Author Topic: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope  (Read 8998 times)

Bdoomed

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Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« on: November 22, 2013, 02:59:43 PM »
Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope

by Dixon Chance

“The Murmurous Paleoscope” was originally published in THE THREE-LOBED BURNING EYE and can be read there. The story accurately reflects a few elements of 19th century fossil hunting culture: the importance of shales; the early women fossil hunters (including Mary Anning, for whom the Lens in the story is named); and the fossil “Bone Wars” of Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope, which really did get violent and excessively paranoid.

DIXON CHANCE is the “just for the joy of it” pseudonym of David Ellis Dickerson, a regular contributor to “This American Life” and other public radio shows, and the author of the memoir HOUSE OF CARDS (Riverhead 2009) about my career as a writer at Hallmark. My work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Gettysburg Review, and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

Your reader this week – Christiana Ellis – Christiana is an engineer, writer and podcaster currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the creator of “Nina Kimberly the Merciless” and “Space Casey” along with many non-fiction podcasts, all of which can be found at ChristianaEllis.com!



“The initial scanning would have seemed slow progress to an outside observer, for the Boiler makes for hot work, and we are already in the desert, and we must take breaks every twenty minutes to allow the device to cool down. It is, as you know, far too expensive to replace! (When the stage arrives next week, I will be sure to request more and larger crates of ice—if any are to be had; and if Eccleston has not outbid us.) Such patience is surely worth it. For whatever progress Eccleston makes with his battering and cutting, he cannot have found what I have: I call it Anomalocusta, for it resembles no lobster science has ever seen. And best of all: it is intact.

It remains in the rock, of course, and removing it thence will be the Lithotome’s job. But for now I can see the entire fossil through the Lens and here is my first attempt at a description: it is a long jointed-plate arthropod rather like a lobster or a shrimp, but larger than either, exceeding three feet from head to tail, making it far and away the largest Cambrian creature ever recorded by science. Unlike a lobster, it has no claws or other limbs. In its body shape it resembles a large trilobite whose segments have been flattened and stretched and transformed into underwater wings. Its head is the most disturbing feature, for it has a demonic shape, and possesses—I should say possessed—two large hooklike fangs over six inches long, which look capable of cracking open shells and armor, and it boasts two large compound eyes on stalks—but unlike the tiny beady eyes of the lobster, these are large and pale and eerie, resembling searching headlamps. Finally, and most disconcertingly, it has a thin, needle-like proboscis that extends from between the fangs. This proboscis looks long, soft, and prehensile—an odd thing indeed to see coming from such a stiff armored creature. The Anomalocusta must have undulated through the primoridal seas with great speed and indifferent grace, like some mechanical insectlike manta ray—but what could it have fed upon? I would send my rough drawings of the Anomalocusta, but I do not want to risk the mail being waylaid by Eccleston’s agents. I will send them when I judge myself to be in a more secure locality.

In case you are wondering why I have not appended a species name to this creature’s taxonomy yet, it is just this: after years of sending you dozens of new fossils, which you have been only too happy to classify and take credit for, I feel I have earned the right to some modicum of recognition for my tireless work. I know that I am but a modestly educated woman, and no proper scientist as the Geological Society recognizes such. Yet from my childhood by the shore I have shown, have I not, for over two decades that I understand the care of fossils, the reconstruction of organisms, the importance of a subtle eye and a care for stinting detail. And I have reliably sent you all my latest finds for a dozen years when your rivals have offered me bribes and other inducements to send them elsewhere or to lose them entirely. I have resisted, not only because of the esteem in which I hold your work, but out of loyalty to you, for first recognizing that I was more than some mere girl playing at the beach.

This new fossil will be studied for a millennium, and if I am ever to achieve even the merest hat-tip from the academic community, it would be an honor to have it attached to this discovery. I hope you will consider naming it Anomalocusta cardanelli—or, if you should choose to name it after yourself, that you would allow me at least the honor of publishing the paper, so that my name, too, will appear with it always: “Anomalocusta grandhaveni (Cardanell 1888).” Does that not look elegant, both our names in equal balance for the first time?

