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Author Topic: EP363: Flowing Shapes  (Read 2865 times)
eytanz
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« on: September 27, 2012, 03:55:54 PM »

EP363: Flowing Shapes

By Rajan Khanna

Read by Josh Roseman

Originally appeared in Basement Stories Issue 1 (2010)

Part One: Contemplation

The human came to She Shalu on the Day of Flowering Awareness. Damo met him near the Still Garden, the fumes of the exiting shuttle mixing with the sharp spice of the tall, white twizak plant. Damo wore a humanoid shape so as to minimize the stranger’s discomfort.

Damo studied the human with the practiced eyes of a Synan. Dark hair covered his head and parts of his body, and he was sleight of build, despite the solidity of his form. About 1.7 meters tall. His features were mostly smooth, bones prominent, eyes with the barest hint of a slant. A mouth surrounded by full lips.

“How may I help you?” Damo said, trying to sound gracious.

“I came to study Wan She,” the human said.

Damo felt his features flow with his astonishment. Perhaps he had not heard correctly, or his translation module was malfunctioning. “I am sorry,” he said. “Wan She is the Path of Flowing Shapes. It is a Synan practice. Humans, being incapable of shifting, cannot practice it.”

The human smiled, revealing straight, white teeth. “I know. I’m writing a book,” he said. “But isn’t it true that the first stage is concerned solely with contemplation? Surely that is not beyond a human.”

Damo stifled his urge to shift in response to his unease. Uncontrolled shifting was against the teachings of Wan She. “That is true,” he said. “But Wan She is a path. Not a series of distinct teachings. To step on that path is to begin a journey.”

“All I ask is that you let me speak to your Tanshe. Let him decide.”

Damo was all too willing to accommodate the human in this. Let the Tanshe decide. It certainly saved Damo the trouble of having to assimilate this odd request.

“Please follow me,” he said.

He led the human through the Still Garden, inhaling the heady scent of it, delighting in its exoticness. Most of the students overlooked the Still Garden, and in doing so missed out on one of the true beauties of She Shalu.

They moved through the pearlescent designs of the sanctuary’s hallways to the Tanshe’s bubbled door. “Wait here,” Damo said, then entered.

The Tanshe was in an original form, multilimbed, eyeless, lacking both ears and nose. Turning inward. Her bright amber skin was splattered with black inky spots. She looked up as Damo entered, eyes appearing from inside her face. Damo let his features droop in the customary manner. “Tanshe, there is a human to see you.”

The Tanshe’s features flowed and shifted until they were almost exactly a human’s. “Send it in,” she said. “And wait outside.”

Damo’s skin settled. He was not to be involved in this discussion. It was good. The Tanshe would deal with it and send the human away. Damo did as the Tanshe asked.

He waited outside, letting his features relax into the default Synan shape. He’d worn the humanoid one as a courtesy, and because it was polite and expected, but he disliked it. It was distasteful. Too firm. Too set.

He waited for some time, then the door bubble opened. He quickly shifted back into his humanoid form and turned to face the human, now exiting. “She told me to send you in,” the human said.

Damo looked at the human’s firm, immobile face. So alien. So disgusting.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #1 on: September 27, 2012, 07:04:03 PM »

Well, I'll start this one off.

Over all I really enjoyed this story. I like the idea of shapeshifters, like Odo from DS9, but that these people have to learn the ability through arduous study and devotion. I enjoyed the dilemma of Damo and his own hypocrisy of being accepting of same sex relations, but not same species, when in reality the two are very similar, if not one and the same. And I like the bittersweet ending with Paul Tan being driven off, and Damo having to face his mistakes, but being willing to step outside of his box finally, leave the protection of She Shalu, and try to make the difference he knows must come.

I admit, I struggled with the political agenda of this story at first, mostly, I think, because of the reveal of Paul Tan's homosexuality. I have no problem with people in same-sex relationships--to each his own and all--but I grow tired of the agenda being pushed in sci-fi. I think the major reason for this is that sci-fi generally takes place in the distant future, and yet the homosexual choices of the characters are still met with fear, abhorrence and derision by society. Our society is currently on the brink of social change, with acceptance growing more and more each day. Yes, there is still a long way to go. But you can't tell me that in a thousand years, mankind is still going to be facing homosexuality with such resistance. If it's almost accepted now, why wouldn't it be a regular day occurrence by then? And yet many stories today use sci-fi as their sounding board while creating situations in the far future that mimic our society today, when the differences would be so vast you wouldn't be able to even begin to compare them. Compare our society today with that of a thousand years ago.

