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Author Topic: EP362: Contamination  (Read 8927 times)


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on: September 21, 2012, 10:06:36 PM

EP362: Contamination

By Jay Werkheiser

Read by Dave Thompson

Originally appeared in Analog, 2010


Ari allowed his skimmer to brush the outer edge of Nouvelle Terre’s atmosphere.  He tried to imagine air jostling the light nanofiber support frame, whistling through the skimmer’s magsails. Excitement pulsed through his veins at the thought of being so close to the blue-and-white surface, perhaps closer than any human had ever dared.  Nothing but his skinsuit and a few hundred kilometers of atmosphere separated him from the living, breathing landscape below.  He spread his arms and legs, trying to feel the miniscule tug of atmospheric drag.

Is that what wind feels like?

His faceplate HUD showed a ripple in the magsail’s yaw loop.  The threat of a coil collapse brought his mind back into focus, and he hiked up the field strength to gain some altitude.  He savored every precious minute the skimmer took to climb away from the atmosphere.  Nouvelle Terre’s secondary sun climbed over the horizon, visible only because the primary sun hadn’t yet risen.  He scanned the starry sky, taking advantage of the view before primary sunrise darkened his faceplate.  Earth’s distant sun was almost directly overhead, a pinpoint at the tail of a zig-zag of stars.  The drive flare that cut across the constellation chilled his good mood.  After a generation of silence, what could the Earth people possibly want?

Bah.  Figuring that out was the job of bureaucrats.  Ari preferred jockeying around with a skimmer, launching and retrieving microprobes, and taking time to enjoy the freedom of flight.  Before long, the Gardien rose above the limb of the planet.  He’d be home within a half hour, pining for his next chance to fly free.
“That you, Ari?”  If his solitude had to be interrupted by a human voice, he could do worse than Maura’s.
“Who else would it be?”
He knew damn well who she was afraid it might be.  He tilted his head upward toward the spear of light that dominated the sky.  A new ship from Earth arriving unannounced after all these years was reason enough to be on edge.

Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!


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Reply #1 on: September 23, 2012, 05:43:35 PM
Interesting how in its multiple conflicts and close-shave rescues, the story felt almost low-key. The loneliness of orbital mechanics perhaps was breaking through.


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Reply #2 on: September 24, 2012, 11:19:44 AM
Ahhhhhhh....New Earth.  No dings, nicks or scratches.  Much like the plastic covered couches at your Aunt Mildred's house, let's wrap this planet in a protective bubble and keep it that way, shall we?  Never understood this attitude.  We have a brand new dining room table and it's just killing me as I watch all of the micro-scratches building up on it as it is being used.  The alternatives are just silly though.

This seemed a bit of a fluff piece, but an enjoyable one.  It makes sense that both Ari and the ship captain begin to question the motives of their society's belief system.  Both seemed to have no problem bending the rules in the face of authority.  I just think the story would have benefited exploring this self-conflict a little more.  Kind of hard to do when they're going to smash into each other in minutes, so it was excusable.

The other characters, Maura and the director just seemed flat.  Once again there was the potential for looking more closely into the conflict of sacrificing one's own child for the protection of the planet, but that moment was glossed over too quickly.

And what of the captain's passengers?  Everyone else has been looking forward to making a life on the planet surface.  They're running out of radiation medicine.  Even with meds, I question the effects on the next generation.  Do you think they'd tolerate hanging indefinitely in orbit with gene therapy?  They're certainly not headed back to Earth I.  I want to know the outcome.


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Reply #3 on: September 25, 2012, 01:27:09 PM
This was a very well written and thought out story.  I enjoyed the science, I enjoyed the characters, and I enjoyed the telling of the story.  I also enjoyed the debate that was happening, I'm not sure what side of the fence I would fall on.  On the one hand, the first settlers have a good point, once you start interacting with the ecosystem, you change it.  There's no going back from that point.  The second settlers had a valid point as well, though.  Why go somewhere if you aren't going to interact with it?  They could have just as easily sat in orbit of Earth I observing that planet.  Or Jupiter, or Saturn, or any other planet.  There's a reason they call it habitable. 

One thing that I'm glad of is that Ari was a male character.  If the conservationists were all female, it might have given me the idea that this story was trying to put forth an "all women want to preserve life and purity, all men want to destroy and conquer and posess" message. I'm not going to argue that message, I'm just saying that putting that message forth could have changed the story for me. 

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Reply #4 on: September 26, 2012, 06:38:01 AM
I liked the fact that neither side had a monopoly on morality in this. It's easy to understand the perspective of the newly arrived. But the people who've been there for a while have a point as well. Glad it didn't all go to hell in a handbasket.


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Reply #5 on: September 26, 2012, 01:02:47 PM
I loved this story. It didn't go where I thought it was going to go. I was fully expecting "The Cold Equations" and got something much more satisfying in the end. Escape Pod recently released episode 359: Chasers. That's what I kept flashing to. This was a similar situation to that story, but I guess I liked the ending better.

