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Author Topic: EP296: For Want of a Nail  (Read 4211 times)
eytanz
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« on: June 09, 2011, 02:12:51 PM »

EP296: For Want of a Nail

By Mary Robinette Kowal
Read by Mur Lafferty

Originally appearing in Asimov’s

Nominated for the Hugo Award for Short Story, 2011

---

With one hand, Rava adjusted the VR interface glasses where they bit into the bridge of her nose, while she kept her other hand buried in Cordelia’s innards. There was scant room to get the flexible shaft of a mono-lens and her hand through the access hatch in the AI’s chassis. From the next compartment, drums and laughter bled through the plastic walls of the ship, indicating her sister’s conception party was still in full swing.

With only a single camera attached, the interface glasses didn’t give Rava depth perception as she struggled to replug the transmitter cable. The chassis had not been designed to need repair. At all. It had been designed to last hundreds of years without an upgrade.

If Rava couldn’t get the cable plugged in and working, Cordelia wouldn’t be able to download backups of herself to her long-term memory. She couldn’t store more than a week at a time in active memory. It would be the same as a slow death sentence.

The square head of the cable slipped out of Rava’s fingers. Again. “Dammit!” She slammed her heel against the ship’s floor in frustration.

“If you can’t do it, let someone else try.” Her older brother, Ludoviko, had insisted on following her out of the party as if he could help.

“You know, this would go a lot faster if you weren’t breathing down my neck.”

“You know, you wouldn’t be doing this at all if you hadn’t dropped her.”


Rated appropriate for teens and up for language.


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NoNotRogov
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« Reply #1 on: June 09, 2011, 09:55:49 PM »

I'm fond of the society in this story - it has all of the evils of both technocracy (ship-wide business) and aristocracy (family business). The notion of a bunch of powerful, aristocratic, pseudo-Victorian families starting a new world after being eugenically designed by uncaring ship regulations to be total bastards is a disturbing one, and intriguing. I would not want to get into an interstellar war with that planet.

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stePH
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Cool story, bro!


« Reply #2 on: June 10, 2011, 09:31:41 AM »

Why is this one not in my feed yet? I've refreshed three times and all that happened is "Disarm" was removed since I've listened to it already.
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« Reply #3 on: June 10, 2011, 02:32:36 PM »

I really enjoyed this story. Last year's Hugo nominees mostly left me high and dry, wondering what on Earth could have convinced people to vote for them, but if the other stories from 2011 are at this level, it's going to be a great month.

That being said, I thought the ending was a bit of a letdown. Because of the title, I was expecting a gradual unraveling of the entire civilization because of the hubris of not looking ahead. "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. All for the want of a horseshoe nail."

I guess I was expecting it to progress up the chain more than it did. But no, they had an extra rider in storage, so...never mind.
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« Reply #4 on: June 10, 2011, 08:05:08 PM »

What a story.  My grandmother had dementia for about 6 years before she finally passed, and this story really touched on that for me.  Earlier posters commented on the society, and I completely missed that aspect of the story, I was so engrossed in the characters and their tribulations.  In a sense, both Cordelia and Rava's uncle were going through a sort of dementia, and both had to make that choice to either live with their illness or die.  Very touching moments. 

I listened to this one while re-wiring 150 network drops, so the MC fishing around in a mess of wires for a specific connector was very apropos to what I was doing, and that made me smile as well.   Not sure how The Things and Amaryllis will shape up against this one, but for me, this is a front runner.
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« Reply #5 on: June 10, 2011, 09:59:31 PM »

Why is this one not in my feed yet? I've refreshed three times and all that happened is "Disarm" was removed since I've listened to it already.

Did you finally get it? We've been having some odd scattershot feed issues that we're working through.
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« Reply #6 on: June 11, 2011, 08:24:38 AM »

What a story.  My grandmother had dementia for about 6 years before she finally passed, and this story really touched on that for me.  Earlier posters commented on the society, and I completely missed that aspect of the story, I was so engrossed in the characters and their tribulations.  In a sense, both Cordelia and Rava's uncle were going through a sort of dementia, and both had to make that choice to either live with their illness or die.  Very touching moments. 
Spot on, Gamercow. I rather wish this hadn't been so much of a YA story because the parallel process for the uncle and the AI is, potentially, a richer and more absorbing theme. I have just read an interview with (Sir) Terry Pratchett on the subject of assisted suicide, where he criticises the UK's position on this because it means people are not able to live day to day, with the option of dying at an exact time of their choosing. An exploration of the qualitative differences between the uncle's dementia and the AI's entrapment in a cognitive present, with the option of 'termination' at any point would have been fascinating. But then, it would also have been a different story. This one was more of a Swiss Family Robinson romp, and effective as such.
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« Reply #7 on: June 12, 2011, 11:25:44 AM »

