EP177: Usurpers

By Derek Zumsteg.
Read by Stephen Eley.

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King spots a knock-off cluster, glowing sunny in the rain, too fit, perfectly proportioned. Tear off some burnished bronze, never-burning skin. Shove it under a microscope, see the designer signature, Chinese characters like tattoos on the necks of college girls.

All ten ranked cross-country runners this season took family trips to China after school let out last year. When they’d returned and established dominance, King took the Asics guy up on his offer to join the experimental training program. Found himself running by himself, following daily instructions from an email address. King knows there’s a machine on the other end, some oracle in some data center chewing on his performance data full time. Responds only to email, immediately, all hours.

Rated R. Contains strong language, strong emotions, and moderate violence.

Comments (75)

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  1. DaveNJ says:

    Wow, what a story. I’m very cautious about saying things like this, but this may just be my favorite Escape Pod story ever.

    Maybe it’s because I chose to put this story on for my quad-weekly three mile run, maybe it’s the fact that the character is so fleshed-out, maybe it’s the tight, evocative writing, and maybe it’s the fact that the story is the best kind of sci-fi (the kind that’s already happening).

    But probably it’s all those things combined. And to think I attributed a significant amount of my appreciation for “Conversations With and About My Electric Toothbrush” to the dulcid tones of Jared Axelrod.

    Flat-out magnificent, and it shows that following a formula isn’t a bad thing if you can do it right.

  2. Terrible. A racist homophobic rant about out of control ego and unsportsmenlike conduct.

  3. Old Man Parker says:

    Alright, I ask forgiveness for my previous comment. Perhaps I wrote in
    haste. It was early and my old sports injuries were bothering me. The
    story may not have been “Terrible”, however, I didn’t like it.
    I could not empathize with the protagonist. Any character who refers to
    their own back side as “The royal ass”, is simply too conceited to cheer
    The antagonists were white (maybe gay) rich kids. Nothing new there. Old
    hat cardboard characters. As much a stereotype as was the “poor angry
    black man” protagonist.
    It just seemed that the writer wasn’t trying very hard to make more
    realistic characters. And the story had a tone that was racist-ly
    simplistic, …and fearful of man on man shower action.

  4. DrCrisp says:

    When did George Jefferson become a science fiction editor?

    (For those of you who did not watch TV in the 70’s, go find one of us old guys who did for that reference)

  5. DrCrisp says:

    Steve made comments at the end about “fitness”. Indirectly, Steve, you are why I am in better shape. My wife, who I think is an alien that has mastered the pheromone DNA of the human male and can make any male gibber into a useless pile of jello, purchased me an Ipod 2 years ago at the same time that I was trying (again!) to exercise. The two merged well because exercise is horribly boring…unless you have Escape Pod in your ears. So I go to the gym to listen to Escape Pod and other podcasts. Podcasting has changed me from a 170 pound overweight glob of fat into a sweaty 170 pound piece of prime muscle surrounded by layer of fat. But you are 110% right on the mental thing; good body, good brain.

  6. Hyperion says:

    With all due respect, calling the story homophobic is (I think) a slander on the author, and (I know)a profound misunderstanding of locker-room ethos.

    I don’t know the term, but the locker-room behavior entails a hyper-sexuality, and it is a strange thing to behold.

    Completely straight males who wouldn’t share a bed with another male (even if one was on top of the covers and one was below) will engage in almost shockingly homo-erotic “play” in the locker room. I’m sure academic articles have been written about it.

    King’s response to that behavior is very typical of male athletes in that situation. I suppose one could make a case for a “pervasive homophobia” that cuts across all male athletics, but that is really another topic, no?

    Social soapbox put away, let me say that I loved this story.

    The “voice” was strong, unique, and persuasive. I loved the short definitive sentences. Everything was action, much as King lives his life.

    As for his arrogance, the story neatly enfolds that as well. We’re to take it that an “impossible” feat has taken place. I suppose some of that is the sci-fi aspect, but what separates a superior athlete from those who reach the pinacle is a mind-body connection, an iron will to ignore every obstacle. (The pain, the disadvantages, etc.)

    Find a world-class athlete, you will usually find confidence bordering on cockiness, at least about the athletics. Without that unhinging self-confidence, a masochistic drive to train, and an almost sociopathic will to win, those athletic feats would not be achieved.

    King takes his place with the Great Ones, and I would love to hear more of his future adventures.

    Again, great story!

  7. DaveNJ says:

    Not to mention, Hyperion, that the King-cockiness parallel is necessary given the nature of the story. The story is about a king regaining his rightful position after usurpers unseat him through trickery and guile. Is Odysseus cocky?

