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Author Topic: EP278: Written on the Wind  (Read 10244 times)
eytanz
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« on: February 03, 2011, 06:35:14 PM »

EP278: Written on the Wind

By David D. Levine
Read by Mur Lafferty

Originally published in Beyond the Last Star
---

Thuren Nektopk peered down at Luulianni from above his massive desk. “I suspect you know why I’ve called you to speak with me in person.” He spoke in his native language, Ptopku Dominant, using the form of address for a subordinate or a child. It was a constant reminder that the Ptopku had built and largely staffed this station, and was one of the most powerful species in the Consortium.

“Yes, Supervisor,” Luulianni replied in the same language, knotting her tentacles.

“And that would be…?”

“Because of my side project.”

“Yes.” Nektopk suddenly released the bar from which he hung, caught himself on another handhold, and with two swift strokes of his arms swung down to where his six slitted eyes were level with Luulianni’s. “Your little side project.”

Luulianni cringed. “I don’t understand why it’s so much of a problem.” She straightened and tried to meet his gaze. “I put in my full quota of time every day.”

“Yes, you do, and not one moment more. But I know you are capable of so much more than that. Any work you do on this pointless little side project of yours constitutes theft of resources from the Section — from the whole Project!”

“Theft?” she squeaked. Angry at herself for the loss of control, she brought her voice down. “Theft of resources? But I don’t use any data storage space, or any other Section resources! I write my notes on the backs of old printouts.” She did not mention how much more natural it felt to work on paper.

“You are stealing the most valuable resource of all!” Nektopk pointed at her with one limber foot. “Your own time and attention!”

“But it’s my time!”

“You have been sent here by your people — at considerable expense, I might add — to assist in the Project, to learn the ways of the Consortium, and to demonstrate your species’ unique skills.” He leaned closer to her. His smell was bitter. “And if I find that your species, as represented by yourself, does not demonstrate any unique skills, your application for Consortium membership could very well be denied.” He swung himself up to the edge of his desk, the better to glare down at her. “Therefore, your time is not your own. You owe it to the Section, to the Project, and to your own people to put every bit of available time into your assigned task.”

Luulianni hung her head. “Yes, Supervisor.”

“You may return to your work.”

“Thank you, Supervisor.”


Rated PG For talk of war elsewhere.

Show Notes:

  • Feedback for Episode 270: Advertising at the End of the World
  • Next week… A groovy strange kind of love



Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
« Last Edit: February 24, 2011, 06:40:51 PM by eytanz » Logged
Dem
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« Reply #1 on: February 04, 2011, 09:12:19 AM »

Not so much Big Bang as Big Boomerang! I really liked the idea of the message and I was on the way to 'getting it' before the reveal but that didn't spoil the story. I also liked the analytics associated with the linguistics, and although I'm sure there's someone here with enough expertise to tell me it was twaddle, it had enough credibility for me.
 
Alien names bother me. I'm not sure why they have to be so difficult to pronounce, given that we have tentacles and simian grab rails to give us the clues. The effect for me is often to interrupt the flow as I rearrange in my head the possible phoneme groupings and until I've come up with something that seems to stick. I'm not arguing that sentient blobs of xenophobic angst get named Arthur, only that whatever they are called has a familiar enough structure that I don't struggle to parse it.
(And as I write this, I can see the problems that might arise when the thing is translated into other languages. Ok, Arthur it is, then.)

Anyway, my Friday-with-a-bug summary: great tale with convincing scientific premise and cartoon aliens with bonkers names. Back when the fog has lifted Undecided
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jenfullmoon
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« Reply #2 on: February 04, 2011, 11:35:13 AM »

I found myself relating to Luulianni at work, in a sense. Probably why I enjoyed the story so much.

You know, I'm much more of a visual person than a listener, which is why I am so pleased that most of the stories are now coming along with text. I have to say that with some stories, it is just plain HARDER for me to follow what is going on when I am only able to listen to it aloud. Some I've tried to listen to repeatedly and just gave the hell up.

This is a story where I think it's a good tale, but I suspect I wouldn't have gotten so well what was going on without seeing it in text. If I'd only listened to it, I probably wouldn't have gotten what was going on and given up halfway through the story. I have to say that alien names sometimes have that effect. Yeah, I do think they need to be strange and different for plausibility's sake (we can't all be named Fred), but when your only option is to listen aloud, it can be hard to comprehend.
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l33tminion
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« Reply #3 on: February 04, 2011, 02:17:02 PM »

I liked the story, but disliked the epilogue, which seemed kind of tacked-on.  It's a cool bit of exposition, but it doesn't really relate to the rest of the story.
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eytanz
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« Reply #4 on: February 04, 2011, 02:50:20 PM »

I liked the story, but disliked the epilogue, which seemed kind of tacked-on.  It's a cool bit of exposition, but it doesn't really relate to the rest of the story.

