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Author Topic: PC 117: The Wages of Salt  (Read 6485 times)
DKT
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« on: August 10, 2010, 10:15:36 AM »

PodCastle 117: The Wages of Salt

by Deborah Kalin
Read by Rashida Smith

Originally Published in Postscripts

Squatting to examine a buried shadow, I nodded. There was no academic or scientific value in salt — it would not advance my thesis, nor bring any glimmer of knowledge about the theriomorphs — but it would sell. White gold, the economic cornerstone of New Persia.

I brushed at the crust. Dirty grains clung to the sweat of my palms. The shadow underneath, too clean-edged to be a phantasm, didn’t change. “Here,” I said. “Help me.”

“It’ll just be another ammonite.” But he knelt and set to scraping beside me.

My fingers touched cloth.

I jerked back, staring at the dark linen we’d uncovered. Suspicion lifted the hairs on my nape and I dug faster, harder, in danger of damaging the specimen with haste.

An arm emerged from the salt. Beside me, Hareem had uncovered a knee. Working feverishly now, we followed the contours, salt flying from our fingers, until the entire body lay bare to the sky.

Hareem let out a low whistle. “Now this,” he said, “will fetch a fiefdom.”


Rated R: Contains Violence and Gore
« Last Edit: August 31, 2010, 09:09:16 AM by Heradel » Logged

ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #1 on: August 11, 2010, 10:46:11 AM »

Still King Under the Mountain!

Anyway, I actually didn't like this story that much, mostly because the conclusion sucked a lot of the drama out of it. I felt that the main character's sudden burst of empathy for the Theriomorphs was weirdly misplaced. This is a race of beings who like to kill humans and regularly steal children away from their families and turns them into monsters to continue the cycle of killing and kidnapping. The main character is clearly (in the first part of the story, anyway) a tough and experienced academic who is used to dealing with the Theriomorphs and their murderous ways. I think it would be possible for the character's turnaround to be better foreshadowed, but I just didn't think the story pulled it off.

What the story did do an excellent job with, however, was New Persia and the tensions between the academics and the people they hired to do their digging and carrying for them. The cultural and economic clash was very interesting, and I enjoyed the tense standoff scene.

Though, in the world of nit-picks, that would have been a good time to foreshadow the fact that the main character carries a big, heavy-bladed knife. I'm not saying she would have pulled it, but she could have rested her hand on the pommel, or thought about pulling it, or thought about how pulling it would be a bad idea. After her response to that stand-off, I found her habitually carrying a knife to be a little jarring.

At the risk of getting political... I think this is the first sci-fi/fantasy story I've ever experienced to suffer from its post-colonial influences.

By post-colonial influences, I mean that the story involves cultural and economic power differentials in the context of clashing cultures. You've seen that a lot in science fiction and fantasy of the last thirty years, but I'm too sleepy (see above re: wedding) to think of any right now.

Anyway, I feel like the Theriomorphs in this story were presented as monsters. Monsters! I had zero sympathy for them, which is what ruined the ending for me. Frankly, I didn't have much sympathy for the diggers, either; if they wanted more money than they were getting, they shouldn't have signed the contract they did. The Wages of Salt relied on its post-colonial context to create my sympathy for the poor (the diggers) and the displaced and less technologically capable (the Theriomorphs) without doing enough work itself to create that sympthathy.

Oh, and a final nit-pick: I really hate the use of the word "morph" in fantasy stories. For me, at least, using the word "morph" (as opposed to the original word "metamorphose") still hearkens back to the 80s and computer animation. I can buy "morph" in modern fantasy or science fiction which exists in our context or in the context of our future, but not in fantasy.

And (really) finally, thanks for the congratulations! My fiancée (she asks me to add: a cute gamer girl who reads fantasy and has been known to listen to the podcast, though she doesn't comment on the forums) was really tickled, and it's safe to say that it made both our days. And man, can our days ever use making right now.

