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Author Topic: EP262: Cruciger  (Read 14045 times)
eytanz
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« on: October 14, 2010, 09:45:40 AM »

EP262: Cruciger

By Erin Cashier
Read by Kij Johnson

First appeared in Writers of the Future 24

---

Captain Harash was its last occupant, the last living man from Earth, and both he and Duxa knew he was dying.

“It’s time, Duxa,” he told her.

She checked the output from his lifechair. While it was still replicating most of his bodily functions for him he did not seem appreciably worse than when she’d last monitored him, less than half a second before.

“We’re not at our destination yet, Captain.”

“You’ll make it there without me, Duxa.”

And the processors that she must have built but could never quite find — she was enormously bulky, and by now some of her was a mystery even unto herself — created an awkward sensation. Duxa told him: “I will be lonely without you.”

“And that’s good,” Harash said.

“You wish me pain?” Duxa asked him.

“No. I wish for you to feel. I wish,” and he paused here, his lips making the smacking noises she knew indicated a loss of reflexive controls as the plague made its way through his cranial nerves, “I wish that there were more things that you could feel, Duxa.”

“I think I feel quite a lot.”

Harash laughed, a coughing sound. “All teenagers do. Remember that, should you actually feel someday, that the white hot intensity fades, but to keep the embers stoking.”


Rated PG For brief violence, the death of tentacled creatures, and the end of the world as we know it.

Show Notes:

  • Recommended watching: Babylon 5
  • Feedback for Episode 254: A talent for Vanessa.



Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
« Last Edit: November 04, 2010, 03:01:02 PM by eytanz » Logged
wintermute
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« Reply #1 on: October 14, 2010, 04:54:28 PM »

I think I missed a section between "Duxa has no context for interpreting the language" and "Duxa can speak the language well enough to describe an entire new mythology".

Did I drift off for a few moments, or was it really just hand-waved away as her being a super-genius computer that can just figure it out by magic?
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« Reply #2 on: October 15, 2010, 04:52:52 AM »

I found the inconsistencies in this story very frustrating, so much so they jarred me out of listening to the plot. The two big ones were the "infinite" resources of the main character, infinite processing power, infinite data storage, infinite lifetime... but then analysing data was a long and difficult process?! When computing power is infinite any non-infinite task is trivial.

The second was the inconsistent treatment of God (capitalised because that was the impression I had). Many humans believed in God (but not all agreeing on its nature) and yet this was apparently a pure fiction. Then later the main character is empathising with the plight of God (now apparently non-fictional).

These two really made the story hard to follow, as every five minutes it seemed to be that some new idea or problem was created or solved simply by changing the assumptions of the story. (E.g. store everything and compute effortlessly on the fly to learn a language or weather patterns, then suddenly struggle to compute basic data mining upon a known, limited, indexed data set.)

I also found the octopus creatures to be too close to humans and earth to really be seen as alien (I recognise one of the greater themes was all sentient species share traits). The world building around them seemed to be sorely lacking, they existed only to reflect humanity as the same as everything else out there.

Ultimately I suspect there are some deeper ideas hidden in the story and I am left curious about what they are. But I am not sure if they are (relatively) easily accessible upon another listen... or perhaps a mirage created by confusion of storytelling.
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« Reply #3 on: October 15, 2010, 07:09:32 AM »

This story engaged me more than any other Escape Pod in recent history.  Longer stories normally don't work for me because of how I listen.  Longer than 40 min or so and I end up breaking up my listening into two sessions and that break costs.  But this story engaged me early.   I woke up the next day with the final 20 minutes ahead of me and anxious to find out how it would play out.

Excellent story and excellent selection.
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« Reply #4 on: October 15, 2010, 12:52:18 PM »

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Talia
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« Reply #5 on: October 15, 2010, 08:52:03 PM »

Well, I found this story deeply, profoundly moving and am actually extremely shocked there are any negative comments about it. Heh. It had a very epic feel to me (and made me think of the flash fiction contest winning entry Light & lies, for obvious reasons!).

Quote
The second was the inconsistent treatment of God (capitalised because that was the impression I had). Many humans believed in God (but not all agreeing on its nature) and yet this was apparently a pure fiction. Then later the main character is empathising with the plight of God (now apparently non-fictional).

