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Author Topic: EP337: Counting Cracks  (Read 2832 times)
eytanz
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« on: March 22, 2012, 04:36:32 PM »

EP337: Counting Cracks

By George R. Galuschak

Read by Mat Weller

Originally appeared in Strange Horizons

---

Four of us, jammed into my sister’s Ford Festiva, going to kill the monster. Sylvia drives. The Hum has left her untouched, so she’s the only one left in town who can drive. My sister licks the palm of her hand, touches it to her nose and bumps her forehead against the steering wheel. Then she does it again.

“Today would be nice, sis.” I say. I’m in the back seat with June, a twelve-year old girl clutching a teddy bear to her chest.

“I’m going as fast as I can,” she tells me. “It’s bad today.”

“The Shop-Rite has three hundred and fifty-seven ceiling tiles,” Michael tells me. He’s a little kid, nine years old, sitting up front with Sylvia. “I counted them.”

“Inpatient oranges creep handsome banisters,” June says, rolling her eyes.

“Good for you,” I say. My left leg hurts, which I guess is a good sign. My left arm feels like dead weight except for the tips of my fingers, which are tingly.

“Do you count tiles, Mr. Bruschi?” Michael asks.

“No. I counted cracks on the sidewalk. When I was a kid.”

A sparrow collides with the windshield. It bounces off and skitters to the pavement, where it thrashes. I haven’t seen a living bird in days. It must have flown into the Hum.

“Swill,” June says, pointing at the bird. “Maraschino cherries. Skittles. Cocktail weenies.”

“All right. I’m ready.” Sylvia twists the key, and the car starts. We back out of the driveway.

“The streets are so empty,” she says.

“That’s because everyone is dead,” Michael tells her. “They listened to the Hum and went into their houses and pulled the covers over their heads and died. I had a hamster that died, once. It got real old, so it made a little nest, and then it laid down in it and died.”

“We’re not dead,” I say.

“Not yet,” Michael corrects me. “Give it time.”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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ToooooMuchCoffeeMan
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« Reply #1 on: March 23, 2012, 01:37:30 AM »

That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.
That was awesome.

...Seriously. As someone with both OCD and Tourettish symptoms, I'm used to explaining to people that I don't have a disability, just a difference. But I've never before thought of it as a superpower. Cool.

I could've done without the description of how the cats died, though.
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« Reply #2 on: March 23, 2012, 08:06:22 AM »

Neuro-atypical heroes for the win! Only we can save you from the alien invasion!

Well, only they can save you from the invasion. I'm pretty sure my ADHD doesn't rate.

In any case, I loved this one. The very idea of a brain weapon that fails against those with atypical brain structures was just so clever, and the story really delivered on that clever premise. I liked how the story was really driven by the human connection between the characters: the main character and his sister, the main character and June. This was a grim, hard, and ultimately uplifting story about people banding together in crisis, and finding forgiveness.

My only nit-pick was that the alien invasion didn't make a lot of sense. Who employs a weapon that destroys his own soldiers? I didn't need the exact nature of the invasion to become clear - I liked the mystery - but I would have appreciated that piece being less contradictory, even if it didn't exactly fall into place. It seemed a little too convenient, which combined poorly which being unexplained.
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« Reply #3 on: March 23, 2012, 10:59:26 AM »

My only nit-pick was that the alien invasion didn't make a lot of sense. Who employs a weapon that destroys his own soldiers? I didn't need the exact nature of the invasion to become clear - I liked the mystery - but I would have appreciated that piece being less contradictory, even if it didn't exactly fall into place. It seemed a little too convenient, which combined poorly which being unexplained.

I'll second that.  And in addition to that, what did the aliens actually want?  All we see them doing here is hanging out in the grocery store and guarding that grocery store.  They slaughtered most of humanity so that they could use our refrigerators?  Seriously?

This story was pretty interesting.  I liked that the neuro-atypical people had a strength that got them through it.  The way I pictured it, they are operating on a different wavelength than most of humanity and the aliens have (understandably) tuned their weapon based on the most common wavelength.  The most interesting was that some people could apparently shift in and out of that wavelength at will.  If there are some advantages to being neuro-typical and some advantages to being neuro-atypical, I would think it would be even more advantageous to be able to shift from one to the other.

