Author Topic: EP296: For Want of a Nail  (Read 13471 times)

eytanz

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EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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} »
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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 »

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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matweller

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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 »

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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 ::)). 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« 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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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #20 on: June 14, 2011, 02:07:46 PM »
This one didn't really capture me. Possibly it's because the motives were ultimately mechanical. No one was behaving according to their passion (except, perhaps, for the asshole brother). Instead, they were simply pursuing their best interests or programmed imperatives with the most logical precision they could muster. Characters and situations like that don't generally engage me. I prefer passion, drive, and human stupidity.

That said, it was certainly a clever and well-written story, but not one likely to make a strong impact on me.
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #21 on: June 14, 2011, 03:26:10 PM »
.... I prefer passion, drive, and human stupidity.
The whole discussion going on about poor engineering is a classic case of human stupidity that nearly cost lives. What's not to love?  ;)
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #22 on: June 15, 2011, 08:36:16 AM »
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.

I don't think a backup AI would be easy to lose track of, not if the ship was designed well.  It's not just any old spare part, like the cable is.  It's the only replacement for the main failure point of the ship.  A backup of that vital component shouldn't be in a back storeroom, it should be well marked, or at least a permanent map etched in a common area "In case of emergency failure of AI, go get the second AI in its dedicated armored storage locker in sector 3".  Sure, most would read and ignore it, because it wouldn't matter to them, but in time of emergency they'd see the sign and know what to do.  The other spare parts, sure, I can perhaps see why they can be wherever they can be shoved into cargo, because they're small cheap common parts, and a functional AI will be able to tell them where to find those parts.  But the AI is vital enough that, if the ship were designed well, everyone would know of the backup AI, and everyone would know where it could be found.  The designers of the ship knew, of course, that it would be a generation ship, and that forgetfulness would be a problem for those in the mid portion of the trip, so the design should be geared toward making the most vital information impossible to forget.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #23 on: June 15, 2011, 09:23:34 AM »
On the subject of spares: sitting in a spare room is exactly where they belong.  If she carried around a bunch of spares, then a generation or two after the ship gets underway, there's parts sitting in drawers, under mattresses, in undocumented parches and more.  Inventory control would be vital in such a resource limited scenario, there's no Frys you can just buy another from.

On Cordelia, it sounds as if her AI designer made the classic n00b error of integrating code and data.  Her objective records should have been stored in a separate location, whether a database, collection of files, or whatnot.  Unless she exists to be an exclusively perceptual intelligence who reports on the history of the family through the veil of personal experience, the data and code don't belong to each other.  Clearly, the family didn't perform a good code review!  :)

Now if that's the case, then her role makes more sense.  She's an AI, not a portable camera.  I imagine her role would be to provide a sense of continuity for the family, an unbroken connection to the fam as they were when they left spacedock.  Without that, the group that arrives might be alien in motivations and values compared to the one that invested everything in colonization. 

Finally, I respectfully disagree with the implicit assertion that the family was heartless.  In an environment like they have, generosity with resources isn't possible without screwing your descendants.  Letting the uncle live without pulling his weight might be an impossibility in their situation, depending on how their resources are implemented.  What happens if medical care becomes impossible late in the flight because two generations of senior citizens consumed all of the medical supplies early in the trip?  They may not have the option of making exceptions if it may hurt their children or descendants, they basically hold the resources of the ship in trust.

Same with allowing emotionally unstable people to reproduce.  We have safety valves in Earth that allow us to ignore or even benefit from outriders who may even contribute to our genetic richness over time even with short term problems, but the rules change in a confined environment.  If her brother produced kids with magnified emotional instability traits (limited gene pool, eventually you're gonna cross the streams) and two or three generations later the ship has a mutiny or massive social breakdown, everyone could die.

It sucks, but the reality if shipboard life would necessarily be different from what we experience on mother dirt here.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #24 on: June 15, 2011, 12:45:02 PM »
I just wanted to thank you all for your comments. I wish I'd had them before I published it because your comments make me aware that I was unclear in my writing.  Rava's family isn't the only one on the ship. Cordelia is only recording their family so she's not a failure point for the ship, just the extended family.

