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Author Topic: PC292, Giant Episode: Scry  (Read 5459 times)
Talia
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« on: December 27, 2013, 08:28:41 AM »

PodCastle 292, Giant Episode: Scry

by Anne Ivy

Read by Elizabeth Green Musselman

Originally published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Read it here!

By dawn, the house of Eyr Eth Lun had fallen. Dead soldiers and laser-cauterized pieces of soldiers littered the stairs and bridges into the palace. The sun rose slowly over the spires, flushing the sky pink and pale blue, gleaming off broken glass, bringing color to the gore. Anubises, wading into the midst of the detritus, carried the bodies away. The dead, victorious and defeated alike, all went to the crematorium together.

The metal gates into the house hung warped and melted on their hinges. The inside echoed, empty, threatening. The first to set foot on the foyer’s metal floor had been electrocuted.

Eyr Eth Lun and his liege, the fugitive prince Ben Tur Ibren, were long gone. Some of Karnon Nameless Dae’s followers hoped their quarry—Lun and Ibren—was hiding somewhere in the house, sure to be flushed out. Most knew better. Lun’s soldiers had fought with the desperate furor of those who knew themselves dead. They’d been fighting to buy their masters time to escape, not to save their own lives. They’d succeeded, and their ranks—brave, loyal, and dead—lay in unflinching testament to the cost of Lun’s contingency plan.


Rated R: Contains some violence and sex.

Dramatis Personae:

Eyre Isri Esth: The finest scryer on the planet, and the wife, or former wife, of Lun.

Eyr eth Lun: Esth’s former husband, head of a royal house, and protector of the fugitive prince Ibren.

Ben Tur Ibren: The fugitive prince, who is being hunted down by Karnun Dae.

Karnun Nameless Dae: An alien bent on revolution, and overthrowing the prince and his supporters.

Listen to this week’s PodCastle!
« Last Edit: January 22, 2014, 03:30:01 PM by Talia » Logged
Conejo Gordo
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« Reply #1 on: December 28, 2013, 10:35:04 PM »

Wow.  I thoroughly enjoyed this one.  It had the richness  and epic qualities that I remember from my high school days when I read all of Frank Herbert's books.  And much like The Reverend Mother Odrade from Chapterhouse: Dune, I found myself falling in love with Esth and happy that she avoided a tragic death. 

Also, I'm really glad that Dave decided to offer up a quick primer on character names. It helped me to navigate the story and (you were right) it was well worth it.  Thank you.
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Just Jeff
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« Reply #2 on: December 30, 2013, 08:31:12 PM »

That was fantastic, and I thought the reading a perfect fit for the story.
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« Reply #3 on: December 30, 2013, 10:55:01 PM »

Did all the scrying in this remind anyone else of The Time Traveler's Wife
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« Reply #4 on: January 02, 2014, 09:36:55 AM »

I wasn't expecting to like this, between the giantness and the future-seeing. Don't get me wrong, I like stories where the future-seeing is used in some cool way, but like time travel, most of the interesting permutations of the practice have already been well-trodden.

But this one managed to feel novel.  The future-seeing wasn't quite deterministic but wasn't quite non-deterministic--most of the fates predicted did come to pass but the one scryer died immediately from scrying their own future death, if i understood that correctly. 

One thing I thought was really interesting and novel was the way that the other characters were aware of the limitations of scrying and used it to their advantage.  They knew that she had resolved not to scry her family, so marrying her family member is a way to stay mostly invisible.  I thought it was a cool idea that the triplet of scryers could steer someone else's scrying, forcing a change or maybe at least a concretion of the future to occur.  But most of all the ability of the naninki (sp?) to see others scrying him was a really neat wrinkle.  In some ways it's kind of a weak power--with my power I can see into the past!!--but it was used to good effect in the story for him to counteract the scrying powers, and to allow him to speak to her when she scries her death. 