    Plus, the “cockiness” of King is really interesting if you look at it from the position of racial dynamics. As is stated early in the story certain adjectives get used for poor black athletes as opposed to rich white ones. If “King” becomes Tommy from the suburbs we probably replace the term “cocky” with the term “determined” automatically.

    Homophobia? Please. This story plays on locker-room dynamics for the sake of King getting a rise out of Steve, but it definitely makes no positions on the issue of homosexual behavior except that it can be an inherent part of athletic culture. That’s not condemnation.

    The unmitigated style of this story is the absolutely incredible part, though. Sharp sentences, paced just like a runner’s style. Deep, evocative language with little in the way of fluff. Amazing characterization, poignant images (the girl from pep squad with the crown comes to mind), and a great interspersal of outer and inner conflict.

    But the best thing of all may be the fact that a sports story, and specifically a science fiction sports story, manages to use first-person narration without ever getting overly-sentimental or heavy-handed. It’s not about teaching lessons, it’s about telling a story from a person’s perspective, with zero expectations.

    The implicit trust in the reader is the incredible thing there.

    Kudos to Zumsteg. It’s very rare that I listen to a story over again to get more out of it. A third time? Well, that’s unprecedented in the history of Escape Pod. But the King is triumphant.

  8. Ramriot says:

    Great story, though I’m left wondering the answer to the IF?
    If you loose? No he did that already.
    If these knock-off’s win? Possibly

    So in the style of the author:-

    King slows to a walk, doubles over, vomits, straightens up and smiles..
    Crowd silent, looking at King, triumphant King, winner King.
    Scream from crowd, yells “call 911”, King puzzled, shoulders heavy, warm slickness running over them.
    King moved to wipe wet from face, feels-sees blood, gushing from ears-nose-mouth, coughing-gurgling.
    If if if, you don’t mind dying, having your lungs burst, your heart in in infark!
    King dropping, fallng, no pain now, warm embrace, is this victory. “Oh MY!”

  9. The Devil's Advocate says:

    I would critique it, but it tells me that there is an error opening the file, and that makes it a little difficult.

  10. j says:

    This story was really good class commentary. Poor kids face the enhancements middle class parents buy for their kids every day in ways too numerous to count.

    I didn’t like that the grammar made King sound like an animal. Given he was black. I wonder if he’d have sounded like that if he’d been a white athlete. Maybe. But he was black.

    Still, the class commentary was strong. I did relate to King. I’ve been poor and elite and a teenager and watched people win without even once having to fucking work. People mistake that for talent. It’s money, honeys.

  11. SFEley says:

    Devil’s Advocate: Try redownloading, and if it still doesn’t work, drop me a line. Thanks.

  12. L33tminion says:

    @Ramriot: It’s reasonable to believe that’s why the crowd was so silent, that King is badly and visibly injured (even more so than just bleeding out the ear). His thought about endurance cyclists made me wonder if King hallucinated the whole ending. I don’t think that’s what the author had in mind, but I would say that ending is ambiguous.

    I’m not sure if that story is a hopeful story because King is triumphant despite his opponents’ financial advantages, or a tragic one because King must sacrifice so much just to compete.

  13. DrCrisp says:

    J: I tried to be good, buuuuuut…

    You are right, poor kids (read black) face the enhancements that middle class (read white) parents buy for their kids. So, lets look at the logically instead of emotionally, shall we? Should we have the “government” provide enhancements for all people equally? Sounds noble, even American. Who will pay for it? If we are all equal, comrade, then we will all be equally poor, except for the the people in Mosc…I mean, Washington.

    Should we outlaw “enhancements”? Parochial schools put everyone in equal uniforms to promote this to reduce class and money distinctions. But, what happens to the overall output of society if we don’t let the “best” (and that’s an awful term but the only one I can think of) use the most resources to better themselves?

    A classic sport analogy is Title 9 rulings. Behold, we the government found that, alas, colleges discriminated against certain sports and people in funding athletic programs. Therefore, to be fair, all sports, male and female, shall receive equal funding. And, lo, the bar was lowered. The “poor” received more. But the excellent were taken from. How was our medal count in the Olympics this year?

    Helping the poor up to a higher level up to a point is a good thing. Pulling down our best to achieve it is not.

  14. SFEley says:

    I try to stay out of commentary discussions, but…

    I didn’t like that the grammar made King sound like an animal. Given he was black.

    The story was not written in first person. The fragmented, staccato sentence structure was about King but it wasn’t an example of King’s speaking or writing. In the few lines of dialogue, King is perfectly articulate and more eloquent than Steve.