My apologies for the rant. I think this was brought on, not just by this story, but because I just read a story in the Flash Fiction contest dealing with similar homosexual issues in the far, far future. So it's a little built up I guess.

As I said, I really enjoyed this story and the homosexual comparisons worked once it was established that in Damo's society it was still considered deviant and illegal. I think if Paul Tan had glossed over his own orientation, and then Damo had brought it up, to which Tan would say, "You still deal with that? We got over it decades ago." I wouldn't have had such a hard time with it.

Again, my apologies for the rant.
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« Reply #2 on: September 27, 2012, 08:59:03 PM »

Just as a note on the general argument (rather than the specific story):

1) Homosexuality has been around at least as long as recorded history.  If we haven't gotten over it in the last ten thousand years, why should another thousand years or so make any difference?  (The wheel turns backwards, too, after all.)

2) It's true enough that projecting current issues onto the far future isn't entirely realistic, but that's a criticism only insofar as the science fiction in question has a primary goal of predicting a likely future.  The genre is wider than that, I think, and if you're going with Zen-spouting shapeshifting aliens, you're already pretty far from "plausible" to begin with, ne?  ;-)
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« Reply #3 on: September 28, 2012, 03:12:20 AM »

It was an ok story, not good enough for me to seek out more from the author, annoying enough I felt the need to post about it.

My biggest problem was that they were star trek aliens, humans in alien drag. There was nothing really alien about them and thus no real reason for them to be alien.

My next biggest problem was that there was nothing really new there, it was Yet Another Coming Out Story. If you read any queer fiction you will have read dozens of these.

Combined they constitute the heart of my objection, if you are going to trot out aliens (particularly aliens that you couldn't distinguish from zen monks in a dark alley (or even a brightly lit boulevard)) then you need to really do something with them. Show something about the human condition that is too painful to look at directly, that needs that existential prosthetic forehead figleaf.

On the other hand, this was the first story I've heard on here in ages that was so depressing and dark it made me want to open up a vein. It was still depressing and dark, but I just want a beer and maybe a quick listen to The Essential John Barrowman.
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DoWhileNot
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« Reply #4 on: September 28, 2012, 11:01:52 AM »

I didn't really like it - It had the feeling of a cross between a soap opera and a Buddhist monastery.  The homosexual agenda was annoying but not the main reason I had for not liking it.  The story started out appearing to be about humans experiencing and learning from alien culture.  I half expected it to end with Paul learning to actually shape shift. But then it did a left turn into an angst filled story about who likes who, and who's jealous of them, and how afraid other people can be of those who are different.

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scarcrow
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« Reply #5 on: September 28, 2012, 10:07:06 PM »

I went into this story based on the title alone.  I like geometry and the nature of shapes, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this story dealt with shape shifting via spiritual enlightenment.  I admit, like others, I was half expecting something along the lines of Paul Tan learning to do something humans just couldn't biologically do.  Instead, the story took a path leaning more towards the morality of sexual relationships.  This could be just me and the way my core thought processor functions, but I just couldn't view this as "inherent sexuality vs. religious ambiguity" in the form of science short fiction.  The samurai of feudal Japan relished in love regardless of gender, as did the druids before the crusades.  I was able to pick up on Damo's frustration right away.  He clearly didn't revere Paul Tan's presence for the simple fact that he was human.  That alone is what carried this story from beginning to end, and as unbelievable as it sounds, that's what got me to like this story.

What I didn't like, on the other hand, was the short lived ending.  It was too (for lack of a better term) convenient.  After the last meeting with the Tanshe, Damo didn't spend too much thought into leaving She Shalu (or at least that's what I gathered from the narrative).  
« Last Edit: October 16, 2012, 02:22:25 AM by scarcrow » Logged
King Dong
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« Reply #6 on: September 29, 2012, 03:14:44 AM »

It started well but it got a little to adult, I have no problem with homosexuality but it was way unexpected and then just dominated the rest of the story, and in all honesty little to visceral for my taste.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #7 on: September 29, 2012, 11:35:47 AM »

When Paul Tan "came out", I was worried that this would become one of *those* stories. You know those stories. It's a story whose narrative and characterization has been hijacked by an author's not terribly subtile agenda. It doesn't matter whether or not you agree with the agenda of those stories or even what the agenda might be. The fact of the matter is that they work better as an op-ed piece instead of fiction.

But thankfully this isn't one of "those" stories. It soon becomes a statement on the messiness of reality and the difficulty of clean, neat categories, and the fact that we often put our desires and hopes (as well as our fears) on the "other". And I liked that.
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benjaminjb
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« Reply #8 on: September 29, 2012, 12:20:22 PM »

I, for one, want more homosexual agenda in my science fiction. Also, I want some Marxist-Leninist, atheist futures where humans aren't better than robots because of some ineffable spark of blah. Humanity--bah humbug!

