couldn’t.

    Thanks for the great work.

  17. Samm says:

    For me this story struck a personal cord. I was diagnosed with RSD the same disease that affect Tara 7 years ago. I have lived with the pain, physical therapy and medication ever since. The idea of the implant is nothing new and neither is the premiss of this story. But for me it brought back the dream of one day living pain free.

  18. BadMonkey says:

    Funny thing about this story if you changed the aliens to demons this story would have found itself on PseudoPod, change the aliens to fairies and you have the making of a PodCastle story.

  19. Father Of Tvvo says:

    rcrip & otakucode
    To interject. (my $.02) The role of a parent in a child’s life it to PARENT, not a [best] friend. Being a parent means doing the right thing even when it the hardest thing to do. Even when it result with the dreaded “I hate you!” You child has enough friends, what you child needs is a good role model, strong protector, patient teacher, kind caregiver, and some one stable to trust. Parenting has been the hardest part of my life, and the most rewarding. Doing what is right (both in long and short term) for my children isn’t always easy, but it is “good” thing. I truly believe my children one day will thank me for it… but until then they are grounded.

    Father of Two.

  20. Edward says:

    Horrendous and God awful. Abhorrent and aberrant and generally digusting. That is how I would describe The Something- Dreaming Game and I would be being kind. Hands down my LEAST liked story from Escapepod to date. In fact I actively dislike this story and consider it to be pornographic in the worst sense of the word. I was completely offended.
    Auto-erotic asphyxiation is strangulation or suffocation to heighten sexual arousal and orgasm. To open a story with a description of children masturbating is just vile and serves no point. I understand that the writer does not actually depict masturbation but she describes what the children are doing as auto-erotic asphyxiation. I suppose it could be that the writer misunderstands or misuses the term. Or maybe I do. But my understanding is that auto-erotic asphyxia is considered suicidal behavior that is sexual in nature and masturbatory in execution, a behavior that kills roughly 1000 people annually. Which leads me to my next issue.
    That was potentially the worst depiction of a parent I have ever come across. Her 10yo is not only engaging in suicidal behavior but she is actually teaching other children the behavior and there is nothing in the mothers dialog to suggest any kind of emotion, in fact the mother’s response seems morbidly muted. Asking your 10yo to promise to not attempt to kill herself seems more than a bit disconnected. The family doctor seems like-wise unconcerned in a way that seems to go beyond maintaining a professional distance.
    There some interesting ideas here on the scifi side but they are completely drowned out by by sensationalism. The Something- Dreaming Game is in my opinion not only the worst Escapepod EVER but it is the worst piece of so-called literature I have ever had the misfortune of coming across. I am not done with Escapepod but I will never read (or listen to) this author again.

  21. BadMonkey says:

    Edward, your response seems more akin to what I would expect from the knee-jerk, mouth-foaming, talking heads at Fox News that demand we ban everything they don’t like – protect the children. The standard battle cry for restricting our freedoms.

    Art is not always pretty pictures of flowers. Art makes you think, art makes you feel. It doesn’t always make you feel good, but it should make you feel. (This piece seems like it worked for you, than.)

  22. arcsine says:

    Being critical of this story is easy.
    Permissive parenting … check
    Shocking behavior … check

    Let’s try to see the positive too.
    No reverb added to voices… good 😉

    The story makes me think of all the other self destructive behavior I don’t understand. The author thinks/writes/says it’s all about sex and death. OK, but I still don’t understand.

    All the characters but the alien are female. Does this story speak more to females? Is the mother-daughter dynamic something men just don’t/can’t tune into?

    I just remembered an excellent Short story that does bridge the male/female gap for me – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It also had a female main character that experiences a significant personality shift at the end. That story is constantly compared to and studied with The Chysanthemums by John Steinbeck. Both are worth at least a trip to the library if you haven’t read them.

    Can this be a study of some aspects of the female condition in society?

    Maybe the alien/firefighter/ken-doll-in-distress father figures all needed Tara to save them. Maybe she needed them just as much. … the stress of her parents’ separation augmented her physical pain and later when she had overcome the pain, the stress still got to her through mental distress.

    Her father ‘Jerry’ was judged/dismissed by her mother – “He panics, you know, some people do.”

    Tara plays with panicky Ken dolls, self assured Firefighters, and then is changed by accepting a stolid but doomed alien father who passes all the knowledge of a species into her.

