The first third of “The Something-Dreaming Game,” by Elizabeth Bear is utterly frank about how young people seek unusual sensations, enough that I can see why some people might be uncomfortable listening to it on Escape Pod. The narrator’s daughter, Tara, developed RSD, after breaking her arm. She gets an implant that keeps the searing pain from reaching her brain. She then starts playing the “fainting game,” where children choke themselves into dreams which can be eerily sensual. Tara dreams more innocently, of an alien world where a giant arthropoid she calls Albert (because he’s really smart, like Einstein) is trying to talk to her. Her mother is alarmed and begs her to promise to stop playing the game. Tara says the aliens need her.
I like stories where you’re not sure about whether it’s real. Tara’s mother fears that her dreams are a schizophrenic break. As Tara’s doctor says, the ideation of aliens attempting contact is a classic schizophrenic fantasy. But then the narrator rationalizes that Tara doesn’t have the other symptoms, so maybe her experiences are real.
And we need to believe in some weird science to make Tara’s dreams real. Like “The House Beyond Your Sky,” much of the science is left for the informed reader to work out. (Hmm. Second time I’ve compared Elizabeth Bear with Benjamin Rosenbaum.) But this time, I found it hard to believe. A Bose-Einstein condensate in a cranial implant? I suppose a batch of quantum computers could be entangled and communicating with each other, but then we go into left field and come out with an entanglement with a simulation of another universe. At least, that’s what I think is happening.
The people are the realest part, from Tara playing with dolls instead of answering probing questions to her mother’s concern and distrust becoming faith and acceptance. You worry for Tara and wonder where she is going. She ends up in a place resonant with the ending of Tideline, where the living are charged with carrying on the memories of the dead.