Author Topic: EP472: The Mercy of Theseus  (Read 9100 times)


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on: December 19, 2014, 09:58:54 AM
EP472: The Mercy of Theseus

By Rachael K. Jones

Read by Dave Thompson


Greta and Jamal have three arms, two legs, and one working kidney between the two of them. The kidney belongs to Greta. Its twin went to her little sister three years back, and now she has a laparoscopic keyhole scar over her belly button to remember it by. She can feel it pull tight when she rolls her creeper beneath the chassis of the next project in the shop. Thanks to the war, Jamal has lost the arm, the legs, and the other two kidneys.

All his parts have since been replaced.


When Greta picked up Jamal in Washington, D.C. three days back, the first thing she did was insult him.

“You look like shit,” she said. His left hand–the good one–flew up to his right cheek where the surgical scars stood out like red cords. His bionics were top notch–the Army had to put you together again before they could legally discharge you–but you could still see where the silicone skin ended and his real face began.

Greta snorted. “Not your face, you moron. Your sweatshirt. You look like a psycho killer.”

Jamal wore an oversize gray Army sweatshirt with the hoodie cinched tight beneath his chin. He dropped his hand and sidestepped when she tried to hug him. “Where did you park? Let’s get out of here.”

She ignored the slight and led the way to the parking lot. She felt secretly gratified when Jamal’s jaw dropped at the sight of the ancient Mercedes. “Jesus fucking Christ, Greta! You found Mercy!”

Greta sidled up behind him and eased the duffel bag from his hand–the bionic one. It looked like a real hand up close. Just not like Jamal’s hand. “Get in. We’re going on a road trip.” She slung the duffel bag on a stack of Heinleins in the back and took the driver’s seat.

“I don’t remember it smelling like French fries in here,” said Jamal.

Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
« Last Edit: December 19, 2014, 10:04:36 AM by Ocicat »


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Reply #1 on: December 19, 2014, 06:12:14 PM
So I've been listening for years but this is the first time I've felt the need to register and talk about an episode,  I'm someone who's  been through a major physical trama and while I was extremely lucky and got to keep my arm,  the docs did  leave me with more
than a  few replacement parts.  So I have a lot of empathy for Jamal in this story... but i have to say, in the end I just don't buy  his character.  There's no real party of the story  where he comes to grips with his new self,  he just suddenly peals his skin off  and all the problems he's been having showing his new self to people go away? 

It doesn't work like that, even when all your new parts are on the inside and hidden there's still days, weeks, months,  even years were your convinced that everyone can see that you're different now, artifical, somehow less human.  It's not true of course, but it takes a while to get to where you can believe that.  I'd have loved to see Jamal connect a bit more with Mercy, the story touched on the Paradox of Thesues several times alluding to both the man and the car, I just would have felt much better about the story if it had shown his losing of his silicone covering and as such his acceptance of his new self to be connected to an understanding that Mercy is the same car even with new parts.  The story just didn't demonstrate that to me and as such just kind of fell flat. 


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Reply #2 on: December 20, 2014, 09:41:41 PM
This story worked for me. I liked this one a lot when I first read it in the EA Crit group, and I like it even better with Dave Thompson reading it.

What worked for me was the meditation on friendship--across gender, time and personal change, and how it can be both ever-changing and fundamental. That's certainly been my experience with the best friendships, and I was pleased to see it portrayed so well. That part definitely "felt right."

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Reply #3 on: December 23, 2014, 05:00:48 PM
This was a beautiful story. Particularly the section:

New ships rise plank by plank from the wreckage of the old, and they become the ship that carried Theseus home. New roads run over ancient routes and arrive at the same destination. New waters flow through desiccated riverbeds, and become in fact the same river. New cities grow from broken ruins, and all the residents call themselves Athenians. Two old friends meet in entirely new bodies which carry within their cells a memory of love from the day they were last together, and they reshape each other into what they remember being, but never materially were.

Reminds me of T. S. Eliot's East Coker:

       In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

I loved the themes of rebuilding and restoring, and how you can go on as a new person, completely different than from who you were when you started, as long as you go on. The story doesn't deny the damage, or the hardship, or the breakdowns and failures, or even claim that they'll necessarily make us better or stronger (thank god), just different. The comfort, such as it is, is an acknowledgement of how hard it is, but recognition that we have a greater capacity for adaptation and continuing.  And sometimes what we need is someone who remembers our patterns to help us rebuild.

