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Author Topic: EP301: Stone Wall Truth  (Read 4681 times)
eytanz
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« on: July 15, 2011, 11:36:10 AM »

EP301: Stone Wall Truth

by Caroline Yoachim

Read by Heather Welliver
Originally appeared in Asimov's

Nominated for the Hugo Nebula Award for Novelette, 2011
---

Njeri sewed the woman together with hairs from a zebra tail. Her deer-bone needle dipped under the woman’s skin and bobbed back out. The contrast of the white seams against her dark skin was striking.

“The center seam makes a straight line,” Njeri told her apprentice, “but the others flow with the natural curves of the body, just as the Enshai River follows the curve of the landscape.”

Odion leaned in to examine her work, his breath warm on the back of her neck. Foolish boy, wasting his attention on her. Njeri set her needle on the table and stood up to stretch. The job was nearly done — she’d repositioned the woman’s organs, reconstructed her muscles, sewn her body back together. Only the face was still open, facial muscles splayed out in all directions from the woman’s skull like an exotic flower in full bloom.

“Why sew them back together, after the wall?” Odion asked. “Why not let them die?”


Rated appropriate for appropriate for older teens and up for disturbing imagery.

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« Last Edit: September 06, 2011, 06:08:16 PM by Heradel » Logged
Dem
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« Reply #1 on: July 17, 2011, 05:29:39 AM »

Looks like I'm first to weigh in with this one. It puzzled me because, in essence, it's a very long drawn-out way of telling us that people did bad things to other people on the basis of some tradition, and that a come-uppance of sorts was achieved. So the message should be about the inadvisability of blind faith. But there's more. It's actually pretty gruesome, but even from the inside (pun almost intended) when Njeri is pinned out on the wall, there is no sense of that. She has a transcendental experience and sees pretty colours, so being flayed alive is no big deal then? I'm not a big fan of stories using vehicles of primitive religiosity with unexplained mystical elements to convey messages, but done well, they can be effective. This one seemed to take a very long time to tell us that being unkind to each other without good reason is not a good idea, but also that extreme torture is only unpleasant once you come round from it and people are unkind all over again because of how you look. I'm not suggesting that there should have been detailed attention to the eviscerations, but I do think the opportunity for an exploration of the experience via Njeri was missed.
Nice narration, though.
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« Reply #2 on: July 17, 2011, 07:15:35 AM »

It had some nice subtle touches in characterization.  (In particular, I was pleased with the male apprentice's arc, as he looked to be a fairly simply flat villain from the first scene.)  However, I feel like the theme was both a little unbelievable and hammered home with a bit of a ham-fist.  I saw the revelation coming from the moment Njeri started to see backwards in time, and having it repeated over and over and over for the rest of the story ("They didn't hide their shadows!") was kind of irritating.  I might also take some exception to the idea that the solution to invasions of privacy is to just hang your dirty laundry on the outside of your house, but that's really a separate issue.  (I don't particularly want to hear about all of your secret sins and vices, 'k?  Admitting your "shadows" to yourself is an important part of growing as a person, but sharing them with others is TMI.)

I was also a bit confused about the mechanism of the wall.  Like, okay, apparently the experience is traumatic enough that those who undergo it are forever scarred by the experience, but when we see it for ourselves, it's not actually painful at all other than when Njeri goes out of her mindstone and relives the pain of dismemberment for all the previous victims, who were for the most part shielded in mindstones themselves.  The story explicitly says that most people don't reach out of their stones during the procedure.  If all most people get is a short time-out inside a sphere, then I'm not sure I see why the wall is so awful in itself.  The ostracization afterward, sure, that'd be deeply unpleasant, but the specific impression I got was that the wall was considered the punishment, not the shunning.  Conversely, if it's that bloody painful to go on the wall, why in the world would the "ancients" create a technology designed for everyone to use as some kind of bonding ritual/history lesson that was so exquisitely painful that it causes PTSD in those who experience it?  I guess the "ancients" got themselves blowed up pretty good at some point, though, so maybe they were just really poor decision-makers in general.
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« Reply #3 on: July 18, 2011, 12:00:45 PM »

This story was painfully drawn out. Was it so I could feel some sort of pseudo pain?
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« Reply #4 on: July 19, 2011, 08:38:44 AM »

Interesting ideas here, but for me was very long for its content, and all but one of the revelations were predictable early on; the one that wasn't, didn't make a lot of sense to me.

