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Author Topic: EP299: Plus or Minus  (Read 10578 times)

eytanz

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on: June 30, 2011, 11:26:52 PM
EP299: Plus or Minus

By James Patrick Kelly
Read by Christiana Ellis

Originally appearing in Asimov’s

Nominated for the Hugo Award for Novelette, 2011

---

Everything changed once Beep found out that Mariska’s mother was the famous Natalya Volochkova.   Mariska’s life aboard the Shining Legend went immediately from bad to awful.  Even before he singled her out, she had decided that there was no way she’d be spending the rest of her teen years crewing on an asteroid bucket.  Once Beep started persecuting her, she began counting down the remaining days of the run as if she were a prisoner.  She tried explaining that she had no use for Natalya Volochkova, who had never been much of a mother to her, but Beep wouldn’t hear it.  He didn’t care that Mariska had only signed on to the Shining Legend to get back at her mother for ruining her life.

Somehow that hadn’t worked out quite the way she had planned.

For example, there was crud duty.  With a twisting push Mariska sailed into the command module, caught herself on a handrail, and launched toward the starboard wall.  The racks of  instrument screens chirped and beeped and buzzed; command was one of the loudest mods on the ship.  She stuck her landing in front of navigation rack and her slippers caught on the deck burrs, anchoring her in the ship’s  .0006 gravity.   Sure enough, she could see new smears of mold growing from the crack where the nav screen fit into the wall.  This was Beep’s fault, although he would never admit it.  He kept the humidity jacked up in Command, said that dry air gave him nosebleeds.  Richard FiveFord claimed they came from all the drugs Beep sniffed but Mariska didn’t want to believe that.  Also Beep liked to sip his coffee from a cup instead sucking it out of a bag, even though he slopped all the time.  Fungi loved the sugary spatters.  She sniffed one particularly vile looking smear of mold.  It smelled faintly like the worms she used to grow back home on the Moon.  She wiped her nose with the sleeve of her jersey and reached to the holster on her belt for her sponge. As she scrubbed, the bitter vinegar tang of disinfectant gel filled the mod.  Not for the first time, she told herself that this job stunk.

She felt the tingle of Richard FiveFord offering a mindfeed and opened her head.  =What?=

His feed made a pleasant fizz behind her eyes, distracting her. =You done any time soon?=  Distraction was Richard’s specialty

=No.=

=Didit is making a dream for us.=


Rated appropriate for older teens and up for sexual situations and violence..


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!



InfiniteMonkey

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Reply #1 on: July 01, 2011, 04:36:50 PM
MONKEYS...IN....SPACE!!!!

Ok, ok, no actually monkeys were used in the creation of this story... still, I couldn't resist. (actually, I was the tiniest bit disappointed as I'd expected actual monkeys....)

It's a pretty good take on the "merciless math of space travel" and "heroic sacrifice"... though I will say I saw the first coming a little ways out, though I expect that was expected by the author. It was interesting twist to have the skeeveist character be the first most noble one, even taking some skeeve onto himself that I'm not convinced he's responsible for. (and oh, what skeeve and harassment!)

All in all, it's a trope, but it was a well-done trope.

Liked the narration, though more in the dialogue (esp. Beep's Slim Pickens sound) than in the narrative, which might have been picked up a bit.



Dem

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Reply #2 on: July 01, 2011, 07:14:42 PM
Going to have to take another run at this. Can't get Mariska Hargitay out of my head so I've no idea what this little clone-monkey is supposed to look like or to be. Just that she's not supposed to be Jane Mansfield's daughter, grittily investigating sexual violence. Kinda throws you out of the story, that sort of detail.

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Andy C

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Reply #3 on: July 02, 2011, 02:10:54 PM
First off, respect to Christiana Ellis who did a great job of reading this story, and managed to include some  accents that added life and colour to the characters - well done.

I enjoyed this story, it had a poignant feel to it; I enjoyed the exploration of themes around the fragility of people, their weaknesses, their fears, and the belief that we all have it in us to rise to acts of selflessness and courage. What I particularly liked, even found intriguing, was the fact that the signal acts of selfless courage came from the 'scumball' guys in the story, both of who evidenced some unpleasant characteristics, they both seemed like perverse and intimidating bullies in the earlier part of the story.

Also, the author managed to charge the story with a strong sexual tension, and I more or less believed in the integrity of the characters as they created that tension (although I did have some reservations - see below). Sci-fi mixes well with sex, if it's all done properly!

I think the number juggling was nice, I'm not especially responsive to this kind of tension in a story but i think if you like that sort of thing it was cool.

