Escape Artists

Escape Pod => Episode Comments => Topic started by: eytanz on June 16, 2014, 02:49:33 AM

Title: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
Post by: eytanz on June 16, 2014, 02:49:33 AM
EP677: Valedictorian (Flashback Friday) (http://escapepod.org/2019/04/25/escape-pod-677-valedictorian-flashback-friday/)

EP450: Valedictorian (http://escapepod.org/2014/06/16/ep450-valedictorian/)

Author : N.K. Jemisin
Narrator : Stephanie Malia Morris
Host : Marguerite Kenner
Audio Producer : Adam Pracht

This story originally appeared in After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia
---

There are three things Zinhle decides, when she is old enough to understand. The first is that she will never, ever, give less than her best to anything she tries to do. The second is that she will not live in fear. The third, which is perhaps meaningless given the first two and yet comes to define her existence most powerfully, is this: she will be herself. No matter what. For however brief a time.

#

“Have you considered getting pregnant?” her mother blurts one morning, over breakfast.
Zinhle’s father drops his fork, though he recovers and picks it up again quickly. This is how Zinhle knows that what her mother has said is not a spontaneous burst of insanity. They have discussed the matter, her parents. They are in agreement. Her father was just caught off-guard by the timing.
But Zinhle, too, has considered the matter in depth. Do they really think she wouldn’t have? “No,” she says.
Zinhle’s mother is stubborn. This is where Zinhle herself gets the trait. “The Sandersens’ boy — you used to play with him, when you were little, remember? — he’s decent. Discreet. He got three girls pregnant last year, and doesn’t charge much. The babies aren’t bad-looking. And we’d help you with the raising, of course.” She hesitates, then adds with obvious discomfort, “A friend of mine at work — Charlotte, you’ve met her — she says he’s, ah, he’s not rough or anything, doesn’t try to hurt girls — ”
“No,” Zinhle says again, more firmly. She does not raise her voice. Her parents raised her to be respectful of her elders. She believes respect includes being very, very clear about some things. Zinhle’s mother looks at her father, seeking an ally. Her father is a gentle, soft-spoken man in a family of strong-willed women. Stupid people think he is weak; he isn’t. He just knows when a battle isn’t worth fighting. So he looks at Zinhle now, and after a moment he shakes his head. “Let it go,” he says to her mother, and her mother subsides.
They resume breakfast in silence.


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Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: InfiniteMonkey on June 17, 2014, 12:25:06 PM
I liked the way the story's historical ironies were laid out over time; that is, not frontloaded all at once. And the deeper meaning of the place of young in society was not lost on me.

I really like the reading by Ms. Morris as well.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: skeletondragon on June 17, 2014, 04:24:53 PM
As a former high school valedictorian, this story intrigued me, but ultimately disappointed me. One thing I really liked about it is the way the culling was sort of an allegory for social pressures of an ordinary high school today - "Don't be dumb, but don't be too smart either." And I guess the theme was centered around conformity, and why people choose to be the nail that sticks out...except that the alternative offered by the people beyond the firewall doesn't seem to really be an alternative to the conformist society within. It's just a society that conforms to a different ideal.

In general, I resist narratives that paint children who succeed academically as special snowflakes who are misunderstood by their communities. I didn't like the way Zinhle seemed to come around to the "beyond the firewall" point-of-view towards the end, and just agreed "yes, you're right, nobody wants me and nobody would fight to protect me" when it seems that when she takes the time to talk to them, her parents, teachers, and friends do in fact care for her. I think the story would have been better if Zinhle had chosen a third option - if, rather than being culled or flunking out, she attempted to start or encourage the sort of resistance Lemuel seemed to think she was capable of.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: PotatoKnight on June 17, 2014, 04:55:28 PM
I've become a fan of Jemisin's work of late, just having finished the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy and being pretty psyched for the third as soon as I get through a few more layers of the to-read pile. I like this one too. One thing I like about this is kind of meta-fictional. The story comes explicitly from a anthology themed around dystopia and the story looks and quacks a lot like the prominent stories of that genre of late. We've got the implacable impersonal technological force picking teenagers for a predetermined fate. But past the surface I think we have, to paraphrase one Merlin (http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0082348/): a utopia to some...a dystopia to others. We are dropped into what looks like the last remnant of a pure humanity--the remnants of a Lost Cause, noble but doomed. And that view is true to many that live inside the firewall. But from another perspective we are looking at a sad reserve of small-minded bigots who just weren't ready for a better world, who cling to barbaric traditions like "high school," and whose new bigotries both stem from and reaffirm old prejudices.