I think the one thing that I didn't find particularly compelling was the romantic relationship.  It seemed that he largely won her over by sexing so good but, well, it's not all that impressive to be able to do that when you literally have complete control over your physical existence.  It seemed that she fell for him as part of that without really realizing it.  And for me it felt like he was literally incapable of actual love, actual romance, and that this was just another step in making sure he had a competent scryer at his disposal for as long as possible--he knew she would scry her death eventually, but her longevity and gentle death was all just part of his ambitions.  Which I guess she may have realized, but to me it felt like she thought it was more than I thought it was.
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« Reply #5 on: January 04, 2014, 09:49:34 PM »

I enjoyed this a lot. Esth's world seemed almost tangible to me – so real I could almost smell hot metal and bubbling acid. I also really like that Esth avoids a tragic ending, and dies old and contented. Regardless of what the story says about Karnun Dae's capability to love, I think his actions showed he could, despite his inhuman nature.

Elizabeth Green Musselman's reading was *perfect* for the story. There's quite an emotional range for a short story, and she really sold me on every bit of it.
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« Reply #6 on: January 05, 2014, 01:48:07 PM »

I loved this one. Very reminiscent of Dune, but in all the right ways. I personally enjoyed the romantic angle to this story - especially with that last line. I disagree that Dae won over Esth by his amazing sexy skills, but rather that he was the first person in a long time that acknowledged her as a woman, and not just as a tool for a war she doesn't really care about. Whether he loved her or not wasn't really the point, though with the way he looks at her once the deed is done makes me feel as if he does; it is that for him, she was more than just the best scryer of her generation. That was enough for her, and that was enough for me to be quite emotionally invested by the end of this story.

As far as the actual scrying mechanics, I thought it was both well described and fascinating. I actually would've liked to see a few more of her acid driven future sighting, but overall, I just liked the story as a whole. Everyone's motivations made sense to me, the pacing was great. Certainly did not feel like an hour and a half!

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« Reply #7 on: January 06, 2014, 06:59:11 PM »

I appreciated the heads up on the cast of characters, thanks Dave!

Wow, I thought this was a pretty amazing story that definitely didn't feel as long as it was. The mechanics of the scrying technique were very cool and I liked that more powerful techniques required more risk. The philosophical debate on whether scrying would change the future or if the future was already fixed was fascinating as well.

I agree with evrgrn_monster that Dae won Esth by being the first person (noble or otherwise) to acknowledge her as a whole person, and not just a tool whose repugnance must be tolerated. I too was touched by the scene of her eventual death as it showed that she and Dae had a long, and happy life together.
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« Reply #8 on: January 06, 2014, 08:05:28 PM »

I also agree with evrgrn_monster's analysis regarding the romantic relationship. Esth was pretty miserably used by her husband for a number of years, and it says something if her death-obedience vow to Dae ended up being a psychologically healthier place than her marriage was. And you know what? If the sexytimes were really that great, I don't think that's necessarily the worst grounds for a relationship, if everyone involved is happy with the arrangement. It was certainly a better option for Esth than her sexless and self-esteem crushing marriage. It reminds me a bit of one of the big takeaways from "Pride and Prejudice" in that, while for some of us, relationships are more satisfying if they're about love, there are other perfectly valid and healthy reasons to enter a relationship.

I was pleasantly surprised her future death ended up being so peaceful, and I think the setup of the scrying magic made it perfect. All in all, a very satisfying and well-told story, and it was nice company on the road for all the holiday traveling.
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« Reply #9 on: January 07, 2014, 05:03:41 PM »

Chiming in to agree with Varda. She said it better than I could. Dang it.

Seth was basically just a machine to her husband. I mean, he basically wanted to turn her off permanently just because her existing was inconvenient and then couldn't fathom that she had an independent thought and refused to die. Not to mention the lengthy and soul-crushing neglect that proceeded that move.