    Old Man Parker:
    To your suggestion that the story was homophobic, I simply want to point out that there were no explicitly gay characters in this. King’s insults toward Steve don’t show any opinion of actual gay people one way or the other. His goal was to get a rise out of Steve. It may not have been sensitive of him, but it wasn’t unrealistic.

    I wouldn’t buy a story that I felt was racist or homophobic. In this story, race is a side issue and sexual preference is irrelevant. The conflict here is that of technology vs. human will. It’s a modern retelling of the folk legend of John Henry. I suppose one could argue that John Henry is a tale heavily steeped in race issues, but that doesn’t make it racist.

  15. DaveNJ says:

    L33tminion, in response to your last point I think it’s both. It’s triumphant because he wins, but it’s a tragedy what he has to sacrifice, which is what makes the story so interesting.

    And DrC, this is more of an upper-class vs. lower-class story, not middle-class. The Kentwood kids versus the guy from the gerrymandered district. As for the enhancements being upper-class provides you? Well, there’s no denying just how much those enhancements do. One needs only look at the correlation between family income and college degrees to see that.

    As for Title IX, the government eliminated a gender discrimination barrier at schools receiving public funding found to be in violation of the fourteenth amendment. Our medal count was fine (in fact it was the best in the world), but if we have to do what China did to those gymnasts and a lot of its athletes to win the total golds category it’s just not worth winning.

    Is it truly pulling down our best that programs like Title IX achieve? Or is it merely pulling down the mediocre with the funds to complain?

  16. Calculating... says:

    drcrisp: you think title 9 was such a bad idea? what about the women’s soccer team? didn’t they bring home to gold this year? when was the last time the men’s soccer team did anything worthwhile? and that is not due to a lack of funding.

    i think everyone is missing a big point with all this talk about class separations and the richer people getting the enhancements. King did not want the enhancements. He calls the other runners “knock-offs” because they have been enhanced. that is another thing that made his victory so great. he achieved that without all of the so called “improvements” that the other rich kids got.
    as for the race issue, after king said he was black, i forgot about it entirely. for him it wasn’t a race between black and white, it was a race between him and his competitors. to me this showed the true mentality of an athlete. there is never a thought for what a rival believes or looks like, only on how fast they are, how conditioned they are, and what their chances of winning are.

    i loved this story. it threw me for a loop. i couldn’t get into it at first, it just sort of dragged. but then i couldn’t stop listening. i found myself rooting for king. long live the king!

  17. Hamilton says:

    I’ve got to disagree on the race thing. Race is completely incidental to the story. There’s some commentary on race, sure, but the story itself is John Henry verses the gene-doped muscle-sliced steam hammer. King’s competition isn’t described in terms of black or white, they’re described in terms of the science that made them and the money that bought that science. Additionally, even the John Henry folk story isn’t an exact fit because King is smart about the whole thing. King doesn’t win simply through brute force. He’s done serious research on the bio-enhancements his competition has likely received, he knows his own limitations with scientific exactness, he’s worked out a strategy that allows him to win, and is apparently damn near close to co-publishing something with the university. This is like if John Henry had an engineering degree. It’s a refreshing angle that fleshed out the “inner-city black kid” stereotype into a brilliantly composed character.

    The story is glorious. Hail to the King.

  18. Raving_Lunatic says:

    Realising I am impinging on a huge debate, I didn’t like this story. Not because of what it said, or the message. I simply couldn’t understand it that well because of the telegramese prose style and the fact that I don’t really go into excersise much. I guess I’m used to a prose style with ridiculously long sentences, but I couldn’t get into this. Probably in a minority here.

  19. Calculating... says:

    thank you hamilton, you said exactly what i meant. except in a prettier and more intelligent way.

  20. Bingorage says:

    I know how society can solve this whole class/enhancements divide: If someone is faster than his peers, we’ll hobble him with some awkward weights, if he/she has perfect vision then we clamp coke-bottle lenses to their faces. Too tall? Constrictive braces.
    Think I’m on to something…

  21. The Devil's Advocate says:

    It worked the second time, Thank you Steve.

    I actually cannot think of anything to say that hasn’t already been said one way or another, so I’ll simply say that it was nice to see Steve get into the discussion about the story as well, maybe you will do it more in the future.

  22. adium says:

    Its not a matter of holding people back if they truly are better. It is about not giving an unfair advantage to other people. King was better than everyone else, there is not talk of him being held back. The other runners could only compete with him because of their unfair advantage of genetic enhancements.
    King dominated because he is the best, not because he could afford the best drugs and enhancements.

