Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

EP390: Cerbo un Vitra ujo


By Mary Robinette Kowal
Read by Veronica Giguere

Discuss on our forums. 

Cerbo un Vitra ujo
By Mary Robinette Kowal

Grete snipped a diseased branch off her Sunset-Glory rosebush like she was a body harvester looking for the perfect part. Behind the drone of the garden’s humidifiers, she caught a woosh-snick as the airlock door opened. Her boyfriend barreled around Mom’s prize Emperor artichoke.

Something was wrong.

The whites showed around Kaj’s remarkable eyes, a blue-green so iridescent they seemed to dull all the plants around them. “Mom and Dad got me a Pass to a down-planet school!”

The blood congealed in her veins. Kaj would leave her. Grete forced a smile. “That’s the outer limit!”

“I didn’t even know they’d applied. Fairview Academy—game design.” His perfect teeth flashed like sunshine against the ink of space.

“It’s wacking crazed. Should’ve been you, you’re a better hack than me.”

“I’m already entitled to school.” Grete winced as the words left her mouth. Like he didn’t know that. He was the middle of five children, way past the Banwith Station family allowance. She picked up the pruning sheers to hide the shake in her hands. How would she live without Kaj? “So, I guess you got packing to do and stuff.”

“They provide uniforms. All I’m taking is my pod with music and books. Zero else.” Kaj slid his arm around her waist and laced his long, delicate fingers through hers. “And I want to spend every moment till launch with you.”

She loved him so much, it hurt. Grete leaned her head against him, burning the feel of his body into her memory. She breathed in the musky smell of his sweat and kissed his neck, sampling the salt on his skin.

After a moment, Kaj hung a chain around her neck. The metal tags hanging from it were still warm from his body.

“What?”

“Dogtags, like they used in the oldwars. I put all my bios on there so you’d remember me.”

“Kaj Lorensen, don’t think I could forget you.”

But if he was away at school, he might forget her. She studied her rosebush and freed the most perfect rose with her sheers. She held it out to him, suddenly shy.

He kissed the rose and then her palm. Grete sank into his gaze, lost in the blue-green of his eyes. (Continue Reading…)

EP389: Keeping Tabs


By Kenneth Schneyer
Read by Dani Cutler

Discuss on our forums. 

 

Keeping Tabs
By Kenneth Schneyer

I was so excited when I could finally buy a Tab. They cost so much, you know, but I saved up for maybe six months. I waitressed at Antonio’s in the North End, and let me tell you, it’s murder on the feet.  Those trays are heavy, too, and Nico screams at everybody the whole shift, not to mention the way you smell after six hours.  But the customers tip really well, and I was able to save up enough money, even after paying rent and stuff.

I could never have gotten a Tab when I was still married to Marc, that shit.  He never liked anything I liked.  When I married him, all I saw was the big brown eyes and the cleft in his chin and the way he could make his voice go down low, so that I felt it all the way down to my knees.  I had to learn the hard way.

Not that I could’ve afforded a Tab back then, anyway.  The price started coming down just a few years ago, about when Marc broke my front tooth. By that time I couldn’t go to my mom’s, because she said I always went back to that shit anyway, and she wasn’t going to help me do it again, and my friend Lila wouldn’t let me stay with her either, same reason. So I went to a shelter, and the police came, and we got a restraining order on Marc.  But yeah, the same damn thing happened, he gave me that look with those eyes and told me how things were really, really going to change this time, because he’d seen the light and couldn’t believe he’d done something like that to me, and like an asshole, I dropped the charges and lifted the restraining order and went back to him.

Two years ago, right after I divorced Marc, Pearl Moulton started playing Mandi Trenton on _Dark Little Corners_, which was her first really big break, and they announced that there’d be a Tab on her.  I wanted it as soon as I saw her on the show, because Mandi is so awesome; she’s this really tough girl who works in a bar, and she gives as good as she gets, and she never gives up on love when all these guys leave her all the time. And Pearl Moulton is so beautiful and talented; I used to watch her on _Deception_, when nobody paid her any attention. Now she was in all the magazines, and she’s exactly my age, and she was Tabbed. (Continue Reading…)

EP388: Trixie and the Pandas of Dread


By Eugie Foster
Read by Mur Lafferty

Discuss on our forums. 

