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Story and Study: Ej-Es by Nancy Kress

About ten years ago, the anthology Stars inspired several well-knowns to write stories based on Janis Ian songs. Janis Ian is a SF writer herself, calling SF the “jazz of prose”.  There are many gems in the anthology, but one of my favorites comes from Nancy Kress, who wrote “Ej-Es”, a heart-wrenchingly unique take on the song “Jessie”.  Fortunately, it was republished online in 2010 over at Lightspeed.

As a child, listening “Jessie” on the 8-track used to inspire tears.  Now, the song continues to choke me up, but only because of the added effect of Kress’s story.  The following study guide focuses on literary elements.

“Ej-Es” by Nancy Kress—Study Guide

Literary Elements

Setting

1. The story is set in the far future.  How do we know this?

2. What are some of the challenges of living in this time that we don’t have to face?

3. Where does the story take place?

4. Compare the original colony with Esefeb’s village.

Characters

5. What is the POV (choose one)?

a) 1st person

b) 3rd person—objective (the movie-camera view)

c) 3rd person—limited (stick with one person’s perceptions and thoughts)

d) 3rd person—omniscient (get every characters perceptions and thoughts.

6. Give at least two details about each character in the story:

Mia

Lolimel

Kenin

Esefeb

Esefeb’s neighbors

7. Who is Ej-Es?

8. How is Mia an atypical main character? In what ways is she sympathetic? How is she unsympathetic?

Plot

9. What is the mission of the expedition?

10. What did they discover at the colony? What happened to it?

11. Is Esefeb human?  What is wrong with her?  How is Esefeb related to the colony?

12. Why does Kenin want Mia to bring Esefeb back to camp?

13. Who are the people living near Esefeb’s hut?

14. What is the major disagreement between Mia and Kenin?

15. Why does Mia stay on the planet?

16. How does the cure affect Esefeb?

Foreshadowing

17. What details early in the narrative point to Lolimel contracting the disease?

18.  What hints early in the narrative point to Mia’s eventual course of action?

Themes

19.  One of the major issues operating in the story is the problem of intervention.  Why does the Corps have a policy of non-intervention?

20. How does the story deal with the concept of aging?

21.  How does the relationship between success and happiness play out?

Discussion

1.  The organization the characters are involved with is called the Corps—what modern day organization does it call to mind? What is the purpose of the connection?

2.  Throughout the course of the story, Mia answers Lolimel’s initial question (Why did you first enter the Corps?) in several ways (to relieve suffering, to serve humanity, to live purposefully, to find happiness, to save a civilization).  Has she succeeded with any of them?

3.  The native language seems to be missing some key words (like “alone” and “friend”). Why would that be the case?  Mia and Lolimel note that the native language is “degraded”. Besides the holes in the vocabulary, what about the language would lead to that assessment?

4. Were you in Mia’s place, would you have tried to cure the people living on the planet or would you have followed the Corps’ policy of non-interference? Why?

5.  If you were a native, would you rather live with a brain disease that gives you the experience of pure ecstasy or would you want to be cured? What about if you were Lolimel?

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