  23. Tonto says:

    Tonto like story. Story have simple sentences and lack articles. Story sentences simple. Story good.

  24. Tarzan says:

    Tarzan also enjoy story. Story make Tarzan think. Tarzan not like complicated sentences. Tarzan get bored if too hard. Tarzan like.

  25. Frankenstein says:

    Mmmmmmm…story good. Not fire in story. Fire bad.

  26. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    I was going to complain about the annoying way the story was written, with its very short sentences lacking some articles and prepositions. But I see Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein escaped from a 1980s SNL sketch and took care of that for me.

    I really hated the story. Possibly golf is the only sport more boring to watch than cross country. You might think that adding some genetic enhancement to a story about cross country might liven it up. But you’d be wrong. Instead, you’d get a really exceptionally boring story about running. In fact, this was so bad, I have to believe it was Cory Doctorow writing under a pen name. Cory has a gift for taking things you’d think would be boring, like IP, yard sale hunting, venture capital, and by adding a few science fiction elements, turn them into something really amazingly boring.

    Two big thumbs DOWN!

  27. Brave Space Monkey says:

    Brave Space Monkey: Rides mountain bike. Likes having full suspension, easier on his knees. Wheels makes the hills easier, and descent exciting. Disc brakes and crash helmet keeps GF from being to worried.

    BSM rides road bike to and from work.

    However, BSM doesn’t like story. Think King is a jerk, doesn’t other in story either…

  28. SFEley says:

    But I see Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein escaped from a 1980s SNL sketch and took care of that for me.

    …Yeah. Not to be a killjoy, “Howie,” but I almost deleted those. We’ve had problems with more serious attempts at sock puppetry in the past, and it’s become one of my intolerances. I don’t want to have to start back-checking every IP address on every comment just to see who’s pretending to be more than one person, as you did.

    Those past issues are not your problem, and this joke can stand, because it was a little bit funny and clearly not an overt attempt to deceive. But please, folks. Let’s not make a habit of this. I don’t care who posts under what identity, real or anonymous (as long as it’s not fraudulent), but one identity per person is a social rule I’m prepared to be stubborn about. Dictatorial, if I have to be.

  29. I stopped listening to this podcast at the halfway point and looked over my shoulder as I was passing Kent Ridge High School and thought to myself what is Eley talking about this is not Sci-fi the is the reality of living in Kent Washington for an average teenager on both sides of the equation. Then I finished listening to the story and realized that it ended the way that most things at Kent Ridge do the under dog win and the seemingly over privileged whine their way through most everything

  30. DrCrisp says:

    I had not thought of the analogy of John Henry with the story, that’s a good twist. Funny us all being the tech-heads that we are that we pull for the anti-technology solution. Imagine what John Henry’s world would have been like if the unnatural steam-engine would have been taxed, regulated, banned and tested after to ensure equality of railroad production…

  31. l.m.orchard says:

    I loved this story, having run cross country for in high school, and having been friends with someone not unlike King on the team.

    The terse narrative feels just like the spare space for thought I remember in between breathlessness and dealing with the rhythmic pain of each pounding step of a gruelling yet race winning 5k pace.

    For the people making Tonto and monkey jokes: Run a mile and try doing long division in your head.

    As for cross country being boring to watch: It’s not about the spectacle – in my limited experience, cross country running is one of the most introverted sports around. Sure, there are opponents, and I did indeed see strategic fights and cleat stomps in the woods, but most of the fight is with yourself and your own psychology.

    And the mindset, whether or not it’s pervasive throughout the rest of King’s life, is necessary to win this race. He has to be arrogant to convince every muscle in his body that he will win over these physically superior opponents. I think the John Henry thread is excellent.

    Finally, with many thanks to Steve, this podcast came on for me in the middle of an hour walk. I got back home at the half-way point in the story, turned around at my door, then walked away as hard as I could until halfway into the next show on my playlist. Not running yet, but I might have to keep this episode around for awhile until I am 🙂

  32. Tom Wilson says:

    You know it’s a good story when it evokes this much debate.

    Good choice buying it, Steve, and great job reading it. 🙂

  33. Norvaljoe says:

    I have never posted a response to a story before, but can’t help myself here.

    I found the literary style anoying, like the phonetic spelling of a characters accent, or an entire story written in slang.

    When I finally got used to the choppiness of its’ delivery, I found I was unsympathetic to the character or the story line.

    I stopped listening and never looked back.

  34. Mike G says:

    I found the story compelling but think it would have benefited if it had made the challenge and joy and slow burn of running and racing the central battle for the protagonist. Not distracting and tired issues of skin color or economic class.