And if it makes you feel any better about your distracting podcast, Dave, I was listening to it while I drove to have lunch with some relatives of mine who have arrived for the wedding. So there.
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« Reply #2 on: August 11, 2010, 03:39:36 PM »

I had a hard time with this one.  It wasn't clear to me what the "archeologists" were digging up, or why it was valuable.  Basically at first I assumed a typical dig unearthing a long dead city of a long dead civilization.  But there was surviving cloth, and the body was stated to be recently dead.  So if the stuff isn't old, why does it have value to the academics?  Because they need to study the "theriomorphs"?  Are they a new phenomenon?  What were the researchers hoping to learn?  While I was trying to figure out those questions, the story bits about worker unrest were zooming past, and I really had no reason to care.

Also, the sound quality was... uneven.  It seemed stitched together in different bits, with very different sound qualities.  It was distracting and made following the narrative harder.
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« Reply #3 on: August 12, 2010, 07:18:55 AM »

Also, the sound quality was... uneven.  It seemed stitched together in different bits, with very different sound qualities.  It was distracting and made following the narrative harder.

That. Very distracting.

I just couldn't get into this story. It's like... I posted a story in the crit group that I eventually called "Bring on the Rain", where people have put wheels on boats and drive them in flotillas, searching for water. The first time I wrote it, I'd been so careful to write it from the POV of the characters that I didn't make it accessible to the readers, and the group pointed that out. So I rewrote it. Well, that's how I felt about this story -- I just couldn't get into the world, I didn't really care about the characters, and in the end the only scene that held any true tension for me was when Alicia faced off against Michel in the barracks. The fight against the theriomorphs? Didn't grab me for some reason.

Maybe I was expecting something different. Like many other genre readers probably do, I know that the word 'salary' is based in the importance of salt back in Ye Olden Times, so I guess I was expecting a story that focused on that, not one where stuff was buried in salt flats.
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« Reply #4 on: August 13, 2010, 05:18:11 PM »

I did think it was pretty funny that the host remarked on the lack of fantasy fiction about grad school, the week after PC had run a story about a grad student.
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« Reply #5 on: August 14, 2010, 08:48:47 AM »

First, many happy congratulations to Electric Paladin and his bride!!!!  <3  May you have many wonderful blissful years together!

Now, the story...I'm with the others above that didn't really care for it much.  And, all for the same reasons so I'm not going to comment any further. Except to say that this left me craving an epic fantasy story along the lines of an Indiana Jones plot.
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« Reply #6 on: August 14, 2010, 03:55:45 PM »

I did think it was pretty funny that the host remarked on the lack of fantasy fiction about grad school, the week after PC had run a story about a grad student.

Hahahaha. True, but as evidenced by this week's flash fiction, there was some thought put into the scheduling  Wink

And (really) finally, thanks for the congratulations! My fiancée (she asks me to add: a cute gamer girl who reads fantasy and has been known to listen to the podcast, though she doesn't comment on the forums) was really tickled, and it's safe to say that it made both our days. And man, can our days ever use making right now.

And if it makes you feel any better about your distracting podcast, Dave, I was listening to it while I drove to have lunch with some relatives of mine who have arrived for the wedding. So there.

Whew. I can sleep easy again  Wink

Seriously, congrats to both of you, sir!
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« Reply #7 on: August 14, 2010, 06:53:21 PM »

ElectricPaladin covered me on this one, both on a macro and micro level.  Put a +1 by all of his points and call it a day.

I'd also like to add my confusion about why, if the digging up and selling of these bodies is a common thing, everyone - including the person ostensibly STUDYING the theriomorphs - was surprised about the nature and purpose of the salt fields.  That just seems like something that would get really, really obvious really, really fast.  Like, if this were clearly a new phenomenon, a la that planet with the plant/animal life cycles in the Ender's Game series (I forget the name of it), then I could see the shock and startlement of discovering that a burial ground was actually a nest.  But the way it's presented, it feels like this is a well-established field of endeavor with set opinions and a fair amount of dogma and competing schools of thought, like any academic subject.  It felt like writing a story set in a university chemistry lab in which someone abruptly discovered that raw petroleum tastes like chocolate and provides a full day's nutrients. 
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« Reply #8 on: August 14, 2010, 10:37:23 PM »

It's a bit against my usual practice, but I feel compelled to say something in the face of the negativity this piece has recieved.. I did enjoy it.

As to exactly why, well, there's the problem, I'm not sure. I think what I enjoy is the conflict between this strongly ethical person and her obvious desire to do well financially. The story, I think, questions that line, asks, at what point do we set aside ethics in favor of profit. Or do we truly?


