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Author Topic: EP353: Talking to the Enemy  (Read 9491 times)

eytanz

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on: July 14, 2012, 07:47:58 AM

EP353: Talking to the Enemy


By Don Webb

Read by John Mierau

An Escape Pod Original!

---

We knew a little, but we knew the Free Machines knew more. We hoped our adversary, the Belatrin, knew less; but since they were such creatures of dream and nightmare even at the late parts of the War, we suspected they knew everything.

The Peace Conference hadn’t happened in the first six months of our being here. Everyone talked about it. Breakthroughs were rumored everyday. The only hard facts are that we had grown more efficient at killing Belatrin and they us.

The “peace planet” was named Mrs. Roger Fishbaum III. Roger Fishbaum had paid currency to name a star after his wife in the International Star Registry a thousand years before. The Siirians had a name for it that had too many clicks and whistles, the Free Machines a binary designation, and for all we knew the Belatrin used telepathy. The planet stank of vinegar and moldy bread. I always assumed that its atmosphere contained some needful compound for our enemies’ breathing, but maybe the Free Machines choose it to annoy us, or them.

Siirian merchants made the most of our discomfort. They sold ineffective air shields that released some herbal concoction. I was buying one when I made my ironic remark about the peace talks. The merchant polished its carapace with two of its legs and whistled out a message that my implant made into, “Honored customer, do you think you will be the chief negotiator for the peace talks?”

I set my translator for ironic mode, and said, “Most certainly. My lowly position as a Viscount of the Instrumentality qualifies me far better than the Dukes of Diplomacy.”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!



Dem

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Reply #1 on: July 15, 2012, 01:31:14 PM
Intriguing. Unfortunately, the fictional language problems leaked into the actual text so it was quite hard to tell sometimes what was intentional gobbledygook and what was there in error. It would really have benefited from a scrub down with a good editor to pull out the spelling, punctuation, and stray words that must have made it tricky to narrate. Let's have it back when it's been spruced up and pretend it wasn't here just now  :)

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zoanon

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Reply #2 on: July 16, 2012, 05:19:36 AM
Whooa -*ala' keanu reeves*



Unblinking

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Reply #3 on: July 16, 2012, 01:55:19 PM
I enjoyed this one.  Nothing particularly deep, but I found it fun.  I don't think I've seen that Twilight Zone episode, but it sounds like a great one, the short audio clip at the end from that just added to the fun.  That must've been a bitch of a script to follow, even for an experienced actor.  Their inflections sounded so perfect despite the complete gibberish they were speaking.  I kind of preferred that to this story, because I found it more disconcerting for familiar words to be arranged in meaningless ways than to just say complete gibberish was happening.

One thing that I liked about this story is that the plan for negotiations didn't turn out right the first time.  I'm an engineer, and as a result I'm pretty skeptical when someone "invents" something that has never been made and it works completely perfectly the first time.  To make an omelette you've got to crack a few eggs.  To develop nuclear power, someone like the Curies are going to die of radiation poisoning first.  If you're going to make data fever that can enable direct communications between two species who kill each other by proximity, it's not going to work right the first time.  So I liked that even though these people had seemingly magical all-power, that that doesn't mean that a new invention will be infallible.  For that alone I liked it, but the story overall was fun.

I liked the open ending too, though by observation of the alien's behavior, I think he'll go mad when he gets too close.  I wonder if the aliens who invented this thought it would actually work on the first try or whether they were giving these people up as lambs for the slaughter to progress the science.  Now they can observe the results, make adjustments and try again.  I believe that any spacefaring race will have the discipline and the means to make scientific experiments for advancement, but that doesn't mean that they will have the same ethics encouraged by our current age's scientific community.