    It could have been a great race story but instead is just a mediocre, mean spirited tale of race.

  35. scatterbrain says:

    Boring and bloody pointless! I’m sick of sci-sports fiction; why not some sci-sports satire rather than these jockish, arsehole-centered tales?

  36. Lani O says:

    I was so bored by this one that the only thing keeping me awake was my irritation over it making your podcast. All I really took away from it is that King is a royal ass.

  37. Audita Sum says:

    The constant sentence fragments really annoyed me. I did identify with the main character enough to care about what happened, so I guess it was alright. Kind of boring, though.

  38. Schreiber says:

    To be honest, this story’s protagonist feels more genuine than “The Big Guy” or Podcastle’s “Anywhere There’s a Game.” I was getting a little tired of the world-weary second-stringers and the inscrutable wunderkind that have been populating Escape Artist sports stories.

    That being said, I couldn’t quite buy “Usurpers” for the same reason I couldn’t quite buy “The Big Guy.” Performance-enhancing drugs notwithstanding, I just don’t see how fans or athletes would stay interested in a sport if technology plays such a pivotal role. Yes, King won this round. But considering the way technology usually evolves, how long before geneticists refine their process to a point beyond which King is capable of competing? How long before one robot can take on an entire team of humans on the basketball court and win every time? I’m not preaching apocalypse here, I’m just asking how anyone would manage to care?

  39. Calculating... says:

    as much as i love my fair share of aliens/spaceships/robots i love when there are sports stories on EP. i dunno, for me, those are more real, more in the realm of possibility because the sports enhancements are already happening, its just a matter of time before the geneticists get their greedy little hands on sports. then people will stop caring.

  40. Raving_Lunatic says:

    Looking back on my comments, I have to say I liked “The Big Guy” even though I don’t like sports fiction as a rule. However, didn’t like this. Never Mind- there’s always next week.

  41. ChairmanDances says:

    This was a tough one. I almost turned it off near the beginning. I really didn’t want to listen to a story filled with such trite stereotypes – dumb, rich, pampered, whiny white kids vs. smart, determined black kid blah blah blah.

    Despite that, the story was really good. The terse narrative style was perfect for a story about a race and, if you could forget about “race” you could get behind the protagonist.

    Was the King a conceited jerk? Yes, but as others have pointed out, that’s kind of a prerequisite for elite athletes, business people, etc. One thing that helps gets them to the top is the belief that they are better than everyone else and the need to prove it.

    Is the King homophobic? Again I would say yes. This may be normal lockeroom talk, but that doesn’t make it any less reprehensible.

  42. Schreiber says:

    Re: King’s alleged homophobia.

    The casual accusation of incest seems to be the more vicious part of the taunt. Even though the athletes probably don’t have as much in common as siblings would, there is something a little disturbing about the idea of bodies with identically crafted muscles and bones being physically intimate.

    Unless you’re Doc Manhattan, in which case its fine.

  43. Jonathan Hirsch says:

    Very timely story. The high school cross-country season is in full swing, and this was a semi-inspirational story for my son. Not that I’d want him to be exactly like King, with his unsportsmanlike conduct, drug problem, lack of respect for property, among other problems. However, there are lots of kids out there who feel like all the other kids from the rich families have the advantages, such as gear, trainers, lessons and the like. Those kids overcome and succeed, somehow.

    On another note, good to hear that you run. If you run while listening to your iPod, check out Podrunner, Podrunner: Intervals, and the Jogtunes Indie Podcast for some great tunes to run by. Also, set a goal for yourself — I’m running the Army Ten Miler this Sunday, and Marine Corps Marathon at the end of the month.

  44. Screwloose says:

    I think the sentence structure in this story was perfect for illustrating those jagged thought fragments that go through your head between breaths on a run, I got what Zumsteg was trying to do with that immediately.
    I think the best stories are the ones that are layered and appreciated this story for the main struggle as well as the underlying class and race mechanics. It could only have been better timed if you had released it during the Olympics.

  45. phignewton says:

    that is whatcha call a ‘good read’! Science, determination and pain win out against gene hacking! Of course great athletes are quite often genetic freaks, using the chance given products of their parental colusion to lord it over us normal folks with their extra endurance and strengh, one could just as well write a story about some average downtrodden athelete obtaining the gene treatment and winnnnnnning against such undeserving persons.

  46. Mykidshavebigheads says:

    I liked the story —

    What I enjoyed most about it was the fact that I listened to it while I ran 3.2 miles through the woods as fast as I could.