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Reply #4 on: December 28, 2014, 02:13:30 PM
I like to see low-stakes hard near-future science fiction like this, when it's done well.  No worlds to save, no evil dictator to overthrow, just people reacting to each other and the world they live in, and trying to make a difference in each others' lives. Not everything that Escape Pod runs has to be plausible, but a few stories like this once in a while help keep the podcast grounded.  A very enjoyable story with well-done voicework.


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Reply #5 on: December 29, 2014, 02:26:27 AM
Which AC/DC tape did you hear them listening to? Clearly, it was the Maximum Overdrive version of Who Made Who.

AC/DC and David Bowie are two bands that everyone should own one album from. We don't have to agree on which one, but one of them is the BEST ONE EVER for everyone.

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Reply #6 on: December 29, 2014, 08:50:34 PM
I loved this story -- whether the tension between the characters can be called romantic or not, it's palpable, and real. Not-quite-completeness is the story of this story: the characters neither of them in mint factory condition, the car, the trip, the pact - all not quite completed out as planned.

As for the characters' relationship --

The intro mentioned that the story is a praise of platonic friendships, and it is that; but I wonder if on a subconscious level it questions their completeness, too, addressing that question that often nags - and ruins - such relationships: would romance make this better? is the relationship in some way incomplete? is there something missing in it? If so, what are the parts it's missing? How obvious is the silicone skin that covers up the artificial replacements? And can we all see where this skin is peeling off?

What would have been written. 

Spoiler (click to show/hide)

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Reply #7 on: December 30, 2014, 07:58:56 AM
I really liked this when I saw it on the Crit Group here, and I'm super excited that EP bought it. Dave was an excellent choice to read this, he added the right amount sorrow, hopefulness and gravitas.
I'm gonna more or less repeat what I said before, I love how the paradoxes intertwine with the different elements in the story. Mercy is Theseus's ship, Jamal is Theseus's ship, their pact is Theseus's ship, hell, even their friendship is Theseus's ship.
Maybe the speed at which Jamal came to terms with his new body is a bit too fast, but we don't know how long this process has been going on. He probably spent over a year in rehab learning to use his new body. When Greta and Mercy picked him up he'd probably been ready for some healing, he just didn't know it yet.
I like how he removes his silicone skin, forcing the world to see him how he sees himself, part machine. A childhood friend and a pact from a bygone age are exactly what he needs to re-form his connection to himself. To bridge the gap between who he was and who he has become. And just like everything else from the story, he is still himself.
A truly excellent piece of fiction.

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Reply #8 on: December 30, 2014, 12:09:30 PM
I liked this. I'm not going to get all analytical over it, because I really don't think I could add to what other people have already said, but I did like it.

Yeah, OK, maybe Jamal recovered a bit on the swift side, but then, as has already been pointed out, he would already have been through a LOT of counselling and therapy before this story started. I rather thought his major issue was actually how his old friend would react to him, rather than how he felt about himself. The peeling off of the artificial skin made me think more of lowering the barriers than anything else, and the fact that he could no longer take hold of hot engine parts after he took the skin off only reinforced that for me. Lowering the barriers and letting yourself risk getting hurt, if you see what I mean.

So much for not getting analytical! LOL

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Reply #9 on: December 30, 2014, 07:49:36 PM
Maybe Jamal pulled himself together at the end for the sake of the trip, like how they were willing to change cars in the end.  It's like in a River Runs Through It, where they have a perfect day where all the terrible problems in their lives don't matter and the father and sons are a family again.  Jamal may fall apart the next week or month, but for now, he can keep just enough peace to get through to the end of the trip, just be the same person he was before the war, just hold on to one friendship he loved for just a moment longer.  I mean, we all only have so much time to enjoy any period of our lives, and to get a chance to have those wonderful times just once more, you might be able to hold back your pain for a moment.


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Reply #10 on: December 31, 2014, 03:15:27 AM
I'm biased for a few reasons (know the author, love and want more stories about friendship), but I really was into this story. Even after reading it a few times, I still dig the brute force ending. I mean, so often in genre stories--like Shakespeare's Macbeth--we're given an unsolvable problem and then someone solves it, finding the loophole ("no woman born" = caesarean birth). But here, we get a much rougher and somehow more emotionally cutting solution: we can't fix the car, but the car was never the real point.

I won't mind if y'all groan at this, but it reminds me of one of my favorite parts from the movie My Best Friend's Wedding. You remember that classic from '97, when Julia Roberts decides that she loves her best friend Dermot Mulroney, and tries to sabotage his wedding to Cameron Diaz. We all saw it in the theaters, right? I guess it came out around the time I graduated high school--ouch--and I was worried about those high school friendships evaporating; and the movie starts with Dermot getting in touch with Julia after a while of not talking--and they're still friends.