This was probably more interesting to me than it might've been before I've been learning about Temple Grandin.  She is a very interesting person.  For those who haven't heard of her, she is a specialist in animal science who has high-functioning autism.  Among other things she has redesigned equipment used at slaughterhouses so that they are more humane, and she has been able to do this so effectively because she is much more effective at understanding what the animals see and what makes them afraid and how to change the setting so that it does not inspire fear.  My wife recently read her book Animals in Translation which I intend to read sometime, and there was a fairly recent movie based on her as well (titled "Temple Grandin").

So in many ways I liked the story, but the fact that the aliens' weapon hurt their own troops and the fact that there was no apparent gain for the aliens in this otherwise organized invasion bugged me enough that I liked it less as a result.
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« Reply #4 on: March 23, 2012, 11:05:04 AM »

My only nit-pick was that the alien invasion didn't make a lot of sense. Who employs a weapon that destroys his own soldiers? I didn't need the exact nature of the invasion to become clear - I liked the mystery - but I would have appreciated that piece being less contradictory, even if it didn't exactly fall into place. It seemed a little too convenient, which combined poorly which being unexplained.

I'll second that.  And in addition to that, what did the aliens actually want?  All we see them doing here is hanging out in the grocery store and guarding that grocery store.  They slaughtered most of humanity so that they could use our refrigerators?  Seriously?

This story was pretty interesting.  I liked that the neuro-atypical people had a strength that got them through it.  The way I pictured it, they are operating on a different wavelength than most of humanity and the aliens have (understandably) tuned their weapon based on the most common wavelength.  The most interesting was that some people could apparently shift in and out of that wavelength at will.  If there are some advantages to being neuro-typical and some advantages to being neuro-atypical, I would think it would be even more advantageous to be able to shift from one to the other.

Trust me, there's an advantage to being neuro-typical - usually it means you get shit done faster. You don't have to lick things, or wash things, or talk to imaginary people, or... whatever the hell it is I do. I don't have the slightest idea. My wife tells me that it takes me between a third again and twice as long as anyone else to do pretty much anything. I have no idea where the time goes.
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« Reply #5 on: March 23, 2012, 11:45:26 AM »

My only nit-pick was that the alien invasion didn't make a lot of sense. Who employs a weapon that destroys his own soldiers? I didn't need the exact nature of the invasion to become clear - I liked the mystery - but I would have appreciated that piece being less contradictory, even if it didn't exactly fall into place. It seemed a little too convenient, which combined poorly which being unexplained.

I'll second that.  And in addition to that, what did the aliens actually want?  All we see them doing here is hanging out in the grocery store and guarding that grocery store.  They slaughtered most of humanity so that they could use our refrigerators?  Seriously?

This story was pretty interesting.  I liked that the neuro-atypical people had a strength that got them through it.  The way I pictured it, they are operating on a different wavelength than most of humanity and the aliens have (understandably) tuned their weapon based on the most common wavelength.  The most interesting was that some people could apparently shift in and out of that wavelength at will.  If there are some advantages to being neuro-typical and some advantages to being neuro-atypical, I would think it would be even more advantageous to be able to shift from one to the other.

Trust me, there's an advantage to being neuro-typical - usually it means you get shit done faster. You don't have to lick things, or wash things, or talk to imaginary people, or... whatever the hell it is I do. I don't have the slightest idea. My wife tells me that it takes me between a third again and twice as long as anyone else to do pretty much anything. I have no idea where the time goes.

That makes sense.  Being able to more easily relate to other neurotypicals would be handy too.  I more meant that as part of the whole statement, saying that if there are advantages to both that it would be handy to be able to switch.  Smiley
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« Reply #6 on: March 23, 2012, 12:40:31 PM »

I liked this one, a bit more after the brain-fog left from a previous listening and finally grasped that it was his sister with the word replacement issues, for the entire car ride I thought it was one of the two extra children they brought along. I'm sure they have names but they kind of felt like pity-fodder to me.

Its very refreshing to have heroes that aren't typical, so many are either normal people or super-people and after a few too many stories about super-spies and genius space warrior children I've just about had my fill of folks who are amazing and know it..