    Most enjoyable was Steve’s commentary after the story about the most important benefits he receives from running. Ditto that, Steve. Brain power and keeping from insanity caused by stress are my reasons.

    Particularly important for you to know — All of the downloads I’ve listened to have been while running through these everlasting wooded trails in Northern VA outside of Washington DC. So I’m truly addicted. To the Escapepod podcast and the adrenaline.

    I’m just not sure which is which, some days. Thanks, Steve.

  47. RocketMan says:

    Gave me some flashbacks of running cross country in high school…not the elbow in the rib part, but the pain in the muscles amd the buring in my lungs and the post race puking… Good times!

  48. V says:

    To post a modified version of my criticism when this piece was published in Asimov’s a while ago . . .

    Gene-twanking and enhanced athletes are a familiar SF concept, but Derek Zumsteg’s tonally consistent and compelling “Usurpers” approaches it in a new and interesting way. He has produced a simple, readable, and interesting exploration of the ways in which current socioeconomic trends are often reinforced by technological developments, carrying the inequalities of the present into the future. My only quibble (and it is minor) is that King’s triumph could be misused to deproblematize the system which plagues him in a “bootstrap” argument against fairness. But that’s pretty minor.
    His character is grating, but fairly typical athlete. To be honest I didn’t catch the homophobia on my first pass back then . . .

  49. .m. says:

    I am a big fan of your podcast and it has provided many hours of entertainment and thought provoking idea. And this was the first story that I could just not stomach. The repeating of the names was horrible. All can’t express how bad this was. I look forward to stronger stories like Margin of Error or Conversations with and about my Electric Toothbrush.

  50. Grace says:

    I thought the story was decent, but I had to think about it a lot after hearing it to come to that conclusion. Much as I appreciate Steve’s work in general, he was the wrong voice actor for this story. His voice, with the extra hard emphasis on the ends of his words is just the most “un-black” sounding voice ever. It’s the kind of accent that Bernie Mac says he doesn’t want his sister’s kids to pick up while being fostered with some white folks (and which he cites as the reason for raising them on his own). In this case, it was actually racially insensitive to have overlooked that aspect of the story. The opposite of racism isn’t ignoring race – it’s seeing the humanity of every person first and foremost, while simultaneously acknowledging the differences in their experiences.

  51. ADerksen says:

    I really enjoyed this story. It reminded my why I like running, and made me want to get out on the track while I listened to it. Listening to King’s staccato delivery brought back memories of my own thought processes as you stretch into the distance, and limited oxygen intake draws your focus into a pinprick.

    Sometimes I do my best thinking out there, where there are just enough distractions to keep my brain flying level.

    I also enjoyed that the author allowed his protagonist to be a bit of an aggressive ass – he was there to compete. He realized that he wasn’t going to beat his enhanced competition in a straight race, and so he did the legwork (both literally and metaphorically) that would be required for him to beat them. He learned the track and his own limitations. Then he did his best to find a playing field where things were more or less even for his competition.

    He says it himself: his opponents have finely tuned racing machines for bodies, but they don’t have finely trained minds. Ridiculous as it sounds, King “wanted it more”, and was willing to ride through a level of pain and injury in order to succeed. From the very beginning, he gets into their heads. Baiting them. Taunting them. Rushing them on and off the track. Had his opponents trained as hard as he did, they might have been prepared… but the bottom line is that he was willing to operate at the top of his natural human performance in order to win, and his opponents were unwilling to go above cruising speed.

    I guess the bottom line is that you should feel free to keep the sports science-fiction coming. I don’t read near enough of this sort of genre-crossover, and I have been glad to hear it here. I do believe that if some of the general public were made more aware of this sort of speculative fiction, that there might be a greater mass-market appeal of science-fiction to a larger audience as a whole.


  52. ExiledinSeattle says:

    I thought it was one of the best Escape Pod stories I’ve heard yet. Was it racist? Maybe yes, maybe no, I think it depends on your perspective. Were the characters realistic? Definitely. Stereotypical or not, people like this do exist, and this is an excellent example of speculation of things to come.

  53. Traveler says:

    The John Henry connection is correct. John Henry wins (and dies, I believe), but it is a pointless victory, since someone will soon design a better steam engine. Pulling for ole John is like yearning for the days when we mashed corn with stones instead “cheating” with food processors.

    Both John Henry and Usurpers hook into one of the central myths of modern humanity: “Nature can beat Technology.”

    It can’t. Technology was specifically designed, by people, to do “better” than Nature. If it doesn’t achieve that goal it gets redesigned.

    Why we love this myth would be too long to go into here.