In all seriousness (well, I wasn't entirely joking in that mini-manifesto above), I didn't love this story because it felt too familiar: as has been pointed out, the Zen Buddhist aliens aren't particularly alien. There were a few gestures towards foreignness here and there--a metaphor about wateriness, a Zen koan about fixing your shape, the stable and shifting gardens. But it felt a bit too much like "man learning Eastern wisdom" (although it makes me wonder how basic and widespread the monastery structure would be in a multi-alien universe).

As for the "forbidden love" angle, I'm serious when I say I don't mind didacticism in my fiction; I take very seriously--well, I take everything seriously, but I like Keynes commentary on how absence of theory usually means adherence to some previous, unarticulated theory. Or in the case of sexuality, a heterosexual character would merely be articulating a different theory of sexuality.

(I'm particularly sensitive to any attempt to institutionalize X as normal because I'm a science fiction fan; so when people talk about sex, race, orientation, or genre, I like to point out that male, white, heterosexual, and mimetic/literary are all specifics, not universals against which to judge the others, "abnormal" settings. This is also a huge issue in 1950s novels by African-Americans, whose work often tries to paint the particularities of black experience as a part of the whole of America, not a deviation from some standard white story.)

That said, I also felt that the "forbidden love" angle was a little too familiar; and Damo's conversion from disgust to acceptance happened a little too quickly. I was just listening to an early Writing Excuses episode, where they discussed mixing familiar with strange, so that may have influenced this criticism that the two major pieces of this story (shapeshifting aliens, forbidden love) felt too familiar. Still, any story that causes discussion can't be all bad.
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SF.Fangirl
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« Reply #9 on: September 29, 2012, 07:57:00 PM »

I was very pleasantly surprised by this story.  Between the title and the intro I was sure I'd dislike the story.  Instead I really enjoyed it.  It wasn't about eastern-style mysticism which I feared, but was about someone, an alien, learning to be a better being and reaching a new understanding of himself.  And maybe, just maybe, he is inspired to try to reshape his world too.  Good stuff.   Smiley  A well written, well plotted story (which I feel the need to say because I often complain about the lack of plots.)
 
I will agree with Cutter McKay, though.  Although I didn't notice it here because the Paul Tan was not the main character, I am depressed by stories set in the future where human homosexuals still face the same issues and discrimantion that they do today.  We're moving towards acceptance now, and I don't want to contemplate a future where we don't get over it or actually go backwards.  I am not bothered by the aliens having that bias though.
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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #10 on: September 30, 2012, 01:07:18 PM »

For a story about the transitory nature of shape, this one was remarkably limited. The shapeshifting land-octopi are homophobes, just like us. The interspecies romance is between two nominally male characters, even though I'm not sure I could tell the difference between an alien male and female. Everything that happens in this story is exactly what it should be, what it ought to be, and that's the weakness. This story was business as usual, nothing to challenge me.

Now, to a homophobic audience, I'm sure this story would have been more challenging, purely because of the subject matter. For me, though it was a clear and slightly boring allegory. The aliens were not alien - they were humans magic shapeshifting powers and a funny language. I prefer science fiction stories that push me a little more by giving me aliens who are genuinely alien, and then showing me the connection.
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« Reply #11 on: October 01, 2012, 10:13:34 AM »

I will agree with Cutter McKay, though.  Although I didn't notice it here because the Paul Tan was not the main character, I am depressed by stories set in the future where human homosexuals still face the same issues and discrimantion that they do today.  We're moving towards acceptance now, and I don't want to contemplate a future where we don't get over it or actually go backwards.  I am not bothered by the aliens having that bias though.

I don't recall Paul Tan facing discrimination from his own people. He was expelled from She Shalu because he broke the unwritten "no male-on-male sex" rule, but was he discriminated against by humanity? I don't seem to recall that in the story. Did I miss it?
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« Reply #12 on: October 01, 2012, 10:43:32 AM »

I agree with InfiniteMonkey that this wasn't one of "those" stories, because it poked a finger in the eye of human hypocrisy. It highlighted the very human habit of understanding the special circumstances of your own situation, but then turning around and judging your neighbour harshly for the same offenses. I see it happen around me all the time. I am sure I'm guilty of the same thing just as often. So, it was nice to see that as the main theme of this story.

That said, I was disappointed by the story. Not because it was particularly flawed in some way. I just felt a bit cheated by the promise of the beginning.... I wanted to hear the story of a human experiencing personal growth by learning about alien ways. Instead, I got human enlightens aliens with his human awesomeness. 
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chemistryguy
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« Reply #13 on: October 01, 2012, 11:30:06 AM »

My biggest problem was that they were star trek aliens, humans in alien drag.