I usually instantly loathe any story that sets out as an opening premise, "this is about politics," which this one did, and it was. But it was handled nicely enough that I overrode that initial gut reaction and was able to get past it, and I'm glad. The main characters in the end put aside the politics and acted like human beings instead of politicians automatons.

What I would not want to read is the aftermath.

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Reply #6 on: September 26, 2012, 04:24:24 PM
Like Kaa, I was instantly reminded of ep359: Chasers. However, this story had a stronger cast of characters and a much more satisfying ending. In this, Ari's unselfish, proactive efforts to save the Earth shuttle was noble and endearing, unlike Sebastian's reactive efforts to go along with Wild's selfish suicide that lead to the possible mass murder of the crew of the Eternity in Chasers.

I enjoyed the dialogue between Ari and Bill, the comfortable chat between two people who knew they were both but pawns in this sudden and unexpected political power struggle. And I loved their efforts to work together to save not only themselves, but each other. I do wish Ari's relationship with Maura had been a little more fleshed out. I mean, we're lead to believe that they are probably romantically involved, but at the same time, without any explicit confirmation of that assumption, there's no reason that they couldn't have been siblings or just close friends.

The ending was fantastic because both ships were saved, but there is still the looming effects of the actions of both crews. We know that there are going to be severe prices to pay for the choices made, and that there is no guarantee that the settlers won't still land in the near future. I did expect the settlers' situation to be a little more dire than it was, like the Earth was gone and they were the last surviving human beings or something, but the fact that they left of their own choice in search of something better just strengthens the scientists' position that they have claim to Alpha-Centauri and the settlers shouldn't be allowed to land.

The more I think through this the more I love this dilemma. Who's right? The settlers can't live in space, at least, not for any extended amount of time. But the scientists have claim to the planet and the preservation and study of the ecology is paramount because for all they know, Earth-based bacteria may destroy the ecosystem of the entire planet and make it inhospitable within a few generations.

This was a great story.

-Josh Morrey-
"Remember: You have not yet written your best work." -Tracy Hickman


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Reply #7 on: September 27, 2012, 12:54:00 AM
This story hit quite a sweet spot. The characters were minimal but developed enough that you were concerned for two principal characters. The science was touched on without breaking any laws of physics, with the end magic tech being nicely suggested in the beginning. No star trek magic box that Data/Wesley/Q pulls out of the last commercial break.

Good job and quite enjoyable. Please keep up the good work.


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Reply #8 on: September 27, 2012, 06:14:24 PM
I enjoyed this story as well.  It had many things going for it.  First of all, it was read by Dave Thompson.  

I also like that it used the classic sci-fi lens of examining current issues into a grander, or removed, scale.  The difference in the conservation in this story is that humans have never set foot on the planet, where here on Earth we are already part of the ecosystem, but we can change the way we interact with it.  This new world gives us the chance to start over and "do it right", but can you take the conservationism too far?

And lastly, as others have said, I liked that however this dilema is resolved between the governments, these pilots are just trying to find a way to stay alive.  Neither of them wants to hurt the other regardless of their political opinions and so they find a solution.  And who knows, this little confrontation could be a determining factor in the conflict.  I really like stories than tell a good story in their own right, but definately are part of a larger world that can be expanded into a series of novels in the right circumstances.

The only thing that I found a bit convenient was how the virus broke off of communications with the mothership, but left the short range ship-to-ship comms intact.  If the gestation mother didn't want Ari to talk to the Earth ship, she would have taken care of that.  But then there wouldn't have been much of a story now would there?
« Last Edit: September 27, 2012, 06:30:03 PM by Swamp »

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Reply #9 on: September 27, 2012, 10:45:54 PM
The only thing that I found a bit convenient was how the virus broke off of communications with the mothership, but left the short range ship-to-ship comms intact.  If the gestation mother didn't want Ari to talk to the Earth ship, she would have taken care of that.  But then there wouldn't have been much of a story now would there?

Well, the ship to ship communication was achieved by using his monofilament coils as a rudimentary antenna, if I recall correctly.  The virus was built to keep his path on a collision course with the shuttle, not to prohibit him from using them at all. 

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Reply #10 on: September 28, 2012, 07:52:03 PM
I loved this one! One of my favorite Escape Pod stories in a while!

It was fascinating to watch the two pilots interact with each other. At first there was an inherent trust due to being on similar ground as pilots. As they learned more about the other's culture (settlers instead of scientists, grossly differing philosophies about gene therapy, etc) this initial trust was tested, but fortunately proved strong enough to allow for collaboration. There was a frankness in their dialog that cut right through all of the politicking and allowed for decisive action-taking. You know what, maybe I'm drawn to this story because I'm so sick of politics right now. Whatever the reason, great job all 'round! :)


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Reply #11 on: September 30, 2012, 01:09:30 AM
Another good one.   :)  I don't have quite as much enthusiasm as some other listener's but I did like this one a lot.  (I think it suffers from me listening to #363 immediately following it and that one stuck with me more.)