I'm glad that the story works for most of you anyway.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #25 on: June 15, 2011, 12:54:34 PM »
I just wanted to thank you all for your comments. I wish I'd had them before I published it because your comments make me aware that I was unclear in my writing.  Rava's family isn't the only one on the ship. Cordelia is only recording their family so she's not a failure point for the ship, just the extended family.

I'm glad that the story works for most of you anyway.

I actually assumed that we were only seeing one of many extended families on the ship, even though it may not have been explicitly stated in the text. :)

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #26 on: June 15, 2011, 07:33:16 PM »
Yeah, I had assumed they were one of many families as well, just that each family had its own little ruling structure. Which is kind of creepy, really.

I thought the ending was plenty devastating. Rava clearly considered the AI a person and she was obviously distraught and what she had to do.
The story wasn't meant to be some epic scale tale of ruin, its the tragedy of two people, Cordelia and the uncle, whose efforts to keep himself alive ultimately failed, and took Cordelia with him in the process.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #27 on: June 15, 2011, 10:31:44 PM »
Add me to those who doesn't get the title... I mean, I get the allusion, just not how it relates to the story. I started thinking, "oh, right, they won't find a cable and that's the allusive nail", but I was wrong there, wasn't I?

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #28 on: June 16, 2011, 12:47:51 AM »
I just wanted to thank you all for your comments. I wish I'd had them before I published it because your comments make me aware that I was unclear in my writing.  Rava's family isn't the only one on the ship. Cordelia is only recording their family so she's not a failure point for the ship, just the extended family.

I'm glad that the story works for most of you anyway.

I am (and was at the time of listening) well aware that Cordelia is only for a single family.
However, I seemed to get the impression that at that point in the voyage nobody really knew anything. They were relying on her for everything. Communications, inventory, logging, education.... what happens when (not if) part of the ship breaks? They need to turn to Cordelia (or one of the other AIs) and ask "How do we fix the ship?" But what if Cordelia broke...?
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #29 on: June 16, 2011, 08:22:04 AM »
I just wanted to thank you all for your comments. I wish I'd had them before I published it because your comments make me aware that I was unclear in my writing.  Rava's family isn't the only one on the ship. Cordelia is only recording their family so she's not a failure point for the ship, just the extended family.

I'm glad that the story works for most of you anyway.

I'd assumed that there were other families, but I'd thought that Cordelia was the sole records-keeper for the entire ship.  And I thought that the protagonist was the sole AI-wrangler, giving her a role of extreme importance to all.  Cordelia seems to do more than just record, though, she's the only one who keeps track of where equipment is, and seems to handle communications within their group, etc.  I considered her logging of events the least important part of her function because I don't think anyone in the future is going to care enough to read them.  

So, wait, if there are other families and other AIs, why can't they just go knock on their doors and ask if they can borrow a cable?  Assuming the other family's AI is functional, that AI should be able to find their supplies quickly and easily, and then they could've restored Cordelia's storage memory and then she could swap out her part, easy peasy.  Did I miss a reason why they couldn't have done this?  Now I'm confused.  I think I liked it better when I thought it was all just bad engineering, because that I can blame on her ancestors that I don't need to follow.  If their problem-solving skills are so poor that they never think of asking another family for aid, well that I can only blame on the characters in the story, and since it's a story based around their quest to solve that problem, it's hard to say I could've really rooted for them then.

I think I'm just going to pretend the story was what I thought it was, because I liked it a lot that way.   ;D

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #30 on: June 16, 2011, 08:25:55 AM »
Add me to those who doesn't get the title... I mean, I get the allusion, just not how it relates to the story. I started thinking, "oh, right, they won't find a cable and that's the allusive nail", but I was wrong there, wasn't I?