  54. ExiledinSeattle says:

    Yeah, but what happens when King get’s his scholarship and the school sponsored enhancements? Of course, that’s after he’s taken to the hospital and given his new heart…

  55. Old Man Parker says:

    Yeah, I agree with Grace. Steve is a good reader. Often a great reader. But, having him try to do a tough black guy voice is a bit silly.
    Maybe, an actual black guy reading it would have made the story better for me? Is that a racist thing to think? Don’t know.
    But, a black sounding voice might have been better. Like…. some one like… James Earl Jones perhaps?
    Yes, I think it would have made the story a better listen.
    (Of course, Mr. Jones could read the phone book, and it’d be amazing.)

  56. ExiledinSeattle says:

    If we’re talking voice talent, how ’bout Bunk from the Wire?

  57. Mike G says:

    I came back to look at what others thought about this story, and I agree that a “blacker” narrator would have helped, although Steve has a good voice. Just not quite right for this character.

    Also I think the writer really does have a talent for delivering a dynamic action story. I did listen through to the end even though I was put off by the protagonist’s prejudices. It did make me think about it. It was fresh and original.

    Just wish it had a more positive spin, as in “I triumph through my abilities, instead of my aggression”.

    Oh and Tarzan, Tonto and Frankenstein – you very funny, make me laugh lots.

  58. Prodromus says:

    Wow, I really liked this story. It’s one of my favorite escape pods so far. I found the combination of “near future” events that are already starting to happen and the accurate depiction of competitive running to be very compelling. It really made we want to go do some speed work.

    Maybe it just appeals to the distance runner in me that wants to believe that mental toughness and and a willingness to endure pain trumps doping- but I listened to this story more than once and enjoyed it thoroughly both times.

    I also really enjoyed the author’s first story on escape pod and look forward to more from Mr. Zumsteg.

  59. Fakenger says:

    I loved this story; one of the best ever!

  60. nullspace says:

    I’ve been enjoying Escape Pod for quite some time now, but this is the first story that I’ve felt compelled to comment on.

    Quite simply, I loved it. I felt the author completely nailed the body’s mutiny when coming to your limits, as well as the necessity of willing yourself through that pain in order to push harder. My heart was pumping by the end. I think this will be one of the few episodes that I listen through more than once.

    I’ve sent this on to many of my running friends, and I know that EP will likely get some new listeners out of it.

  61. kotyonok says:

    The language in this is below a PG rating. Why do people think they need foul language to express themselves? In my opinion, this is ignorance at its basest level. I am tired of trying to get to a story around the foul language and I certainly did not enjoy this story at all.

  62. Interesting story, but I kept waiting to find out what King’s victory cost him… and I was disappointed that we never find that out. The story feels incomplete without it.

    I appreciate that the protagonist was emotionally human as well as physically. He may have been a paragon of physical ability, but he was certainly no paragon of virtue.

    I don’t think the story needed a “blacker” narrator, whatever that means. Can you honestly tell the difference between the voices of educated people of any ethnicity who share a common tongue? I know I can’t.

    I don’t really understand the people who get hung up on some swear words. They’re just words. They can’t hurt you.

    I totally agree on the John Henry connection- this is exactly the same story, minus the heart attack at the end. Hence the feeling of incompletion.

    I was also a little disappointed after such a big deal was made of his “impossible” time that we don’t find out what it is, or get some kind of frame of reference for it. I was waiting for the payoff to that, too. And then the story was over.

    I guess what was missing was the twist that would have elevated this beyond a simple narrative into an actual story with meaning. Maybe it turns out that Steve practiced just as hard as King and beats him. Maybe something goes wrong with the modified runners and they all die on the track, rendering his victory hollow. Maybe he literally runs an impossible time that defies the laws of physics. But nothing actually HAPPENED in the story. King sets out to achieve his goal, and straightforwardly achieves it. There’s never any real tension, no real obstacle, no real price he’s willing (or unwilling) to pay… no twist. No point. No oomph.

    I don’t see any more than casual homophobia in King’s taunts… even the athletes he’s taunting don’t seem to be particularly bothered by it. It’s the comments on the size of their equipment and the references to their mothers that gets to them. King himself doesn’t come across to me as homophobic- just using whatever works to rattle his opponents.

    chuckle at the Doc Manhattan reference from Schreiber.

    All in all, a good story, but not a great one. Could be, though, with a little tweaking.

    Keep ’em coming, Mr. Eley! You da man.