This was a good one, though.  The story of the "first" contact been non-governemental entities makes for a nice complete plot without unrealistically resolving the big issues.  And Arie's point at the end of the "real" contamination is an excellent one.  I was surprised that Bill chose not to land on the planet, but that was sure nice of him.  I can't say Arie's arguement had any affect on me, but I knew that Arie only half-heartedly supported his government's position and given that his mother turned him into an involuntary Kamikazi, I don't think his government is in any way admirable.


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Reply #12 on: October 01, 2012, 03:22:29 PM
I also liked this story. It tackled some pretty difficult questions, without being preachy or convoluted. And I pretty much agree with what most of the "like" camp have already said about it.

I do disagree with one thing Cutter McKay said:
I do wish Ari's relationship with Maura had been a little more fleshed out. I mean, we're lead to believe that they are probably romantically involved, but at the same time, without any explicit confirmation of that assumption, there's no reason that they couldn't have been siblings or just close friends.
I thought this was a good thing. The bond between siblings and friends can be just as strong as between lovers, so there was no reason to bring romance into the story to make it work. Personally, I find it nice that there was a strong relationship between a male and female character without having to explicitly make it about sex. In short, I found he ambiguity was appropriate, because the nature of their bond was irrelevant to the story.


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Reply #13 on: October 03, 2012, 12:27:44 AM
I found this more reminiscent of the conflict in #323 - Marking the Far Side of Forever, but with more science and more moral ambiguity. This planet has flora but I wonder if it has any fauna, let alone intelligent life or potentially intelligent life. I guess the author wanted to keep the message to ecological conservation without muddying it with Prime Directive conflicts. Grey but not too grey.

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Reply #14 on: October 08, 2012, 07:13:44 PM
A good story and well-told. I liked the subtle use of filters for radio communications. Simple and effective.

I wanted to learn more about the birth mother-child relationship going on. It goes towards world building and in the case of a short story, I suppose that's not really necessary. But it's the only gripe I can hang my hat on.

Other than that, good stuff.

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Reply #15 on: November 02, 2012, 01:53:48 PM
In the end I liked this story, but it did take a while to get into.  I found the extremely distant observational attitude so extreme as to be pretty ludicrous.  What do they think that they can learn from orbit that they haven't learned already by this time?  At some point they're going to have to get their hands dirty and do something, and that time is overdue.

The strongest part of this story, as some others have mentioned, is the frank conversation between the opposing pilots.  They both know that they have a job of work to do, assigned to them by their superior officers, but they both have to struggle within the parameters of their own powers to decide what to actually do.  It would be easy, in that position, to write off the opposing pilot as an enemy, to embrace xenophobia and reduce the risk to yourself by killing the other, but the other pilot increased the risk to himself by trying to save our protagonist.  Because both of them are in the trenches and both of them are being bossed around by someone who claims to dictate their every action but who isn't in the trenches themselves, they feel more empathy for each other than for their bosses, and together they find a compromise that (although it may get them in hot water shortly) allows them both to live.

So, once I got past the initial "what the hell are you people still doing in orbit", and the pilots started interacting, I really dug this.


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Reply #16 on: December 10, 2012, 04:36:16 PM
This reminded me a lot of the problem I had with "The Sparrow". In that story, the people were so eager to learn about the new planet's ecosystem that they had no thought on the consequences their presence would bring. Glad to see a story that addresses it, and also simultaneously argues well for landing on it.  A thoughtful, wonderful story that had a positive ending! Yay!

And yes, I know things probably will hit the fan afterwards, but that's another story. ;-)

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Reply #17 on: January 03, 2013, 06:40:32 PM
Yep. Nice story, with a pretty balanced view of the dilemma at hand and no obvious black and white side, just some guys trying to do their best in a tight spot, and coming up with a short term solution (although the long term solution might be difficult). I think the cool proffesionalism and immediate understanding between peers is what makes it ring true.


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Reply #18 on: March 23, 2013, 02:00:06 AM
I did like this though I was a but put off by Ari's attitude, the "I'm just a pilot not a scientist" shtick I'd recently gotten my fill of while listening Existence by David Brin. The dialogue was good, it felt natural, and interaction between people estranged enough to be alien to each other, though only seperated by generations as opposed to species.

In this case I kept feeling that we needed an explanation, other than a virus, why there wasn't any sort of emergency manual override. The ship might be very technical to run but that seems unlikely, especially with inclusion of a separate radio using the sail, that there wasn't a separate system for locking the sail or some-such into a default safety position. I think that Ari escaping without risking his life would of course entirely change the story and their interaction but that felt like a sticking point.


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Reply #19 on: June 18, 2013, 01:20:16 PM
Not a comment on the story, but my 6-week old son's middle name is Ari.  I hadn't recalled every hearing that name before, we'd picked it as a male variation of Aria.  But I guess I have heard it before.  :)