The description of the ship, it's environment and workings, was good: believable, with just enough info to set the scene without turning it in to a distracting excursion in to the wonderful world of space ships.

One thing that I wasn't sure about, in fact THE thing I wasn't sure about, was whether the author truly captured the character of a fifteen year old female. I can't help wondering whether this was a guys view of a girl, it maybe that he nailed it, maybe he didn't. The fact that the story touches on sexual themes makes it even harder for me (as a 40 something male) to gauge how a teenage female would feel in these circumstances. I'd be interested to read an opinion from some of the female reviewers on here.

That said, it was a entertaining story, and I enjoyed listening to it. Thanks James for a good tale, and thanks EP for providing it to us.

A



Rain

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Reply #4 on: July 02, 2011, 08:09:48 PM
I have tried thinking of something positive to say about this one, because it felt wrong not to like at least one of the Hugo nominees, but i failed.

I think i understood the story, the main character acted like a complete brat for most of the story, not because she was a bad person but because she was still a teenager. And i think there was some message about space travel being really boring when nobody trusts real humans to make any decisions, but ultimately that just made the story boring.

The end didnt have any impact for me because i didnt like Mariska, and i didnt feel that she, nor any of the other characters had any real personality that made me care who died, and what they did before they died.

For such a long story nothing really happened, the thing about them being nicknamed Monkeys was cute and all, but it felt like a trick to make the listeners think there was something interesting going on.



contra

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Reply #5 on: July 03, 2011, 10:26:26 PM
The end of this story was obvious from fairly early on.  And the story and idea itself is cliche. 

But it was great.  As the story went towards the finale, and no other option than to go with it.  It mirrored the other people on the ship after they found out their air supply was short.  They know exactly where it is going, it is predictable, but can't do anything about it. 

I liked the space ship, and I don't feel that monkeys was just put in to make it seems more interesting than it was; euphanisms for the problem cause happen all the time; see the pobcak error for evidence of this.

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Unblinking

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Reply #6 on: July 05, 2011, 02:31:42 PM
This story just felt really really long, with so much that didn't really seem relevant, as if the core of the story was built as flash fiction and things were added on and added on until it got to this length.  What was the point of the reveal of Richard's fantasies?  They didn't really come up again throughout the story.   Were they really only there so that he could be given a redemption at the end?  Why did Beep reveal them anyway, when he was unwilling to do anything about them, instead just creating tension?  He said himself that he can't police thoughts, but if that's how he really believed then he shouldn't be snooping and sharing people's thoughts with others.  What was the point of the fungus?  I don't know, it just seemed like a big hodgepodge of stuff that didn't really have anything to do with each other.

And for a story that long, I never really felt like I knew any of the characters well enough.  I didn't really care who lived and who died.  (Well, the two clone-kids had really whiny voices so I wasn't terribly disappointed to see them go).  It surprised me that it took them so long to think about putting her in hibernation, that was my first thought, as naturally someone who is sleeping will take less oxygen. 

I was waiting through most of the story for it to get to the central tension, to the title situation.  When it finally did, the repitition of "plus or minus" at the end of every sentence quickly got irritating, so that I was mouthing "plus or minus" after every sentence for most of the rest of the story whether or not it made sense in context.



Lionman

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Reply #7 on: July 05, 2011, 06:31:25 PM
Straight to the point:  I liked the story, but found myself asking lots of questions about why things were done the way they were in the story.

1.) Why on Earth would you put all of your oxygen stores (the treated ice) in one spot? What would you do if you took a micro-meteor strike on them and they broke loose? This storage should have been decentralized.

2.) If the automation is so darn good that your crew are just monkey's, why was it necessary to manually control the crawlers to go get treated ice?  They could walk all up and down the spine and automatically repair micro-meteor strikes, but they couldn't go retrieve ice automatically?  This feels like it rubs against the basis of the story.

3.) If Beep planned to space himself, why didn't he just take 1 oxygen bottle and leave the backup behind?  He knew what he was doing, even tweaked, so why take such a valuable item?

Okay, okay...despite my pickiness, I really -DID- like the story.  I'm not sure if I would have liked it more if Beep's sacrifice would have made more of a difference or not.

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Myst

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Reply #8 on: July 06, 2011, 02:47:11 AM
I must say I was disappointed with this one. The reading was well done. I like the story for the most part, but it failed to deliver in the end. The author spent so much time talking about the crud in the ship I half expected it to play a much bigger part in the ending.



