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Author Topic: EP425: The Boy in Zaquitos  (Read 2666 times)
eytanz
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« on: December 07, 2013, 04:41:20 AM »

EP425: The Boy in Zaquitos

by Bruce McAllister

Read by John Chu

--

The Retired Operative Speaks to a Class

You do what you can for your country. I’m sixty-eight years old, and even in high school—it’s 2015 now, so that was fifty years ago—I wanted to be an intelligence analyst . . . an analyst for an intelligence agency, or if I couldn’t do that, at least be a writer for the United States Information Agency, writing books for people of limited English vocabularies so they’d know about us, our freedoms, the way we live. But what I wanted most was to be an analyst—not a covert-action operative, just an analyst. For the CIA or NSA, one of the big civilian agencies. That’s what I wanted to do for my country.
I knew they looked at your high school record, not just college—and not just grades, but also the clubs you were in and any sports. And your family background, that was important, too. My father was an Annapolis graduate, a Pearl Harbor survivor, and a gentle Cold War warrior who’d worked for NATO in northern Italy, when we’d lived there. I knew that would look good to the Agency, and I knew that my dad had friends who’d put in a good word for me, too, friends in the Office of Naval Intelligence.
But I also knew I had to do something for my high school record; and I wasn’t an athlete, so I joined the Anti-Communist Club. I thought it was going to be a group of kids who’d discuss Marxist economics and our free-market system, maybe the misconceptions Marx had about human nature, and maybe even mistakes we were making in developing countries, both propaganda-wise and in the kind of help we were giving them. I didn’t know it was just a front for Barry Goldwater and that all we were going to do was make election signs, but at least I had it on my record.
Because a lot of Agency recruiting happens at private colleges, I went to one in Southern California—not far from where my parents lived. My high school grades were good enough for a state scholarship, and my dad covered the rest. It was the ’60s, but the administration was conservative; and I was expecting the typical Cold War Agency recruitment to happen to me the way it had happened to people I’d heard about—the sons of some of my dad’s friends. But it didn’t. I went through five majors without doing well in any of them; and it wasn’t until my senior year, when I was taking an IR course with a popular prof named Booth—a guy who’d been a POW in WWII—that I mentioned what I wanted to do. He worked, everyone said, in germ warfare policy—classified stuff—at Stanford; and I figured that if I was about to graduate I’d better tell someone, anyone, what I really wanted to do in life: not sell insurance or be a middle manager or a government bureaucrat, but work for a civilian intelligence agency—get a graduate degree on their tab maybe—and be an analyst.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #1 on: December 07, 2013, 07:48:25 PM »

Well, I'll kick this one off with a solid, "Meh". Not that the story was bad, I did enjoy aspects of it, but there was a lot that bugged me. I really like the way the MC developed so many ticks and phobias over the course of his military career all based on the horrific things he did. And I appreciate that the MC went to all the trouble to save the kid and his family. It's an interesting character quirk that makes him save this one boy over the thousands he's about to kill, so that aspect of the story was well done.

I didn't understand why this retired operative was confessing to a classroom of students that he was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. I mean, he says that the government isn't trying to shut him up because it's all old news so no one cares anymore. Well, no one may care that this top secret information is being released, but I'm pretty sure people are not going to just brush off the fact that this guy straight up murdered thousands. Sure, it's the military, sure it was covert ops stuff decades ago, but it wasn't war time. These deaths aren't casualties of war, they're murder. Why in the world would any school teacher ask a mass murderer to speak to their students?

Really, it's not the events of the story that bother me, but the framing of it. If the MC was speaking to the class as a confessional or something, like he's there to talk about being a corporate exec, or a CIA recruit, and then he unloads all of this stuff out of the blue, then I could see it. But as it's set up, he's there specifically to talk about his experiences as a CIA operative spreading disease in the name of government control. That just doesn't sit right with me.