For me at least, it was a foregone conclusion that everyone has darkness.  Even if I didn't already believe that, the way she wondered how an innocent would look on the wall without darkness clinched it.  I guess she just believed so strongly in it that she never paused to think about it, but it only takes a moment to dig up seams in the story.  The leaders are constantly overthrowing one another, and whenever someone new comes to power the old leader gets flayed and is shown to have darkness.  If the overthrown leader has darkness now, then they certainly did a week before when they were ordering their own enemies flayed.  So, at best, you've trusted the judgment of someone who clearly had darkness in them, to decide who you should flay.  If you know the decision-maker had darkness, you ought to wonder whether those they chose were really bad people.  I can understand how she didn't wonder this in the context of her society, but it makes for a really long story when this is the great revelation that is the most obvious conclusion from the beginning.

I agree with others that the experience on the wall doesn't actually sound that terrible.  Like, pretty much a short painless out of body experience.  The scarring afterword is a much bigger deal because of others reaction to you. 

the one reveal that surprised me was the reveal that the ancients had used this as a ritual of love.  I guess I can complain about various aspects of current society, but at least a marriage doesn't involved flaying your loved one on a dissection board.  That's messed up, that is. 
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olivaw
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« Reply #5 on: July 19, 2011, 05:18:36 PM »

I found it tough just piecing together what was being described here, let alone derive any message from it.

These were humanoid people, right, not jellyfish aliens or something?
We never heard anything to confirm that the shadows were actually anything to do with 'sin', did we?
The shift in perspective while on the wall could have come from the consciousness being removed to a stone, or the magical action of the light and shadow on the flesh, or simply the fact of having the body ripped open, or the psychological pressure of being stuck up on a metaphorical cross, or something else, right?

I like puzzles. I'm not sure if I've got all the pieces, though.

Probably didn't help that I had this in my head, though...
« Last Edit: July 19, 2011, 05:20:36 PM by olivaw » Logged
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« Reply #6 on: July 19, 2011, 10:08:35 PM »

the one reveal that surprised me was the reveal that the ancients had used this as a ritual of love.  I guess I can complain about various aspects of current society, but at least a marriage doesn't involved flaying your loved one on a dissection board.  That's messed up, that is.

That's what stuck out to me as the oddest part of this story. I guess it's a metaphor for being completely open with another person but it's a tad too literal for me. Actually cutting someone up whilst being cut up?? Bleh. Close to my worst nightmare.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #7 on: July 20, 2011, 01:25:57 AM »

Wow. This one pegged at about 9.5 on my creep-o-meter. Cutting people up, flaying them, sewing them back up.... eeewwww.

I'm not clear if the flesh-stripping of the process was needed by the Ancients. Or why it would be.

Yeah, probably Fantasy, but it's the whole Hugos thing.
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Dem
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« Reply #8 on: July 20, 2011, 08:10:26 AM »


Probably didn't help that I had this in my head, though...


That's a terrible thing to have in your head. We get it on our TV sometimes, and have to be medicated.
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bolddeceiver
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« Reply #9 on: July 20, 2011, 11:49:59 AM »

Did the ending feel naive to anyone else?  If we're to believe Njeri, it's all OK because now she can tell them all that they had the wall all wrong.  Are we really to expect anyone would listen to her?  It was mentioned earlier in the story that it's not uncommon to have vaguely incoherent visions while on the wall/in the stone, and they're pretty much dismissed at that juncture, and there's no profit in it for the absolute dictator running things to give up his weapon of intimidation.  It's not like she has any evidence outside her own head.  I was really expecting a coda to about this effect, and the supposedly hopeful note it ended on felt rather hollow.
« Last Edit: July 20, 2011, 05:35:37 PM by bolddeceiver » Logged
grokman
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« Reply #10 on: July 20, 2011, 08:45:38 PM »

For the first part of the story I was too distracted by what was being accomplished on the wall. Were they literally separating the organs and hanging them up? for how long? I got the impression that Kaneka (?) and the others were on the wall for quite a long time - months and years, but Njeri was up there for what? A matter of minutes or hours?