I think people would have been up at arms if the whole story had concluded without actually telling us what the message was.
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HomespunDreamer
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« Reply #5 on: February 04, 2011, 03:54:39 PM »

I really liked this one! the linguistics element was really cool, and well played out. And the big 'message' thing was handled well too.
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matweller
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« Reply #6 on: February 04, 2011, 04:13:47 PM »

You know, I'm much more of a visual person than a listener, which is why I am so pleased that most of the stories are now coming along with text. I have to say that with some stories, it is just plain HARDER for me to follow what is going on when I am only able to listen to it aloud. Some I've tried to listen to repeatedly and just gave the hell up.
Funny you should say that since I was mentioning to Mur yesterday how much I wanted to find something for my kid like the books that came with cassette tapes we had when we were kids. Of course, depending on how old you are, you may not remember cassettes, but I fondly remember reading along and turning the page at the tone... +sigh+
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Talia
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« Reply #7 on: February 04, 2011, 04:46:19 PM »

Of course, depending on how old you are, you may not remember cassettes,

Surely no one who'd be here would be THAT young. Would they??

Please say no. I don't want to feel old.

I still have a bunch of cassettes at home in a drawer
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Wilson Fowlie
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« Reply #8 on: February 04, 2011, 04:53:57 PM »

I really enjoyed this story. Thinking back on it now, it had enough weaknesses that perhaps I shouldn't have, but I didn't notice them at the time (or consciously ignored them, in one or two cases), and that's good enough for me. I'll talk about one or two of the weaknesses below but I really want to spend more time on what I liked this time, for a change.

One thing that might have become a weakness but that didn't turn out to be was that the story was a little predictable. I knew that the supervisor was going to turn out to have kept her notes in order to steal her ideas (although I must say I didn't predict that he would publish misleading results in order to keep his project going).

But the fact that I knew that didn't bother me very much, because I also knew that through her persistence, intelligence, the help of her friend and sheer grit that our hero would prevail and expose him as the fraud he was. And I was rooting for her to do just that and was pleased when she did.

Like Mur, linguistics is a field that I have not studied in any depth (though I have done quite a bit of informal reading on it) but which does hold a fascination for me. Possibly because I'm a geek and there's an element of linguistics that is more like computer programming than anything (as evidenced by the almost-entirely non-linguistic nature of the solution to the languages issue in the story).

Weaknesses? Well, I was a little surprised that a species different enough from humans to have tentacles and scales would share our sinus system to the extent of being able to yawn to clear a pressure differential. I'm believe we're one of the only earth species (if not the only one) who can (or need to) do this. I got distracted for a moment when the story described this, but I decided to take as an analogy to some piece of alien physiology that I wouldn't otherwise understand and move on.

Also, the solution to the riddle - besides not really being rooted in linguistics - did seem pretty simplistic, given how long so many people had been working on it. The reasons for not having discovered it before seemed kind of specious. But again, maybe it was a simplified explanation, for the purposes of fiction, of the real problem and solution.

Or maybe the implication that it could only be solved on paper rather than on screen was something of a caution on becoming too dependent on technology? Hard to say.

The message at the end was ... an interesting idea if a bit more human-centric than I prefer (given the size of our universe.  What if other aliens who live a few billion years later (closer to the end of the universe) than we do, make conflicting devices?).  I'm trying to decide if there could have been any message that wouldn't have been somewhat anticlimactic after the buildup it got, and I'm not sure there is.  So I just accept it as a McGuffin representing the main character having accomplished her goal, applaud her for it and move on.
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Wilson Fowlie
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« Reply #9 on: February 04, 2011, 05:01:20 PM »

I was mentioning to Mur yesterday how much I wanted to find something for my kid like the books that came with cassette tapes we had when we were kids. Of course, depending on how old you are, you may not remember cassettes, but I fondly remember reading along and turning the page at the tone... +sigh+

When I was a kid we had read-along books that came with 45 RPM records.  They were produced by Disney, and we turned the page "when Tinker Bell rings her little bell, like this." ('This' was a high-pitched glockenspiel glissando.)