  63. Lungdoc says:

    i loved this story. the terse cadence took a bit getting used to, but it fit the story, the thought process of the main character as he focused of what he was doing. And i agree that race was incidental…i actually missed it if King mentioned he was black. To me it was the struggle to overcome an unnatural advantage that the competition had–poor vs rich and the benefits that can entail. But King studied and worked to bring himself to the best place possible. In addition, you wonder if the competition didn’t train as well since they felt/knew that they had an advantage. Just loved this story

  64. Doctor Jay says:

    I liked the original version much better.
    I think it was called Rocky.
    Or was it The Karate Kid?
    Or was it Hoosiers? Or was it Breaking Away? The Mighty Ducks? Or was it . . . etc. etc. . . .
    Sorry. I really really really loved his toothbrush story, absolutely loved it, but this is a flat cliche cloaked in something only vaguely resembling science fiction.
    It reads like a short story targeted for the readers of Runners Magazine (if there is such a thing.)
    Give me a story about a toothbrush who wants to become a marathon champion. Now THAT would be a story.

  65. SF Fangirl says:

    I agree with Dave (aka Nev the Deranged). I liked it. I listened to it while I was out for a 4 mile run by coincidence because I listen to Escape Pod mostly while working out. I liked it, but I expected the victory to cost more. I honestly expected King to drop dead or at least collapse with a heart attack after winning. There was a reference to pain in his chest near the end of the race.

    I don’t mind not finding out the winning time time though. It takes place at an indeterminate time in the future. We have no reference to what an impossible time would be at that point in the future for a race of that distance. Keeping it vague was fine.

  66. Blaine Boy says:

    Author probably didn’t finish story edit. Sounds like 1960s robot. Or a caveman. Maybe taking notes. Only speak in incomplete sentences. Annoying. Always in third person. Added hyperbole. Interesting fight of natural vs. artificial in humans. Okay…not great. Usurper interesting title choice. Commenting finished. Still basking in comfort of this community.

    Yours faithfully,
    the Blaine Boy

  67. […] Derek Zumsteg’s “Usurpers” (read by Stephen Eley), an athlete competes against genetically engineered clones. […]

  68. valjean24601 says:

    without a doubt one of the best ep episodes i have heard

  69. Doctor Jay says:

    I noticed that everyone who loved this story also loves running.
    Note: I HATE running!
    So you can probably guess my reaction to this story.
    As someone once pointed out to me; I’ve never seen a smiling jogger, but if I ever do, maybe I’ll consider trying it.
    Seriously; I know this was the Little Tayler Story, but I didn’t find it particulary original nor engaging. I think fellow runners might find inspiration from it, but to me, the character was two-dimensional and the plot was all but nonexistent.
    Sorry, but this was one of my least favorite escapepod stories.

  70. Azure says:

    Meh. I didn’t like it. The only reason I didn’t stop listening was that I was on the treadmill at the time, and I didn’t want to feel like a quitter.

  71. Just listened to the story (a bit belated, I know) and loved it.
    I mainly comment to comment on some of the previous comments I read. Regarding the homophobia and incest remarks: those were obviously (at least how I see it) targeted towards the genetics of the opponent runners. They were cloned from the same genes, their travels to China were almost certainly for some sort of genetic improvement. He mentions how the parents select this and that trait for their kids. If I understand correctly, King is one of the few “naturals”, running against the clones. This makes his remarks maybe mean, but certainly not racial or homophobic. Anti-clone, perhaps. The incest remark for example comes from the fact that the other guys are basically his brothers (genetically).

  72. Mark U says:

    Just listened to the story. After listening to dozens of prior Escape Pod stories, I’m posting a message to the forum for the first time. This story is excellent, and truely gripped me and held my attention and focus. The usage of short sentences and phrasing suited the character. The excellent description of running, muscle movements and the pain of speed with endurance was spot-on (I’ve run nine Marathons so have some experience.) All in all, excellent work! Thanks, Steve!

  73. valjean24601 says:

    I have as of now listened to the story about five times. This is one of my favorite stories ever. I love the way the King talks, and the phrases he uses. Excellent Story.

  74. Daniel Cotton says:

    I’m a nerd and I love running. I’ve always loved long distance running right from school. The jocks would always beat beat me in the sprint events but long distance running is just as much about determination as it is about ability and I think that’s the message of this story.

  75. Pablo says:

    Hey Steve,

    Wanted to come back and say thanks for this story. I loved it when you first published, I still come back to it pretty regularly.

    Find some of the comments odd – for me the race, attitude, money issues just come off as fleshing out the “reality” of what it is like to be in King’s world. There author doesn’t make claims about what society “should” do about this “problem.” The only real statement seems to be that an absolute focus on success is ultimately better than all the advantage in the world.

    As far as I’ve been able to tell in my own life, King has it right.