The other thing that bothered me with this one was the narration. Not that John Chu did a bad job, he did a very excellent job reading this story. I just didn't feel like his voice fit the character we were being presented with. I mean, the first line says he's sixty-eight years old. John sounds like a teenager. So already I'm thrown off trying to picture this gruff old CIA agent with a kid's high-pitched voice. Not to mention the fact that John, to me anyway, sounds Asian. (Admittedly that might be due to the fact that the only other stories I've heard John narrate were for Asian characters, and young ones at that, and he did a great job with them.) I'm not saying there's anything wrong with sounding Asian, don't read that the wrong way. But the character in this story wasn't Asian. So having him sound Asian really contradicted the down-home American boy we're presented with. And I found that distracting.

So overall, though I liked some of the aspects of this, I'm not likely to promote this one or even remember it in the near future.  Undecided
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« Reply #2 on: December 08, 2013, 04:28:30 AM »

" I'm pretty sure people are not going to just brush off the fact that this guy straight up murdered thousands"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOCYcgOnWUM

http://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2009/05/who-is-stanley-mcchrystal/201850/

http://forcechange.com/22425/demand-accuracy-in-casualty-reporting-for-drone-strikes/



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matweller
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« Reply #3 on: December 09, 2013, 09:42:22 AM »

Yeah, I wasn't going to mention any of the recent actions for fear of seeming to push my political agenda, but we have a LONG history of economically and militarily terraforming countries to suit our purposes (see most of South America) no matter how much death of innocents it causes or how poor the results prove out to be in the end. Not to mention the casualty list of innocents from drone-bombing in Pakistan is now in the hundreds and racing to the thousands.

It happens.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #4 on: December 09, 2013, 10:16:57 AM »

I mostly agree with Cutter on this one.
The story was very well told and I enjoyed watching the character development, but... it was a little weak. I can't put my finger on exactly what made it weak. Maybe it was the setting, like Cutter said. Maybe it was an author trying to do something he shouldn't have, like we heard at the very end, after the Daikaiju. Maybe it was a combination of factors.
Also yes, John Chu read it very well, with all the right inflection and tone. But his voice was just wrong for this piece. Wilson Fowlie or Nobillis might have been a better choice.
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matweller
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« Reply #5 on: December 09, 2013, 11:09:16 AM »

4th wall info: It was John Chu or no episode this week. He did brilliantly and turned it around in 3 days.

Listener criticism: Nobody complained when Mur read all-male pieces, which suggests to me that while it's nice when a narrator's voice matches the main character, we should also be able to divorce storyteller from story and just listen to the writing.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #6 on: December 09, 2013, 11:28:25 AM »

4th wall info: It was John Chu or no episode this week. He did brilliantly and turned it around in 3 days.
Didn't realize that. All props to John for super fast narration work and to Mat for what must have been a hectic and difficult episode to produce.
Listener criticism: Nobody complained when Mur read all-male pieces, which suggests to me that while it's nice when a narrator's voice matches the main character, we should also be able to divorce storyteller from story and just listen to the writing.
When Mur reads an all-male piece it's just someone telling me a story, and there is no problem divorcing the storyteller from the story.
But in this case it was someone standing and telling his story, the story of his life. It was first-person written, and presented as a lecture of someone telling his story, not someone just reading a story. However well john read it (and he read it very well) , it just didn't feel right. His voice was too youthful and lacked a certain world-weariness that would have made the listening experience even better.
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matweller
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« Reply #7 on: December 09, 2013, 02:01:26 PM »

Actually, I concur, I was just being something of a snotty Devil's advocate. I would have done it myself if I hadn't already been in too many episodes recently.

It's always a bit of a tug for me. I tend to take in stories from a more distant perspective than most that allows me to ignore such things as the narrator's timbre or even plot holes, but it also means that I sometimes gloss over things that affect other people in the audience more directly. That being said, I do sympathize. I pretty much abandoned ST:Voyager on the second episode because Janeway's voice annoyed me so much, and I hate that because I know it's a well-done show. And don't even get me started on anything containing Fran Drescher or anything where Joey Lauren Adams has to cry… Tongue
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #8 on: December 09, 2013, 02:08:29 PM »

I would have done it myself if I hadn't already been in too many episodes recently.