I hope that you will give my request all due and serious consideration.”



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Fenrix

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #1 on: November 22, 2013, 03:12:46 PM »
You got steampunk in my horror!
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Kaa

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #2 on: November 23, 2013, 12:31:25 PM »
I was dubious, I'll admit. A story told in letters, like Frankenstein or Dracula -- very old-fashioned. Steampunk, which I'm not a big fan of. But I heart me some Christiana Ellis, so I continued listening mostly on that basis. And then I got sucked into the story. And wow! I was very impressed with not only the story itself, but Christiana's amazing reading. You could really hear the character breaking down as the story progressed.

The story also didn't go where I thought it was going to go. When I "saw" those fangs on the Anomolocusta, I thought, "Oh, this is going to an 'origin of vampires' story. And I was so very wrong.

Really enjoyed it.
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The Far Stairs

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #3 on: November 25, 2013, 04:48:00 PM »
This story was just beautiful. It unfolded with perfect pacing and was bursting with imaginative ideas. I love archeology (technically paleontology here, I guess), trilobites, and ancient mysteries. I agree that the steampunk elements were handled very well -- just enough to be cool and creepy but not distracting. There was a clear Lovecraft influence, but it wasn't explicit (always better that way). Also, the idea of tiny fossilized fish spelling out words is fantastic.

This is my favorite Pseudopod story in quite a while. Add to that the great narration and the funniest call for donations ever and I think this episode deserves some kind of award.
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Cheshire_Snark

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #4 on: November 28, 2013, 06:26:57 PM »
Loved this! Palaeontologists + Ancient Unspeakable Horrors pops up a bit (at least in the fiction I read...) but this was handled very well, and I particularly loved the narrator's fight for recognition by her peers. Last time I was in London I went to the British Museum and remember seeing a plaque describing some of Mary Anning's finds. I can't track down the exact quote but I remember the gist of a comment by one of the Great And The Good at the time: something along the lines of "isn't it fortunate that providence allowed this simple girl to find these things for we scientists"... so I had that backstory in mind hearing this story and may have punched the air a bit when she asked for official recognition of her discovery.

Also, well done on the steampunk elements. So often the use of steampunk imagery seems to be no more than "look! corsets! and, er, cogs on things!" - but this worked.

Moritz

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #5 on: November 29, 2013, 02:23:48 AM »
I also quite liked the story. Nothing totally unique, but solid storytelling, interesting elements, and it worked.

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #6 on: November 29, 2013, 08:54:48 AM »
Loved the story! I'm imagining the creature looked something like a hybrid of Anomalocaris and Opabinia. There are some seriously freaky things that they have found in the Cambrian without it trying to take over your brain.

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #7 on: November 30, 2013, 10:59:24 AM »
Wow... I haven't commented for a while because I have been traveling and blasted at work and I don't have time for a long comment now, but this story blew me away. I am usually not the biggest lovecraftian fiction lover. I think it is over done, but this story was executed perfectly. It might have been nothing new, but it kept my attention. I guess in some ways it kind of mirrors the pulp of the 50s and 60s. A lot was written. Most was not original, but some of it was just great.

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #8 on: December 02, 2013, 11:30:04 AM »
Loved it.  Steampunk horror done perfectly.  It was not just about goggles and corsets and gears--the contraptions here served a specific purpose and were used like any other tool would be used.  I love the epistolary format when it's done well.  I didn't know until the outro about the violence and sabotage in the name of archaeology at the time, made the story even cooler in retrospect.

The title seems very very familiar for no reason I can fathom.  Maybe it's just because I keep repeating the title in my head because I like the feel of it, like a wine connoisseur rolling the drink across his tongue. 

Wasn't there another Pseudopod episode, I want to say years back, about a Lovecraftian horror fossil broken loose by archaeologists?  Not a criticism, the stories were plenty different, just curious.  I don't remember the title.