Is there ever, really, such a line?


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Wilson Fowlie
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« Reply #9 on: August 15, 2010, 12:28:15 AM »

a la that planet with the plant/animal life cycles in the Ender's Game series (I forget the name of it)

Lusitania, in case it's bugging you.
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« Reply #10 on: August 16, 2010, 08:40:29 AM »

Congrats ElectricPaladin!  If it was anything like my own wedding, it was a great time but is also a relief to have it behind you so you can reclaim your spare hours again.  Hopefully your wedding wasn't as cramped into scheduling as ours was.  Within the span of 4 weeks, we both graduated to get our Bachelor's degrees, got married, drove out to Seattle for me to be a groomsman in a friend's wedding, moved 9 hours drive away to Minneapolis, and then started my first post-graduation job. 

Anyway, on to the story, I think ElectricPaladin and Scattercat covered everything I really wanted to say.  Especially scattercat's point about their surprise being quite surprising considering this seems to be such a common practice to dig in the salt.  I didn't really care about the diggers and I didn't really care about the Theriomorphs.

For me there was too much left unsaid.  Why was the dead body (when they thought it was dead) worth the money?  They explicitly said that it was freshly dead so it's not useful for archaeological reasons, and they didn't know it was a Theriomorph yet, so at that point it's nothing special.

Was I the only one who didn't realize that Theriomorphs were shapeshifters until after the Big Reveal?  Sure, the "morph" in the name hinted at it, but I thought it might be something more like the word "xenomorph" used in the Alien movies--an individual can't actually shift shapes at will, but each can take a somewhat different form depending on its host.  Since I hadn't realized that, I hadn't realized that there was a possibility that the human was really a Theriomorph.  So without that knowledge, my response was akin to my response if the reveal had said "ZOMG, the human's really a jackelope."  What was supposed to be a surprising reveal was so surprising as to come out of left field entirely, even though the protagonist apparently knew they were shifters.  It's very possible I missed some important clues about this, in which case that was my fault for not catching them.

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« Reply #11 on: August 18, 2010, 01:08:01 PM »

Actually I'm pretty certain they were not actually shapeshifters, they just had a variety of shapes. What it seemed to me to be was that the Theriomorphs were stealing children, doing 'something' to them, then burying them in salt. When they 'hatched' they would come out as Theriomorphs, thus propagating the 'species'. Thus I think that's why the recently dead ones would be worth money. Why a seemingly regular dead human child would be worth anything isn't clear, though, aside from the fact he was found in the Theriomorphs 'burial grounds'.

The sound quality thing didn't bother me so bad, but it was rather obvious, and sometimes would throw off the speech cadence. I'm not very sensitive to that, but I know some people are.

In all, I think this would make for a good rough draft of a story. Some exposition would go a long way into helping the reader figure things out. Maybe a flashback thing when she was getting her assignment?

Oh, another odd thing was the motivations behind the attack of the digging camp. Were they looking to eat people? Was it vengeance from digging up a young Theriomorph? Was it to just stop them from digging up more? Are the Theriomorphs just supposed to be wild creatures? Did the researchers know the Theriomorphs could talk? It seemed she didn't. I would have thought the revelation that they were sentient and capable of talking would have been a big deal. Why didn't the Theriomorphs kill her when she came back? If they attacked out of hunger, they'd likely still be hungry. If it was vengeance, well, if I were the 'parent' and she came back with my dying kid I'd still have murder on the brain.

I like the setting and even the characters, but there's clearly work to be done. The good news is I think with a few changes this story could be elevated to new heights.
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« Reply #12 on: August 18, 2010, 10:41:07 PM »

I think what I enjoy is the conflict between this strongly ethical person and her obvious desire to do well financially. The story, I think, questions that line, asks, at what point do we set aside ethics in favor of profit. Or do we truly?