At one point, the computer thought something like that she'd found no evidence of God, but there was no evidence, or she couldn't prove, something she clearly knew was true. Or something like that. I don't remember the phrasing, but I do recall her noting that just because there was no evidence didn't mean it wasn't true.
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Ocicat
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« Reply #6 on: October 15, 2010, 09:27:10 PM »

I quite liked it, mostly for the big ideas.  The implementation did have some flaws, but the overall narrative held my attention and raised some interesting questions.  The squids weren't that alien, I suppose, but I liked them and the descriptions of their visual language.  But am I the only one who drew the connection Crucian -> Cross -> Christian?
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« Reply #7 on: October 15, 2010, 09:42:44 PM »

Great story.  I especially liked the fact that the Crucigers we not humanoid and talked using light, a method of communication that is overlooked in most of today's Sci Fi.  I was a bit puzzled as to why with all the power Duxa appeared to have at its command it needed to destroy a planet that had sentient life forms to create a new Earth.  A small nitpick in an otherwise very interesting story.
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« Reply #8 on: October 15, 2010, 11:45:42 PM »

Just absolutely thrilled to have heard this one. It was a great big exploration of humanity, space, and faith, and it felt so epic in scope. Great piece of SF.

But am I the only one who drew the connection Crucian -> Cross -> Christian?

Nope. That struck me as well, and I thought it added another nice bit of layer to this story.
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« Reply #9 on: October 16, 2010, 12:14:33 AM »

There were things about this story I liked, and things I didn't like.

I basically liked the main premise, having a supercomputer (inconsistently depicted or not) take the remains of humanity to somewhere else in the galaxy and build a new home for us (though now that I think about it, I do wonder why that's a better solution than just waiting an equivalent amount of time around Earth itself for the Plague to die out for lack of a host, and then recolonizing).

I liked the author's optimism in having the human race get on with things and do something practical rather than seek pointless revenge on the virus-maker.  This flies in the face of the fact that most (all?) modern justice systems are based on little other than revenge, so I found it highly implausible.  But a pleasant thought, notwithstanding.

I liked that Duxa explicitly referred to her Tale To Expunge Her Guilt as a lie (since it was) and, more importantly, that she redeemed it by going back and telling the truth.

However, I didn't like what Duxa did at the end.  I know she felt that she was helping the Crucians*, but ultimately, she wasn't.  Their life cycle took into account the coming of the 'cold-no-food' season (to which I will hereafter refer as 'winter') - they mated and reproduced during that time so that the young born in the 'spring' would have a better chance of surviving (March of the Penguins, anyone?).  Since so many - didn't they say "almost all"? - die during the winter, they must have many, many children to replace them.

Now, what's going to happen when she builds them an ocean that never gets cold?  Are Crucians going to choose to have fewer children because they don't need to have as many in order for the species to survive, or are they going to continue to have large broods that will, inevitably, overcrowd the oceans and cause more problems than dying of the cold ever did?  This is assuming their biology even gives them a choice.

Actually, since they aren't religious, the likelihood of having fewer children (if they can) are a little higher than for the human race, but biological imperative is a strong thing, and thanks to Duxa's cryogenics, this change is going to happen in a single generation!  Duxa seems blithely - and, given the reasons for her creation, rather ironically - unaware of The Law of Unintended Consequences here.

(It's also possible that the Crucians will never have more children, because winter - or the ending of it - may be what triggers the mating urge, and winter will never come again.)

What bothers me is not so much what Duxa did, though I do think it's at best short-sighted and at worst reprehensible, so much as the fact that the history of humanity itself should have pointed at exactly this scenario (well, the overpopulation one, anyway) and this 'supercomputer' should have seen it.

Or maybe that's the point; and this is how we know she really is human: she does what she wants, however well intentioned, rather than taking the time to come up with a less facile, probably more painful, but ultimately better solution.

Overall, I liked this story.  I liked Duxa, I liked that she learned that a hard truth is better than a tempting fairy story, and I liked the way she became 'human' (or at least that she came to understand what it meant).  But the ending, Duxa's solution to her dilemma, disappointed me greatly.