I think that's what it meant?  Or rather, the damage caused to Cordelia is equivalent to the horse throwing a shoe.  The difference seems to be that this does have such an epic scale as the expression.  It sounds like the uncle's dementia would've been discovered at some point anyway as he degraded enough to not be able to follow Cordelia's cues, and Cordelia would most likely have been discovered in her role of covering up.  This didn't really change that, it just sped the process up.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #31 on: June 16, 2011, 08:31:01 AM »

So, wait, if there are other families and other AIs, why can't they just go knock on their doors and ask if they can borrow a cable?


Who says they would all necessarily have the same cable? And actually, didn't the guy at the store say there were many different kinds of cables? She had to sort through a pile of them to get the right one, though it only took her three tries (I think there were like 20). Going door to door looking for someone with a compatible cable seems impractical.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #32 on: June 16, 2011, 08:42:44 AM »
Also, remember that Rava was so embarrassed by the accident that she didn't even want to tell the one person who should have been able to help her the most: her uncle. As Cordelia's previous wrangler, he should have been the one to help her troubleshoot the problem, (this is of course ignoring of his mental state) but she was trying desperately to make it so that only she and her brother ever had to know. So, it's entirely possible that all of the proper channels were in place and she just ignored them in her haste to fix Cordelia before anyone else noticed the problem.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #33 on: June 16, 2011, 11:12:52 AM »
Who says they would all necessarily have the same cable? And actually, didn't the guy at the store say there were many different kinds of cables? She had to sort through a pile of them to get the right one, though it only took her three tries (I think there were like 20). Going door to door looking for someone with a compatible cable seems impractical.

I don't see how that would be at all impractical, at least not any more impractical than having to find a cable in the first place.  She could go visit her neighbor, and their neighbor's AI could find the right one lickety-split because it would have access to long-term memory.

Also, remember that Rava was so embarrassed by the accident that she didn't even want to tell the one person who should have been able to help her the most: her uncle. As Cordelia's previous wrangler, he should have been the one to help her troubleshoot the problem, (this is of course ignoring of his mental state) but she was trying desperately to make it so that only she and her brother ever had to know. So, it's entirely possible that all of the proper channels were in place and she just ignored them in her haste to fix Cordelia before anyone else noticed the problem.

I can buy into that, trying to keep her screw-up on the downlow and intentionally ignoring other solutions that would require outside help to avoid embarrassment.  That makes enough sense to me.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #34 on: June 16, 2011, 12:56:55 PM »
Not all the families use AIs like Cordelia for their record keeping:

   Cordelia was their family’s continuity, their historical connection
   to their past. Some families made documentaries. Some kept
   journals. Her family had chosen to record and manage their
   voyage on the generation ship with Cordelia.


So, this particular problem only affects this particular family, not the everyone on the ship. The story doesn't specify how many - if any - other families use a similar system, but I'm guessing it's 'not many', possibly even 'none'. I'm assuming the author did this to keep both the problem and the solution - such as it was - basically within the family, with the exception of the corner store guy. After all, if the solution is too easy, then no story!

Essentially, this points to the originator of the idea being the kind of middle manager who decides to use a certain technology because it's cool or whatever, without thinking through all of the implications and having failure plans.

   "Hey, I know, let's use an AI! It'll be cool and do all the work for us!"

   "Um, but Don, what if someone hacks it to keep themselves alive?"

   "Oh, come on, no one would do that. This is family we're talking about! Oh, and hey, it can even keep track of its own spare parts and backups and stuff!"

   "That doesn't sound... safe. What if it gets damaged?"

   "Are you kidding? Look at this thing! It's built like a tank! You could drop it on its head without so much as loosening a cable! ..."
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #35 on: June 16, 2011, 01:16:19 PM »
See, I heard that same about about some families this and some families that...and I conjured up an image of each family having their own generation ship. Maybe it had to do with concentration. I was driving when I heard the story... :)
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #36 on: June 16, 2011, 07:00:22 PM »
Oh, Hallelujah!  Frabjous day!

A Hugo story that actually has a plot, character development, and drama!  It's marvelous.  Not only that, but it made twists and turns along the way.  One of my favorite Hugo nominees ever. Thank you!