What makes this not a simple reverse of the Outer Limits/Twilight Zone twist ending is that the narrator and we in the audience are given empathy for both sides, while not belonging comfortably to either. It's a reminder when we talk about "dystopia" or for that matter about more optimistic futures that life today is dystopic to many, and so was life fifty years ago and a hundred years before and five hundred before that. And that every major societal shift feels like apocalypse to some and the rise to paradise for others.

A good piece with a lot to think about.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: skeletondragon on June 21, 2014, 06:33:27 PM
You know, PotatoKnight's words have made me reconsider this story. I didn't notice it came from a dystopian anthology and I think I would have liked it better if I'd read it there. As a take on a VERY popular genre, it's probably about as original as you can get. I think the most interesting thing is the way the two societies seem to draw their evil from each other. The firewall-people have legitimate reasons to fear those beyond, but by defining themselves in opposition they are pushed into conservatism and stagnation. The society beyond the firewall is more difficult to parse. They are still bitter for what was done to them by the ancestors of the firewallers. They claim technological and moral superiority, but their treatment of the losers in the war suggests they have not advanced as much as they would like to believe. (I'm not sure that the sides are morally grey to the same degree. I have a little more sympathy for the one that currently has ten percent of its children culled every year).  Each side hates and distrusts the other to the point where reconciliation seems impossible. I feel like the story lacked resolution, and that still bothers me a little, but it might've been intentional. It was thought-provoking, and that is definitely a good quality.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: PotatoKnight on June 24, 2014, 12:40:51 PM
(I'm not sure that the sides are morally grey to the same degree. I have a little more sympathy for the one that currently has ten percent of its children culled every year). 

I agree with this point in general, but want to point out in case people missed it in the story--although "cull" sounds like a euphemism for killing, the reality is more complex.

Quote
She changes the subject. “People who get sent through the Wall.” _Me._ “What happens to them?” _What will happen to me?_ “They join us.” Bopping around the world to visit girlfriends. Swimming in an ocean. It does not sound like a terrible existence. But… “What if they don’t want to?” She uses the word “they” to feel better. He does not smile. “They’re put in a safe place — behind another firewall, if you’d rather think of it that way. That way they can do no harm to themselves — or to us."

From the perspective of the Outside folks, they are offering that ten percent a chance at a better life. If they don't take it (and given the horror with which the firewall people regard all this, I have to imagine many don't), oh well, new Meatsuits!  That's not to say that the Cull isn't both culturally genocidal and exploitative. The Outside man justifies the treatment of the firewall folks by saying they don't "act like people," which is damned chilling.  On the other hand, the people on the inside of the firewalls completely deny the humanity of the Outside folks, so these things are running both ways. The fact that the cull does not equal death is of course key to the conclusion of the story--the main character isn't committing suicide. She's choosing to see what the Outside looks like. She's a futuristic version of the one kid to get out of the small town and go to a big city college, only a bit more extreme.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: DerangedMind on June 25, 2014, 09:14:01 PM
I found this story interesting and thought-provoking.

I found myself wondering about the breeding program that the 'others' were performing on humanity.  On the one hand, they were consistently removing the bottom 10% of the population.  It will cause the bottom percentage of students to work hard, as no one will want to be close to the bottom...That should have the tendency to improve intelligence over the long term. It should certainly provide incentive for all students to perform to a minimum standard.

And while the top performing person is also removed, there would be a strong tendency for most people not to perform to their potential.  As well, top performing females would probably tend to get pregnant to ensure that they were safe, helping to increase the number of children of top performing people.

And, as girls can, in general, avoid being culled by being pregnant, I would imagine that there would be a huge number of pregnant girls in every graduating class.  In all probability, the cull would consist mainly of boys, causing a gender imbalance in the society.

You have to wonder what the goal of the AIs really is.... And whether they have different pockets of humanity in different locations with different breeding programmes happening.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: albionmoonlight on June 26, 2014, 01:14:43 PM
I thought that the metaphor for typical high-school life was a bit heavy-handed here.  When I listened, I was only meh on the story.