Oh yeah, why didn't I think of that? I can totally hear Cpt. Dyllan Pike telling this story...  Wink

Also, there's no such thing as too many episodes.
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matweller
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« Reply #9 on: December 09, 2013, 02:41:35 PM »

I would have done it myself if I hadn't already been in too many episodes recently.

Oh yeah, why didn't I think of that? I can totally hear Cpt. Dyllan Pike telling this story...  Wink

Also, there's no such thing as too many episodes.

Ego stroke noted and appreciated. I try not to make it my personal performance venue... Wink

It would have been a little grimier than Pike, though. More like:
http://pseudopod.org/2011/04/08/pseudopod-224-the-horror-of-their-deeds-to-view/
or
http://pseudopod.org/2010/01/29/pseudopod-179-fading-light/
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olivaw
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« Reply #10 on: December 09, 2013, 09:57:36 PM »

Nasty. Pretty much everything about the story is nasty. The actions, the reactions, and the passive lack of reactions. The narrator's sob-story, and his pseudo-heroism. The kind support he gets afterwards, to get over it all and build a life having murdered thousands. Nasty, nasty, nasty. Just what a story like this needs to be.

Do we need a story like this, in a world where conspiracy theories abound, and government spooks are blamed for everything from HIV to autism? Where 'Bush / Obama / Blair / Cameron is evil' is the easy answer to every geopolitical problem?
I don't know. It's not the kind of story I'd seek out, anyway. But I'm glad it was so well-written.

And well-read as well. I don't think the voice came across as young, in particular. It was careful, perhaps cautious, perhaps affecting some naivete, which might be traits of youth, but might also be traits of someone who has somehow blotted out emotionally the enormity of what they have done, and is being very careful to handle the subject with some distance, to avoid unpicking those mental barriers.

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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #11 on: December 10, 2013, 12:31:06 AM »

Also yes, John Chu read it very well, with all the right inflection and tone. But his voice was just wrong for this piece. Wilson Fowlie or Nobillis might have been a better choice.

I wouldn't say he was "wrong", but he didn't conjure up anything Robert Ludlum-ish. Knowing he's an Asian-American, I pictured a bespectacled, rolly-polly young man, like the kid in Up all grown up (no one would suspect him!). Again, I don't think he was bad. He just made the character even less threatening that he makes himself sound.

(And now I'm wondering what it would sound like with Norm Sherman....)

And that's partly a feature of the story. The narrator just doesn't come across as all that dangerous - in fact, he's a little neurotic.

As for the story, while I appreciate the emotional reality of the narrator's transformation, I just think the use of an epidemic to destabilize a government like that is more than a little stupid. It's far too indiscriminate.

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laurasbadideas
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« Reply #12 on: December 10, 2013, 03:57:24 AM »

I liked the narration. The character was written as someone whose emotional development had stopped (or, at least, stopped progressing forwards and started moving sideways) when he was a fairly naive Establishment kid in the 1960s. The narration reflected that, even though it didn't sound like the physical voice of a 68-year-old man.
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PotatoKnight
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« Reply #13 on: December 10, 2013, 11:26:05 AM »

I thought that John did a great job reading it and intended to come here to say so. I appreciate the effort the podcasts go to to match narrator to story, but I don't think that does or should mean that every reader is "acting" as the narrator. The youth of the voice tied the piece closer to the action of the time period where the story is set than to the coda, and that's a good thing.

Knowing that he turned it around at the last minute makes it all the more impressive.

I'm in the camp of folks who consider this piece very effective in the discomfort it inspires, and terrifyingly believable. The narrator's motivation--to serve his country and not out of jingoism or politics but because the US is an experiment in good government--felt very real to me and was consistent with both his willingness to perform his tasks and his need to push back when something triggered him personally.