 

Trixie and the Pandas of Dread
by Eugie Foster

Trixie got out of her cherry-red godmobile and waved away the flitting cherubim waiting to bear her to her sedan chair. She wasn’t in the mood for a reverent chorus of hosannas, and the sedan chair desperately needed re-springing. She felt every jostle and jounce from those damned pandas. A day didn’t pass that she didn’t regret adopting giant pandas as her sacred vahanas. Sure, it seemed like a good idea at the time. They were so cute with their roly-poly bellies and black-masked faces, but they were wholly unsuited to be beasts of conveyance. The excessive undulation of their waddling gaits was enough to make Captain Ahab seasick, and their exclusive diet of bamboo made them perpetually flatulent. The novelty of being hauled along by farting ursines in a stomach-roiling sedan chair had gotten very old very fast. But there wasn’t a lot she could do about it now. It was all about the brand. Pandas were part of her theology. If she adopted new vahanas, she’d likely end up with a splitter faction, possibly even a reformation. Such a pain in the ass.

So she’d started walking more—well, floating really, since gods weren’t supposed to tread the earth. Appearances and all.

Drifting a hairsbreadth above the pavement, Trixie pulled out her holy tablet and launched the Karmic Retribution app. The first thumbnail belonged to a Mr. Tom Ehler, the owner of the walkway and the two-story colonial house it led to. She unpinched two fingers across the screen to zoom up Mr. Ehler’s details. (Continue Reading…)

EP387: Perspective


By Jake Kerr
Read by Julian Bane

Discuss on our forums. 

 

PERSPECTIVE
By Jake Kerr
 

The worst part about picking my son up from the police station was the walk to get there. I hadn’t been outside in years, but it was still the same–the drab gray of the smog-stained overcast sky, the decaying concrete, the stench of gasoline, urine, and who knew what else. But thanks to Jeffrey there was a new assault to my senses–black molecular paint permanently defacing an already wretched city.With every step I could see his work–his “tags” as the police called them. They were all different, and there was no rhyme or reason as to what he would vandalize–the sides of buildings, street surfaces, retailer kiosks, even windows. The randomness made catching my son a difficult task for the police, but catch him they did, and now I had to walk these vile streets to bring him home.

I paid the bail, followed the directions to processing, and waited for my son. The policewoman there was polite and offered me a seat, but I stood. I wasn’t in the mood to relax, and Jeffrey needed to see how angry I was. So I waited, arms behind my back, staring at the door that led inside.

His head hung low as he walked out. He glanced up at me and then lowered his head again. “Hi, Pop,” he mumbled. I didn’t move. He walked over and added in a whisper, “I’m really sorry.”

“You lied to me.” I grabbed his right hand and pulled it up between us. “These black stains aren’t paint, Jeffrey. That is your _skin_. It was the price to pay for your job, you said. I’m painting ships with a new kind of paint, you said. You made the stains sound like a worthy sacrifice.” I tossed his hand down.

“Pop, please. Let’s talk about this at home.” He looked around the room, shifting from one foot to the other.

“Yes, we will discuss this at home.” I turned and walked out the door. He followed. I walked the streets again, Jeffrey shuffling behind me. I focused on the concrete at my feet, unable to bear looking at his work. My hands were clenched tight enough to turn my knuckles white, so I shoved them in my pockets.
(Continue Reading…)

EP386: Finished


By Robert Reed
Read by Joel Nisbet

Discuss on our forums. 

 

Finished
by Robert Reed 

What did I plan?  Very little, in truth.  An evening walk accompanied by the scent of flowers and dampened earth, the lingering heat of the day taken as a reassurance, ancient and holy.  I was genuinely happy, as usual.  Like a hundred other contented walkers, I wandered through the linear woods, past lovers’ groves and pocket-sized sanctuaries and ornamental ponds jammed full of golden orfes and platinum lungfish.  When I felt as if I should be tired, I sat on a hard steel bench to rest.  People smiled as they passed, or they didn’t smile.  But I showed everyone a wide grin, and sometimes I offered a pleasant word, and one or two of the strangers paused long enough to begin a brief conversation.