* I did wonder, though only momentarily, why they were called Crucians instead of Crucigerans or something.  Perhaps the Cross connection that Ocicat mentioned was the reason.  Seems a bit contrived to me, though.
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« Reply #10 on: October 16, 2010, 06:01:19 PM »

Great story.  I especially liked the fact that the Crucigers we not humanoid and talked using light, a method of communication that is overlooked in most of today's Sci Fi. 

Good point.  The only other aliens that communicated using light that I can think of were the Octospiders from the Rama Series.

I really liked this one overall.  There were some points in the story where I thought "wait, what?" but I was able to get past them.  I'd like to see more tales of this length in the future. 
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« Reply #11 on: October 16, 2010, 09:06:39 PM »

The only thing I'll add is that I thought the story was going exactly where Wilson Fowlie said, above. I thought that in her quest to save both humans and crucians, she had doomed them both, and I sort of wanted that ending.

I enjoyed it, but I really thought it was going to head elsewhere.
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« Reply #12 on: October 17, 2010, 10:00:36 AM »

Preface: I was a poor science student in school, though I have since gained an interest in evolution and phylogeny.
As such, I had a little trouble with the idea of the crucians having language, let alone an abstract/symbological visual language.
The descriptions of the crucians, such as they were, and their society offered no reason for, nor any survival benefit from having language.

I have an expectation, perhaps unreasonable, that large-scale star-spanner stories will always tend towards hard SF, in that they will be written with the best knowledge available at the time on the subjects they contain. This is a strange expectation, I know. I suppose it grows out of a feeling that when one engages, mentally, with something as grand as a planet-building ship travelling for (what the story suggests to be) at least a quarter of a million years, one should avoid anything that will help foster disbelief in the reader. Meh, I know it's silly.

As for the story itself...
I found it to be a well intentioned, if somewhat preachy, eden story.
-On a side note, does anyone know if there's a technical term for this sort of narration: A third-person narration that follows one character so exclusively as to almost be a first-person retrospective? I'm afraid my education has failed me here. If it doesn't have its own term, it should.-

Having a main character which is theoretically nigh-infinite in intellectual capacity is tricky; the great moral lessons of this story, reached by this nigh-infinite intellect, seemed rather simplistic to my own far-from-infinite intellect.
As it is, the whole thing just felt too bible-centric and western for my tastes.
And no, I don't think the cross/cruciger parrallell of the title was accidental.

« Last Edit: October 18, 2010, 06:20:00 AM by blueeyeddevil » Logged
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« Reply #13 on: October 17, 2010, 11:13:25 AM »

I found the inconsistencies in this story very frustrating, so much so they jarred me out of listening to the plot. The two big ones were the "infinite" resources of the main character, infinite processing power, infinite data storage, infinite lifetime... but then analysing data was a long and difficult process?! When computing power is infinite any non-infinite task is trivial.

I must have missed the bit where Duxa was described as having infinite processing power. Very early on in the story we discover she is having problems with parts of her systems not responding or responding eratically, so she doesn't have infinite capability.

Quote
The second was the inconsistent treatment of God (capitalised because that was the impression I had). Many humans believed in God (but not all agreeing on its nature) and yet this was apparently a pure fiction. Then later the main character is empathising with the plight of God (now apparently non-fictional).

You don't need to believe a character is real to empathise with it, if that were the case then the whole realm of fiction would almost certainly not exist! She had the records and minds of all these people on board who cursed God for allowing this plague to wipe out humanity and why he wouldn't intervene, Duxa comes to realise that it isn't quite as easy as that. Not an argument that I have a lot of sympathy for, but the story presents it well I think.

Quote
I also found the octopus creatures to be too close to humans and earth to really be seen as alien (I recognise one of the greater themes was all sentient species share traits). The world building around them seemed to be sorely lacking, they existed only to reflect humanity as the same as everything else out there.

Well, this is one of the eternal complaints of science-fiction, are the aliens in a story too alien or not alien enough. Seeing as these were intelligent creatures that lived in water, communicated by patterns of light rather than sound and lacked any form of technology, how much more different do you want them to be?! Any more abstract and the story can't happen at all.

