“One Way Out,” by Ethan Robinson

“One Way Out,” by Ethan Robinson.

Recommended by @Cecily_Kane on the #ShortFictionSunday hashtag, and by Jonah Sutton-Morse here on our very own suggestion page.


He depressed many keys that day, an untallied number but one no doubt approximately equaling that of any other day. We cannot know what was in his thoughts, but let us speculate: that he was aware, with that awareness which had been acute when he had first started the job but had dimmed progressively with each day he worked, that every key he depressed affected in some small way the movement of objects scattered throughout the world, throughout the solar system, and in some rare cases even elsewhere, further still. During his training, as he learned about the relevance of the speed of light to the keys he must depress, he had tried to engage his supervisor in a kind of low-level philosophical talk about other implications of that universal constant, but the supervisor had been uninterested or uncomprehending — at any rate had not responded in kind. Before long, it appears, Hodos himself grew similarly uninterested.


Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

21 thoughts on ““One Way Out,” by Ethan Robinson”

      1. Something that just occurred to me (and that’s generally annoying me because of how I feel about the comparison) – we’re getting an account of an event from much later. The narrator picks and chooses where to put their focus, often going on long discursive tracts such that it’s clear our awareness is being directed at their discretion.

        This could be a future version of Serial. Snatched out of obscurity for no reason other than a few fantastically interesting details (here is the story of the human body furthest from the sun right now), and to demonstrate the narrator’s own skill.

  1. So very much, I feel like this story takes on the narrative style of Lemony Snicket. Maybe not intentionally, maybe just parallel development, but a lot of what I really enjoyed is that.

    All the wry, dark observations in the name of greater precision. The idiosyncratic take on everything, that seems like a distraction but is very pointed indeed. Drawing constant attention to the conceits of storytelling, like “Oh I’m so sorry I’m not able to keep my time-dilation proportional to the actual events.” Even some very… typical phrases and jokes, like mentioning arbitrary incidentals as something “which we have not had occasion to research,” or pausing to define a word in an odd way.

    Too much of it could get annoying, but Robinson does it really well. It’s a mode of narration that puts fun and quirkiness into a very dark story; that turns the tone into one of wryness and cynicism rather than the horror, panic, or pathos, which the actual story events might have leaned towards.

  2. (Apologies for the TL;DR — I never blogged about this and obviously should’ve!)

    Every time I re-read this story I take a dimmer view of its narrators; my reading leaves little ambiguity as to their unreliability. It seems to me that they feign objectivity while confidently speculating about that which they couldn’t possibly know. One of many such examples: “His lover was not to be at home that night or for the next several. We feel there is nothing to suggest that this had any psychological impact on what was to follow…” (O rly, narrators? Y’all sure about that? I’d look a little deeper if I were you.) And even more tellingly, they firmly resist looking at any pieces of evidence that may not support their interpretation of events. I mean, the level of hubris it takes to create a narrative of someone’s life and death without even bothering to read the suicide note he left!

    Of course, the title and some of the word choices (rather than typing, Hodos “depresses keys”) indicate a much simpler and more obvious explanation than that of the narrators. This is most hauntingly expressed in the shopping passage, as there’s another way to read this: “a frustrated agitation caused perhaps by an inability to find what he was looking for mingled with an unwillingness or indeed an inability to ask for assistance…” It’s almost as if the narrators can arrive at the truth only by accident.

    Yet, the story still seems to ask “why.” And thus, it asks the reader — or at least can’t help but ask this particular reader — to search for alternative hypotheses, to ask first what assumptions of the narrators might be mistaken, then what those unexamined pieces of evidence might contain; and then to create a different narrative, first from what’s known, and then out of hypothetical answers to those questions.