If we need a reason for setting up at the supermarket we might be able to assume that the spiders need to eat, and people need to eat, therefore if they set up where people need to go to find food they will find some sort of nutrients! Perhaps the hero was wrong and instead of the Hum making them sick, it was the human food they tried it eat, sometimes people can wrong, or readers can make excuses!
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« Reply #7 on: March 24, 2012, 10:08:16 PM »

Trust me, there's an advantage to being neuro-typical - usually it means you get shit done faster. You don't have to lick things, or wash things, or talk to imaginary people, or... whatever the hell it is I do. I don't have the slightest idea. My wife tells me that it takes me between a third again and twice as long as anyone else to do pretty much anything. I have no idea where the time goes.

Well, you don't have to lick things...
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« Reply #8 on: March 24, 2012, 10:16:48 PM »

Trust me, there's an advantage to being neuro-typical - usually it means you get shit done faster. You don't have to lick things, or wash things, or talk to imaginary people, or... whatever the hell it is I do. I don't have the slightest idea. My wife tells me that it takes me between a third again and twice as long as anyone else to do pretty much anything. I have no idea where the time goes.

Well, you don't have to lick things...
Often it is not permitted.
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« Reply #9 on: March 25, 2012, 12:17:02 AM »

Meh. This one felt a little too much like an escapist fantasy for OCD sufferers. As someone who struggled to overcome his tendencies toward that kind of thing, it insults me a little when it's celebrated as a valid lifestyle choice. Harumph.
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« Reply #10 on: March 25, 2012, 02:01:58 AM »

Trust me, there's an advantage to being neuro-typical - usually it means you get shit done faster. You don't have to lick things, or wash things, or talk to imaginary people, or... whatever the hell it is I do. I don't have the slightest idea. My wife tells me that it takes me between a third again and twice as long as anyone else to do pretty much anything. I have no idea where the time goes.

Well, you don't have to lick things...
Often it is not permitted.

Only in boring places.

Meh. This one felt a little too much like an escapist fantasy for OCD sufferers. As someone who struggled to overcome his tendencies toward that kind of thing, it insults me a little when it's celebrated as a valid lifestyle choice. Harumph.

Really?

So, let me get this straight. Escapist fantasy is fine if you're "normal" and if the escapist fantasy celebrates something you judge as "normal," Yahtzee. If the escapist fantasy goes into something else, you don't?

For that matter, I don't see how this story "celebrated" OCD as a "lifestyle choice." It basically said "if you're different and your life works for you and you're willing to pay the price, that's ok." Nowhere did the story pretend that any character who embraced his or her OCD was going to have a "perfect" life. The main character's sister was openly living her OCD, and seemed all set to become a crazy cat lady. What made that ok was not that her "lifestyle choice" was celebrated, but that she had chosen it, and it made her, if not perfectly happy, happy enough. And goodness knows, few people even get that out of life.

Yeah... I just don't see it. It's like we listened to two different stories.
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« Reply #11 on: March 25, 2012, 04:48:53 PM »

I loved this one. Neuro-atypical FTW!
My only nit-pick was that the Hum (it attained proper-noun status in my mind) seemed to effect our protag's left side. Unless I have forgotten everything I learned in high school, that means that it was actually attacking his right brain. Which is cool, because that's often referred to as the "creative side" of the brain. (Strict lateralization of the brain is really not true, but this appears to be a broad enough generalization to be partially true). And someone who counts cracks would have a more active left brain, or at least more atypical left brain. And that would explain why the Hum only affected the protag's left arm and leg. But (and here we finally get to the pick), that would mean that when it gets really bad his right eye would get droopy, not his left. Because the spinal cord controlling these things crosses over in the middle of the neck. Right brain "controls" (again, not strictly true) right eye and left arm.
This didn't detract much from my enjoyment of the story because either:
a) it is a little-known fact and therefore I shouldn't expect everybody to know it or
b) I am remembering all this stuff wrong.