Gamercow

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Reply #9 on: July 06, 2011, 04:08:59 PM

3.) If Beep planned to space himself, why didn't he just take 1 oxygen bottle and leave the backup behind?  He knew what he was doing, even tweaked, so why take such a valuable item?


Even if he had, the author could have just tweaked the math for it not to have mattered.  So I wasn't really bothered by that. 

For myself, I liked the story, as I do most space travel stories, doomed or otherwise.  I'm not sure we needed the epilogue in the hospital though.  I would have ended it with Mariska going to sleep, or maybe with her waking up with dead Richard next to her, and leave it at that.

And as always, excellent narration by Christiana.

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Devoted135

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Reply #10 on: July 06, 2011, 04:50:07 PM
I must say, I really enjoyed this story. I don't tend to mind when a story follows genre tropes as long as it's done well and is compelling to me as a reader. It seems like the nominators this year were drawn by stories following an individual or small group in contrast to the sweeping idea-driven tales of previous years (or, ya know, Spar...). I think it's interesting that I don't remember particularly liking the nominees last year (Bridesicle was my favorite) but this year I'm really enjoying all of them.



Scattercat

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Reply #11 on: July 06, 2011, 11:17:38 PM
There were some nice bits - I thought the characterization was fun and interesting, and I enjoyed the contemplative pace, for the most part - but in the end, I caught myself checking and rechecking the time left for about the last twenty minutes, which is usually a sign that things are taking a bit too long to wrap up.  In particular, once it was clear that the gamble had failed and the crew had died despite their efforts, the story took far too much time to sweep all the bits away and tie the ending into the requisite bow.  I was intrigued by the character of Beep, who seemed to have a whole muddle of motives and layers to him.  He was easily the most interesting character in the story; he starts out as a bogeyman, sort of flickers into a Wise Mentor for a little bit, then drops the mask to be a Drunken Loser, and ends up as a sort of amalgamation of the three.  I appreciated the subtlety there, and the willingness to play with conventions. 

In contrast to Devoted135, I'm finding this year's Hugo noms to be kind of bland and uninteresting.  I do like my big ideas, though, and this year the stories have all been very much personal and small-scale.  Just not in a way I find particularly compelling, unfortunately.  "The Things" has come the closest to seriously intriguing me, but the heavy reliance on the movie for the emotional impact lost my interest overall and made that, too, feel kind of too long.  A lot of slow burns that fizzle out at the end instead of setting off the firecracker this year, basically.

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Talia

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Reply #12 on: July 07, 2011, 02:27:58 PM
Really enjoyed this one. The character interactions felt real to me, and I was intrigued by a world where offspring could be genetically programmed to be "space-ready," like the siblings and like Mariska herself with her ability to hibernate.. neat! Though I too couldn't stop thinking about Mariska Hartigay, heh.

To me it felt like Mariska was being juvenile about her relationship with her mother, which felt appropriate for someone of her age. So I thought she was a realistic teenager.




grokman

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Reply #13 on: July 08, 2011, 10:45:13 PM
WOW, not what I was expecting. And there's nothing wrong with that at all. Loved the atmosphere, the world-building (or rather SPACE-building  ;D ), and maybe I was the only one who didn't see the ending coming. But that's ok, too. More space monkey stories, please!



Anarkey

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Reply #14 on: July 09, 2011, 02:40:08 PM
Man, I love me some James Patrick Kelly.  Usually I'm bored by stories about sulky teens (I blame the latter Harry Potter books and Lev Grossman's The Magicians for breaking that camel's back for me), but - like he did in Burn - JPK put in enough depth to his sulky teen and enough compelling world-buildy bits to keep me interested and engaged.  Like Scattercat, I was drawn to the cipher person of Beep.  I did think the wrap up was slow, but I was in for a pound at that point and happy to let the story go its course at its pace. 

I always admire it when an author gets past my prejudices and makes me like a story in spite of.  Makes me wish I'd been to VP on a JPK year because I bet I coulda learned something from him.  But alas.

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stePH

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Reply #15 on: July 10, 2011, 02:07:15 AM
I have tried thinking of something positive to say about this one, because it felt wrong not to like at least one of the Hugo nominees, but i failed.

I think i understood the story, the main character acted like a complete brat for most of the story, not because she was a bad person but because she was still a teenager. And i think there was some message about space travel being really boring when nobody trusts real humans to make any decisions, but ultimately that just made the story boring.

The end didnt have any impact for me because i didnt like Mariska, and i didnt feel that she, nor any of the other characters had any real personality that made me care who died, and what they did before they died.