Sgarre1

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #9 on: December 02, 2013, 12:58:58 PM »
Possibly "The Excavation":

http://pseudopod.org/2007/12/21/pseudopod-69-the-excavation/

The title may seem familiar, maybe, because I teased it in a post this time last year in a discussion on "The Dead Sexton" and people not knowing what a sexton was...
« Last Edit: December 02, 2013, 01:00:49 PM by Sgarre1 »

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #11 on: December 03, 2013, 07:37:47 PM »
I am such a big fan of this story. It was masterfully told, from the subtle steam punk, to the strong female character, to the Lovecraftian reveal. Just loved it. I'll admit, that final action scene actually got the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. That was fun.


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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #12 on: December 04, 2013, 03:23:40 PM »
This was great! And the reading was pitch perfect.

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #13 on: December 04, 2013, 10:45:53 PM »
This was great! And the reading was pitch perfect.

Jen

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #14 on: December 06, 2013, 07:53:34 AM »
I was skeptical at first - Victorian fiction is not my cup of tea, and steampunk even less so. But fossils are cool, I liked the heroine, and it was a proper horror story with unspeakable horrors from beyond time! Kudos for the reading too, especially for Hazel's last letter.
« Last Edit: December 16, 2013, 10:24:39 AM by Jen »

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #15 on: December 06, 2013, 11:49:44 AM »
Wow! Excellent story that was made even better by an absolutely stunning reader!

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #16 on: December 11, 2013, 11:34:11 AM »
This story was highly entertaining.  I had some misgivings when it became apparent that it was explicitly steampunk, though the idea of steampunk Iron Man going fossil hunting appeals immensely, and I ended up thoroughly enjoying it.
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Cheshire_Snark

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #17 on: December 12, 2013, 04:32:22 AM »
I agree - I'm wary of steampunk for steampunk's sake as generally it doesn't have much to offer beyond the aesthetic. I read Ann & Jeff VanderMeer's anthology "Steampunk" and was really struck by their argument in the introduction and rationale for selecting the stories.

They felt (I paraphrase) that steampunk works best when it draws upon the social context of the time and uses that as a way to challenge current ideas or set up parallel universes in which to explore some issues.

The stories in the anthology were so much more than cogs, pistons, monocles and dashing derring-do (though there was a lot of that as well, and no complaints there) -- my personal favourite is Ted Chiang's "Seventy-two letters" which takes the Victorian understanding of the mechanics of conception and inheritance (that each sperm contains a tiny human foetus, and each male foetus already contains within him the seeds of future generations, those within him contain the next, and so on, while the womb merely provides the growing environment) PLUS the technical basis of golems (automata, of whatever material, controlled by sacred texts), and combines them in the setting of Victorian-era class warfare, social darwinism and capitalism and makes a really beautiful, elegant and thought-provoking story. (well, 5 years after reading it I'm still recommending it to people, which is rare for me).

I enjoyed the Murmurous  Palaeoscope for the same reason - it used the aesthetics of steampunk in an integral functional way, and incorporated aspects of the social context, to make the story a lot stronger, and the characters a lot more relatable (to me) than if the protagonist had been (for example) an more straightforward Indiana Jones type.

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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #18 on: December 14, 2013, 08:31:32 AM »
Gah. So! Good! I loved everything about this one - the scientist trying to make her way in a world that doesn't give her much credibility, even when her requests are so small, the steampunk elements, the rivalry and how it relates to both ancient sea creature predators and a Lovecraftian ancient horror. Yes, yes, yes! The reading was also amazing too. Absolutely spot-on narration.
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Re: Pseudopod 361: The Murmurous Paleoscope
« Reply #19 on: December 23, 2013, 02:31:59 PM »
Great story. AMAZING narration. Hearing the voice get ever so subtly more manic really added to the horror. This is a story that I would have liked to read, but I loved to listen to it.