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Author Topic: EP418: The Dala Horse  (Read 2277 times)
eytanz
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« on: October 18, 2013, 02:29:46 AM »

EP418: The Dala Horse

by Michael Swanwick

Read by Michael Liebmann

--

Something terrible had happened. Linnea did not know what it was. But her father had looked pale and worried, and her mother had told her, very fiercely, “Be brave!” and now she had to leave, and it was all the result of that terrible thing.

The three of them lived in a red wooden house with steep black roofs by the edge of the forest. From the window of her attic room, Linnea could see a small lake silver with ice very far away. The design of the house was unchanged from all the way back in the days of the Coffin People, who buried their kind in beautiful polished boxes with metal fittings like nothing anyone made anymore. Uncle Olaf made a living hunting down their coffin-sites and salvaging the metal from them. He wore a necklace of gold rings he had found, tied together with silver wire.

“Don’t go near any roads,” her father had said. “Especially the old ones.” He’d given her a map. “This will help you find your grandmother’s house.”

“Mor-Mor?”

“No, Far-Mor. My mother. In Godastor.” Godastor was a small settlement on the other side of the mountain. Linnea had no idea how to get there. But the map would tell her.

Her mother gave her a little knapsack stuffed with food, and a quick hug. She shoved something deep in the pocket of Linnea’s coat and said, “Now go! Before it comes!”
 
“Good-bye, Mor and Far,” Linnea had said formally, and bowed.

Then she’d left.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Hilary Moon Murphy
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« Reply #1 on: October 19, 2013, 09:07:59 PM »

Oh my goodness, what a beautiful story this was.  I loved that it worked as both fairy tale and science fiction.  However, I felt awful for the poor loyal map and backpack.  Why didn't Linnea react more strongly to their destruction?  As a child, I would have been horrified at losing a stuffed animal, much less an animated friend.

Still, it was a magnificent listen.  Thanks for running this one.

Hmm
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Windup
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« Reply #2 on: October 20, 2013, 08:55:11 PM »


I liked this one; I got giant goddesses, trolls, talking horses and a plausible SF story.  How cool is that? I loved the subtle substitution of technology for magic, while maintaining the fairytale tropes and form. 

I had a couple of plausibility things, though.  I agree with Hillary Moon Murphy on burning the backpack and map.  I expected Linnea to completely freak out when Gunter threw them on the fire, and I was shocked at how she just accepted it, with no change at all in her attitude toward Gunter.  I'm also a little unclear why Svea, acting as the protectress of Sweden, had to channel through Linnea.  Couldn't she just manifest directly, like Europa?

In the end, though, these are quibbles.  It was a great story. 

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enoch
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« Reply #3 on: October 21, 2013, 09:08:14 PM »

When I first started listening to this story my first thought was "oh, this is a kids story".

I stayed through it though, and was pleasantly surprised. It turned out being intriguing and thought provoking. I would have liked a little more backstory of the universe, but I understand why it wasn't there.

Overall a very cool re-imagining of the classic "little red riding hood" type fairy tale. While Im not really a fan of these types of stories, I can certainly recognize that this was a good one. It was well written, and didn't embellish in places it didn't have to. Which sometimes can be considered a fault, but for this story it was perfect.



As much as I sometimes want a podcast full of "my type" of fiction, Escape Pod does a good job of expanding my horizons. And for that I am thankful. Smiley
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #4 on: October 21, 2013, 09:58:35 PM »

I really didn't care for this one. All mysticism, no explanation. I spent most of the story just trying to figure out what was going on and why. Why were the knapsack and map able to talk and walk? As Hilary Moon Murphy already asked, Why didn't Linnea care when they burned? Why did the Dala Horse talk to her? How did it get into her head? And why did it turn her into the other goddess? So many unanswered questions just left me frustrated at the end.

I get how people can see it as either sci-fi or fantasy, but since none of any of the possible science was explained in any way, it was all mysticism and fantasy to me, so, as much as I hate to say it, because we all hate hearing it, this wasn't sci-fi to me at all. 

I also found the writing to be clunky and weak in many places.

