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Author Topic: EP276: On a Blade of Grass  (Read 10345 times)
eytanz
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« on: January 20, 2011, 03:31:38 PM »

EP276: On a Blade of Grass

By Tim Pratt
Read by Matt Weller

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“Interstellar war is about as exciting as playing chess by mail.” The guy who said that had been leaning into the bar for so long I thought his chest might fuse with the wood. I drifted over, because he wasn’t a regular, and I was bored with all my regulars and their regular bullshit.

“Who plays chess by mail anymore?” I said. “With the ‘net and all.”

“Nobody. Guys in jail maybe, I don’t know. Because it’s boring. My point. Inefficient and slow. Just like this war.” He tapped his glass meaningfully. He was rumpled and sleep-creased and middle-aged and smelly, but a better class of smelly than my usual crowd — like working-all-night-sweaty smelly, not sitting-around-all-day smelly. Long enough tending bar and you can tell the difference.

I refilled his glass. He was a pretty good drinker, but the little guys often are. “They say by the time our warships get out there, to their homeworld, the Phages might even be extinct. Like, just from natural processes, long timescales, like that. Or they might’ve evolved into something new, something that doesn’t… you know…”

“Want to eat us?”


Rated PG-13 For language, two F bombs, and some parasitic details…

Show Notes:

  • Feedback for Episode 268: Advection
  • Next week… Rejiggering stuff – really, this time.



Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
« Last Edit: February 11, 2011, 05:55:20 PM by eytanz » Logged
Westlake
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« Reply #1 on: January 20, 2011, 05:09:35 PM »

Liked this episode a lot. A quirky story with a humorous edge to it. Production was also good, as ever.
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DKT
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« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2011, 05:32:00 PM »

Also, before anyone asks: No, this was not a planned Tim Pratt EP/PC week.

We are just that awesome anyway.  Cool
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KenK
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« Reply #3 on: January 20, 2011, 07:32:24 PM »

Sounds like the author of this piece is channeling Alex Jones or something.  Grin  I thought it was clever but because it's so plausible it kind takes the fun out of it all.
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Void Munashii
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« Reply #4 on: January 21, 2011, 11:03:17 AM »

  Fun story. I love parasite stories like that (probably an offshoot of my love of zombie fiction), and even though nothing much actually happened in this tale I still felt it was quite fulfilling.

  Lucky thing that no one wanted a refill during the parasitologist story though. That could have been annoying.

Also, before anyone asks: No, this was not a planned Tim Pratt EP/PC week.

We are just that awesome anyway.  Cool

I'll admit, I was wondering.
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acpracht
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« Reply #5 on: January 21, 2011, 11:10:35 AM »

Tim -
A great mind-stretching "thought experiment" piece. Throughly enjoyable.
Nature can indeed create some fantastic solutions to the problem of survival.
The idea of a parasite lifecycle that spans millenia and light years, while improbable, was the kind of wonderful "big" idea that belongs in science fiction.
And I couldn't help but be sucked in by the first line: "Interstellar warfare is about as exciting as playing chess by mail." Perfecto!
-Adam
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ejbman
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« Reply #6 on: January 21, 2011, 07:14:38 PM »

This story reminded me a lot of Radiolab's (factual) episode on parasites, especially the section called "The Scratch".  In fact, I kind of wonder if it inspired the story.

Here's a link to it:  http://www.radiolab.org/2009/sep/07/
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Nobilis
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« Reply #7 on: January 21, 2011, 09:32:12 PM »

<JoePiscopo> Characters? Cliche! Setting? Cardboard! Plot? Undetectable! </JoePiscopo>

This one was a science fiction convention bar conversation drawn out to a few thousand words. 

Here's the whole story, not just summarized but encapsulated: "Did you know they recently discovered that parasites can actually change the behaviors of their hosts?  I mean, *everyone* has parasites, what if something we take as entirely human...like, say, our urge to explore...weren't actually human?  What if it were something imposed on us by a parasite?"

It's a great premise for a story.  It's not a story in its own right.

Just like "Lust for Learning" this is a story that presents an interesting "What If?" and then never goes even one millimeter to actually EXPLORE that "What If?"