But some of the comments here have been pretty thought-provoking.  Once I got away from metaphor thinking, the actual world created here, and the moral questions it raises, are pretty interesting.

I think that I'd like to see a few stories set in this universe from the point of view of a few different characters.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Unblinking on June 27, 2014, 09:22:17 AM
Hmmm.... I had mixed feelings about this story.  As I was listening I quite liked it all the way through, but thinking back on all the details I'm not sure it all holds together.

1.  The people/AI hybrids seem pretty dense when it comes to strategy.  If they were just regular fleshy people I'd maybe give them a pass for just not being that good at what they do (though I'd still be a little skeptical since they have a population of billions and surely SOME of them must be okay at what they do).  I thought while I was listening that they might have a specific strategy in mind for the culling "game" that meshes with the rules that they've laid out, but the conversation at the end convinced me that it was just bad planning for no apparent reason. 
My thoughts when I thought there might be a sound strategy:
--Culling the bottom 10%  encourages people to learn something so that they can at least function and have some basic understanding and everything doesn't just fall into the middle ages.  But that rule alone would encourage many people to strive for their best, and would encourage those smartest people to collude with each other to enhance their own smartness further to protect their friends from the cull.  If you encourage smartness, and encourage collusion between geniuses, you're kind of asking for a revolution.  So:
--Cull the top performer.  Just as an arms race encourages each side to strive and strive and be the best and your power only matters as compared to the others, this has the reverse effect.  The smartest people hold back a little at first, just enough so that their friends might outperform them.  But then when those people start holding back too, then people start holding back more and more at a faster and faster rate until they're doing poorly enough that they have descended into the masses and then just have to worry about not doing the worst.
2.  I don't see how it's beneficial to the people Outside to get only the people who rebel against the rules laid out for them.  That's asking for revolution.
3.  I agree with skeletondragon that it seemed that when she took the time to talk to people instead of just allowing the distance to exist, other people did care for her.  The distance is mostly because they don't feel they understand her.  I get that.  I don't understand her either.  But it really took minimal effort to connect.
4.  I don't understand how one would strive for valedictorian in this setting.  It makes no sense to me.  The pressures against it are so strong.  In the end she got a decent opportunity, but she didn't know that.  I would expect someone so smart to not be so eager to rush headlong into apparent doom.
5.  As someone said, it seems that the outside is not all that different from the inside regarding conformity.

So, I don't know.  I'll give it some more thought.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: skeletondragon on June 27, 2014, 10:54:26 AM
4.  I don't understand how one would strive for valedictorian in this setting.  It makes no sense to me.  The pressures against it are so strong.  In the end she got a decent opportunity, but she didn't know that.  I would expect someone so smart to not be so eager to rush headlong into apparent doom.


I actually thought the story set that up relatively well. Zinhle is a rebellious individualist, and her personal philosophy is based on being true to herself. She is valedictorian because she can be and she chooses to be, perhaps with a deeper root cause of boredom, dissatisfaction, and/or curiosity . The problem is that while this motivation explains why she would be valedictorian when she didn't know what was coming, it doesn't explain why she would then immediately capitulate to the post-humans. Once she starts talking to the AI/person the story goes downhill and I lose track of her motivation.
Title: Re: Re: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: bounceswoosh on June 27, 2014, 04:51:28 PM
In general, I resist narratives that paint children who succeed academically as special snowflakes who are misunderstood by their communities.

I identified with the way she reacted to her peers. Minus the frequent beatings - those fortunately were not part of my experience
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Unblinking on June 30, 2014, 07:13:37 AM
I actually thought the story set that up relatively well. Zinhle is a rebellious individualist, and her personal philosophy is based on being true to herself. She is valedictorian because she can be and she chooses to be, perhaps with a deeper root cause of boredom, dissatisfaction, and/or curiosity . The problem is that while this motivation explains why she would be valedictorian when she didn't know what was coming, it doesn't explain why she would then immediately capitulate to the post-humans. Once she starts talking to the AI/person the story goes downhill and I lose track of her motivation.