I like this analogy.  And, yes, I do enjoy aliens that really are alien.


Anyhoo.


As mentioned multiple times above, the story seems familiar.  Probably because it's one of those classic themes.

It highlighted the very human habit of understanding the special circumstances of your own situation, but then turning around and judging your neighbour harshly for the same offenses.

See also Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

I also expected Paul Tan to achieve the impossible.  Would have like the story to have followed that direction out a bit more.  But in the end, I really enjoyed listening to this one and didn't necessarily feel preached to.


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« Reply #14 on: October 01, 2012, 04:31:57 PM »

I don't recall Paul Tan facing discrimination from his own people. He was expelled from She Shalu because he broke the unwritten "no male-on-male sex" rule, but was he discriminated against by humanity? I don't seem to recall that in the story. Did I miss it?

Quote
And I realized that that’s how I had been, or at least how I longed to be at one point in my past. Ashamed of myself, of being gay, wanting to be what others wanted me to be, wanting to fulfill people’s expectations, molding myself into those different shapes.

It isn't overtly stated, but the implications are there, which is what bothered me. This:
Quote
“And then in my relationships it was the same. I transformed myself with each one. Becoming the button-down professional with one of my exes, the outdoorsman with another, the caregiver with yet another. I’ve been adept at shifting myself, mentally if not physically, and that scared me.”
Is just as easily experienced without the implications that he had to suffer through the same discrimination as gays face in our society today. This constant personal transformation is experienced by all members of our society no matter their sexual orientation. It's human nature to act differently around different people. I really like what the author is saying here. I just think it would be much stronger if he related to people in general, not just homosexuals.
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benjaminjb
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« Reply #15 on: October 01, 2012, 05:04:21 PM »

Is just as easily experienced without the implications that he had to suffer through the same discrimination as gays face in our society today. This constant personal transformation is experienced by all members of our society no matter their sexual orientation.
Perhaps the hint of homophobia in the future world is there to give Paul something that he can't change to fit. Like: I was able to shapeshift for love/affection (to fit what my significant other wanted me to be), but I wasn't able to shapeshift merely to fit in with society.
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sarah_pdx
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« Reply #16 on: October 01, 2012, 06:11:07 PM »

I liked the shape-shifting ideas.  The idea the that the practice took zen-like martial-art practice was fun enough.  Imagining cuttlefish aliens changing their shapes and colors was pretty cool.

To me, the story ended up being about hypocrisy.  At first, they are all enlightened mystical shape-shifters, but when push comes to shove, they toss the homos under the bus to avoid conflict.  The morality message seemed a bit heavy-handed. 

Or, perhaps it's a realistic meditation on the nature of relationships/memberships where at first we all put our "best foot forward", then things "work well for a while", then "things get messy", then you sometimes eventually leave and "move beyond"?

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danthelawyer
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« Reply #17 on: October 05, 2012, 12:56:06 AM »

I agree with Sara_pdx, if I understand her comment correctly. Let me just elaborate a bit by saying that I was not put off by the idea of aliens as allegorical, in a sense. In fact, forgive me, but I can't help wondering if those who object to the aliens as not being alien enough, and just being stand-ins for humans, were subconsciously rebelling against the subject matter. That is: if the subject had been race relations, would folks have complained equally that the aliens were just humans in disguise? Maybe, as some describe them as Star Trek aliens, and we all know what that means, but maybe not.

On the other hand, I was turned off by the preachy ending. I got the allegory just fine; I resented the author beating me over the head with the message.
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chemistryguy
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« Reply #18 on: October 05, 2012, 06:01:20 AM »

I can't help wondering if those who object to the aliens as not being alien enough, and just being stand-ins for humans, were subconsciously rebelling against the subject matter. That is: if the subject had been race relations, would folks have complained equally that the aliens were just humans in disguise? Maybe, as some describe them as Star Trek aliens, and we all know what that means, but maybe not.

You raise an interesting point, and this argument would have been stronger if the story had exclusively shown the aliens to be the ones engaging in taboo sexual practices.  If anyone takes issue with the subject matter, there's no need to envision the aliens as humans in disguise.  We have a perfectly good human living outside societies norms written into the story.

Sometimes a bilateral symmetric humanoid is just that.
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« Reply #19 on: October 05, 2012, 12:53:03 PM »

I find it hard to believe that a species of space shifters would have so strong taboo against homosexuality. One would imagine that the physicality would be considerable less important than for humans.
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