For such a long story nothing really happened, the thing about them being nicknamed Monkeys was cute and all, but it felt like a trick to make the listeners think there was something interesting going on.

This. I have nothing to add.

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Faraway Ray

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Reply #16 on: July 12, 2011, 06:01:02 PM
Guess I'm just piling on by saying that this felt long for the payoff. The tension inherent in Richard's supposed fixation on Mariska was a plot cul-de-sac. Not sure how Mariska's relationship with her mother changed after this. I'm sure she's glad to see her and all, but her reaction felt muddled and unspecific.


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CryptoMe

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Reply #17 on: July 12, 2011, 06:53:33 PM
... I was mouthing "plus or minus" after every sentence for most of the rest of the story whether or not it made sense in context.

LOL!! Love that.   :D



Talia

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Reply #18 on: July 12, 2011, 06:53:41 PM
Guess I'm just piling on by saying that this felt long for the payoff. The tension inherent in Richard's supposed fixation on Mariska was a plot cul-de-sac. Not sure how Mariska's relationship with her mother changed after this. I'm sure she's glad to see her and all, but her reaction felt muddled and unspecific.

Well, she's a teenager. She's not particularly emotionally mature, I would argue "muddled" would be an appropriate reaction from a teenager. :P



Salul

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Reply #19 on: July 12, 2011, 11:39:37 PM
I really enjoyed this one. Kudos to Ms Ellis for a brilliant job, and thank heavens for JPK. He did indeed take a totally clicheéd topic, and yes his characters weren't necessarily very deep.
 
But I will freely confess: I am a total sucker for asteroid miner stories - have been ever since I first came across Kim Stanley Robinson's "Icehenge"...waaay back when. And this was one good asteroid miner story. Not the stuff of genius, perhaps, but very nicely laid out. And the inclusion of a post-Soviet MC almost made me feel like I was back in an idealised 80s sf setting.

...

...maybe it also mattered that I listened to it through a rather nasty bout of insomnia at around 3AM... ;D
« Last Edit: July 12, 2011, 11:41:15 PM by Salul »

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lordRochester

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Reply #20 on: July 15, 2011, 07:55:51 AM
I enjoyed this, both the story and the reading.

I must admit, I was expecting more to come from the mould/crud growing on the ship, it even crossed my mind that it might photosynthesise and give off oxygen if left alone.

One gaping plot hole however has not been mentioned: why continue to burn fuel decelerating? Why not lay off the deceleration for a few days so you get back to the rescue rendezvous quicker? Anyway, it's fiction and a certain suspension of belief is required so I'll let this one slide.

All-in-all a good listen.



ElectricPaladin

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Reply #21 on: July 15, 2011, 02:23:17 PM
At first I was like "oh, it's just like The Cold Equations."

And then I was like "oh, it's The Cold Equations but plus three-dimensional and sympathetic characters."

And finally, I was like "it's The Cold Equations, but better."

So, I can't really say that the plot ever escaped The Cold Equations. The characters and the setting, however, were much more fully realized and made all the difference between Plus or Minus being a knock-off and one of the best stories I've heard recently (which it was).

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Reply #22 on: July 15, 2011, 10:58:31 PM
One gaping plot hole however has not been mentioned: why continue to burn fuel decelerating? Why not lay off the deceleration for a few days so you get back to the rescue rendezvous quicker?

Because they have to be stopped by the time they get to the rendezvous.  If they're moving too fast when they get there, sure, they might still be alive, but then they'll just shoot right past and die somewhere in the inner part of the solar system instead of en route to the pickup site.  Imagine driving down a hill where you have a single parking space just past the bottom that you need to be parked in.  Sure, you can save your brakes by just coasting downhill, but if you try to stop after you hit the bottom, you'll overshoot the parking space and be just as screwed as you would if you didn't get to it at all.

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Gamercow

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Reply #23 on: July 16, 2011, 11:21:53 PM
Because they have to be stopped by the time they get to the rendezvous.

Not to pick nits, but they weren't stopped, merely going slow enough to rendezvous.   And if I remember right, the source for the fuel was not the same as the fuel for their oxygen. 

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Reply #24 on: July 20, 2011, 10:15:56 AM
Everyone else has already made the points I would have made about the story, so I'll just recap here:

1. The reading was good.
2. I didn't like any of the characters.
3. The story was WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too long, especially in audio.
4. Despite good writing, I don't think the story itself was worthy of a Hugo nom. This last one is a personal opinion, and I'm sure the people who nommed it had their reasons, but I wouldn't have.

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