Now my daughter has a couple of read-along stories (Beauty and the Beast, for one) and the audio is on CD.  Sadly, Tinker Bell no longer rings her little bell.
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"People commonly use the word 'procrastination' to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working." - Paul Graham
matweller
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« Reply #10 on: February 04, 2011, 07:15:59 PM »

I had a couple of the 45s too, and some LPs with books for that matter. Good times. Good times.
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Darwinist
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« Reply #11 on: February 05, 2011, 12:24:18 PM »

Wow, loved this one.  Didn't see the hook at the end coming at all. 

I also had story cassetes and a few 45's.  Come to think of it I have a 2004 vehicle with a cassette player and a box of cassetes in storage which I kept for some reason.  Hmmmm.....
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matweller
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« Reply #12 on: February 06, 2011, 11:26:22 AM »

I also had story cassetes and a few 45's.  Come to think of it I have a 2004 vehicle with a cassette player and a box of cassetes in storage which I kept for some reason.  Hmmmm.....
I think I still have Stryper on cassette buried in a trunk if you want it. Honestly.
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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #13 on: February 06, 2011, 11:58:36 AM »

I loved this one. The political complexities! The unlikely biologies! The characters grappling with the meaning of their universe. For that matter, the well written and sympathetic characters, with whom I connected with despite the political complexities, unlikely biologies, and hugeness of the story's themes! I give this one five out of five Zeppelins.

As for epilogues, I'm normally against them, but Written on the Wind handled its epilogue with grace, style, and brevity. The revelation of the message sent chills up and down my spine.
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« Reply #14 on: February 06, 2011, 01:38:36 PM »

I really liked this story.
The message was sweet and poignant, I liked the idea of collectively saying, "Well, we're screwed, but we can fix it so other people aren't." It's a very nice touch.
But then, on reflection, I have to ask myself, what kind of a god complex do you need to destroy an entire universe, in order to create one that is (in your opinion) better? This sounds like one the James Bond villain from Moonraker. "I'll kill every human on the planet and repopulate with smart and beautiful people I keep here on my space station." True the destruction of a universe takes longer, and probably lasted long enough for many intelligences in many parts of the universe to rise and fall, but still... it's something that needs to be asked.
On a lighter note, I really felt connected with Luulianni. She was such a human character. Her drudgery at work, her battle with an oppressive bureaucracy, her need to prove herself time and time again.... it was nice. I was able to point at her and say "See? That's me! Right there!" Even though she has more tentacles than me.

Weaknesses? Well, I was a little surprised that a species different enough from humans to have tentacles and scales would share our sinus system to the extent of being able to yawn to clear a pressure differential. I'm believe we're one of the only earth species (if not the only one) who can (or need to) do this. I got distracted for a moment when the story described this, but I decided to take as an analogy to some piece of alien physiology that I wouldn't otherwise understand and move on.
I remember reading somewhere that every animal on this planet with a backbone yawns, and nobody knows why. Parallel evolution works on Earth, so why not in the next universe?
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Wilson Fowlie
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« Reply #15 on: February 06, 2011, 08:28:24 PM »

I was a little surprised that a species different enough from humans to have tentacles and scales would share our sinus system to the extent of being able to yawn to clear a pressure differential. I'm believe we're one of the only earth species (if not the only one) who can (or need to) do this. I got distracted for a moment when the story described this, but I decided to take as an analogy to some piece of alien physiology that I wouldn't otherwise understand and move on.
I remember reading somewhere that every animal on this planet with a backbone yawns, and nobody knows why. Parallel evolution works on Earth, so why not in the next universe?

Well, to be clearer, it wasn't the yawning itself that I was quibbling with, it was more the sinus/eustachian pressure buildup that we can clear by yawning, or chewing gum.  That's what I believed to be unique to our species, by virtue of the fact that we walk upright.  (It turns out that it's probably not unique to humans, but it is restricted to a fairly limited subset of Earth species.)

You're right that researchers don't know why we yawn, but they do know why vertebrates share the yawn reflex: because we have a common ancestor.

That's not parallel evolution, as such. Parallel evolution occurs when two species whose common ancestor does not share a particular trait (e.g. eyesight) develop that trait independently of each other. Various types of seeing organs, for instance, have evolved independently many different times, as have different methods of flying (e.g. birds vs. bats.).  Also, compare the fins of mammalian swimmers (dolphins, whales, porpoises) to those of fish.