It raises questions for the audience that that the character doesn't really ask--like at what point does the US lose its grand experiment status (even if we grant that it has that status to begin with). You could imagine an idealist in the narrator's shoes seeing the things he's asked to do as a betrayal of those ideals, or you could see that idealist going the other way and believing fully that it was necessary for the good of the cause, however distasteful. The narrator takes neither path. Rather, it's just "the way things were done" a fact of the world almost devoid of moral character. It's a strength of this piece that it manages to present a person who is the more-or-less proximate knowing cause of thousands of deaths and the even more proximate cause of a family surviving and and the end it's hard to qualify him as a good or bad person. It's a lot truer than the morality stories usually present when they tackle this kind of issue.

This story raises a lot of interesting questions beyond the one we most often address in these comments (was the story good?).  The one I'm turning around in my head is--in the narrator's position, what are the possible choices we would call moral or ethical?  Did he have a good option?
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« Reply #14 on: December 10, 2013, 12:19:07 PM »

Didn't care for this at all.  The character didn't feel like a real person to me at all.  I cannot fathom what kind of person it would take to do this in the way that he did it.  He did not feel malice, nor rabid patriotism, nor hate.  He stated himself in the interview that he felt like he was a part of no country because he felt empathy towards people from other countries and he seemed to really mean that since he tried to take back the wrong-sounding of it and he didn't strike me as conniving in the way it would take to fake that flub.

I couldn't fathom how this character could knowingly be okay with becoming a plague vector and indiscriminately killing thousands and thousands of people, people who he would be in direct contact with.  (as opposed to someone ordering a military strike who will never be on the ground, for instance) It was interesting that he developed phobias and OCD tics from doing this, but really I had a lot of trouble drumming up any sympathy for his anxiety when he is causing widespread and indiscriminate and painful death wherever he goes. 

His rescuing of the boy and his family were good, I guess, in the sense that he wasn't completely inhuman, and to that family it did make a huge difference.  But it seems like he is touting this as a "look what a good person I am" moment, when he has done so much to contradict that at every step along the way.  "The plague vector with a heart of gold" the movie poster might say.

I agree that the framing device didn't make a lot of sense either.  And why 25 years for the silence clause rather than lifetime?

There were just so many things that didn't make sense in the character as explained to me.  To me, this story had the feeling of propoganda.  I mean, clearly it has its message, and I'm not saying the message was bad, but to me the message seemed to undermine the storytelling, like watching a propoganda movie where everything is obviously tuned to come out to an exact outcome the author wants to preach about.

I thought John Chu did fine as a narrator.  He did sound younger than the character, who would ideally have sounded older, but I thought it was fine.  It is a little harder to separate voice from character in 1st person story, but still possible.  In my mind, it was no different from 1st-person male-character stories that Kate Baker reads on Clarkesworld (which are a little disconcerting if she nonchalantly mentions she has male bits halfway through the story but not too bad).  And good on him for coming through on such short notice.  I was also glad that none of the dialog in the story had the stilted, awkward, cadence that has made some of his other narrations hard to listen to.

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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #15 on: December 10, 2013, 12:46:28 PM »

" I'm pretty sure people are not going to just brush off the fact that this guy straight up murdered thousands"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOCYcgOnWUM

This is interesting, but not really applicable to my point because this all happened during wartime with Japan. Yes, the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people is deplorable, but their country chose to go to war with the US.

Again, not exactly applicable because, though their detainment and torture is certainly wrong, these are select military targets, not hundreds or thousands of innocent bystanders.