Intriguing. Unfortunately, the fictional language problems leaked into the actual text so it was quite hard to tell sometimes what was intentional gobbledygook and what was there in error. It would really have benefited from a scrub down with a good editor to pull out the spelling, punctuation, and stray words that must have made it tricky to narrate. Let's have it back when it's been spruced up and pretend it wasn't here just now  :)

What if they were ALL part of the story?  :)

Okay, I'm not actually sure what you're referring to, so if there were flubs that weren't part of the story... I guess they weren't blatant enough to bother me.  To me, printed mistakes jump out at me immediately, but spoken ones tend to get lost in the flow.
« Last Edit: July 16, 2012, 02:02:23 PM by Unblinking »



matweller

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Reply #4 on: July 16, 2012, 02:01:39 PM
Intriguing. Unfortunately, the fictional language problems leaked into the actual text so it was quite hard to tell sometimes what was intentional gobbledygook and what was there in error. It would really have benefited from a scrub down with a good editor to pull out the spelling, punctuation, and stray words that must have made it tricky to narrate. Let's have it back when it's been spruced up and pretend it wasn't here just now  :)

What if they were ALL part of the story?  :)


Funny, that's what I took it as, that the degradation was already progressing and we were walking in on it.

Made me think of Flowers for Algernon or Charlie for the more cinematically oriented.



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Reply #5 on: July 16, 2012, 02:03:45 PM
Funny, that's what I took it as, that the degradation was already progressing and we were walking in on it.

Made me think of Flowers for Algernon or Charlie for the more cinematically oriented.

I think it's an entirely reasonable interpretation, whether or not it's true.  If I were the author I'd probably say "Yeah, I totally meant to do that" either way.   ;D



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Reply #6 on: July 16, 2012, 03:53:24 PM
... the short audio clip at the end from that just added to the fun.
Was that what that was? I couldn't be sure. But I was jogging and there was a lot of street noise.
<listens to that bit again>
I think it was a sound bite from the aforementioned Twilight Zone episode.

Enjoyed this, knew the story was over before the music came on, and without looking at my player. (As in, when the last sentence started I knew that this was it, and what the sentence would be) I guess that makes it predictable, but still good.
I liked how the ordinary gestures that we make and take for granted as part of our social interaction and communication get so easily misinterpreted.

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Reply #7 on: July 16, 2012, 04:14:32 PM
I liked how the ordinary gestures that we make and take for granted as part of our social interaction and communication get so easily misinterpreted.

That part reminded me of another story that I can't recall the name of, that I heard on one of the podcasts I listen to.  It was a take on a zombie plague from a zombie point of view, but rather than being mindless creatures they were just humans with their communications methods greatly altered.  They could talk to each other telepathically but had lost the ability to speak coherently, and also mangled the ability to make recognizable gestures or pointing at words.



Dem

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Reply #8 on: July 16, 2012, 04:40:48 PM


Intriguing. Unfortunately, the fictional language problems leaked into the actual text so it was quite hard to tell sometimes what was intentional gobbledygook and what was there in error. It would really have benefited from a scrub down with a good editor to pull out the spelling, punctuation, and stray words that must have made it tricky to narrate. Let's have it back when it's been spruced up and pretend it wasn't here just now  :)

What if they were ALL part of the story?  :)

Okay, I'm not actually sure what you're referring to, so if there were flubs that weren't part of the story... I guess they weren't blatant enough to bother me.  To me, printed mistakes jump out at me immediately, but spoken ones tend to get lost in the flow.


I read along with the narration and there were all sorts of flubs - spelling ones, punctuation ones, word order ones, kinds that I've forgotten ones. The narrator did a great job of negotiating them, which is probably why you didn't notice. Lots of stars to him, methinks  :)

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Reply #9 on: July 17, 2012, 01:24:22 AM
Wow. Weird alien-space opera and languages! Ten thumbs up from me!

My take on the open ending was that the Siirians had really messed up and given the poor doomed Belatrin woman something that made her speak a human language, but neglected one crucial detail, so she still croaked. Doesn't sound like the best plan to me, but they are giant unironic crabs. And lord knows humans have done dumber things than that.

And for Mur (and Unblinking) I did a little digging. It was made easy by the clip, because I recognized the voice as that of Bernard Behrens (how did I know that? Because yesterday I just watched the awful Roger Corman film, "Galaxy of Terror", which he's in. That's how), and followed him back to the citation for that episode. As you can see, the segment "Wordplay" was written by Rockne S. O'Bannon, creator of the Alien Nation TV series, and "Farscape" - which, as I recall, had at least one aphasia-based episode.