For what it's worth, I enjoyed that, too.  The problem is that the confusing bits in the rest of the story left me unable to really get in tune with the ethical dilemma.  If I can't figure out the basic hows and whys of the characters' actions, I can't engage with the more esoteric thematic content terribly well.  This felt like it was trying to evoke the Egyptology craze back in the day, when 'scientists' dug up and desecrated every ancient tomb they could get their hands on and lost most of their results to theft and outright piracy.  I could have really gotten behind such a story if it hadn't kept throwing me curveballs with the world it was building.
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« Reply #13 on: August 19, 2010, 01:46:02 AM »

I liked this one. I found the world well-drawn and the characters strong and believeable.
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« Reply #14 on: August 19, 2010, 08:34:38 AM »

Actually I'm pretty certain they were not actually shapeshifters, they just had a variety of shapes. What it seemed to me to be was that the Theriomorphs were stealing children, doing 'something' to them, then burying them in salt. When they 'hatched' they would come out as Theriomorphs, thus propagating the 'species'. Thus I think that's why the recently dead ones would be worth money. Why a seemingly regular dead human child would be worth anything isn't clear, though, aside from the fact he was found in the Theriomorphs 'burial grounds'.

That's what I thought at the beginning, but then later in the story they started saying that because they broke the theriomorph fetus out of its shell before it was fully developed, it wasn't capable of changing.  That implied to me that a healthy theriomorph IS capable of changing.  And apparently it was known to the protagonist that they were supposed to be able to change, so if that had been conveyed near the beginning it would've made all the difference.
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eytanz
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« Reply #15 on: August 20, 2010, 08:01:09 AM »

So, the theriomorphs are changlings, leaving their kids to be raised up by humans, and then those kids run away and bury themselves in the sand, while their parents think they were kidnapped? Or do they actually kidnap human children to turn them into theriomorphs?

The leader of the diggers, the one with the connections to the collectors, seemed very unsurprised by the discovery that the kid is a theriomorph, so he apparently already knew what the salt planes were for. Why didn't he inform the researcher? Why did she not do proper research and actually talk to the people who worked there?

I also really didn't like that the theriomorphs can suddenly speak towards the end, and seem to be non-hostile to humans that approach them. Why did the university send people to dig in the salt, rather than send people to interview the creatures they are studying?

Overall, a very unsatisfying story for me. It felt like a mishmash of ideas hobbled together, rather than a cohesive world or plot. The shifting morality of the characters also felt like it followed the whims of plot, rather than a realistic description of people's ethical dilemmas.
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« Reply #16 on: August 20, 2010, 08:33:56 AM »

So, the theriomorphs are changlings, leaving their kids to be raised up by humans, and then those kids run away and bury themselves in the sand, while their parents think they were kidnapped? Or do they actually kidnap human children to turn them into theriomorphs?

Is THAT what happened?  I thought they were changelings that happened to look like humans (perhaps as a disguise mechanism) until they are mature, at which point they tend to assert their individuality or perhaps hierarchy by putting on other guises.

But that sort of uncertainty is the main reason why I didn't love the story more--it was never clear what the theriomorphs were supposed to be capable of.
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mbrennan
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« Reply #17 on: August 29, 2010, 11:58:00 PM »

Sadly, I have to ditto the other comments, with the added complication that a) I have a bachelor's degree in archaeology and b) spent part of this weekend geeking archaeology with someone currently working in the field.  So I was all jazzed for an awesome dig story, and I didn't get it; right from the start, I was disappointed by the half-hearted setup of the excavation, and confused as to what its purpose was precisely.  I could have gotten into the ethical dilemma about selling the find if I'd believed more in the archaeology, but by that point I was already distracted, and then we get into the issues other people have raised, about what's up with the theriomorphs and why is it that they're suddenly verbal and non-hostile at the end and so on.

Mind you, this all falls into the camp of "stuff I mostly didn't think about until afterward;" while I was listening, I was mostly enjoying it (other than being a little sad it wasn't more of an actual archaeology story).  It doesn't hold up too well after the fact, though.
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« Reply #18 on: November 04, 2010, 01:43:40 PM »

While i didn't hate this story, i thought the intro was better, but the intro was epic! Good one, Dave!

So i know my absence hasn't caused anything to miss a beat, but it sure it good to be back. =)
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« Reply #19 on: November 04, 2010, 01:48:08 PM »

While i didn't hate this story, i thought the intro was better, but the intro was epic! Good one, Dave!

So i know my absence hasn't caused anything to miss a beat, but it sure it good to be back. =)

Birdless! Woo-hoo! Nice to see you around again, man  Cheesy
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