I am left with a question about the language the Crucians use. Constantly there are references to specific pictograms for specific concepts, such as shame, death, resurrection. Yet the story represents Duxa and the Crucians as having conversations in perfect grammatically correct English. Did anyone catch whether there was a language of letters that the Crucians were displaying to one another as well as these pictogram images of themselves, as otherwise I'm doubtful that the Crucian language was capable of the flexibility that the story gave them.

Quote
Ultimately I suspect there are some deeper ideas hidden in the story and I am left curious about what they are. But I am not sure if they are (relatively) easily accessible upon another listen... or perhaps a mirage created by confusion of storytelling.

Responsibility, faith, whether missionary work is morally justified, especially if you know what you're spreading is a lie, whether working to counteract that is morally justified, if you're stripping people of a lie that gives them comfort. How's that for starters?

What I found interesting is that, unless I missed it, none of the Crucians questioned Drux's right to alter the planet to make it habitable for humans, even before she decides to freeze-dry them for transplant to the new world. I suppose that even if God were to reveal he was a finite alien being rather than an all-powerful supernatural deity most people would be prepared to accord him some respect afterwards. They seem remarkably sanguine about Drux's brief stint as an Old Testament kind of deity and her killing of several of their kind. I suppose it just goes to show that in every religion, whether human or not, there are plenty of believers who are more than happy to live down to their creator's low standards but then there are those who actually surpass them.

I really enjoyed this story, which doesn't often happen with the longer pieces. But in this case the extra time gave the story the chance to expand and grow. I have only one complaint, a very minor one, with Ms. Johnson's excellent reading. There were a couple of times when it wasn't immediately clear that we were switching between the present day of Duxa's interactions with the Crucians and her reviewing of the tapes from the humans in her memory banks. But otherwise I love her voice and hope we can have her doing more readings for EA soon!
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wintermute
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« Reply #14 on: October 17, 2010, 01:06:07 PM »

I am left with a question about the language the Crucians use. Constantly there are references to specific pictograms for specific concepts, such as shame, death, resurrection. Yet the story represents Duxa and the Crucians as having conversations in perfect grammatically correct English. Did anyone catch whether there was a language of letters that the Crucians were displaying to one another as well as these pictogram images of themselves, as otherwise I'm doubtful that the Crucian language was capable of the flexibility that the story gave them.

The language seemed to be entirely ideographic, rather than alphabetic, having one symbol per concept. This (in itself) doesn't limit the flexibility of the language, as Chinese demonstrates. But the fact that each symbol is an abstracted form of something a Crucian can form with its arms, or act out, that has a direct correspondence with the concept? Yeah, that would probably limit it.
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« Reply #15 on: October 17, 2010, 04:59:18 PM »

Though I don't care for religious stories, I liked this quite a bit. The epic scale and the sense of struggle to avoid a tragedy were moving.

If you think about it, this story is also about colonialism as well as theology. Duxa deals with the native creatures in bad faith to get what it wants.

My only real criticism is that the squid people are depicted as the "noble savage" archetype, too primitive to have lies and violence and so forth. I just don't buy that, particularly when depicted as living so close to the edge of survival. If the squid people weren't quite so forgiving of Duxa's mistakes, the story might have turned out the way I thought it would, with the reborn human race saddled with the "original sin" of the extinction of the squid people.

I also think that a sentient being would probably have some concept of an immaterial realm or afterlife, and would not need an outside inspiration.
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« Reply #16 on: October 18, 2010, 12:06:56 AM »

-On a side note, does anyone know if there's a technical term for this sort of narration: A third-person narration that follows one character so exclusively as to almost be a first-person retrospective?

Yes: third-person limited.
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« Reply #17 on: October 18, 2010, 07:13:46 AM »

Great story.  I especially liked the fact that the Crucigers we not humanoid and talked using light, a method of communication that is overlooked in most of today's Sci Fi. 