    And so, this is what I did, first from the facts — Hodos’ meticulous plans for his body’s disposal guaranteed that his suicide would not escape attention, and they also assured that no other human would discover his body — and then from my own speculation as to why. (Perhaps to leave behind no body to be dealt with, yet no mystery as to what happened. Perhaps for the sake of his lover.) Yet these are facts I choose to focus on. Might they not have been incidental to, or even unconsidered by, Hodos? And am I not doing the exact same thing that the narrators did?

    What right do I have to assign meaning to a life and death that is not mine? And while Hodos is a fictional construct, to what extent do I, do we, treat real people as characters, spin and consume narratives out of their tragedies?

    There’s a lot to this story, but that tense moment of self-reflection was what I took from my most recent reading of it.

    1. Those are really interesting observations. I hadn’t considered them at all, and they certainly offer a different, intriguing reading of the story.

      Do you feel like the unreliability of the narrator is intention on the author’s part? Or is this a flaw in the author’s execution of his intended goal, which brings you to your own conclusions about what the author is trying to do?

      1. Thanks!

        The narrators’ admission that they didn’t read the suicide note was the first thing I zeroed in on. They give explicit reasoning, and it sounds very good! But earlier they also state: “we cannot know what was in his thoughts…” well, that note would be the first place to try, right? And then they follow up with speculation! Seems like epic level bullshit artistry on their parts, no? And while I don’t want to speak as to the author’s intentions, I have a hard time seeing that at least as anything but deliberate, as there are a myriad of writing choices that could have been made — like no note at all, a note that wasn’t accessible for one reason or another, the narrators not disclosing what was in the note — other than the willful decision not to read it.

        1. That is interesting.

          To some extent, you might almost say: the willingness of the narrator to construct such a strong narrative, is almost as significant as us assuming that Hodos had constructed this narrative and preferred this manner of suicide in accordance with it.

          And, of course, the willingness of the author to create that narrator is significant as well.

          In all these cases, you have somebody who sees the world in this way — and the story is an attempt to share that particular viewpoint, that particular angle. But the nuance of whether we’re getting the viewpoint we think we’re getting, is very intriguing.

      2. I think the narrator is clearly unreliable, and we’re clearly meant to be aware of it (as I say, I think of it as the reader being made aware again and again that the details being brought out are specifically those the narrator cares about). I’d suggest that this nods towards the idea that *all* narrators are unreliable to some extent, which seems interesting. I’m less sure whether the author would think of the story point in that direction, but then again, The Author is dead (though I hope this one is still alive), so …

        1. I didn’t get into it because my comment was TL;DR enough, but: yes! While these narrators seem particularly self-deluded — which I think is perhaps significant, the fact that they seem more to be lying to themselves than intentionally lying to their audience — the story seems to support the idea that all narrators are unreliable. Or, even further perhaps, that *narrative itself* is unreliable.

          Supporting this I think, and perhaps of note on its own, is the allusion to what Lacan termed the sliding signifier* — see the paragraph about the word “aspiration” and how the referents (hope & breathing) diverged over time, as well as the description of the moon and how we don’t know how it appears to other species — language (and more broadly, semiotics) is in constant flux and unstable across perceivers, and so is also unreliable. (See also: “languages more determinant than Sapir or Whorf ever dreamed…”)

          In fact, I don’t know if it’s significant or not but it just occurred to me as interesting that of all words chosen to demonstrate semiotic shifts, it’s one in which two meanings have differentiated themselves over time (as opposed to, say, one meaning being replaced by another). Something that I’ll be thinking about next time I re-read this.

          *Um, I think? It’s been over a decade since I read any literary theory lol

    2. It’s funny because I think we both really connected to this story, but my reaction was entirely different. I specifically don’t want to think about the actual facts/events narrated, or what’s missing. I just want to try to absorb the narrator’s view of relevant details precisely because they are so different from what I’d’ve chosen, and the estrangement from reality is what I’m looking for here.