And while parallel evolution certainly can occur, it's far more likely to occur with traits that confer a survival benefit, like seeing, flying or swimming.  It's far less likely to occur with an accidental by-product of jury-rigged system.
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"People commonly use the word 'procrastination' to describe what they do on the Internet. It seems to me too mild to describe what's happening as merely not-doing-work. We don't call it procrastination when someone gets drunk instead of working." - Paul Graham
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« Reply #16 on: February 07, 2011, 11:12:48 AM »

At some point, we all have a common ancestor, so that definition is a little ambiguous.
But I'll grant that it is a little strange to see an alien in an entirely different universe coming up with the same solution for the same problem that we did. I suspect it's simply an artistic slip and nothing more than that.
Regardless, the writing was very good.
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« Reply #17 on: February 07, 2011, 12:26:05 PM »

I really enjoyed this story. Just a question - am I the only one who was reminded of David Brin's story, "The Crystal Spheres"? Except sort of from the other way around, really.

It DOES make some sense that no one would have looked at the problem the way Luulianni was, given that the entire project was required to be analyzed on the computer screens in a predetermined format and in the simian leaders' language. Anyone who dares to approach it from a different direction would get reprimanded and penalized.

I honestly thought that the leaders were misleading the project because they already knew what the message contained, not because they wanted the project to continue.

This story also reminds me of the sort of arrogance about humanity that comes across in a lot of SF. Admittedly, it's a lot more uplifting to read a story where, for example, Mankind has caused the universe to be how it is, or where the alien invaders can't take us out so easily because of how much faster our technology progresses than theirs, but sometimes it feels a little silly to me. I don't mean this as a criticism of this story (I really liked the story), but just as a reflection on our tendency to put ourselves at the top of the food chain and the technological dogpile in a lot of our fiction.
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« Reply #18 on: February 07, 2011, 12:47:01 PM »

For a story in which every plot point was fairly predictable, I was kept on the edge of my seat for almost the entire reading. I particularly loved the descriptions of how tired Luuliani was and then how she couldn't even remember her speech later on due to crashing after her exertion. This will definitely stay in my mind as a favorite. Smiley


However: I have to admit that I'm a bit surprised that more people haven't criticized the "message" at the end. For my tastes, I wish the message had been somewhere in between what it was and "42". Not so ambiguous as to be unintelligible, yet not so human-centric at the end of a beautifully "other" tale. On the other hand, it did feel completely authentic in that if humanity could somehow destroy and recreate the universe as described then the message would almost certainly be long-winded and written in that tone. So in that sense, I suppose it was perfect.
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« Reply #19 on: February 07, 2011, 02:21:47 PM »

Ooh, a linguistics story!  For those who like a good linguistics story, you should check out the works of Juliette Wade.  She's had 3 linguistics stories published in Analog over the last couple of years, one of which was published on StarShipSofa where you can listen for free:
http://www.starshipsofa.com/20100602/aural-delights-no-139-philip-k-dick-juliette-wade/
I sent her an email to encourage her to submit here too.  Smiley  I've been very impressed by her work.

Anyway, regarding this story: 
I liked Luulianni and I felt that she was very relatable.  I saw the twist of her supervisor stealing her work coming, but not in a bad way, as I still related to her struggle and the motive of the overlords to just delay the project was a new wrinkle. 

I thought the details of the language translation were very interesting and they seemed like they made sense to my laymen's mind.  It sounds like there's good reason for it not to have been translated since all of teh computer systems in the galactic alliance insisted on one particular character set that's not conducive to pictograms.

I thought the end dragged on a bit long.  For me the real climax was the moment when she finally found the message.  And then, without telling us what the message was, it tells us her reaction, the reaction of the overlords, the reaction of this and that and this and that, all without telling us the message.  I found that too distracting, too much authorial intrusion, stringing me along when the character I've been following already knows the answer.  I was starting to wonder if the message would be told to me at all when finally it was revealed.

The use of "homo sapiens" in the message felt out of place to me, because that phrase would mean nothing to these folks and was only in there to trigger to me what they were supposed to be.  How do you depict a species name in pictograms?  And why would you bother when you know it'll mean nothing to the recipients?

And so the grand message is
"We were lonely, therefore we destroyed the entire universe to make a better one.  Now, instead of wandering around the universe looking for friends, you can be embroiled in constant interstellar wars.  Hooray!  Those species who survive the wars will thank us in the end.  Remember us fondly.  Sincerely, The Humans"
It WOULD be just like us humans to destroy all of existence because we considered its configuration to be inconvenient...
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