One man—a rather old man, and I remember little else—asked, “And how are you today?”

Ignoring the implication, I said, “Fine.”

I observed, “It’s a very pleasant evening.”

“Very pleasant,” he agreed.

My bench was near a busy avenue, and sometimes I would study one of the sleek little cars rushing past.

“The end of a wonderful day,” he continued.

I looked again at his soft face, committing none of it to memory.  But I kept smiling, and with a tone that was nothing but polite, I remarked, “The sun’s setting earlier now.  Isn’t it?”

The banal recognition of a season’s progression—that was my only intent.  But the face colored, and then with a stiff, easy anger, the man said, “What does it matter to you?  It’s always the same day, after all.”

Hardly.  Yet I said nothing. (Continue Reading…)

EP385: The Very Pulse of the Machine


By Michael Swanwick
Read by Amy Robinson

Discuss on our forums. 

 

“The Very Pulse of the Machine”
by Michael Swanwick

Click.

The radio came on.

“Hell.”

Martha kept her eyes forward, concentrated on walking. Jupiter to one shoulder, Daedalus’s plume to the other. Nothing to it. Just trudge, drag, trudge, drag. Piece of cake.

“Oh.”

She chinned the radio off.

Click.

“Hell. Oh. Kiv. El. Sen.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Martha gave the rope an angry jerk, making the sledge carrying Burton’s body jump and bounce on the sulfur hardpan. “You’re dead, Burton, I’ve checked, there’s a hole in your faceplate big enough to stick a fist through, and I really don’t want to crack up. I’m in kind of a tight spot here and I can’t afford it, okay? So be nice and just shut the f*** up.”

“Not. Bur. Ton.”

“Do it anyway.”

She chinned the radio off again.

Jupiter loomed low on the western horizon, big and bright and beautiful and, after two weeks on Io, easy to ignore. To her left, Daedalus was spewing sulfur and sulfur dioxide in a fan two hundred kilometers high. The plume caught the chill light from an unseen sun and her visor rendered it a pale and lovely blue. Most spectacular view in the universe, and she was in no mood to enjoy it.

Click.

Before the voice could speak again, Martha said, “I am not going crazy, you’re just the voice of my subconscious, I don’t have the time to waste trying to figure out what unresolved psychological conflicts gave rise to all this, and I am not going to listen to anything you have to say.”

Silence.

(Continue Reading…)

EP384: The Tamarisk Hunter


By Paolo Bacigalupi
Read by Caith Donovan

Discuss on our forums. 

 

The Tamarisk Hunter
by Paolo Bacigalupi

 “The Tamarisk Hunter” originally appeared in the environmental journal High Country News. It was inspired by the only thing that really matters in the Western U.S. — water.

A big tamarisk can suck 73,000 gallons of river water a year. For $2.88 a day, plus water bounty, Lolo rips tamarisk all winter long.

Ten years ago, it was a good living. Back then, tamarisk shouldered up against every riverbank in the Colorado River Basin, along with cottonwoods, Russian olives, and elms. Ten years ago, towns like Grand Junction and Moab thought they could still squeeze life from a river.

Lolo stands on the edge of a canyon, Maggie the camel his only companion. He stares down into the deeps. It’s an hour’s scramble to the bottom. He ties Maggie to a juniper and starts down, boot-skiing a gully. A few blades of green grass sprout neon around him, piercing juniper-tagged snow clods. In the late winter, there is just a beginning surge of water down in the deeps; the ice is off the river edges. Up high, the mountains still wear their ragged snow mantles. Lolo smears through mud and hits a channel of scree, sliding and scattering rocks. His jugs of tamarisk poison gurgle and slosh on his back. His shovel and rockbar snag on occasional junipers as he skids by. It will be a long hike out. But then, that’s what makes this patch so perfect. It’s a long way down, and the riverbanks are largely hidden.
(Continue Reading…)

EP380: Punk Voyager


By Shaenon Garrity
Read by Nathaniel Lee

Discuss on our forums. 