    So maybe this is a story about a common divorce theme > self-destructive behavior by the daughter and ineffective parenting by the career mother who has to ‘see’ her daughter as a mature, independent, and self-directed person otherwise she’d have to stop being so independent and self-directed herself.

  23. Edward says:

    BadMonkey neither is art by definition obscene. This story opens as porn and just gets no better from there.
    You are right, there is a large segment of American society who hold their children in front of themselves like shields and scream “See! This is why we can’t allow homosexuality (or insert your issue here)! For the little kids!” and their behavior is just as reprehensible as this story is.

  24. otakucode says:

    Father of Two: I agree completely. It is the role of a parent to parent. But if you parent by fiat, without explaining anything, then your parenting is worthless. You expect too much of children if you expect them to figure out WHY you’re telling them “Don’t do X” and expect too little of them if you think they can’t understand the idea that certain behaviors are risky. Tell them not to cross the street and they’ll wait until you are around the corner to try it. Tell them to be careful around the street because cars rush by and might crush them, and they’ll look both ways.

    rcrisp: I agree with everything you said… I wouldn’t suggest people treat children like adults. They should be treated as children were about 200 years ago. Or how they are treated in Asian countries and such. Things like walking to school alone at 6 years old, etc. Infantilizing them and refusing to raise your children to BE adults but instead raising them to be simply larger children is an abdication of parenting responsibilities and reduces your child to the status of a pet. Parents should be ecstatic to see their child take on responsibility, develop independence from them, and navigate risky behavior in the safest way possible. Instead, they obsess over the tiny tiny possibility of harm and make things worse. Take the situation in this story. The girl was being careful. The way she was choking herself was safe. By chucking her in the hospital and putting her under monitoring she was unable to use the safe method of choking herself and instead took a very dangerous route. It’s not a perfect example because most parents aren’t protecting their kids from actual danger, they’re usually trying to protect them from almost entirely fictional danger (like abduction, molestation, etc which happen so rarely nowadays by strangers that you might as well worry about them sneaking off and winning the lottery).

    Edward: Sexual and sensual experiences for pleasure are not pornography. They’re part of the human experience for everyone. The author was being TRUTHFUL when she pointed out that the reason children play the choking game and do it more than once (and yes, it can lead to death if done incorrectly and I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone try it) is for erotic pleasure. That is not pornographic. That is not obscene. And if you realize that human beings are, without exception, sexual creatures and there is nothing dirty or wrong about sexuality, it shouldn’t be offensive either. What do you gain by denying this reality? You might end up traumatizing or completely misunderstanding the motives of people… you certainly risk coming off as ignorant and a bit nutty to any kid that would hear you say that the simple idea that they have nerve endings in certain places and that they work is pornographic.

  25. BadMonkey says:

    I disagree, while the open seen wouldn’t be fit for my children, it is in no way pornographic.

  26. Rachel says:

    Otaku Code- “They should be treated as children were about 200 years ago. Or how they are treated in Asian countries and such.”

    cough Umm… please stave off of blanket comments about entire continents of children and how each individual country chooses to raise their children. (With 37 countries, and the majority of the population, that’s quite a statement you have there) It don’t think it’s our place to judge others until you have seen, experienced and understand completely the culture and how it functioned. I believe Asia, as a whole, includes a lot more countries than you’ve visited. What parenting does is to help children adapt to their life when they become an adult. It puts the filters in place that children lack. Until one knows what it is to be an adult in any given country, I don’t think it’s fair to judge how parents of those countries raise their children.

    If you travel and open your mind, you find out that the person next to you is only a few thousand choices away from who you are. And as humans, even if we make wrong decisions, I do think we all try our very best. I would think the fact that a few billion people who share the same concept as “parent” would bring you closer, even if you would disagree on how to raise children.

    As for the story, I found it intriguing, and I especially loved the change in POV. Because it went flawlessly from a parent’s POV to a children’s POV. Such as the playing and pretending being real, rather than just dolls with a real storyline, but not on a complex, thought out level. And it played a dichotomy between the real and the fictional. Perception and reality. I rather enjoy it when authors play with structure.

    Plus who can argue with the reader! Mur is good at reading.

  27. Wez says:

    Wow. Some strong views here, but I must say I loved it. Maybe I’m twisted, maybe I like the theme, the fact that it makes my mind work and forces me to make mental connections.

    Disregarding minor details, I loved the writing. Mur is great at conveying the emotions of child and adult alike. She’s genius.