Now this is one is similar to the story and just as deplorable, but my complaint is not that these things don't happen, I know they do. My issue is with the framing of the the telling of the MC's story. He's speaking to a classroom of students. We aren't told the age group or study of the students, could be high school, could be college, could be CIA recruits. Whatever the setting, this would be the equivalent of asking one of those drone pilots to come and speak to a class about how many innocent people he killed in the name of the mission. That's what I don't like about this story. It's not his actions during the mission, I know that kind of crap happens every day, it's the fact that he is calmly addressing a room full of students and explaining his actions with no remorse. Sure, he's developed some neuroses from the events, but at no point does he say he regrets his actions. The story doesn't focus on those neuroses, instead it tells us how he managed to work through them and live a happy, normal life after being a mass murderer. Are we supposed to celebrate him? "Congratulations Heir Himmler, I'm glad you can sleep comfortably at night..."

4th wall info: It was John Chu or no episode this week. He did brilliantly and turned it around in 3 days.

And I commend John for his work and ability to come through in a pinch. As I said, his narration was solid. And I appreciate what you did, Mat, to get the job done so we have a story to complain about. Tongue  Thanks for all you do.
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« Reply #16 on: December 10, 2013, 01:15:28 PM »

I think I felt the same way about this story the way I did about some TV shows, such as 'Oz'.  I found the story well written, well produced, and well narrated.  But I found it disturbing.

I think one of the things I found disturbing about it is that I couldn't rule out the possibility that the government would actually use bio weapons in that way if they thought they could could get away with it. 

Quote
And why 25 years for the silence clause rather than lifetime?

Normally information is classified for a 25 period.  But like others, I was surprised that he would be so openly talking about it like that.
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PotatoKnight
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« Reply #17 on: December 10, 2013, 03:16:12 PM »

On the issue of openly talking about it, this is a case where the date the story was written might be relevant. He's speaking in 2015, which is close enough to our present as to be non-future. But the story was written in 1993, almost immediately after the end of the Cold War and 20 years ago. It would be a reasonable assumption that US intelligence actions during the Cold War would be no more a secret or object of shock by now than similar acts during WWII were by the early 90s.

I also didn't get the sense either that he exactly got the text of his speech vetted. My guess is that the context is that a high school (my guess is high school since he starts out talking about held in high school) got wind that there was a guy who had been an intelligence operative during the Cold War and had him speak. He just took it from there. Nothing he has to say is classified, so the government doesn't really have any way to legally silence him. It's not far-fetched that a high school would invite him to speak to a history class or something--I remember Vietnam vets talking to my high school.
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El Barto
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« Reply #18 on: December 10, 2013, 07:30:07 PM »

Disturbing news today (12/10/13) "Madagascar village hit by bubonic plague" -- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-25324011

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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #19 on: December 11, 2013, 12:00:20 PM »

I found this story deeply unsatisfying, but I'm not sure if that's a bug or a feature. You see, in my mind, the main character's deeds require what amounts to a deep psychosis. A towering sociopathy. I am not convinced by arguments like "national security" and "indoctrination" and "just following orders." This man was a terrorist, a sick and twisted person. The intelligence leaders who gave him these assignments were sick and twisted people. I know there are arguments against this position, but it's the one I find most compelling.

As a result, I found the arc of the story a little too pat. We didn't get a clear idea of what led this young man down this dark path. There was no damnation by degrees. There was just "hey, you want a job murdering tens of thousands of innocents? It's got great benefits." "Sure, where do I sign!" Normal people don't do that. Healthy people don't do that - at least, not until something - or many small things - happens to them to make them unhealthy. I found his redemption at the end a little too easy - "I got some therapy, rose in the ranks of a pharmaceutical company, and now I'm a happy, healthy family man!"

That said, maybe that's the point. Maybe the point of this story is that there are these soulless sharks swimming among us, that not all of them are mad dogs that we recognize and - hopefully - lock up or put down after they slice up a few hookers or rape somebody. Some of them are normal-seeming red-blooded American boys. Some of them are in national security. Some of them are CEOs and elected officials.

Like I said, maybe it's a bug, not a feature.

Or maybe the author and I have radically different ideas of what makes a "compelling character" or a "normal, decent person," and as a result this story just wasn't for me.
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