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Reply #10 on: July 17, 2012, 04:12:12 AM
I enjoyed this tale of lost identity. It seems to me this story was written with those acquainted with culture shock. The intensity of the feelings of loss, confusion, and the misunderstandings of gestures, sounds and facial expressions brought the main character's lot to a real plane for me. Hats off to all those who survive culture shock and embrace that new inner madness.  

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Max e^{i pi}

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Reply #11 on: July 17, 2012, 10:42:54 AM
My take on the open ending was that the Siirians had really messed up and given the poor doomed Belatrin woman something that made her speak a human language, but neglected one crucial detail, so she still croaked. Doesn't sound like the best plan to me, but they are giant unironic crabs. And lord knows humans have done dumber things than that.
The way I understood it there were 4 species involved:
Humans at war with the Beltarin.
Beltarin at war with the humans.
The Free Machines there to try and negotiate an end to the war.
Siirians, an opportunistic race. Having finished a war with the humans in the past, are now ready and willing to sell them crap for a profit. Ferengi, anyone?
The way I understood it the Free Machines engineered the mind-screwer-upper thingy that allowed the species to (maybe) communicate directly. They then used a Siirian agent to get this device to both warring species.

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matweller

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Reply #12 on: July 17, 2012, 01:34:12 PM
Wow. Weird alien-space opera and languages! Ten thumbs up from me!

My take on the open ending was that the Siirians had really messed up and given the poor doomed Belatrin woman something that made her speak a human language, but neglected one crucial detail, so she still croaked. Doesn't sound like the best plan to me, but they are giant unironic crabs. And lord knows humans have done dumber things than that.

And for Mur (and Unblinking) I did a little digging. It was made easy by the clip, because I recognized the voice as that of Bernard Behrens (how did I know that? Because yesterday I just watched the awful Roger Corman film, "Galaxy of Terror", which he's in. That's how), and followed him back to the citation for that episode. As you can see, the segment "Wordplay" was written by Rockne S. O'Bannon, creator of the Alien Nation TV series, and "Farscape" - which, as I recall, had at least one aphasia-based episode.


When Mur mentioned it, I thought it would be fun to put at the end.

Unless someone erased it, I also linked Wordplay in the ID3 tags of the file ("get info" in iTunes or right click, 'Properties' on the file itself for a PC), but you can find it just as easily in 2 parts on YouTube if you just search "twilight zone wordplay".



Max e^{i pi}

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Reply #13 on: July 17, 2012, 01:44:32 PM
And for Mur (and Unblinking) I did a little digging. It was made easy by the clip, because I recognized the voice as that of Bernard Behrens (how did I know that? Because yesterday I just watched the awful Roger Corman film, "Galaxy of Terror", which he's in. That's how), and followed him back to the citation for that episode. As you can see, the segment "Wordplay" was written by Rockne S. O'Bannon, creator of the Alien Nation TV series, and "Farscape" - which, as I recall, had at least one aphasia-based episode.
When Mur mentioned it, I thought it would be fun to put at the end.

This is why we love EP. For the geeky little "in jokes". :D

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Reply #14 on: July 17, 2012, 02:12:11 PM

The way I understood it the Free Machines engineered the mind-screwer-upper thingy that allowed the species to (maybe) communicate directly. They then used a Siirian agent to get this device to both warring species.

That's not how I understood it at all.  If the cross-species translators had actually worked, then it would lose the Free Machines the advantage.  The Humans and the Beltarins cannot be in direct proximity to one another without the aliens dying and the humans going mad.  So the Free Machines, being able to deal directly with both sides of the conflict, are willing to sell a mediation service for an astronomical fee, the details of which are still being sorted out but which is apparently of a magnitude to worry about crippling their civilization.  If these two species were able to communicate directly they wouldn't need the Free Machines at all, and certainly wouldn't need them desperately like they do now.  This is mentioned in the story, and someone even says that the Free Machines would probably still offer mediation fee but because it would no longer be a desperate need, the fee would be something reasonable.