I want to see stories that go somewhere, that do things. This one just stands there with its whiskey in its hand.
« Last Edit: January 21, 2011, 09:34:33 PM by Nobilis » Logged
Boggled Coriander
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« Reply #8 on: January 22, 2011, 01:14:36 AM »

But humans and extraterrestrials evolved in totally separate ecosystems.  How could a parasite evolve a life cycle that makes use of both?  Has our parasitologist friend found proof of Intelligent Design?
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tamahome
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« Reply #9 on: January 22, 2011, 01:30:41 AM »


Why bother having a thread about a Tim Pratt story?  They're always good.
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Mister Freign
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« Reply #10 on: January 22, 2011, 07:22:32 PM »

Grumble.

Just because I also liked this one, even more than the other one, a lot more, in fact, does not mean I've given up on my heavy-handed criticisms of Mr Pratt's work in general.   Grrr!  [shakes fist] Darn yoooou, Pratt!  Darn you straight to blankety heck!  I dare you to write another one I'll like.  I triple dog dare you.
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Mister Freign
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« Reply #11 on: January 22, 2011, 07:33:53 PM »

Interesting that what Nobilis criticizes is precisely what I enjoyed about this one.  I like thoughts; I think they are sometimes worthy of narrative all by themselves.  I like intelligent thoughts that stand there, whiskey in hand, managing to impress me with their intelligence despite their whiskey-breath and history of cutesy-merely-cleverness.

I've never really been able to embrace "the rules" of narrative as a necessity; I don't look for structural similarity / conformity, nor demand adherence to some arbitrary form, in order to declare a given work "good" or "not".  It's always confused me that so many people seem to hinge their appreciation of a given piece of art on whether or not it agrees with an assumed rule of conventional aesthetic or method of construction.

It's not a detraction from a storyteller's quality if the story has a coherent beginning/middle/end with crisis/climax/resolution and one of six hallowed plots emanating from the Platonic dimension of manifestations.  It's also not any sort of accomplishment, unto itself. 

The world would have no sippy-cups for coffee if we'd all just meekly accepted that "mugs look this way and no other; only infants are allowed to drink from sippy-cups".  That would be hellish.  Hellish!  Mervyn Peake would have had to make Gormenghast a ten page short-short, were he to have necessarily acquiesced to Nobilis' strict vision.  Hellish, I say!
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Scattercat
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« Reply #12 on: January 22, 2011, 07:50:59 PM »

It was a cool idea, but that's about all it was.  If you've read about mind-altering parasites before, then there wasn't anything new here.  I mean, toxoplasmosis and cordyceps and all those are fun and fascinating, but they're not a story by themselves.  (Compare, for example, "The Giving Plague," which ran a while ago here on Escape Pod, and which managed to discuss the idea of retroviruses in depth AND have a character and a plot to go with it.)  I wish that something could have happened in the story to provide more meat for the idea.  Also, I had a hard time feeling a good "ooh creepy" vibe because of the issue with an extraterrestrial parasite.  It's like, "Dude, you didn't lose your funding because they fear to admit that free will doesn't exist.  You lost your funding because you came to a scientifically implausible conclusion without any supporting data."

I dunno.  I know Big Idea stories are a staple of the genre.  I just didn't see that this story had any real scientific basis, and it didn't have much of a story to distract me from that.  It wasn't bad, but I finished it up and said to myself, "Why not have us all read the Wikipedia page on parasites?  Or link us directly to this or this?"
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Talia
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« Reply #13 on: January 22, 2011, 08:44:09 PM »

Enjoyed this myself. It's got a structure similar to 'Bibliophages' in that the story takes place through dialogue not in "real time" as it were.  And I'm alright by that, particularly since it introduces such an interesting idea. And lets face it, who REALLY knows how much of our behavior is dictated by our own selves versus what's living in us. Tongue



 If you've read about mind-altering parasites before, then there wasn't anything new here.  

