Flash from the Vault
Host commentary by S. B. Divya
Hi there and welcome to the third and final term of Escape Pod’s Summer School, where we post some of our favorite flash fiction from the vault with a new perspective. I’m Divya, co-editor of the pod, and your instructor for this class. This episode also concludes our Summer Flashback series. We’ll be back next week with the best in original and reprint science fiction.
Today, I bring you three flash episodes from long, long ago. First up is “Standards,” by Richard K. Lyon, then we have “Paradox,” by Scott Janssens, and finally, “Stuck In An Elevator With Mandy Patinkin,” by Kitty Myers.
Our first author, Richard K. Lyon, was by profession a semiretired research scientist in chemical kinetics applied to air pollution problems. By avocation he was a second generation science fiction fan and first generation writer. On his own he sold quite a few stories to Analog and other magazines. With Andy Offutt he did three Tiana books, and a novel that was serialized in Analog called RAILS ACROSS THE GALAXY.
Your narrator, Frank Key, was a British writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his self-published short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which was broadcast weekly on Resonance FM from April 2004 to September 2019, when he passed away. Frank co-founded the Malice Aforethought Press with Max Décharné and published the fiction of Ellis Sharp.
Now, get ready to visit 2008… because it’s storytime.
By Richard K. Lyon
After careful examination of your manuscript no 113785, Corbamite, An Insulator Against Gravity, the editors of Review of Physics have concluded that it is not suitable for publication in this journal. This decision is final and further correspondence on this subject will serve no useful purpose.
Since the above may seem somewhat harsh, let me say what I can to mitigate it. The editors do appreciate that you are working under difficult circumstances: when the senior author of a paper is deceased, it is always hard for the junior author to complete the work in an appropriate manner. Also let us assure you that we do believe you. You have told us that with his dying breath Professor Steinhardt handed you his notebook and said, “Have this published in Review of Physics.” Such an action would be completely in character for Steinhardt since he was a true scientist.
As for your claim that Professor Steinhardt made this statement as he was expiring from disintegrator rays wounds suffered during your escape from the City of Disembodied Brains on Altair IV, our believing that is a somewhat different matter but we need to go into that.
By coincidence, the author died shortly before this story was published, which I thought made it particularly poignant in spite of its satirical tone, and I discovered upon looking up the narrator that he passed away last September. I decided to make this the opening story of my three as a testament to the longevity of Escape Pod. I also like the way it points out a common fallacy among academics, especially scientists.
I was raised by a college professor who prizes rational thought, and I was a huge fan of the book Dune as a teenager. I bought into the whole “be super unemotional and logical,” way of the Bene Gesserit as something to aspire to. It took having a child to realize that sometimes it’s better to lead with emotion – at least the good ones, like empathy and compassion, and it took a couple decades of adult life to realize that there’s no way to make a personal decision without some degree of emotional involvement. You can make pro and con lists all day long, but in the end, it boils down to what you want. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that we can never truly separate our desires from facts. The most rational academics – and scientists – will struggle to let go of their cherished beliefs, even if the contradictory evidence is right in front of their eyes.
Our next story is “Paradox,” by Scott Janssens. At the time the story was written, back in 2005, Scott lived in Seattle and wrote code for a large software company.
Your narrator, Paul S. Jenkins, is a fiction author, podcaster, occasional narrator, and skeptic blogger.
By Scott Janssens
I saw nothing when I looked through the eyepiece Franz handed me and told him so.
“Of course not,” said Franz. “Right now, the time sight is set to look into the future. From this point in time, the future doesn’t exist yet, not in any meaningful way, so it can’t be seen.”
Curiosity is a formidable force of human nature. It’s driven much of human technological and scientific progress, and it starts right from birth. We’re built to be curious about our world, to experiment with it, whether it’s tasting every object that we grasp or dropping our peas on the ground to observe how they fall. As with most qualities, the degree of curiosity we contain varies from person to person, and while it seems to fall off with age on average, some of us seem to retain it for life. Unfortunately, the burning desire to experiment and understand the world around us comes with a downside: the risk of hurting oneself. Curiosity doesn’t just kill cats. Scientists who like to be the first to try out their new discoveries or inventions are not the exclusive domain of fiction. Jonas Salk gave himself and his children the polio vaccine before it was widely tested. More recently, the citizen scientists of Radvac gave themselves their own version of a Covid vaccine. The Wright brothers, among many others, flung themselves into the sky in hoping of flight. Sometimes these experiments lead to Nobel Prizes or life-changing innovations, and sometimes they lead to Darwin Awards or getting stuck in the distant past.
Our last story is from 2006: “Stuck In An Elevator With Mandy Patinkin,” by Kitty Myers.
Kitty Myers has written a lot of flash fiction. She first published this story in a collection called, “Briefs and Other Unmentionables.”
Your narrator is our very own Mur Lafferty. Mur is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards, and she is the winner of the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer.
Stuck In An Elevator With Mandy Patinkin (Excerpt)
By Kitty Myers
“Aren’t you Rube, the Grim Reaper in Dead Like Me?”
As he turned to look at me, an expression of amusement spread over his face like a wave of sunshine over a cloudy field. “I’m not a grim reaper in real life,” he mimicked, “but I do play one on TV!”
Part of what drew me to this story was that I knew nothing about the show it references (“Dead Like Me”). My main exposure to Mandy Patinkin was as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. Still, I knew what was coming before the end. That wasn’t the point, though. We all want to have someone at our side when we take our final breath, and as a fan, having someone you admire be that comforting presence would be a worthy alternative to the ideal – someone you love who loves you back.
I also wanted to wrap up the summer with something that captures the fun of Escape Pod. This story probably isn’t one we’d run today because there’s no science-y aspect to it, but it represents the spirit of the podcast that Mur and I try to hew to even today. It has heart, it has a great voice, and – I hope – it made you smile.
This ends our three months of summer school. We hope you discovered some new favorites or dusted off your enjoyment of some old ones. The break is over, the flashbacks are done. Come back next week for this year’s Flash Fiction Contest winners! They’ll kick off a month of original short stories.
Our closing quotation this week is from Jonathan Safran Foer, who said “August has passed, and yet summer continues by force to grow days. They sprout secretly between the chapters of the year, covertly included between its pages.”
Thanks for joining us and enjoy your adventures through time and space.
About the Authors
Richard K. Lyon was by profession a semiretired research scientist, in chemical kinetics applied to air pollution problems. By avocation he was a second generation science fiction fan and first generation writer. On his own he sold quite a few stories to Analog, etc. With Andy Offutt he did three Tiana books (DEMON IN THE MIRROR, EYES OF SARSIS, WEB OF THE SPIDER) all for Pocket Books, and a novel that was serialized in Analog, RAILS ACROSS THE GALAXY.
Kitty Myers is a person who exists.
Scott Janssens is a person who exists.
About the Narrators
Paul S. Jenkins is a person who exists.
Frank Key was a British writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his self-published short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which was broadcast weekly on Resonance FM from April 2004 to September 2019, when he passed away. Frank co-founded the Malice Aforethought Press with Max Décharné and published the fiction of Ellis Sharp.
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.