So, high praise indeed, Varda!, the story reminds me of My Best Friend's Wedding in its realization that some things change and some things stay the same in friendships; and if you can keep the parts that are meaningful, you're probably doing OK.


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Reply #11 on: January 02, 2015, 11:47:36 PM
I love how the references to Theseus and the paradox were strung throughout the story, gently reminding me to consider the story from that angle. I do wish that I understood Jamal's motivation for peeling off the silicon better. It has such interesting ramifications (forcing others to recognize him as he now is, apparently reconnecting him much more strongly with the physical world) but I'm not confident that those were actually what were driving him. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to think about. As for the stated goal of having a story feature a guy/girl platonic relationship... this was a wonderful portrayal of that. Yay Varda! :)


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Reply #12 on: January 06, 2015, 02:13:46 PM
I generally liked it.  More stories about inter-gender friendships would be good for everyone, I think.  When some of us get much of our socialization through watching and talking about media it's easy to internalize the unintentional lessons that media is giving out.

I really liked the way the Theseus paradox was used in the story, referring to people in general and to Jamal in particular who has had such drastic body mods to survive his life as a soldier.

I also particularly felt for the detail where Jamal acted like a jackass over chat to make life easier for himself with his peers.  In my teen years I was on both sides of that transaction at least once (not saying I'm proud of it, but I've been there), and so I can feel for both of them there.  These days I would probably have less problem just acting like a good friend because I care much less what judgmental peers think of me now than I did then.

There were a couple things that I didn't get into quite as much as I felt I probably should have:
1.  When Jamal was peeling off his skin, for most of the time that was happening I thought it was a nervous tic like gnawing on a hangnail or licking lips, probably in his case combined with his self-consciousness paradoxically laying him bare.  I figured he was only semi-aware of it, aware only when he found his hand holding a strip of removed skin that he was damaging himself but then not realizing it again until the next strip is in hand.  All his skin was pretty much gone before it occurred to me that he was doing it on purpose.
2.  This is probably just my risk-averse personality type taking hold here, but I had trouble relating to why you'd want to take a cross-country road trip in a car that breaks down on a weekly basis.  They easily could have died out in the dessert--I was glad when they slightly revised the pact, because that helped bring the focal point of the trip to the two of them, rather than the car that's going to kill them if they try to rely on it too much.
« Last Edit: January 06, 2015, 02:17:24 PM by Unblinking »


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Reply #13 on: January 06, 2015, 02:25:10 PM
It's true that these kind of relationships seldom get the attention that they should, and it's admirable to try to do something about it. The relationship was also the most interesting part of the story, especially that it was shown to be just as messy as all relationships worth anything tend to be. The theme of interchangeable parts and what actually makes you you was less successful for me, what with a cyborg, and a car made of spare parts and the paradoxes directly explained to us in a way that didn't really fit into the characters become one layer of ink too much on my nose.


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Reply #14 on: January 06, 2015, 02:32:02 PM
Maybe Jamal pulled himself together at the end for the sake of the trip, like how they were willing to change cars in the end.  It's like in a River Runs Through It, where they have a perfect day where all the terrible problems in their lives don't matter and the father and sons are a family again.  Jamal may fall apart the next week or month, but for now, he can keep just enough peace to get through to the end of the trip, just be the same person he was before the war, just hold on to one friendship he loved for just a moment longer.  I mean, we all only have so much time to enjoy any period of our lives, and to get a chance to have those wonderful times just once more, you might be able to hold back your pain for a moment.

FWIW, this is the interpretation I had too.  I don't think that the story is saying that Jamal is perfectly happy and mentally healthy after the road trip.  But I think he pulled himself together so that he could enjoy it as much as possible--and in the end I think that this lasting friendship and this particular set of memories tied into the friendship will be happy times that will help him make it through the hard days.


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Reply #15 on: January 07, 2015, 08:16:21 PM
First and foremost, I really loved what this story was, statedly, about. I think that there aren't nearly enough stories that feature strong male/female friendships, and that's a stupid shame, because honestly some of my best friendships growing up have been with girls, most of whom I never became romantically involved with, whereas the woman I'm married to? I don't even like her. No, wait, that's not even slightly true. Abby was my friend before she became my wife. And also I like her a lot, obviously. Actually, most of my girlfriends were friends, first, which kind of undermines the point I'm trying to make here, but that doesn't matter. The point is that I've still had many friends who were female that I never had any kind of sexual tension with at all, and they were and are wonderful friendships, and it's really stupid how our culture and our fiction erase that possibility.