I guess.  I just found it hard to believe that someone who is clearly so intelligent and goes out of her way to prove her intelligence, chooses the path most likely to doom her.  I would've thought she'd find a different way to prove herself that isn't apparently certain to screw her over.  She's smart, but in a way that makes her go sprinting off a cliff--I don't understand that contradiction.
Title: Re: Re: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: bounceswoosh on June 30, 2014, 07:25:14 AM
I guess.  I just found it hard to believe that someone who is clearly so intelligent and goes out of her way to prove her intelligence, chooses the path most likely to doom her.  I would've thought she'd find a different way to prove herself that isn't apparently certain to screw her over.  She's smart, but in a way that makes her go sprinting off a cliff--I don't understand that contradiction.

Plenty of smart people make poor choices. And she is a teenager. Intelligence doesn't protect a person from everything. In any case, I'm not sure it was a cliff. Her options were : live in a world populated with people she can't stand, or explore door number two.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Devoted135 on June 30, 2014, 06:58:14 PM
I like that this was an atypical take on the dystopian sci-fi genre. For me, the commentary on prejudice and how groups of people can become so entrenched and isolated from others was the most interesting aspect of the story. As a result, I do feel like it could have gotten there much more quickly and then explored her choices further. I can understand how she was almost immediately intrigued by the outsider's proposition since she felt (perhaps wrongly) that she had no friends/peers inside the wall. It would be very interesting to follow her through her transition to the outside and see how her opinions change as she learns and sees more of the world.
Title: Re: Re: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Unblinking on July 01, 2014, 08:23:39 AM
Plenty of smart people make poor choices. And she is a teenager. Intelligence doesn't protect a person from everything. In any case, I'm not sure it was a cliff. Her options were : live in a world populated with people she can't stand, or explore door number two.

I guess.  It wasn't that she just made a poor choice, it was that she dedicated her life to the pursuit of a choice that by all evidence appeared to be a poor one.  I didn't get the sense that she or anyone thought that was really a door number two or that the valedictorian wasn't going to be exploited for some terrible purpose--that turned out to not be the case but no one, including her, seemed to question that considering the outsiders' track record.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: albionmoonlight on July 01, 2014, 09:21:29 AM
I think that the valedictorian test was the outsiders way of trying to find people willing to buck conventions and take chances or who were otherwise different enough from the folks inside of the wall that they were worth bringing out.  That the people they chose happened to also be smart enough to be valedictorian was probably just a bonus.

They did the early intervention in this case because they noticed that a lot of valedictorians were bailing at the last minute.  That demonstrates that it really was a test of will more than a test of intelligence.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Scattercat on July 03, 2014, 03:24:06 AM
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Richard Babley on July 03, 2014, 07:53:24 AM
I had mixed feelings about this story.  It held my attention and gave me plenty to think about, and a story that makes you think or polarizes a crowd is a sign of an author taking risks.  To quote Wayne's world:

"I mean, Led Zeppelin didn't write songs that everyone liked.  They left that to the Bee Gees."

I could not get over the fact that the Valedictorian was the only non-conformist-special-snow-flake and it annoyed me.
Much like Scattercat, my own high school experience played a role in this.  We had several valedictorians, and I was not among them.  Due to an unweighted grading system and my own laziness, I didn't get the best grades, but I took and passed more AP courses than anyone I knew and entered my freshman year in college as a sophmore.  Link that with rarely studying, doing most of my homework 30 minutes before class (if I hadn't lost the assignment), and almost failing calculus because I solved the problems completely different than anyone else and the teacher didn't understand my work and thought I was cheating.  I was also a non-conformist in that I was a record holder in two different sports, and hung out with athletes, nerd, and popular kids alike, refusing to belong to any group, which in the end brings resentment from the more hateful parts of all cliques.

So my major problems were the over simplfication and association of intelligence with grades, the over simplifcation of just about everyone else in society, and the treament of Zinhle as a one-of-a-kind.

My feelings may also be a reflection of my current attitude towards stories were the main character is portrayed as better/smarter/more artistic/whateverer/more athletic/deadlier... than anyone else on the planet. 
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Unblinking on July 03, 2014, 08:44:13 AM
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

I get your point of view, but your situation wasn't her situation.  You could find out what life is like after high school, what life is like outside of your town.  I'm not saying that pushing for your greatest potential in that kind of situation is easy, but there's a clear incentive for it--if you can push through the worst years of your life with good grades that might be enough to help you push through college, try to get your dream job whatever that is.  I know that was a huge reason why I kept pushing in high school despite there being more convenient social reasons not to push--I wasn't rich enough or well groomed enough to be with the popular clique and in our school the only other clique were the people who were content spending the rest of their lives in that flyspeck of a town.  I could've fit in more easily with the latter group if I hadn't tried to hard, but instead I ended up in neither group.  Because I could see beyond that boundary and see that what I did then had an effect on what I could do after.  Even in retrospect, I don't see anything smarter that I could've done than what I did--those were the worst years of my life, and now they're behind me forever and that never makes me sad.