  3. I had a hard time with this one, because the framing device–“depressing keys” instead of typing, weird digressions about timing, etc.– kept tripping my grandfather-in-Princess-Bride reflex: “Yes, you’re very clever. Now shut up.” It seemed to be mostly making a fairly obvious point about the artificiality of storytelling by deliberately being as chilly and remote as possible, and the ending, for me, didn’t offer enough of a payoff to retroactively justify that. Which leaves it as just, well, chilly and remote.

    1. There’s no question that the narrator is make-or-break on this one. It worked for me (a Snicket fan, as I said above 😛 ), but I can definitely see how others would find the cleverness twee and overwhelming.

      But the core of this story, I think, is not the chillness or artificiality, nor the payoff at the end. What the story has running all the way through it is its experience of… futility. Of despair. Of being trapped in a world that’s already been ground down to nothing, with no hope of escape or improvement. It’s there from the beginning, with the meaningless routine of Hodos’s job, and continues with the bleak landscape, the description of an Earth that’s come so low as to be lifeless, so low that a person would die in order to feel escaped it.

      Which, again, isn’t necessarily enough for you to find the story enjoyable! But I’m not sure whether you felt this as well, or whether the narrative shenanigans overwhelmed this for you.

      1. It’s funny because I don’t see any reason to read Hodos as living in a particularly bleak or lifeless landscape, or that the earth he lives in is necessarily any more terrible than the one we inhabit right now.

        1. Really? Interesting. I read the whole story as a sort of justification of his suicide.

          And the landscape seems very lifeless indeed:

          The automatic encountered no other mechanical devices and no living creatures during this part of its voyage. This is not surprising; indeed, as it was traveling through that region still referred to as “the countryside,” though the associations called up by the term have changed radically in recent decades, it would have been more surprising had the automatic encountered any activity whatsoever. To attempt to draw some picture-in-words of the silent progress of the automatic through the moon-lit ruin that had once been an ecosystem, a way of life for countless members of countless species, is tempting; but such would be pathos. The reader who so desires is welcome to it, but we, on whom the facts press, shall note only that what had been Hodos, though we are accustomed to think of it as dead flesh, was itself more thriving an ecosystem than the dead countryside through which it was carried.

          “A ruin that had once been an ecosystem” sounds… worse.

          Most of all, the overall thrust of the story: not only that Hodos kills himself, but that he goes through such lengths to get his body off the planet. Why? Because, as the title tells us, leaving Earth dead is THE ONLY WAY OUT.
          It’s left to the story to establish why it’s understandable to want to leave, even if it’s in that awful Only Way. And, well, I feel it did so, so it’s surprising to me to hear you didn’t see it that way 🙂

          1. I feel like there are plenty of spaces outside cities now that might meet that description, but also it seems clear that the cities are thriving. (I suppose that if “nothing of any consequence could live”, the land between these two cities is probably a bit more dead than most places in our world, but FWIW Quito is in the mountains and near active volcanoes, so maybe some big event happened.) Hodos goes to a BigBox store in in midst of what seems a crowded city that’s following our general schedule (there are morning and evening rush hours, evenings shopping expeditions, etc). Coworkers converse with him, there’s space travel (at least of *stuff*, but presumably we’re doing things with the stuff.) All of which is to say – I didn’t see any indication that there’s something so wrong with the earth as to drive everyone to want to escape as Hodos did. Clearly Hodos made the choice, but I think that’s about him, not the world he lives in.

    2. “artificiality of storytelling” – I think this is a good way of putting it. But I think the experience of *noticing* that (and then wondering why I do or don’t notice it elsewhere, is interesting (at least to me). I’m interested in your comment about payoff, because to me this seems like a story that’s all about the journey, not the destination. That is – it’s obvious on it’s face to say “when authors write stories they are constructing an artificial situation, invented characters, and plot in order to deliver a certain experience and end result to we the readers”, but (at least for me) *saying* that and *experiencing* it are two different things. Of course, I get plenty annoyed at stories even when I see what they’re doing, but I never felt the payoff was important to this story.