Also this one veered dangerously close to fantasy for me - but then again "advanced technology = magic" and all of that. But I really just couldn't understand what was actually happening. What were the shadows? An alien parasite? I'm still unclear.

I guess in the end it was a pretty haunting story, but I wish that some of it had been a little clearer. (or perhaps I'm just THICK  Huh )
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kibitzer
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« Reply #11 on: July 20, 2011, 09:52:49 PM »

Did the ending feel naive to anyone else?  If we're to believe Njeri, it's all OK because now she can tell them all that they had the wall all wrong.

I assumed this would be the beginning of change, possibly strangled at birth because you're right, convincing anyone will be an uphill battle all the way. All we see is the experience, not the result of it (if any).
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« Reply #12 on: July 21, 2011, 05:20:52 AM »

I kind of wonder why this was nominated for a Hugo, other than that the writing was good. (Although, really, if the writing itself hadn't been good, the story wouldn't have been published in the first place.) It was clear from the first time that Njeri wondered what she would be like if she was sentenced to the wall that she... well... would be sentenced to the wall. The story went on and on and on, and didn't really keep me all that interested, mostly because I knew exactly where it was going and didn't really like the MC very much.

The "primitive/traditional/ritual" surgery was cool, although it had a gross-out factor of, oh, about seven or eight. I'm glad I wasn't eating anything at the time.

The reading had a LOT of long pauses that felt out-of-place to me.
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« Reply #13 on: July 21, 2011, 08:45:18 AM »

We never heard anything to confirm that the shadows were actually anything to do with 'sin', did we?

I don't think we did.  They seem to believe it blindly, I guess just based on the basic abstract and essentially meaningless concept of darkness as evil and light as good.

Did the ending feel naive to anyone else?  If we're to believe Njeri, it's all OK because now she can tell them all that they had the wall all wrong.

I assumed this would be the beginning of change, possibly strangled at birth because you're right, convincing anyone will be an uphill battle all the way. All we see is the experience, not the result of it (if any).

Me, I thought that this would cause no change in the world, only in herself.  She's been flayed on the wall, and everyone's seen her darkness.  Therefore, her word is not to be trusted, and anything she said would be seen simply as trying to justify her darkness, to rise above her evil for which she has been marked.  She's evil--can't you see her marks??--therefore she is a liar.   Like in Shawshank, most everyone says they're not guilty; Disbelief is a foregone conclusion.  

This system of justice is set up in such a way that, if you believe in it strongly, it reinforces itself.  The only one who can tell you the wall does not work the way it's believed to are ones who have been condemned to it and therefore must not be believed.  

And if you don't believe in it strongly, then the logic of the whole system would've fallen apart even without inside evidence.  Every leader ends up on the wall eventually, and those leaders are the same ones who had been choosing who to put them up on the wall.  If evil people are choosing who to put on the wall, they will certainly not choose ONLY other evil people.  yet everyone on the wall shows darkness, or at least a lack of darkness is so rare as to be an insignificantly small portion of the population.  Just from hearing that premise, it's pretty clear to me that EVERYONE most likely has darkness--otherwise the odds of no one ever being darknessless just doesn't make sense after generations of this.  Anyone living with this system who's able to think about it logically should at least hypothesize this.  But much of the point seems to be that no one is really thinking about it logically, least of all the surgeon herself, who instead just relies on the Nuremberg Defense to soothe her conscience.