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #37 on: June 17, 2011, 08:21:05 AM »
Oh, Hallelujah!  Frabjous day!

A Hugo story that actually has a plot, character development, and drama!  It's marvelous.  Not only that, but it made twists and turns along the way.  One of my favorite Hugo nominees ever. Thank you!

At least one of the other has all these things too!  Peter Watts's "The Things".  I'm looking forward to hearing the other two, maybe it'll be a very well rounded year!

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #38 on: June 17, 2011, 02:21:33 PM »
I appreciated what the story was trying to do (IMO), which was weave together the uncle's dementia, Cordelia's memory loss, and Rava's fear of losing her own records/memory, but I think it took way too long to get there. I was really bored after the first 10-15 minutes, until stuff started happening.

I did get the reference to the proverb/saying -- if x hadn't happened, we wouldn't need a, but there's no a, so we need b, but there's no b, etc etc etc.

Overall I thought this one was okay. I just wish it had gotten to the point faster.
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #39 on: June 20, 2011, 07:40:53 AM »
I didnt really get the problem with Cordelia, now that they knew the uncle was not in his right mind why did have to mess with her programing or revert to the older copy? That extra code really didnt matter anymore.
Ok story, nothing i was crazy about.

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #40 on: June 20, 2011, 02:03:23 PM »
Oh, Hallelujah!  Frabjous day!

A Hugo story that actually has a plot, character development, and drama!  It's marvelous.  Not only that, but it made twists and turns along the way.  One of my favorite Hugo nominees ever. Thank you!

At least one of the other has all these things too!  Peter Watts's "The Things".  I'm looking forward to hearing the other two, maybe it'll be a very well rounded year!
Just listened to that over at Clarkesworld. Now that is class.
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #41 on: June 20, 2011, 05:57:33 PM »
I didnt really get the problem with Cordelia, now that they knew the uncle was not in his right mind why did have to mess with her programing or revert to the older copy? That extra code really didnt matter anymore.
Ok story, nothing i was crazy about.
I think the problem was that they had to treat her like a compromised system.  They can't trust Cordellia to do it's job anymore.  Whenever the protagonist thought she had cleaned up the mess, the code reasserted itself. 

In IT thought, a computer that's been infected/compromised can
almost never be trusted again.  It takes a high degree of certainty about what really happened to make sure you aren't leaving backdoors in place or something, and it felt like they couldn't each that certainty with Cordellia. 

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #42 on: June 23, 2011, 12:20:27 PM »
Joined to say how much I enjoyed this story. It satisfies a particular part of my scifi appetite that I often don't get from contemporary SF. A hard-science problem and its social consequences? Perfect!

One thing the story did which had nothing to do with the story itself was it reminded me how ANGRY a book made me. This book (actually two books) is the Commonwealth saga by Peter F. Hamilton. I'm going to avoid naming specific characters in the spoiler space below, but it will still be spoily to see the event coming at all, even if you don't know who it's about: Er, never mind, this forum doesn't have the SPOILER tag. Shocking! Don't read between the lines then...

--------------------- spoilers for Pandora's star and Judas Unchained -------------------
The bad guys in these books have the ability to make people sleeper agents, with the compromise buried so deep that  the victim can't tell it's happened, even if they are activated. In the story, a woman is so compromised, and given a compulsion to fall in love with a main character, which puts her in a position later to do a VERY BAD THING, the cause of which we don't know for something north of 1000 pages. When all this finally comes out, the woman is sent for "deprogramming". The main character tosses this off as no big deal, he'll get his wife back and he could keep the good stuff - she'll still love him.

HOLD THE HELL ON. The entire reason she fell in love with you was outside of her control. If you're removing the bad programming, you gotta remove the compulsion too, and start the relationship from scratch, AT MOST (better off to let the woman live her life never knowing you; you have WAY too much inside information about her). This destroyed the story for me, because it solidified the idea I was getting during the books that the "good guys" weren't really all that good eitther, and their vaunted society was creepy as all hell.
------------------------------------------ END SPOILERS ----------------------------------------

Anyway, what I really liked about "for want of a nail" is that it faced the same problem - the unrecoverable compromise of the personality of a loved one (Cordelia), and made a hard choice. That right there is excellent drama.