Just not my cup of tea, I guess.  Undecided
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PotatoKnight
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« Reply #5 on: October 22, 2013, 10:22:19 AM »

Although the story feels mystical because of its adoption of fairy tale tropes and the fact that we see it through the eyes of a youthful character who doesn't fully understand what's going on, what's actually happening doesn't read to me like mysticism. It does take a little unpacking.

The early references to "coffin people" and "strange people" situate us in a pretty far future where the world has had some epochal (and petty bad) changes. But there are still automated technologies. There's nothing especially mystical about a talking map--the iPhone I'm typing this comment on is a talking map if I tell it to be. A walking and talking knapsack is likewise a pretty straightforward application of AI and mechanical technologies. Their appearance is reminiscent of the magical items that pop up with little explanation in fairy tales, but it doesn't take too much reading between the lines to see them as simple technologies.

Svea and Europa likewise take on a mystical form but, while we don't get schematics or anything, there are enough lines in the story to give a reasonable idea of what they actually are. They appear to be national computer systems (note that Mother Svea is a national emblem of Sweeden) set up with control of their respective regions defense, governed by the international law in effect at the time they were created and still apparently controlling some weapons systems. They are capable of interfacing with the human brain--an advanced technology, but not a mystical one. Svea (speaking through the Dala horse) explains to Linnea that she is is only allowed to do so in times of peril.  We learn from Gunther that apparently the people of mainland Europe started using Europa to entertain themselves and it went...badly. Europa is apparently in control of all mainland Europe, playing with the minds of its few remaining inhabitants. Gunther's escape into Sweden gives Europa an excuse to invade.

Svea takes human form via Linnea to resist Europa with the military ad diplomatic powers hard-baked into the technologies. Linnea calls the "goddesses" attention to Gunther and gives Svea another way out. She burns out Gunther's memories--which she is able to do because he wants her to. This severs Europa's ability to reach them. That part isn't explicitly explained. I suspect that either Europa doesn't have the ability to project power without the connection to Gunther's brain--burned out at the same time as the memories or the loss of memory means he is no longer Europa's subject and the ancient laws binding Europa throw her out.

I really liked this story--not least of which because it makes the tropes of national mother goddesses, talking object companions, and ancient laws binding apparently omnipotent entities pretty plausible, and does it without breaking from the perspective of the child protagonist. That's a delicate trick but it helps that if you ignore a few lines and treat it as an actual fairy tale, it's a pretty decent one. The story calls to mind Zelazny's Lord of Light for the idea of advanced technologies duplicating preexisting mythology. It's a handy storytelling trope, but it also fits the way people relate to advanced technology--we use familiar metaphor to understand things that are new. A national defense grid isn't literally a patron goddess but it kinda feels like one.
« Last Edit: October 22, 2013, 10:34:14 AM by PotatoKnight » Logged
Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #6 on: October 23, 2013, 05:34:05 AM »

Aw man, it looks like I agree with Cutter.
Add to that the fact that I totally lost the thread of the story during the dialog between the two <goddesses? Digital manifestations? Holograms? Hallucinations?> and I really did not understand anything that happened beyond that point.
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Spessartine
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« Reply #7 on: October 23, 2013, 05:38:28 AM »

As much as I love new versions of old stories, this one was a miss for me.  That technology provides the basis for a new mythos, new goddesses, and new monsters is perfectly fine with me, although it definitely comes with some caveats.  I assume that Gunther's "troll"-ness isn't a statement that he's a troll, biomythologically, but instead, his particular brand of lone-mountain-man-wanderer-and-occasional-cannibal has been branded as "trolls" the same way ancient peoples have been branded "the Coffin People" and "the Strange People".  I also assume that the burning of Gunther's memories to banish Europa isn't banishing a connection.  It's banishing evidence.  Europa's entry into Svea's jurisdiction is exactly that, a conflict between law-enforcement officials over who should be in charge: does it matter where the criminal is, or just who it is?