Her situation is very different despite some obvious similarities.  From their point of view, and given their past history with the outsiders, the valedictorian presumably ends up dead, tortured, exploited in some way.  She can't talk to any previous valedictorian because they're gone.  She can't see the outside world because of the wall. 
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: albionmoonlight on July 03, 2014, 09:33:27 AM
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

I get your point of view, but your situation wasn't her situation.  You could find out what life is like after high school, what life is like outside of your town.  I'm not saying that pushing for your greatest potential in that kind of situation is easy, but there's a clear incentive for it--if you can push through the worst years of your life with good grades that might be enough to help you push through college, try to get your dream job whatever that is.  I know that was a huge reason why I kept pushing in high school despite there being more convenient social reasons not to push--I wasn't rich enough or well groomed enough to be with the popular clique and in our school the only other clique were the people who were content spending the rest of their lives in that flyspeck of a town.  I could've fit in more easily with the latter group if I hadn't tried to hard, but instead I ended up in neither group.  Because I could see beyond that boundary and see that what I did then had an effect on what I could do after.  Even in retrospect, I don't see anything smarter that I could've done than what I did--those were the worst years of my life, and now they're behind me forever and that never makes me sad.

Her situation is very different despite some obvious similarities.  From their point of view, and given their past history with the outsiders, the valedictorian presumably ends up dead, tortured, exploited in some way.  She can't talk to any previous valedictorian because they're gone.  She can't see the outside world because of the wall. 

Your response makes me think that the story was possibly trying for the metaphor.  Trying to show that when you are in the middle of the high school peer-pressure cooker it can seem impossible to see outside of that little world.  I imagine in a small town it can feel that way to a lot of kids--especially when a lot of the adults around seem to have not left the high school mentality.

I went to high school in a moderately-sized city, so it was always possible to see the world outside of the walls of the school and the town.  Maybe not as easy in flyspeckville.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Richard Babley on July 03, 2014, 10:16:05 AM
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

I get your point of view, but your situation wasn't her situation.  You could find out what life is like after high school, what life is like outside of your town.  I'm not saying that pushing for your greatest potential in that kind of situation is easy, but there's a clear incentive for it--if you can push through the worst years of your life with good grades that might be enough to help you push through college, try to get your dream job whatever that is.  I know that was a huge reason why I kept pushing in high school despite there being more convenient social reasons not to push--I wasn't rich enough or well groomed enough to be with the popular clique and in our school the only other clique were the people who were content spending the rest of their lives in that flyspeck of a town.  I could've fit in more easily with the latter group if I hadn't tried to hard, but instead I ended up in neither group.  Because I could see beyond that boundary and see that what I did then had an effect on what I could do after.  Even in retrospect, I don't see anything smarter that I could've done than what I did--those were the worst years of my life, and now they're behind me forever and that never makes me sad.

Her situation is very different despite some obvious similarities.  From their point of view, and given their past history with the outsiders, the valedictorian presumably ends up dead, tortured, exploited in some way.  She can't talk to any previous valedictorian because they're gone.  She can't see the outside world because of the wall. 

Your response makes me think that the story was possibly trying for the metaphor.  Trying to show that when you are in the middle of the high school peer-pressure cooker it can seem impossible to see outside of that little world.  I imagine in a small town it can feel that way to a lot of kids--especially when a lot of the adults around seem to have not left the high school mentality.

I went to high school in a moderately-sized city, so it was always possible to see the world outside of the walls of the school and the town.  Maybe not as easy in flyspeckville.

So what your saying the metaphor is:  The valedictorian it is a big fish in a pond, but is going to an ocean full of sharks... 

I like that perspective.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Varda on July 03, 2014, 11:00:20 AM
I really loved this story. My perspective was very similar to Albionmoonlight's--that this story is a metaphor for life in a small town. Additionally, I'd say it's a metaphor for poverty, and the difficulty of escaping the poverty cycle when everyone else in your immediate social circle treats the Outside World with suspicion and hostility, and when you're given every incentive not to reach beyond what your parents achieved.