Phew. That paragraph was a roller-coaster from start to finish.

I also thought that the threads of war, injustice, and mental health running through this story were very well laid. The author did an excellent job of creating a really compelling world for her characters to live in, as well as a great context through putting her characters through the wringer, so we could see what their friendship was really made of. I wanted to add that I particularly enjoyed the image of Jamal pulling off his silicon skin. I like the idea that it was because he couldn't stand how blandly perfect he looked on the outside while he felt so broken and twisted inside, and part of his recovery involved having his outside match his inside, so he didn't need to live with that tension anymore.

Anyway, an all around excellent story. Both thumbs - the flesh-and-bone and the bionic - up.

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Reply #16 on: January 08, 2015, 03:42:05 AM
I ale joyed this one. The melding of themes of friendship and ?change? (Really, I'm sure there is a word for this but it totally escape me at the moment. Cue moment of facepalmy horror when I rememberthe word as I'm falling asleep tonight.

What intrigued me about the Theseus comparison is that a thing can change completely but sitll carry the same label only by mutual consent. The Mercy Of Theseus was probably only sort of recognizable to those who had originally built it had they seen the future version.  Jamal's replacement parts are only "his" leg, arm and skin by his consent. The skin isn't who he is, and he works to reframe his rebuilt non-self into what he believes is his identity. He is no longer the man who left to go to war, but by reclaiming that identity he is forcing others to see him as that person who left. The friendship is altered beyond recognition by the passage of time but by agreement they decide that whatever the new state is, it IS their friendship.

It's sort of The Emperor's New Clothes meets the Platonic Ideal mashup, I guess, and that possibly only makes sense to me. One last stab at coherence- my iPhone in no way resembles a rotary device, and yet, they are both telephones separated by time and technology. Replacement isn't always a destructive process, it can be an evolution. 

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Reply #17 on: January 08, 2015, 06:40:37 PM
I do not have much to add here.  As someone who bites his nails when I get nervous, I saw him pulling at his skin as a nervous tic.  As others have noted, it serves several thematic purposes in the story, but on the non-symbolic "why did he do it" level, I agree with the reading that he was just picking at it--not trying to make a point about it.

If I have one quibble with the story, it seemed to end several times.  There were maybe three separate instances where I expected the outro music to start.  That, of course, is more an artifact of listening to the story and not having physical words in front of me.

Finally, I agree with whomever said that it is a nice break to get some low-stakes speculative fiction.  I'm a huge fan of Fate-of-the-Galaxy-hangs-in-the-balance-style space opera.  But, sometimes, you just want to see people being people.  And a very small improvement to modern technology allows this story to explore and provide insight into issues that are highly relevant to us today.


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Reply #18 on: January 29, 2015, 01:44:28 AM
Okay, I think it's been long enough I can come out and take a bow, yes? :)

I appreciate the comments and thoughtful discussion. Perhaps more than anything I've written to date, this story was very much a product of the Escape Artists forum. The original idea came out of a discussion here, and many of the friends this story is a tribute to are people I met here. And of course, the EA crit group offered much insight and helped me iron out the bugs. Having it all come full circle, and seeing this story appear on Escape Pod, narrated by a close friend from this forum (Dave: SUCH a great reading!), and discussed here has been very meta for me, and one of the coolest experiences in recent memory.

So: thanks, forum, for existing! Let's road trip anytime. :)

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Reply #19 on: January 29, 2015, 04:20:30 AM
...So I have a lot of empathy for Jamal in this story... but i have to say, in the end I just don't buy  his character.  There's no real party of the story  where he comes to grips with his new self,  he just suddenly peals his skin off  and all the problems he's been having showing his new self to people go away? 

It worked for me.  As the non-sharing sort of guy, it makes sense to me that Jamal is silently working through things over most of the trip.  Mercy being there, not caring about the hardware, and actually needing him are the sort of things that might take a while to soak in to a hard-headed guy, but could change his attitude without any fanfare.


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Reply #20 on: February 13, 2015, 01:05:46 AM
Quality. I'm a big fan of Ms Jones. Her stories give me feelings and stuff.


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Reply #21 on: July 01, 2015, 10:11:11 PM
I enjoyed this story, but I too had a very tough time with the skin peeling. It did not seem like a healthy "coming to terms" kind of thing to me, but rather an unhealthy destructive and self-loathing kind of thing. So, Jamal being "okay" with himself by the end of the story really, really, didn't make sense to me.