This was a nice story that reminded me why I wouldn't want to be on a generation ship, but love them in literature. If I'm going to another planet, I want to be the one to get there. On the other hand, I love hearing about all the trials and tribulations that befall passengers on such an epic, and in their minds, pointless journey.
I mean, being on a generation ship in the middle (not leaving the origin planet and not arriving at the destination planet) is boring, frustrating, and would leave one feeling like a bookmark. Just a placeholder for somebody else. After all, for generations the people on board are there simply to ensure that at some point there are sentient people on board the ship when it finally reaches its destination. It could get you down.
And here, in this story, they are about to loose their most important possession, their link to the past and promise for the future! They are about to negate their own existence! After all, that's all they really are, a link in a long chain. And they almost broke the chain.
On the one hand I agree with Kaa. They should have lost the kingdom. It would have made the story a little more meaningful, by ironically removing all meaning from their journey.
On the other hand, I'm glad that they were able to fix the AI. Because I have been conditioned by Disney to like happy endings.

The only thing that bothered me was the total lack of supplies this girl (woman?) had. I mean, what kind of tech support person does not carry a mess of tools and cables around with them at any given moment? I myself have approximately 20 meters of different types of cable with 12 different heads with me. Not to mention a Leatherman tool. And she had to bring the device to the store to see if maybe they have a cable? Pathetic.
« Last Edit: June 12, 2011, 11:29:37 AM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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« Reply #8 on: June 13, 2011, 09:31:32 AM »

Loved this story.  Alzheimer's terrifies me more than almost any other thing in the world.  With almost everything else, at least I still have my intact mind.  I thought the parallel descent of the uncle into Dementia and the AI into a similar state were very interesting and extremely well done.  The escalation from a simple tech support problem into life or death consequences was very compelling.  The characters were all strongly individual and well portrayed.

For me this is already a significant year for Hugo nominees for short story.  Consistently over the past few years since I started paying attention to such things, of the 5 Hugo nominees for short story there is one that is a clear standout as well done, and then 4 which to me are below the average quality of all the stories I've read in that year.  And generally it's the standout that wins.  This story here I thought was really great.  But I was also very impressed by "The Things" which I heard over on the Clarkesworld podcast, enough so that it made my "Best Of" list.  Maybe I'll be impressed by all 4 this year?

The only thing that bothered me was the total lack of supplies this girl (woman?) had. I mean, what kind of tech support person does not carry a mess of tools and cables around with them at any given moment? I myself have approximately 20 meters of different types of cable with 12 different heads with me. Not to mention a Leatherman tool. And she had to bring the device to the store to see if maybe they have a cable? Pathetic.

I found that entirely realistic.  The ship's components were designed to be failproof.  The trouble with such designs is that there's probably going to be some unforeseen situation in which they actually fail and if there's no backup system, that's a problem.  Knowing a system is supposed to be failproof is little consolation when it actually fails; at that point you want to be able to recover from failure.  Often it's better just to make a design with failure as a possibility but ensure that there are ample recovery options to handle them.  Think the Titanic:  the ship was supposed to be unsinkable, but when it actually started sinking wouldn't it have been nice to have enough lifeboats to actually carry all the passengers?

It's also a rather bad design to have so much of the ship's operation dependent upon a single component:  a rather nasty bottleneck there.  Especially a component which can be carried by crew members by hand.  There ought to be redundant backups of such vital components which are running simultaneously so that this is never a problem.  Redundant backups are important for any vital system, but trebly so for a generation ship.

Neither of those things are problems with the story; they're bad engineering.  Bad engineering happens often enough, and that's the real problem here.  This makes me wonder what the world they left behind was.  Good engineering takes time, maybe they didn't feel they had the time and so they took shortcuts and ended up with this shoddy result.

That being said, I thought the ending was a bit of a letdown. Because of the title, I was expecting a gradual unraveling of the entire civilization because of the hubris of not looking ahead. "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of a horse, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. All for the want of a horseshoe nail."