I am pretty sure this is the first time I've ever read a story suggesting humanity's drive for space exploration is because of a parasite. Tongue

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Scattercat
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« Reply #14 on: January 22, 2011, 10:14:04 PM »

 If you've read about mind-altering parasites before, then there wasn't anything new here.  

I am pretty sure this is the first time I've ever read a story suggesting humanity's drive for space exploration is because of a parasite. Tongue

Yeah, but that part made no sense because humanity has been striving to explore for a really long time, and any parasite that was already that successful at being passed down from host to host wouldn't really have any need to go extraterrestrial in order to propagate, not to mention the problems about how it got here in the first place if we've never encountered the Phages before or the issues of compatible body chemistry etc.  Basically, that idea was the hook for the "story" part, but it doesn't hold up to even casual rumination, which is why I was kind of disappointed that there wasn't anything else to the story after we got to hear about Toxoplasmosis (which is a pretty interesting topic, admittedly.)
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Talia
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« Reply #15 on: January 23, 2011, 09:01:10 AM »

 If you've read about mind-altering parasites before, then there wasn't anything new here.  

I am pretty sure this is the first time I've ever read a story suggesting humanity's drive for space exploration is because of a parasite. Tongue

Yeah, but that part made no sense because humanity has been striving to explore for a really long time, and any parasite that was already that successful at being passed down from host to host wouldn't really have any need to go extraterrestrial in order to propagate, not to mention the problems about how it got here in the first place if we've never encountered the Phages before or the issues of compatible body chemistry etc.  Basically, that idea was the hook for the "story" part, but it doesn't hold up to even casual rumination, which is why I was kind of disappointed that there wasn't anything else to the story after we got to hear about Toxoplasmosis (which is a pretty interesting topic, admittedly.)

I disagree. A "really long time" is subjective. Who knows what constitutes a really long time in alien terms? Smiley And couldn't the parasites have ridden in on some meteorite? Smiley
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BlueLu
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« Reply #16 on: January 23, 2011, 09:19:57 AM »

It was a cool idea, but that's about all it was.  If you've read about mind-altering parasites before, then there wasn't anything new here.  I mean, toxoplasmosis and cordyceps and all those are fun and fascinating, but they're not a story by themselves.  (Compare, for example, "The Giving Plague," which ran a while ago here on Escape Pod, and which managed to discuss the idea of retroviruses in depth AND have a character and a plot to go with it.)  I wish that something could have happened in the story to provide more meat for the idea.  Also, I had a hard time feeling a good "ooh creepy" vibe because of the issue with an extraterrestrial parasite.  It's like, "Dude, you didn't lose your funding because they fear to admit that free will doesn't exist.  You lost your funding because you came to a scientifically implausible conclusion without any supporting data."

I agree completely.  I read Scott Westerfeld's Peeps fairly recently and he uses the same examples of mind-altering parasites, so I felt I'd heard it all before.  (It's a vampire novel in which vampire-ism is also caused by a parasite.)  The idea of an extraterrestrial parasite never seemed as creepy as my mind being possibly altered by changing my cat litter--which I already knew about.
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Lena
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« Reply #17 on: January 23, 2011, 03:54:25 PM »

I was not terribly impressed with this story, probably because it is not my first exposure to the idea that parasites can affect human behavior. “The Giving Plague” by David Brin and “Screwfly Solution” Raccoona Sheldon both touch on the topic, with a bit more drama than a chat in a bar.
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eytanz
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« Reply #18 on: January 23, 2011, 04:11:58 PM »

I enjoyed it, but this was, as Scattercat said above, mostly an idea wrapped up in a thin veneer of a story. But it was an entertaining thin veneer of a story - this is Tim Pratt, after all - and that's fine by me.

For those interested in the other stories mentioned by Mav.Weirdo - I'll let you figure out how to get the Screwfly Solution on your own, but The Giving Plague can be found in the Escape Pod archives as it was episode 112.

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Balu
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« Reply #19 on: January 23, 2011, 04:36:31 PM »

Awesome story. Love the way it started out all familiar and mundane then telescoped out into something mindblowing. SF at its best.

The presenter really added value too. This is one I'll probably find myself thinking about now and again for years.

Great work guys Smiley
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