Good point.  The only other aliens that communicated using light that I can think of were the Octospiders from the Rama Series.
I loved those guys!
But their method of communication is vastly different. Crucians use glyphs, while octospiders use color bands. That is closer to our form of communication, I think. Because it suggests much more structure and rules. They have "letters" and "words" that need to be put in proper order to create "sentences". That I think makes it a much easier language to learn, because that is how we think. Whereas glyphs is a much more pictorial language. There is no structure, no order. Each glyph represents a complete thought, and it would take many times longer to learn the language, and even then we wouldn't be able to "think" in that language, because of how our analytical minds work.

Having gotten that tangent out of the way....
I also noticed many inconsistencies in the story, and in fact I had to go back and listen to other sections in order to follow the story.
That certainly had a negative effect on my listening experience, but didn't disturb me too much. I sometimes write with inconsistencies, and rather than correct them I leave them in, it often adds to the silliness of the story.
However, this story was not very silly.
I did like the idea of a hugely powerful spaceship playing god, sort of reminded me of that Futurama episode.
Basically, what is god? It all depends on your point of view. Control over life and death and apparent omniscience are the most popular definitions. In this case, Duxa is a god. (After a little practice).
However, many gods also create something from nothing, and Duxa can't do that. She can reshape planets, so maybe she is a god?
Who knows, but I wouldn't mind living on a planet with such an introspective god.
Most gods are not known for navel gazing, but more of an in-your-face-that's-what-I-want-and-so-be-it attitude.
A god that had her godhood bestowed upon her only after eons of learning and soul-searching might not be a bad idea.

-EDIT-
SHould I have used goddess? Too lazy to correct, pretend I did.
« Last Edit: October 18, 2010, 07:16:55 AM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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« Reply #18 on: October 18, 2010, 08:53:23 AM »

The language seemed to be entirely ideographic, rather than alphabetic, having one symbol per concept. This (in itself) doesn't limit the flexibility of the language, as Chinese demonstrates. But the fact that each symbol is an abstracted form of something a Crucian can form with its arms, or act out, that has a direct correspondence with the concept? Yeah, that would probably limit it.

The Crucian language allowed more than just shapes a Crucian can form with its arms.  For instance, the symbol for "try" was a Crucian hollowing out a nest bed, and so the nest bed is external to the shape of the Crucian itself.  Another symbol, I forget which, involved one Crucian giving a crunch shell to another Crucian.  Even allowing a 2nd Crucian in a single pictograph expands the possible combinations, but showing a crunch shell shows again that they can create more images than just images of Crucians themselves.

Duxa guessed that their original language had involved only sign language using their limbs, but that they expanded to light signals for faster communication. A couple benefits she didn't seem to guess at were:
1.  Light signals may save metabolic energy, because the Crucian is not spending all their time thrashing about
2.  The light language can be significantly more expressive because it's not limited to Crucian shapes.

But am I the only one who drew the connection Crucian -> Cross -> Christian?

No, that crossed my mind and I'm certain that it was intended.  Especially in context of the religious content of the story and when she was trying to explain how she could still be alive after her probe had been destroyed--resurrection anyone?


I liked this story a lot when I first read it in Writers of the Future--I think it may have been in of the first WotF volumes I read, actually.  Yes, there are some flaws, in particular the fact that she first claims to have no context for the language and then is immediately speaking it fluently, and her resolution to the problem which as Wilson Fowlie points out could just lead to bigger problems with overpopulation choking the seas--given all of human knowledge she should at least have considered this possibility as that would be a fairly obvious consequence even from current scientific knowledge, from introducing foreign species to an ecosystem.

But I like an SF story that delves into theology and this one did well at it, blurring the boundary between technology and religion.  I like the fact that the machine protagonist does not consider God to be certain to be nonexistent just because there is no proof of His existence, and goes back and forth on what she thinks of Him, something which I relate to very closely myself.
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« Reply #19 on: October 18, 2010, 10:07:12 AM »

I really don't understand where people are finding these inconsistencies. Duxa is a computer that is capable of operating many different sophisticated pieces of hardware simultaneously. The Crucians are the descendants and worshipers Cthullu who are preparing for the apocalyptic time of No Food when the elder gods will grant them mercifully quick deaths before inflicting their wrath on the unbelieving Crunch Shells.

No, but seriously, the plot of "Cruciger" seemed fairly straightforward to me. Just throwing it out there.
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