So I don't think the Free Machines would administer this translation disease because it would lose them a huge advantage.  I'm not sure if I caught who exactly did it, but my best guess is that the Beltarins commissioned the Siirians to engineer the translation disease and administer it for them. 



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Reply #15 on: July 17, 2012, 09:21:01 PM
Although not my favorite EP episode, I did enjoy this story. There's a steep learning curve at the beginning, with the different races and the warfare timeline and such, but I caught on eventually. For a while I was picturing the Beltarin as the Siirians, with the crab look and all, until it specifically mentioned that the Beltarin looked like the Humans.

I did enjoy the slow disintegration of the protag's communication skills. Rather than just suddenly having him unable to communicate, I enjoyed watching the change over time. I also enjoyed his expectations of people understanding his gestures while also being confused by theirs, ie. the way the humans kept showing their teeth, which I took to mean they were smiling, but to him that was now a sign that they were hungry and he couldn't understand why they would keep telling him that. Well done.

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Reply #16 on: July 22, 2012, 11:03:28 AM
Wow, Mur, that episode also reminded me of the twilight zone episode "word play" the moment I heard it. I really like narratives like that, which take the pov of the victim of mental problems. A beautiful mind and fight club also had some of that to a lesser extent.
« Last Edit: July 22, 2012, 12:04:05 PM by eytanz »



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Reply #17 on: July 23, 2012, 01:38:01 PM
I quite enjoyed this story, and didn't at all mind having to work a little harder to really get into it. Aphasia is fascinating in itself, and making it the mechanism for a complete brain re-mapping like this (if you will) was actually brilliant. Here's hoping that they won't have to experiment with too many more ambassadors before they get some that can communicate without, ya know, dying.



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Reply #18 on: July 23, 2012, 09:00:17 PM
That was one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes of all time, so I'm glad Mat was able to find the clip and append it to the end.

It was a trifle hard to follow, but I think that's the POINT, isn't it? :) Enjoyable.

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Reply #19 on: July 26, 2012, 10:29:22 AM
I didn't have any difficulty following the story. My problem was that the ending was too open-ended -- maybe he'll go mad, maybe he won't; maybe the war will end, maybe it won't. The author spent all this time establishing that the war's gone on for 100 years and now they're going to try and make peace, but the real story is about the Viscount somehow catching this aphasia-virus and starting to speak (we think) Bellatrin. And then we get no real resolution to that, no real resolution as to why the Siirian was working for the Bellatrin (we think), no real resolution to what happens to the Viscount... just, he walks off to the Bellatrin and hopes he doesn't kill them and they don't drive him mad.

I did like the changing language and the concept of aphasia -- that's horrific to me, to know the words but to be unable to communicate. So that part of the story was SUPER EFFECTIVE.

My favorite part by far was the joke about the International Star Registry. I'm not sure if the author wrote this joke independent of the writer of either Abstruse Goose or Doghouse Diaries, who made the same joke at some point in the last 12 months (their archives weren't searchable enough for me to find the comic, but I know it was one of those two), but it's still funny to me.

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eytanz

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Reply #20 on: July 26, 2012, 06:45:59 PM

The way I understood it the Free Machines engineered the mind-screwer-upper thingy that allowed the species to (maybe) communicate directly. They then used a Siirian agent to get this device to both warring species.

That's not how I understood it at all.  If the cross-species translators had actually worked, then it would lose the Free Machines the advantage.  The Humans and the Beltarins cannot be in direct proximity to one another without the aliens dying and the humans going mad.  So the Free Machines, being able to deal directly with both sides of the conflict, are willing to sell a mediation service for an astronomical fee, the details of which are still being sorted out but which is apparently of a magnitude to worry about crippling their civilization.  If these two species were able to communicate directly they wouldn't need the Free Machines at all, and certainly wouldn't need them desperately like they do now.  This is mentioned in the story, and someone even says that the Free Machines would probably still offer mediation fee but because it would no longer be a desperate need, the fee would be something reasonable.