I do agree with this, though.  The title implies greater consequences than actually happened.  But I liked the story enough that this didn't really bother me.
« Last Edit: June 13, 2011, 09:34:15 AM by Unblinking » Logged

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« Reply #9 on: June 13, 2011, 03:56:16 PM »

To me, the lack of redundancy was somewhat realistic.  Coming from a server admin's point of view, it is easy(in theory) to restore a file that is 1 day to 1 month old.  If someone came to me and said "There are corrupt files on this server.  We're not sure which ones, but we want to restore the bad files and keep the good files from today."  I'd simply tell them it was impossible, you either get me the exact files, or you get everything from 2 years ago.
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« Reply #10 on: June 13, 2011, 04:03:32 PM »

Now I find myself wondering what will happen to the descendants of that family when they finally reach the destination planet.
Will they watch all of Cordelia's recordings taken over (hundreds? thousands?) of years?
Put in their position I would not want to. I'd probably have my hands full trying to carve out a new home on a planet. I'd be much to busy and far less interested to find out what my ancestors did on the long trip here. I mean, between you and me, who cares? Do you know what your ancestor ate for breakfast 500 years ago? Do you want to know? In he grand scheme of things it makes no difference. It might be a minor historical curiosity, but no more.
I might use it as a reference device for laws and such, but I'd probably want to make new laws, for the new planet.
The pa/matriarch of the family might try to enforce the use of Cordelia, in order to connect with the past and roots and all, but I doubt it will last more than a single generation, perhaps two.
Not really story-related, just a tangent. But I felt that my thoughts on the subject should be seen.
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« Reply #11 on: June 13, 2011, 04:20:00 PM »

I guess I assumed it would be somehow indexed and cataloged for historical reference rather than TV-style viewing. You can only watch so many episodes of "Uncle Dave Wakes and Brushes His Teeth" before you want to put a pickaxe through your left eye.
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« Reply #12 on: June 13, 2011, 06:25:04 PM »

Now I find myself wondering what will happen to the descendants of that family when they finally reach the destination planet.
Will they watch all of Cordelia's recordings taken over (hundreds? thousands?) of years?
Put in their position I would not want to. I'd probably have my hands full trying to carve out a new home on a planet. I'd be much to busy and far less interested to find out what my ancestors did on the long trip here. I mean, between you and me, who cares? Do you know what your ancestor ate for breakfast 500 years ago? Do you want to know? In he grand scheme of things it makes no difference. It might be a minor historical curiosity, but no more.
I might use it as a reference device for laws and such, but I'd probably want to make new laws, for the new planet.
The pa/matriarch of the family might try to enforce the use of Cordelia, in order to connect with the past and roots and all, but I doubt it will last more than a single generation, perhaps two.
Not really story-related, just a tangent. But I felt that my thoughts on the subject should be seen.

I thought of it more as a Video Wikipedia. 
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« Reply #13 on: June 13, 2011, 08:05:10 PM »

I was picturing it as kind of a Presidential Library type of thing. You know, like how you can go to the Carter Library here in Atlanta and basically bore yourself absolutely to tears digging through paperwork from his stint in the big chair. Well, the stuff that's not still classified, anyway.
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« Reply #14 on: June 14, 2011, 09:00:17 AM »

To me, the lack of redundancy was somewhat realistic.  Coming from a server admin's point of view, it is easy(in theory) to restore a file that is 1 day to 1 month old.  If someone came to me and said "There are corrupt files on this server.  We're not sure which ones, but we want to restore the bad files and keep the good files from today."  I'd simply tell them it was impossible, you either get me the exact files, or you get everything from 2 years ago.

I didn't find it unrealistic, but the extent of their lack of redundancy made it pretty clear to me what terrible engineers the designers of the ship were.  Your example makes sense, but the extent of it doesn't really fit the extent of the problem in the story.  At least in your example you would have a backup and you would know how to get to it.  Imagine your backup drive is offsite, as is generally desired for backups, but you don't remember where that backup drive is or how to reach it.  Normally the mainframe does its own backups to that drive over the internet, but since the mainframe has crashed, that's not an option.  You could extract the backup yourself from a secondary computer, but then you realize that you don't know the IP address, the user name, the password, or even the phone number, address, or name of the facility that holds it because they were stored on the now-crashed mainframe and you'd never written them down or committed them to memory.  Now imagine that your mainframe is not only vital to your business but it holds information vital to life-or-death situations, perhaps a medical database, and you need to find out before surgery whether a patient is allergic to Penicillin.  