« Last Edit: July 21, 2011, 08:47:46 AM by Unblinking » Logged

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Gamercow
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« Reply #14 on: July 21, 2011, 10:46:45 AM »

Sooooo slooooooow.  This one missed the mark by quite a bit for me.  Was way too slow, and seemed very padded to me.  I understood what the point was supposed to be, but it was so hamfisted and obvious that I just didn't give a damn by the end.
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« Reply #15 on: July 21, 2011, 01:08:56 PM »

Did the ending feel naive to anyone else?  If we're to believe Njeri, it's all OK because now she can tell them all that they had the wall all wrong.  Are we really to expect anyone would listen to her?  It was mentioned earlier in the story that it's not uncommon to have vaguely incoherent visions while on the wall/in the stone, and they're pretty much dismissed at that juncture, and there's no profit in it for the absolute dictator running things to give up his weapon of intimidation.  It's not like she has any evidence outside her own head.  I was really expecting a coda to about this effect, and the supposedly hopeful note it ended on felt rather hollow.

That was my reaction also. To me, it felt like the story ended far too early.
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Dem
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« Reply #16 on: July 21, 2011, 01:15:07 PM »


Like in Shawshank, most everyone says they're not guilty; Disbelief is a foregone conclusion.  

Any mention of 'Shawshank' and I'm sold.
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« Reply #17 on: July 22, 2011, 11:35:07 AM »

I liked this story when I first read it in Asimov's and I enjoyed it even more hearing it out loud.  To me the real takeaways from this story are about personal accountability, the grave risks inherent in invoking "faith" prematurely in a given situation, and a nagging feeling that many years from now others will be writing about us and scratching their heads in wonder at many of the bizarre things we do right now in our culture in the name of tradition and blind faith in concepts that are statistically provably wrong.

In this story's world, the new ruler brought his victims to be flayed, and he asked Njeri to clarify/confirm what happens.  She could have said that all she knows is that everyone she flays open has some black stuff in them, but she does not know what that black stuff is, what it means, or whether it is inside everyone or not.   Instead, she gave her stamp of legitimacy to the practice and he ordered the next victims flayed.  As she came to realize, simply following orders does not absolve someone from the responsibility of their actions.

As for the entire practice of flaying people to expose their evil, the sheer stupidity of their reasoning was obvious:  Everyone they flayed had black stuff inside them, and therefore they must all be evil.  Even though there was no scientific reasoning behind it.   

I can't help but think there right now in our society there are billions of people who do, say, and believe all sorts of crazy practices and beliefs that are hateful and harmful to other people -- and they do those things because they believe that they are right or true -- even though they have never sought out proof of their validity.  Rather, they falsely assume that because someone they love or respect seems to believe the same thing, they should go along.  And the next thing you know we have entire cultures locked in groupthink that leads to intolerance, hate, and war.

I'm speaking partly (but entirely) of religion here, and, while not meaning to offend anyone who is a deep believer, would like to suggest that many religious groups' core beliefs are mutually exclusive with each other.  Regardless of what the objective truth turns out to be, if we ever learn it, billions of people are likely wrong about religion right now.  Very very wrong.   Yet they persist in their beliefs and claim they believe what they do because they have faith in their particular sect's beliefs. 

What they should be doing, in my humble opinion, is asking themselves whether they were that lucky to actually be born into the "right" faith?  Furthermore, they should ask themselves if they were born into a "wrong" faith, do they think they would they cling to that faith just as steadfastly, or would they somehow "know" that they need to search for the right one?

In the end, our situation and the situation of the stone wall seems to come down to the same thing.  A lack of critical thinking, understanding of statistics, and a great deal of moral laziness.

All that said, I agree that the story itself wasn't great for many of the reasons you all pointed out.  But I did like how it made me think, and I also acknowledge that I really didn't think these things the first time I read the story because I was rather fixated on the graphic descriptions of the flaying.









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olivaw
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« Reply #18 on: July 22, 2011, 11:45:31 AM »

By the way, was anyone else expecting some kind of allusion to Stonewall?
Or maybe there was one which I missed.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #19 on: July 22, 2011, 11:50:53 AM »

By the way, was anyone else expecting some kind of allusion to Stonewall?
Or maybe there was one which I missed.

I think it's a pun. The society is stonewalling the truth about the Wall, insisting it was a punishment, when, in fact, to use a web phrase "Ur doin it wrong!"
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