“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home,” by Genevieve Valentine

Clarkesworld, Issue 121, October 2016
Clarkesworld, Issue 121, October 2016

“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home,” by Genevieve Valentine.
Published in Clarkesworld, October 2016.

Lots of reviews for this one — most of them full of spoilers! So go, read — or take this pull quote as incentive:

This is the single best warning and commentary on modern humanity I have ever read. Not only is it beautifully written, but insightful and deep. (…) It is a commentary made all the more potent by recent events. Do not miss this story. Read it until it sinks in.

Here’s all the reviews, in all their spoilerific glory:
Seraph, at Tangent Online, is enthusiastic:

This is the single best warning and commentary on modern humanity I have ever read. Not only is it beautifully written, but insightful and deep. It not only categorizes the dangers of fully-immersive VR, and by extension those of excessive gaming, but of the abuses that can occur where there is little prison oversight, and unchecked corporate greed. Between getting lost in the digitally constructed world, which is so immersive as to even create false memories, and the medications given to involuntary test subjects to manipulate their minds into believing the game’s input, it’s not hard to see how Marie could no longer distinguish between reality, how she became so hopelessly addicted to the world of the game that she was willing to do anything to get back. It’s equally not difficult to see how Benjamina would become so disillusioned with the victimization for profit that she had been a part of. Even less surprising is the half-hearted media coverage, or should we say, cover-up. Most striking is the apathy of so many people who make the game break sales records, in spite of the controversy. It is a commentary made all the more potent by recent events. Do not miss this story. Read it until it sinks in.

Charles Paysuer calls the story “heartbreaking” and “wrenching,” and I particularly liked this observation he makes:

But for Marie I feel like it was a second chance. It was a chance to recreate herself, to be someone at peace with what she was doing. Not always at risk, afraid, and exploited.

Rocket Stack Rank has mixed feelings:

Pro: Nice twist that it’s all a simulation. The story told in letters is a nice device. The conclusion, that Marie got to go back into Themis after all, is amusing and yet also a little sad.

Con: There’s no protagonist and really no plot to speak of, other than Benjamina’s struggle to somehow do something to make herself feel better about what she did.

And A.C. Wise writes:

Bits of the story that feel like sly winks to our own reality (…) However, the bigger themes of the story are about truth and the nature of reality. Is it a lie if it feels real, if people don’t know they’re being lied to, if they can’t remember the lies they’re told? (…) ”Everybody from Themis Sends Letters Home” also touches on the idea of who has rights, who gets silenced, and who gets used as a tool by the system for “the greater good.”

What did you think of “Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home”? What’s your take on it? Join the discussion in the comments!

7 thoughts on ““Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home,” by Genevieve Valentine”

  1. This is one where I feel like the length undermined the story a bit. The told-in-letters device isn’t a bad one, but it would’ve had more impact if the ambiguity had been maintained longer. The revelation that they’re inside a game comes very quickly, though, and that makes the appeal for Marie kind of an abstract thing. A slower unfolding of the story, where we stuck with her letters for longer before the revelation, would’ve been better, at least for me. But that would’ve needed to be a much longer story.

    1. It’s an interesting point. The fake-out of the virtual world isn’t the focus of the story — the consequences of it are — but that part is very strong, human, vibrant, and intriguing. I can definitely see that that could have been made longer and even more effective — the question is, would that have distracted from the story’s main thrust.

      I’d actually suggest that what might be extended would be the segment where *we* know Themis is a game, but Marie doesn’t yet — that already has the theme and conflict clearly, and that’s a strong tension that could be played with.

      1. It’s not the main point of the story, but the story doesn’t work without it. I mean, using prisoners without consent is unethical regardless, but if the only thing at stake is whether they get to use it to boost their time served, that’s not a very interesting story. For the consequences to matter, you need Marie– someone who was so enraptured by the simulation that she’s willing to starve to death so long as she spends her last days there. To me, the current format of the story abandons the game reality too quickly to really sell that, and as a result, the rest of it doesn’t pack as much punch as it could.

  2. There’s bit I didn’t quite understand that’s bothering me — the explanation of what went wrong with Marie.

    Dr. March turned toward her. “Did you know Ms. Roland was a drug addict?”

    “No,” she said, and her stomach dropped as she considered why the medical side of the experiment wasn’t feasible any more. “Did she get any memories back when the drugs stopped working, or is it still a fog?”

    What is it Benjamina understands here? Why does this jeopardize the project?

    Is the implication that Marie is resistant to the drugs being used, and therefore is maintaining her memories? (If so, why are the *others* a problem?)

    1. From later in the story:
      “I don’t know what they gave me to make me forget, but they gave it to me on each end of Themis, on the way in and after I was out. Eventually my body got used to it—side effect of being an addict, which you think they’d have worried about more, but.”

      Which makes it clear your interpretation is correct.

      1. I found this bit kind of dodgy, in a “I’m not sure that’s how science works…” kind of way. That is, I don’t think addicts have an innate ability to develop a tolerance for _absolutely_ _any_ drug that they’re given, but rather they _have_ developed a tolerance for specific drugs they’re using too much of. That tolerance isn’t even a permanent feature for a specific drug– one of the big factors contributing to overdose deaths, as I understand it, is that addicts who get off their drug of choice lose the tolerance they built up when they were using, and when they fall off the wagon will try to use an amount that would’ve been normal when they were using regularly, but is fatal when they’re not used to it.

        But then, I’m a physicist, not a biologist, let alone a medical doctor, so I could be wrong. This bit bumped me out of the story a little, though.

  3. So, here’s a question I think follows, but the story doesn’t exactly ask:

    If somebody can fall in love with Themis, if some people could really and truly want to live there…

    …why is it a *game*?

    Could what they think of as a game, be used outright to create homes and worlds?

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