My main qualm is with minor details.  I certainly agree with others that the characterization of Linnaea is immature, but she's a child, she's allowed to have a favourite toy or friend who means more to her than any of her other playthings.  But why was she sent out at all?  The implication at the start of the story is that she's being sent away for her own protection, and I assume that what she needs protecting from is Europa.  But if Linnaea's mother had the Dala Horse, and the Dala Horse is Svea, and the mother knew that the Dala Horse was capable of protecting Linnaea, why didn't she ask the Dala Horse to protect her back home... and protect everyone else?

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Ghoti
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« Reply #8 on: October 23, 2013, 01:30:31 PM »

I rather enjoyed the story, but some of the protagonist's choices were somewhat jarring.

While I understand that children don't tend to make the most thought-out, rational decisions (and heck, the same could be said for adults much of the time), after being urgently sent off by distressed parents to a distant-but-not-too-distant relative's house, by foot, and after being essentially told that it's unsafe, it took me right out of the narrative when we went from "walking, walking", to "I'm bored; time to play now", and "I will now spend the rest of this trip with the person (troll?) who just unceremoniously stole most of my food and more or less straight-up said that I might be dinner."
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AlternateID
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« Reply #9 on: October 24, 2013, 07:30:52 PM »

I was intrigued by this story - not so much that I was interested in the characters or plot, but that I was absolutely convinced it was set in some Satanic Dora the Explorer universe. There was a a little girl on a journey through the mountains and forest with her talking backpack and talking map. She then came across a 'troll'. That was it for me. I was totally expecting Boots or Bennie Bull to show up.

Maybe I need to stop watching TV with my kids.
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Prophet
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« Reply #10 on: October 24, 2013, 07:35:37 PM »

This story was a mixed bag for me. While I did find it enjoyable at the end, there were long stretches where I was either bored or unclear as to what was going on.

I found the little girl somewhat bland. Or at least described blandly. I didn't get a real sense of personality or much emotion from her. I know people have already mentioned her lack of outrage over the loss of the backpack and the map. But what about approaching a strange terrifying man in the middle of the woods? Alone? Is she fearful? Curious? Flatulent? I don't know.

But I think the biggest thing that kept me out of this narrative was the nagging sense I was missing references, probably cultural. I didn't know what a Dala Horse was (thank you Norm for explaining post-story).  I figured the names had special meanings that, if I knew, might lend more depth. Perhaps I should give this one another listen.
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #11 on: October 24, 2013, 10:44:12 PM »

...but that I was absolutely convinced it was set in some Satanic Dora the Explorer universe. There was a a little girl on a journey through the mountains and forest with her talking backpack and talking map. She then came across a 'troll'. That was it for me. I was totally expecting Boots or Bennie Bull to show up.

O.M.G. you are so right. That's exactly what this is, the dark side of Dora the Explorer. Not only is she traveling with Map and Backpack, but she on her way to Abuela's (Grandmother) house! I have, well my daughter has, at least one Dora book about visiting Abuela, but I'm certain there are more. That is so fantastic.

Also, there's this.
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matweller
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« Reply #12 on: October 25, 2013, 08:38:21 AM »

...but that I was absolutely convinced it was set in some Satanic Dora the Explorer universe. There was a a little girl on a journey through the mountains and forest with her talking backpack and talking map. She then came across a 'troll'. That was it for me. I was totally expecting Boots or Bennie Bull to show up.

O.M.G. you are so right. That's exactly what this is, the dark side of Dora the Explorer. Not only is she traveling with Map and Backpack, but she on her way to Abuela's (Grandmother) house! I have, well my daughter has, at least one Dora book about visiting Abuela, but I'm certain there are more. That is so fantastic.

Also, there's this.
I didn't want to be the one to say it, but as a father of an 8-year old and a 4-year-old, I couldn't think of anything else.
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« Reply #13 on: October 25, 2013, 09:19:26 AM »

I was intrigued by this story - not so much that I was interested in the characters or plot, but that I was absolutely convinced it was set in some Satanic Dora the Explorer universe. There was a a little girl on a journey through the mountains and forest with her talking backpack and talking map. She then came across a 'troll'. That was it for me. I was totally expecting Boots or Bennie Bull to show up.

Maybe I need to stop watching TV with my kids.