I didnt really get the problem with Cordelia, now that they knew the uncle was not in his right mind why did have to mess with her programing or revert to the older copy? That extra code really didnt matter anymore.

They found the code that made Cordelia protect Georgio, but not the part that caused her to erase evidence that it was happening. The concern, and this is a classic one going back to HAL in 2001, is that as Georgio gets worse and worse, the compulsion to protect him will make Cordelia go to greater and greater lengths. Say, turn off the air in Rava's compartment if she figured it out and nobody was around to see it. Cordelia would become a danger to everyone.

Perhaps a better AI designer would have figured out how to seperate Cordelia's recordkeeping functions from her core personality, but I suspect that if we ever get an AI, it will be just as difficult to do this as it would be to erase a single memory from a person without affecting anything else. Forgetting things HURTS - it's maddening when you can't think of a word, but you can think of everything surrounding that word. You'd have to do massive "pruning" to avoid that kind of effect, and I think that's exactly what the rollback is for. Capturing a state is a lot easier than altering the interconnections.

« Last Edit: June 23, 2011, 12:47:16 PM by Peevester »

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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #43 on: June 23, 2011, 11:52:50 PM »
Loved this story and hated it at the same time. Living with a relative who is currently mentally deterriorating in front of me daily, there is something to be said for protecting and taking care of the elderly and I immediately reject the idea of shirking this responsibility. However this is a very painful process and it's at that point where I do not know if he even knows I'm here, talking to him, and what comfort I can give him beyond a warm bed and warm food.
I loved the idea that the AI was not only the recorder of the family, but part of the family. That is until she malfunctions against the wishes of said family and they essentially kill her and start up a new one. Crazy, but I love it.
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #44 on: June 25, 2011, 10:07:36 PM »
Great story, weak ending.
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #45 on: June 27, 2011, 09:12:48 PM »
Oh, Hallelujah!  Frabjous day!
...One of my favorite Hugo nominees ever. Thank you!

Amen to that.
For the past two years running I had begun to really lose interest in the Hugo nominations. This story delivers the goods and has brought back a serious ray of hope. It ain't perfect, and yes the ending is slightly anticlimactic; but it's intelligent, it develops as it goes along...AND it is true and unadulterated sci-fi.

Rushing over to Clarkesworld now.
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #46 on: June 29, 2011, 03:09:43 PM »
Very, very nice indeed. Really enjoyed this one, though it took me some time to get into it. I loved how the situation unraveled and Cordelia found a bigger mess than she had planned on, one that had great ramifications for her. I pretty much saw how it tied into the the plot.








On a side note..."awkwardness"? I thought the comments were pretty valid. It wasn't as if I was going to go over to someone's house and beat them with my flip-flop if they didn't like my story...
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #47 on: June 29, 2011, 03:18:35 PM »
It wasn't as if I was going to go over to someone's house and beat them with my flip-flop if they didn't like my story...

No, you only do that if he refuses to marry you after his brother leaves you a widow :P.
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Re: EP296: For Want of a Nail
« Reply #48 on: October 27, 2019, 06:03:01 PM »
I really like the idea of an A.I. acting as a family chronicler. I've often regretted not asking my grandparents about the times they lived in while I had the chance. It would be awesome to have a "family" member like Cordelia who had first hand knowledge over several generations.

I also found the the idea of paralleling dementia with Cordelia's loss of memory to be a clever idea.

Having said all that, I found the scene of the family meeting near the end confusing. Were Cordelia's decisions based solely on the uncle's tampering? I f so, why was she still protecting him after the code had been removed? Why would the family insist on scrapping a valuable piece of technology? They have no compunctions about recycling flesh and blood relatives, so why not force a rollback on a machine?

I think there is a great story here, but that penultimate scene isn't as clear to me as I wish it was.