For a list of all Escape Pod stories by this author or narrator, visit our sortable Wikipedia page

Rated 13+ for rebellious vulgarity


Punk Voyager
By Shaenon K. Garrity

Punk Voyager was built by punks.  They made it from beer cans, razors, safety pins, and a surfboard some D-bag had left on the beach. Also plutonium.  Where did they get plutonium?  Around.  f*** you.

The punks who built Punk Voyager were Johnny Bonesaw, Johnny Razor, Mexican Johnny D-bag, Red Viscera, and some other guys.  No, asshole, nobody remembers what other guys.  They were f***ing wasted, these punks.  They’d been drinking on the San Diego beach all day and night, talking about making a run to Tijuana and then forgetting and punching each other.  They’d built a fire on the beach, and all night the fire went up and went down while the punks threw beer cans at the seagulls.

Forget the s*** I just said, it wasn’t the punks who did it.  They were f***ing punks.  The hell they know about astro-engineering? Truth is that Punk Voyager was the strung-out masterpiece of Mexican Johnny D-bag’s girlfriend, Lacuna, who had a doctorate in structural engineering.  Before she burned out and ran for the coast, Lacuna was named Alice McGuire and built secret nuclear submarines for a government contractor in Ohio.  It sucked.  But that was where she got the skills to construct an unmanned deep-space probe.  Same principle, right?  Keep the radiation in and the water out.  Or the vacuum of space, whatever, it’s all the same s*** to an engineer.

f*** that, it wasn’t really Lacuna’s baby.  It wasn’t her idea.  The idea was Red’s.

“f***ing space,” he said that fateful night.  He was lying on his back looking up at space, is why he said it.

“Hell yeah,” said Johnny Bonesaw.

“s*** ain’t nothing but rocks and UFOs.”

“Ain’t no such thing as a UFO.”

“Like hell there ain’t,” said Red.  “CIA knows all about it.  Them and the astronauts.”

Red was always saying that s***, though.  Everything was the CIA and the saucer people with that burnout. (Continue Reading…)

Science Future: Aggrandize Aptitude


This time on Science Future: Various stepping-stones to human augmentation.

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.

Aggrandize Aptitude

Last month we were treated to a story about human performance. EP318: The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey was about a human with incredible abilities surrounded by transhumans with mediocre abilities. It took place in a world where humans regularly modified their bodies beyond what we consider to be the human normal but focused on one human who hadn’t and might not and yet still had the chance to exceed all of them.

Yet the story was cheating in asense for the protagonist already had a capability that far exceeded that of the standard human template. So much so that he was under constant surveillance for the possibility of actual augmentation. The stealthiest augmentation for one competing in sports today is drugs. In the future, the definition of drugs might be expanded beyond simple chemical concoctions. Rohit Talwar, the founder of Fast Future Research, gave a talk at Intelligence Squared’s If conference about the possibility of digital drugs via direct manipulation of brain chemistry using transcranial magnetic stimulation. One could only assume this kind of manipulation would be extremely hard to detect. No chemical traces and nothing invasive or even ingested. Except that in The Prize our protagonist had his doppelgänger, which was an atomic scale simulation of himself. This copy could easily have been used as both a training and surveillance device.

It is hard to believe the precision needed to copy someone down to the atomic level could be easily done via external sensors and implants would obviously not be allowed for competitive reasons but they likely used a more advanced version of this system. Researchers led by the California Institute of Technology have created a series of microchips that can quickly and inexpensively assess immune function of a human from one single cell harvested from their body. With a device like that, occasionally sampling the body for a drop of blood and building a clone that could forecast the physical changes one might undergo after eating cake seems almost feasible.