    Initially I wondered if Albert was actually the implant trying to communicte with Tara’s brain, trying to fix itself with her help. I’m not sure that idea holds up after hearing the end, but it got me thinking.

    Autoerotic asphyxia is a tricky topic. Yes it can be dangerous, you can find the stats on wikipedia. Just know that often people die because they put themselves in a position where if they become unconscious, and they can’t unblock or remove that which is blocking their airway. I’m not saying that you should try it, not at all. Children playing with breath control is not cool, there is a risk, even if its a calculated one.

    That said, there will always be people who will experiment on their own bodies, and there will always be people who will disagree.

    I would like to hear more of miss Bears’ stories, purely for the fact that I loved her writing 🙂

  28. wintermute says:

    “They should be treated as children were about 200 years ago.”

    So… as slave labour, then?

  29. scatterbrain says:

    To Jennifer: Ditto.

  30. I really enjoyed this story. It was arresting and held me riveted all the way through. I admire the author’s courage in handling the topic. That said, I wish Ms. Bear had employed a plot that did not involve a health care provider failing to resuscitate a dying child in a timely manner. I’m a healthcare provider. I’m PALS certified. This doctor’s behavior was unrealistic and unconscionable. I know the story is not a morality tale or intended to be realistic, but that part of the story still bothered me and broke up my suspension of belief. Otherwise, I loved it!

  31. Julio says:

    I’m a physician as well, (ACLS certified… 🙂 ) Chiming in to the last comment, I would never ever allow the asphyxiation to prolong itself, on a child, much less my child. I wouldn’t let any one deter me either.

    I think there has been a lot of comment on the choking game. For me it had a big shock value. It totally disgusted me, but I held on and listened to it all. There is a naive part of me, that I remember from before I became a doctor that would actually have conceived that the communication of aliens through the implant was possible. To me, it has even similarities to a religious experience. But for the most part now, all I would see are schizophrenic delusions. The girl seems to be quiet, maybe she interacts less with her friends at school. Maybe she is creating “new words” (color language). All of these are characteristics of schizophrenia. And at the end her change of manner could be explained by some partial brain ischemia.

  32. […] unusual sensations, enough that I can see why some people might be uncomfortable listening to it on Escape Pod. The narrator’s daughter, Tara, developed RSD, after breaking her arm. She gets an implant […]

  33. Arkle says:

    Maybe it was just the way it was written, but it seems to me that Edward almost confused the author with the reader. I certianly hope he doesn’t get turned off of Mur’s work for this.

    Also, on an ironic note, this was the first story by this author (Bear) that I actually liked. Disturbing yes, but I like stories that can push boundaries like that.

  34. […] “The Something-Dreaming Game” by Elizabeth Bear is a not-for-kids story about kids engaging in a highly taboo adult activity that at first seems like some psychological disorder resulting from cutting-edge biotechnology, but turns out to be something more. The touchiness of the subject is introduced in a matter-of-fact manner that is nevertheless full of emotional concern—something that shines through Mur Lafferty’s narration. An unlikely subject, but gripping from beginning to end. […]

  35. Mike G says:

    This was a great story. I though it was a fresh idea, and the reader did an excellent job. The ending was a bit over the top, but it’s still a five star story on a five star scale. Thanks for making a half hour at work much more bearable escape pod!

  36. cold ethel says:

    k… i liked it although i’d heard lot’s of comments on it… through a different epi. it seemed so much larger listening to it than reviewing the actual occurences in retro which is prolly a good indication of the writer’s ability. but… i have no idea why the auto erotic choking had to be to the catalyst in the story other than to incite debate on it’s use in a story. dunno.. good story tho’

  37. Mari Mitchell says:

    I thought this was amazing. Absolutely flawless.

    It touched in the marrow and I know I will carry the story with forever.

  38. Nerraux says:

    Fun story, great reader.

  39. Judy A says:

    I loved the story, but more than anything else, as a Muslim woman, I want to comment on the fact that the doctor seems to be Muslim. Muslim women as simple human beings are, in general, media nonentities.

    Often, we don’t exist unless someone is using or abusing us in some political or religious way. And having experienced that firsthand and knowing how painful it is to often be considered a last-class citizen, it was a deep breath of fresh air to listen to this story and hear “her scarf” used in the same way as “her blonde hair” might be used in another story. I say fervently, “thank you” to the author.