      1. I really need to start clicking the “notify by email” checkboxes, because I didn’t notice there were replies to this. Of course, I was also on the road a lot (first a whirlwind trip to Minnesota to give a talk, then vacation with the family…)

        Anyway, my “payoff” comment is not inconsistent with your reaction, I think. You found the narrative device interesting, and thus didn’t really want anything else at the end. I found the narrative device too-clever and mildly annoying, which I would be willing to forgive if something else about the story really grabbed me, some sort of cool big reveal at the end being the most obvious example. It doesn’t have that, though, so I was left with just “Yes, you’re very clever. Now shut up.”

  4. I recommended this, so maybe I should say why … (and I need to respond to a few things), but first:
    I wrote about why I like SF a while back (https://www.cabbagesandkings.audio/musings/what-is-science-fiction-anyway ) and I basically settled on the idea of moments of recognition that this world I live in is heavily contingent on how I view the world (Niven’s Ringworld, and the candle-and-string which becomes the entire world, for instance), and One Way Out, with it’s keys depressed of approximately the same quantity that they had been before has that in spades. So the recognition, and the ways that the story chooses things for me to focus on and realize that my world is not my world, I like a lot.

    I’m *interested* by the narrator, but never got a lot farther than that (I’d forgotten the events narrated happened years ago! Why would the snarky investigators I’d first thought of even care at that point, also they’re not really snarky. So yes, who are they? I don’t have a satisfactory answer).

    It doesn’t seem to me that this is interested in being clever for it’s own sake. It’s just that over and over again there are these things connected at scale (the ecosystem of a decaying body and the manicured countryside, the worker who depresses keys and steps off buses and is primarily useful (or disruptive) inasmuch as they are or aren’t in the way of other cogs performing their capitalist roles, and every time I read this I *want* to see the life I live each day reduced to momentary wonder and also cog-plugging, and wonder how that would impact me, and whether that even matters.

    This story scratches an itch, and the only close comparison I can think of is maybe Repent Harlequin, but where Ellison enacts breaking the cog-fitting, One Way Out just sits with the cog-fitting.

    More later I hope, but moments of recognition & disassociation, and then just having to sit with those moments again and again.

  5. A lot of what makes the narration work for me is that the faux precision, the pretense of giving some kind of dry, formal report, also gives us the emotional distance to get… more emotional. He manages to describe awful, awful things, which in another tone I’d find melodramatic, exaggerated, uninteresting. Couching it in a constant layer of “–but this is, perhaps, beside the point” adds a layer of cynicism and wryness which makes the story MUCH more fun for me.

    But the other thing about it that I find really interesting, is that it seems to (quite deliberately) MAKE NO SENSE. The narrator seems to be delivering a report, referring to research that has been conducted and experts who have provided assistance. But it’s quite obvious this is a report that no company or government or board of inquiry would be interested in. It’s not how he got away with something, or what kind of damage he did, or any other immediate, practical thing.

    No, what interested the story – and, by implication, those listening to the report – is why Hodos killed himself; what lengths did he go to; what he hoped to accomplish by it.

    It’s a story that would seem not to interest anybody of any power in this world.

    I don’t know that anything’s meant by this. But it’s part of what makes the story feel so quirky and unusual. And hey, we can be hopeful. Maybe in Robinson’s imagination, somebody has finally sat up and taken notice 🙂

    1. I’m going to go back to Serial – sometimes the point of telling a story is to show off that you know how to tell a story. Very possible that the narrator(s) of One Way Out felt the same.

      (People who aren’t me but who like to fill in the gaps around a story – why would recreating the time and space traveled within the story be valued? as an example question. I usually *don’t* find those questions helpful, but I know others do, and I also know that I’ve seen fruitful discussions of how the ways a story diverges from our notions of storytelling in turn works as worldbuilding)

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