The Gift focused more on the possibility of human enhancement. Changing a the body to give one abilities that they could never hope to achieve within a human genetic code. Two of the enhancements referenced were increasing intelligence and empathy. The brain is a complicated organ in charge of many things that we don’t understand and the idea of enhancing seems far off. Repairing it, less so. There is promising research in the field of cybernetics that helps repair brain damage. Created by Theodore Berger and his team at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and researchers at Wake Forest University, a neural prosthesis is able to restore  a rat’s ability to form long-term memories after they had been pharmacologically blocked. This is the first step to augmenting something like intelligence and empathy.

But what if dramatic enhancement was not really what someone like Michito was looking for? Well a discovery by Columbia University Medical Center researchers may lead to a better understanding how to fundamentally change the human body in subtle ways. They have shown that not all traits passed on to offspring without the use of DNA but instead naturally occurring viral agents called viRNAs which modify the creature’s RNA. RNA acts like DNA’s messenger in the body, relaying the code. So if the RNA is modified, then the DNA of the being is effectively bypassed. This kinda of science could be harnessed to create a slightly faster person or creating large-scale immunity against difference diseases.

Obviously research into human augmentation continues, be through a biological, technological, or chemical means. Stories like The Prize Beyond Gold will continue to give us reasons to achieve new and different levels of augmentation. Afterall, most of us will never be Michito but we could possibly be better than him.

There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do – the result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier. – Benjamin Franklin

Book Review: Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin


Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le GuinChanging Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin is a book based on a little pun — the idea that the relentless hostility of airports to the human mind can, at times, drive a person out of our plane of reality and into another. While waiting to change planes, then, one might find one’s self actually changing planes. Since only a few minutes pass in one’s home plane while one is traveling through another, there’s no reason not to spend one’s layover napping on a tropical beach or hiking through some other world’s mountains.

Changing Planes doesn’t have a plot as such. It’s a series of vignettes of the different planes one might choose to visit. Each one is enthrallingly lyrical (I was almost sucked back into the book in the process of writing this review) and drawn with the eye for telling detail that has always made Le Guin’s writing stand out from the rest of genre fiction. Each chapter addresses a different world. The shift in tone ought to be jarring, but isn’t — though she focuses on a different aspect of humanity in each world the protagonist (such as there is) visits or hears about, the book still stands as a cohesive whole.

When I picked up Changing Planes, I didn’t realize that I had already read two of the chapters when they were published as short stories in Lightspeed Magazine. One of them — “The Silence of the Asonu” — stayed on my iPod for a while so that I could re-listen to it. I love the feelings it evokes. It is not a happy story — few of these chapters are happy stories. The deep mystery of the silence of the Asonu combined with the ridiculous mysticism that tourists have projected onto them call to mind a pattern that I am familiar with from our world. That the story takes such a dark turn at the end fits that pattern.

Science fiction is at its best when it reflects aspects of our shared humanity back at us. The worlds in Changing Planes are similar to ours, with a few telling changes. I believe that anyone who reads these stories will come away with a clear idea of what Le Guin was criticizing about our society — but I don’t think any two people will necessarily agree about what that was. Take the other story that is available in Lightspeed: “The Island of the Immortals.” Is it a commentary on the quest for eternal life? Or a statement about how a society chooses to treat its elderly? Both? Or something else? Even stories that don’t feel particularly nuanced proved to be more complicated than they appeared once I tried to pick them apart. For example, I remembered the chapter called “Great Joy” as a straightforward commentary on corporate greed. Upon rereading, it was clearly a scathing criticism of the commodification of holidays.

Changing Planes will frustrate some readers. It does lack a plot and a clearly-drawn protagonist. Its style reminded me most strongly of Always Coming Home — which happens to be my favorite work by Le Guin. I think it will speak to people who love science fiction for its own sake, and not just for the superficial trappings of rockets and starships. Le Guin is once again trying to make her readers look at the world in a new way. Whether or not Changing Planes succeeds in doing that will depend on the reader. Fans of Le Guin should give Changing Planes a look. Readers who are on the fence should read or listen to the two chapters published in Lightspeed before making up their minds.