Also, haven't you people read enough pulp science fiction? Aliens aren't rational beings! They just want to come to our planet, kidnap people to test their anal probes on, vaporize small towns, abscond with the occasional sheep and drive people crazy until they die. There is no rhyme or reason to it.
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« Reply #12 on: March 25, 2012, 04:55:57 PM »

Another thing, the changing of time frames.
This is a complaint that gets heard a lot, that it is often hard to tell in audio when a new sequence begins that takes the reader/listener back in time to a previous point, and then back to the "present". It gets confusing and results in some serious mental-gear clashing.
Perhaps our fine editors - who do an extraordinary job - can introduce some kind of audible cue that signifies that large white space or three spaced asterisks you get in text. You know, that thing telling you that this is a new scene.
Perhaps 5 solid seconds of silence? A tone? A whoosh? An entry from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?
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« Reply #13 on: March 26, 2012, 09:53:49 AM »

I loved this one. Neuro-atypical FTW!
My only nit-pick was that the Hum (it attained proper-noun status in my mind) seemed to effect our protag's left side. Unless I have forgotten everything I learned in high school, that means that it was actually attacking his right brain. Which is cool, because that's often referred to as the "creative side" of the brain. (Strict lateralization of the brain is really not true, but this appears to be a broad enough generalization to be partially true). And someone who counts cracks would have a more active left brain, or at least more atypical left brain. And that would explain why the Hum only affected the protag's left arm and leg. But (and here we finally get to the pick), that would mean that when it gets really bad his right eye would get droopy, not his left. Because the spinal cord controlling these things crosses over in the middle of the neck. Right brain "controls" (again, not strictly true) right eye and left arm.
This didn't detract much from my enjoyment of the story because either:
a) it is a little-known fact and therefore I shouldn't expect everybody to know it or
b) I am remembering all this stuff wrong.

Also, haven't you people read enough pulp science fiction? Aliens aren't rational beings! They just want to come to our planet, kidnap people to test their anal probes on, vaporize small towns, abscond with the occasional sheep and drive people crazy until they die. There is no rhyme or reason to it.

You are right that the side of the brain is opposite of the side of the body it primarily controls.  But I didn't see that as a contradiction here.  The way I interpreted it, the Hum attacks the entire brain not just one side or the other.  The exact effect seem to be at least somewhat random, but distributed.  I think this is supported by the fact that his wife went blind in BOTH eyes, not just one.  The fact that his body had problems on just one side is not because it attacked only one side, but because the overall attack on his brain ended having a specific effect of giving him a stroke which typically does effect one side more than the other. 

Another thing, the changing of time frames.
This is a complaint that gets heard a lot, that it is often hard to tell in audio when a new sequence begins that takes the reader/listener back in time to a previous point, and then back to the "present". It gets confusing and results in some serious mental-gear clashing.
Perhaps our fine editors - who do an extraordinary job - can introduce some kind of audible cue that signifies that large white space or three spaced asterisks you get in text. You know, that thing telling you that this is a new scene.
Perhaps 5 solid seconds of silence? A tone? A whoosh? An entry from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

Oh!  I forgot to mention that.  Yes, some kind of signal of a time shift would be very useful, I found this one rather chronologically confusing. 
Also, I wish that authors would stop writing so many stories of the flashback/flashforward variety. Usually it's not necessary and it just leaches the tension out of the earlier scenes because you know where they end up.


Also, another thing I forgot to mention:
Am I the only one who thought a shotgun was a terrible choice of weapon for this man?  He knows that his left side responds to an irregular degree to his commands, to the extent that he has trouble getting out of cars sometimes.  Why in the world would you choose a weapon that you need both hands to use well.  I suppose you could aim a shotgun with one hand, but it'd be hard to aim well and if half your body is semi-unresponsive the recoil could easily knock you on your ass.  A handgun would've been better.
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« Reply #14 on: March 26, 2012, 10:44:05 AM »

My only nit-pick was that the Hum (it attained proper-noun status in my mind) seemed to effect our protag's left side. Unless I have forgotten everything I learned in high school, that means that it was actually attacking his right brain. Which is cool, because that's often referred to as the "creative side" of the brain. (Strict lateralization of the brain is really not true, but this appears to be a broad enough generalization to be partially true). And someone who counts cracks would have a more active left brain, or at least more atypical left brain. And that would explain why the Hum only affected the protag's left arm and leg. But (and here we finally get to the pick), that would mean that when it gets really bad his right eye would get droopy, not his left. Because the spinal cord controlling these things crosses over in the middle of the neck. Right brain "controls" (again, not strictly true) right eye and left arm.