This was especially apparent in how Zinhle's parents encourage her to get pregnant to escape the possibility of leaving town, or how at school there's pressure to flub your grades. While pretty much no one *tells* teens that it's a good idea to get pregnant or fail in school, it's interesting to me how sometimes there are unspoken social incentives to do so anyway. I was recently talking with a teen in my extended family about her post-high school plans, which she'd thought out really well. The whole time, her mother kept interjecting badly reasoned comments about why the teen's plans were no good, which I kept rebutting. Finally it came out that Mom just wasn't happy that her daughter's plans involved a career that would take her far from home.

I think this is pretty typical of the small-town mentality--there's a sense that leaving is the worst thing you can do, both because the outside world is Evil and Dangerous, and because if you leave, somehow it means you're rejecting the people you grew up with, that you're somehow "too good" for them. So achievement paradoxically becomes a wedge, even if on the surface your family says they want you to achieve. Far better to get pregnant or drop out and follow the same path in life as everyone else around you. In Jemisin's story, this idea is literalized by putting actual scary creatures outside the walls with nebulous motivations. No one is really sure what the AIs *do* with the children taken away, so their interpretation ends up being a reflection of their beliefs. And of course, that ties into the ending nicely, where the AI dude points out to Zinhle that her people are unwilling to fight for her anyway. When the day comes they value their overachievers that much, they'll be ready to rejoin the rest of the planet. Until that day, it's probable Zinhle's people are secretly relieved that the AIs are taking her off their hands, because her very existence is, in their eyes, a condemnation on their own way of life.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Scattercat on July 03, 2014, 01:41:19 PM
Yeah, when you're a teenager, you don't actually *know* that real life is going to be any better.  I sure didn't.  People kept talking about stuff after high school, but they might as well have been talking about life on Barsoom for all I knew or could bring myself to believe.  All I could see was the endless grind of isolation and ostracization continuing indefinitely into the future.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Unblinking on July 03, 2014, 01:47:30 PM
Yeah, when you're a teenager, you don't actually *know* that real life is going to be any better. 

Not universally. Knowing that high school would end was probably what actually kept me going from day to day.

But I see your point.  I can see that metaphor in the story, but it's not one that makes a lot of sense to me personally, I guess.  I like the story better without the metaphor.  *shrug*
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Varda on July 03, 2014, 01:49:30 PM
Yeah, when you're a teenager, you don't actually *know* that real life is going to be any better.  I sure didn't.  People kept talking about stuff after high school, but they might as well have been talking about life on Barsoom for all I knew or could bring myself to believe.  All I could see was the endless grind of isolation and ostracization continuing indefinitely into the future.

Seconded. I had no IDEA adult life would be a bajillion times better. Funny thing: for me, I think it was a good thing I didn't realize how much better the future was going to be. Without having anything else to compare it to, I never fully understood just HOW much middle/high school sucked for me, and was able to just sort of accept it as how things were. Sort of like when you go camping, and everyone develops camping-stink from not showering for days, but you don't really notice it's that bad because EVERYONE stinks and it's just how it is.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Windup on July 05, 2014, 03:19:53 PM
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

Wow.  Sounds like we had almost the same adolescence, offset by what I presume to be about 20 years or so. 

Yeah, this one rang true for me in terms of the high school world.

However, I heard it mostly as a metaphor for the politics of populist conservatism. The world is out there changing in scary, hard-to-understand ways, beginning with the marginalized and the elites, and working toward the middle. One response is to try to hold back the tide, remain real 'muricans and try to contain it by demonizing The Other.  However, when the changes take (and invariably, some combination of those changes do succeed) you can go the Lost Cause/Dead Ender route, or you can be swept into the New World Order.  Which is not to say that the New World Order is always an unalloyed good, or that joining it will not result in some serious losses and compromises.  Thus the AI's callous attitude toward the "culls" and lack of interest in the society they had defeated and marginalized.

Good stuff.

Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Fenrix on July 28, 2014, 04:07:34 PM
Maybe I missed something but I got the distinct impression that the bottom 10% were sent to the Soylent factory (or brainwiped for meat puppets - but effectively eliminated from existence) and the Valedictorian is brought through the firewall to evolve into posthumanism. They get uploaded into the collective and this is the manner in which the post-human species can continue to evolve and grow. The Valedictorian test is to see if they are ready to evolve past the conforming mass. I suspect there's another story out there for a school where there are two vying for that top spot, and that they would both ultimately be recruited.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: eytanz on July 28, 2014, 05:05:55 PM
They get uploaded into the collective and this is the manner in which the post-human species can continue to evolve and grow.

I don't think the outside collective actually need the valedictorians - the guy she spoke to mentioned that his human part was born outside the firewall, so I think the outside people are quite capable of evolving and growing on their own, they're supporting the valedictorian tradition because they want to test the inside people.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: hardware on September 16, 2014, 08:49:26 AM
This all felt pretty contrived as far as premises go, in that it was only there to make an allegorical point rather than something that feels in the slightest possible. This in combination with rather flat characters hampered my enjoyment. The discussion in this thread is more interesting though, so I'll give it credit for inspiring that.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: davidthygod on September 26, 2014, 12:53:31 PM
I massively related to the protagonist.  Its tough being better than everyone else.  j/k

Good story, touches on a lot of themes and it stayed with me for longer than most stories.  I appreciated reading through the discussion here too.
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: CryptoMe on March 23, 2015, 12:30:42 AM
Okay, High School was no picnic for me. As Unblinking said, those were the worst years of my life. But, that doesn't mean I understand the MC's motivation one bit. I also like to do things my way and can stubbornly go against the grain (to this day still). But, if some dude told me that my current course of action would put me in a position to inhabit the bodies of the dumber 10% of my cohort, well, that is would just be too creepy for me!
Title: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
Post by: Aliquid Novi on July 17, 2016, 02:05:37 PM
A very late comment on this story, which I've recently listened to again after finally having read the text version.

I liked this one a lot. I found I could empathise with Zinhle, having, like Scattercat, had similar pressures in high school. Also, being deeply involved in computers and programming professionally, I would probably have been beyond the Firewall first chance I got.

The story was read really well too, except for one issue that annoyed me for some reason. Given that Zinhle twice in the story comments on the pronunciation of her name, it irked me that the narrator pronounced it incorrectly every single time. Zinhle Nkosi is an African name, almost certainly from the Southern African Nguni languages, e.g., Zulu. In those languages, which I have some familarity with, it should be pronounced, using IPA symbols, [ˈziːnɬe] [ŋˈkoːsi] and not, as I heard throughout the story, [ˈzɪnlei] [nəˈkosi].
Title: Re: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
Post by: Jebkr on April 27, 2019, 11:24:31 AM
Can someone explain the plot like I’m 5? I listened to it and read comments and still don’t understand what will happen to Zinhle if she is the valedictorian. Does that mean she will turn into a human/ai hybrid?
Title: Re: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
Post by: skeletondragon on May 02, 2019, 12:19:41 AM
Can someone explain the plot like I’m 5? I listened to it and read comments and still don’t understand what will happen to Zinhle if she is the valedictorian. Does that mean she will turn into a human/ai hybrid?

Don't worry, it's meant to be confusing and ambiguous! Something like a transhuman though, something like a human/ai hybrid, something like a symbiotic organism, or a networked mind? Lemuel explains through metaphor and Zinhle maybe can't fully understand because nothing in her education has prepared her - quite the opposite, in fact - and perhaps because human brains are incapable of fully comprehending. But at the end, she takes the risk of continuing on the path she's on. What does that say about her or her society? What does it say about ours? That's left up to us.
Title: Re: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
Post by: skeletondragon on May 02, 2019, 12:20:10 AM
I will say...4 years on, I like this story a lot more than I did the first time. I think I'm finally smart enough to appreciate how brilliant Jemison is  :)

My realization this time around is that this story works as a metaphor for the way schools in America treat minorities and working-class students. Do too badly and you're "culled" - barriers put up to your participation in society, due to a teen pregnancy, lack of diploma, or incarceration. Succeed too much, and you're tantalized with the promise of a different life if you assimilate into the ways of the ruling class and leave your community behind. *You* are special, so put your energy into individual success. Work long enough and hard enough, erase enough of your identity, serve on enough diversity panels, and maybe you can create some tiny changes in our system eventually and enrich us, make the system stronger and more resistant to any efforts by future smart kids to making systemic change.