In the story, the AI is a major failure point for the whole ship.  Sure, there's a second AI.  Sure, there are cables for manual transfers.  But the existence of a 2nd AI came as a surprise to pretty much everybody, and nobody knows how to find the cables without the AI running properly.  So you have a single failure point, and the key to repairing damage to that single failure point is for the failure point to be running properly already.  Not only that, but crew members are allowed to carry the AI around, and the AI is sensitive enough that dropping a couple feet to the ground causes permanent damage.  That is terrible engineering, particularly for a generation ship where not only the lives of the current passengers are at stake, but all of their descendants on the new world, and the entire colonization effort.

This isn't at all a complaint about the story.  Bad engineering happens, and this is a well-told story of a situation where bad engineering happened, and the result was a series of escalating consequences.  Really they were lucky the consequences weren't worse; it's not at all far-fetched to imagine their pocket civilization dying completely because of bad engineering decisions.


« Last Edit: June 14, 2011, 09:02:26 AM by Unblinking » Logged

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« Reply #15 on: June 14, 2011, 09:05:39 AM »

Also, the bad engineering put me in mind of Ruth Nestvold's "A Traveler's Guide to Mars", a Nebula nominee from a year or two ago that really impressed me.  It's told as a series of encyclopedia entry responses seen without the user queries, and the real story unfolds as the nature of the questions becomes clear.  Good stuff.
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« Reply #16 on: June 14, 2011, 10:00:30 AM »

I really enjoyed this story, from the interactions between the family members through to the gradual reveal of just how removed from their "engineering" the family really was. (It seems reasonable that if my little sister can forget that you used to need an ethernet cable to connect your macbook to the internet then certainly her great-great-grandaughter can have never seen a cable in her life Roll Eyes). One of my favorite aspects was how Cordelia was programmed to emulate a Victorian lady -- rather than the more typical route of trying to make the technology seem super futuristic, she was made to hearken back to another age of technological progress (not to mention population growth).

I agree that (as the title implies) the consequences of dropping her probably should have been much more devastating either to the family or even the ship as a whole. But then the story would have had to switch from YA to post-apocalypse in a relatively short number of words and personally I'm glad that it didn't go there.
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« Reply #17 on: June 14, 2011, 12:39:15 PM »

This was a nice story that reminded me why I wouldn't want to be on a generation ship, but love them in literature. If I'm going to another planet, I want to be the one to get there. On the other hand, I love hearing about all the trials and tribulations that befall passengers on such an epic, and in their minds, pointless journey.
I mean, being on a generation ship in the middle (not leaving the origin planet and not arriving at the destination planet) is boring, frustrating, and would leave one feeling like a bookmark. Just a placeholder for somebody else. After all, for generations the people on board are there simply to ensure that at some point there are sentient people on board the ship when it finally reaches its destination. It could get you down.

Cherryh's merchanters are the descendants of original colonists who got used to years upon years of ship life, to the point that they tolerate being aboard a space station, and abhor going planetside.
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« Reply #18 on: June 14, 2011, 01:48:54 PM »

I didn't find it unrealistic, but the extent of their lack of redundancy made it pretty clear to me what terrible engineers the designers of the ship were.  Really they were lucky the consequences weren't worse; it's not at all far-fetched to imagine their pocket civilization dying completely because of bad engineering decisions.

There's also the issue of time to be dealt with.  If the AI hadn't gone down in dozens of years or longer, and/or there was poor transfer of knowledge, things like a second AI might get lost.  That said, I would think it would be standard protocol to check on the secondary AI, and do a transfer or restore on a periodic basis for auditing reasons.  Again, that might have gotten lost over the generations, but if the whole civilization depended on it, I doubt that would happen.
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« Reply #19 on: June 14, 2011, 01:52:56 PM »

Not to mention that it's often SOP to manually, physically go through inventory periodically, just to make sure what's in the computer jibes with what's there in reality. At the steel mill where I used to work, 20-ton slabs of steel would go missing, or would still be there after the system said they had been processed and shipped. A tiny thing like a cable or a backup AI? Easy to lose track of.
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