Oh! you beat me to it.  And I've never actually seen Dora the Explorer, my familiarity with it being only through a Drabblecast B-Sides episode:
http://www.drabblecast.org/2012/06/01/drabblecast-b-sides-17-exploring/
(Which has apparently been retroactively moved behind the donate-wall for B-Sides content)


Anyway, I liked a lot of elements in the story, though once I saw Dora I had trouble un-seeing her and taking the story seriously.  There were some other things that bugged me, like why she was so nonchalant about being around the troll that had said it would eat her, and allowing her talking tools to be burned without protest.  And I just completely lost the thread of what was happening when the two goddesses were talking it out--it seemed like I blinked and the conflict was over but I never really caught how.

A lot of cool ideas, for sure, but it was hard to get around those distractions.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #14 on: October 25, 2013, 08:50:18 PM »

I really liked it (see, here's how you can sound like a fantasy story and still be a SF story!); it works the over-repeated cliche of Clarke's Third Law very well (having a kid as your main character certainly helps).

My only real complaint is this: I wanted to know more about what happened to the world for it to get into this state. What the hell happened? I have sort of a general outline from the Troll, but how did this little sliver seem to opt out?
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SF.Fangirl
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« Reply #15 on: October 26, 2013, 09:53:39 AM »

 Smiley I enjoyed this story.  I dislike fantasy and don't want it mixed in my sci fi, but I enjoyed this as a science fiction story using fairy tale tropes.  From the very early reference to the coffin people and appearance of the talking map (an obvious GPS type device) and backpack, it was clear this was some sort of post-apocalyptic story and I enjoyed the story's main plot only slightly less than the hints that allowed me to understand the history that brought the world to this point.  It is a fascinating world and I would not mind reading more of how things got that bad.

I do agree somewhat with Prophet, though.  I had the feeling throughout that my lack of familiarity with Swedish folklore made it more difficult for me to understand what was going on.  It felt like a retelling of a tale that I have never heard the original and that made it a tad less enjoyable for me.
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Prophet
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« Reply #16 on: October 26, 2013, 07:23:19 PM »

It felt like a retelling of a tale that I have never heard the original and that made it a tad less enjoyable for me.

I had that feeling too. It sounded like an adaptation of a classic folklore tale, one I am probably not familiar with.
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evrgrn_monster
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« Reply #17 on: October 27, 2013, 10:43:38 AM »

I was mixed about this one as well. I actually enjoyed the beginning of this story more than the ending. I thought the mechanical helpers were a cute touch (although I am deeply troubled about parents who are willing to let their child go wandering alone in the wilderness with just three robots, none of which are capable of shooting, punching, or otherwise taking down panthers, bears, wandering madmen, or any other wildlife she might encounter.) I would've actually liked this story more if it hadn't have gotten so grand, and for me, confusing. I was honestly fine with the huge goddess following Gunther, but everything that happened after that seemed jumbled and out of place. My main issue, actually, was why Europa left Gunther alone after his brain gets played with. Just because he doesn't remember doesn't mean his actions never happened. That threw me off balance, and took away the enjoyment of the final scene for me.

This gets a solid C+, in my book.
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Windup
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« Reply #18 on: October 27, 2013, 12:51:19 PM »

Having thought about this a little more, it occurs to me that Linnea may have been sent away because she could manifest Svea, and the parents knew that. They never expected her to make it to her grandmother's house before the showdown between Svea and Europa. Linnea wasn't being sent to a place where she could be safe; she was sent away to keep everyone else safe. Battle between giant goddesses seems likely to produce collateral damage. 

Now, how the parents knew that, and why they didn't tell Linnea what to expect remains a mystery. 
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« Reply #19 on: October 27, 2013, 01:43:33 PM »

So... the land-goddess manifestation was a property of the girl, not the Dala horse?
I got the feeling that the Dala horse could manifest in anybody's hands, as long as they were in danger. Or perhaps when the land is in danger.
The better question is: how did her parents come to have the Dala horse in the first place? If they had it, and were aware of its powers, why didn't they hold on to it and use it themselves? If they weren't aware of its powers, why give it to the girl at all? As something to play with? Then why in her coat pocket and not in the bag (where the knapsack can tell her that it has the horse and she could play with it)?
So many questions, so little story...
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