You are right that the side of the brain is opposite of the side of the body it primarily controls.  But I didn't see that as a contradiction here.  The way I interpreted it, the Hum attacks the entire brain not just one side or the other.  The exact effect seem to be at least somewhat random, but distributed.  I think this is supported by the fact that his wife went blind in BOTH eyes, not just one.  The fact that his body had problems on just one side is not because it attacked only one side, but because the overall attack on his brain ended having a specific effect of giving him a stroke which typically does effect one side more than the other. 
You missed the point of my pick. It's that his left eye got all droopy when it got really bad, not his right eye, because the crossover happens in the neck.
Also, I tried to claim that the Hum attacked both sides of his brain, but his left brain, the analytical side, had more protection due to his OCD or mathematical inclination or whatever it was. But his other side, his creative side, didn't have so much protection and therefore was affected.

Also, another thing I forgot to mention:
Am I the only one who thought a shotgun was a terrible choice of weapon for this man?  He knows that his left side responds to an irregular degree to his commands, to the extent that he has trouble getting out of cars sometimes.  Why in the world would you choose a weapon that you need both hands to use well.  I suppose you could aim a shotgun with one hand, but it'd be hard to aim well and if half your body is semi-unresponsive the recoil could easily knock you on your ass.  A handgun would've been better.

Actually, a shotgun is one of the few guns that can be effectively aimed with one hand and still do lots of damage. Bracing the gun against his hip and using large-scatter rounds he can cause a lot of damage with very little aiming. Perfect for someone with little control over half his body.
A handgun, on the other hand, is very hard to properly aim one-handed. Unless it's small. And if it's small it doesn't do much damage.
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« Reply #15 on: March 26, 2012, 11:17:48 AM »

You missed the point of my pick. It's that his left eye got all droopy when it got really bad, not his right eye, because the crossover happens in the neck.
Also, I tried to claim that the Hum attacked both sides of his brain, but his left brain, the analytical side, had more protection due to his OCD or mathematical inclination or whatever it was. But his other side, his creative side, didn't have so much protection and therefore was affected.

Oh!  Yes, you're right.  My mistake.


Actually, a shotgun is one of the few guns that can be effectively aimed with one hand and still do lots of damage. Bracing the gun against his hip and using large-scatter rounds he can cause a lot of damage with very little aiming. Perfect for someone with little control over half his body.
A handgun, on the other hand, is very hard to properly aim one-handed. Unless it's small. And if it's small it doesn't do much damage.

Ah, hadn't realized you could effectively brace against the hip.  I'd still say that if he has little control of one leg that he would still risk knocking himself on his butt and leaving himself vulnerable to attack as a result.
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« Reply #16 on: March 26, 2012, 11:29:52 AM »

Overall, I enjoyed this story. I agree that the flashbacks were difficult to place at first, but once I got all of the main characters straight it was a fun romp to the end.

It was very cool to see a story hinge on the unexpected usefulness of being neuro-atypical, though the prevalence of immune or semi-immune people seemed a bit low, unless perhaps there wasn't a university in the area. For example, I don't think anyone would class me as neuro-atypical, but even I have some instinctive acknowledging behaviors, usually relating to floor tiles or street lights. *waves at my fellow scientists*

My only real nitpick was this: cell phones do not have dial tones!!!
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« Reply #17 on: March 26, 2012, 10:03:30 PM »

Tremendously fun. Really enjoyed June's character - the humorous element she introduced was welcome.

The cats' death part stuck out to me too  - as a cat owner I found it particularly affecting. I didn't see that as a negative though; for me it added an extra element of tragedy (I am single and cannot relate to a spouse).

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« Reply #18 on: March 27, 2012, 06:49:07 AM »

The building of the pace of the story, the back and forth of scenes in time were a litle disjointing at first, but as the pace quickened it worked much better.  That was a good deal of flashbacks, but we did manage to avoid the flash-sideways, so that's definetly a good thing. :-) However, I felt like the end of the story, it's creschendo was a little flat with "we found surivors and got on a bus, drove to another town and said, 'We're here,' and life went back to 'normal' again."  I just felt like it was longing for more details about reactions from others, the impact this had much farther out from its epicenter.
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« Reply #19 on: March 27, 2012, 08:56:03 AM »

My only real nitpick was this: cell phones do not have dial tones!!!

Ha!  I didn't even notice that.  I imagine the next generation would say "What's a dial tone?"

Which reminds me of an anecdote someone was telling me the other day when someone showed some current high-schoolers a picture of a floppy disk and asked them what it was.  Someone immediately piped up and said "Yeah, that's the Save button."
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