I agree with all of the above reasoning - except that the translation mind-alteration didn't actually work. One possibility is that the free machines have decided that both sides are growing too comfortable with the status quo of the war, and they instigated the whole event knowing full well the exact result, with the specific purpose of screwing with both sides and pushing them towards making concessions. I mean, even if the protagonist doesn't go mad, he's not going to be a particularly effective diplomat.



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Reply #21 on: July 26, 2012, 06:58:12 PM
I agree with all of the above reasoning - except that the translation mind-alteration didn't actually work. One possibility is that the free machines have decided that both sides are growing too comfortable with the status quo of the war, and they instigated the whole event knowing full well the exact result, with the specific purpose of screwing with both sides and pushing them towards making concessions. I mean, even if the protagonist doesn't go mad, he's not going to be a particularly effective diplomat.

It would be remarkable if such a new technology worked correctly on the first try.  You can't make an omelette without knocking down a few dominoes.  That would be like discovering a new drug, theorizing all of the main effects and side effects based only on its structure, and then administering it to a test subject and finding out that you were absolutely correct in all your theories--so astronomically unlikely...

I still think the most plausible explanation is the Beltarans commissioned the new tech from the Siirians with the intent to cut out the middleman.  This was a learning experience in the development of this new technology.  The next progression will be made using the lessons learned in this trial, until an effective technology is reached.  It's scientific progression without the ethics.  Or at least without what we would call desirable scientific ethics.

Yes, exactly, the main character would NOT be an effective diplomat.  Which makes him a good choice for a trial that is certain to fail--if you did the first trial on the most skilled diplomat, then oops you probably just killed your most skilled diplomat and gained nothing from it.

And when we're talking about a longstanding interstellar war which has presumably had incredibly high cost, and negotiating with the Free Machines as the middleman would have enough cost to possibly bankrupt a planet, then it's not an entirely unjusitifiable position to say that this kind of trial isn't for the best of both species--even though it sucks for these poor guinea pigs.



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Reply #22 on: July 26, 2012, 07:12:28 PM
And I really don't buy the Free Machines being behind it.  They're at the top of the status quo at the beginning of the story.  The other parties are literally arguing about bankrupting their planets to pay the machines for a low-effort task.  They have everything to gain by doing nothing, and everything to lose by taking any action.  All they have to do is wait.  Let's say that the Free Machines are behind this failed attempt.  Even if they are, they have now given BOTH sides of the conflict the idea that an infectable translation program MIGHT be possible, and both sides will suddenly become very interested in new R&D to further investigate this possibility, and maybe that R&D succeeds.  We are dealing with scientifically advanced technologically advanced society's with reasonable planetary wealth apparently under one government.  So it is in their best interests to spend a little time doing research to find a solution at some non-bankrupting cost, rather than rushing into selling out their planet.  I'm assuming the Free Machines are logical, and I don't this would be a choice they would make.

To me that would be kind of like an alien race coming to Earth in 1960, with the intent of keeping humans out of space.  So they leave one of their spaceships for us to find, but jokes on us, it's a faulty spaceship that lacks the power to make it into orbit.  So someone finds it, and launches it, and crashes to their doom.  The poor astronauts are dead, what a shame.  But now that people have seen this happening, they now have seen technology firsthand that can KINDOF do what they need it to do, so it's a matter of refining it, they can reverse engineer any information they've recorded about the craft, and all in all they have much more potential to advance through this experience than to be set back.



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Reply #23 on: July 26, 2012, 07:14:55 PM
I like this story the more I argue for it.  It's fun to try to argue based on facts revealed in the story to try to decided the most plausible answer to unanswered questions.  :D



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Reply #24 on: August 01, 2012, 05:47:18 PM
I found this story to be interesting and fun.  Languages and codes have always been fun for me, especially trying to decipher languages from context.  There was just enough humor balanced with the drama to provide for a lighter story that still had some weight to it.  And the discussion of the story is making me want to go back and listen more, I hadn't even thought about attributing the problems to the Free Machines.

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