Whereas our resident alien sex-god was willing to give her attention, respect her family and her wishes and was willing to allow her to not scry at times. I can't imagine her husband being so understanding. And I firmly believe that paying attention to her body with fantastic sexy fun times as well as her fabulous mental ability would make for a winning relationship. Never underestimate the positive effect of happy, attentive sexy fun times.

I pretty much counted on her living a long life. That part wasn't a surprise, but just a happy little foregone conclusion. Overall, I really enjoyed it.
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« Reply #10 on: January 08, 2014, 10:02:41 AM »

Don't get me wrong, sexytimes are great and all.  Part of it is that I'm less impressed by them coming from a person who has complete control over his physical existence then someone who actually has to deal all the little often inconvenient details of biology.  Part of it is that I was skeptical that she would give herself over to her future murderer in every way without any qualms about it. 

Part of it, too, is that I guess I'm not convinced that he actually cares for her as he claims, rather that he wants her scrying ability and forcing her to use it will make the results less useful so he doesn't.  I suspect that the peaceful death she experiences in the future is less because he cares about what kind of death she has, but rather that he is entirely aware that she will be able to foresee her own death and she will be more useful to him if she can foresee a peaceful one with him.   Kind of a long con, I guess, since he lives so long he can afford to spend decades being her lover in order to get some useful scrying out of her. 

Maybe I'm overinterpreting the story here, but it was just stressed so many times that he is not a physical creature and although he has to operate by his own limitations of telling the truth, he also does not have the same incentives that are in large part caused by our brain chemistry to behave the way we expect good people to behave.  So throughout the story my interpretations of his actions were based in that--and there was no point in the story that convinced me that "oh, maybe all these plain statements about his limitations are faulty" because everything fits into this interpretation.

And maybe it's a potato-potahto situation from her point of view, whether he loves her and spends decades with her and gives her a peaceful death because he loves her, or whether he is playing a long con to give her a pleasant death she can foresee to maximize her usefulness to him.  Either way, she gets an apparently caring lover who is good at sexytimes and treats her well.  So maybe it's just the distance that the narration allows me to see it from that makes the romance less satisfying if I'm pretty sure that it's a long con.

Seth was basically just a machine to her husband. I mean, he basically wanted to turn her off permanently just because her existing was inconvenient and then couldn't fathom that she had an independent thought and refused to die. Not to mention the lengthy and soul-crushing neglect that proceeded that move.

No argument there.  I'm not claiming that her husband is a good mate in any way.  She's better off after she's captured by the alien, certainly.

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« Reply #11 on: January 08, 2014, 10:04:40 AM »

Which, by the way, is not at all to say that I didn't like the story.  I just finished writing my Best of Podcastle 2013 list, and Scry is #1.  The alternate view of the romance is actually one of the reasons that I like it, gives me something to think about. 
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« Reply #12 on: January 08, 2014, 06:19:48 PM »

And maybe it's a potato-potahto situation from her point of view, whether he loves her and spends decades with her and gives her a peaceful death because he loves her, or whether he is playing a long con to give her a pleasant death she can foresee to maximize her usefulness to him.  Either way, she gets an apparently caring lover who is good at sexytimes and treats her well.  So maybe it's just the distance that the narration allows me to see it from that makes the romance less satisfying if I'm pretty sure that it's a long con.

I see the biological argument - e.g. this is sci-fantasy, we're talking about an alien here, so how do you translate a concept like "love" between species?

But I also think there's a philosophical side to this (and it may very well be your potato-potahto). Do we define "love" as a feeling, or as an action or a set of habitual actions? If love is an emotion, then it's probable that Dae doesn't love Esth in the way we tend to think of love, especially considering the species difference and the likelihood that Dae is not able to feel things in the same way humans can, and vice versa.

But if love is action, then he most surely loves her, because he treats her in ways that are respectful, considerate, and beneficial toward her.

I tend to think love as action trumps love as feeling, so I found their relationship believable in spite of the hints in the text that Dae isn't really capable of love, per se. He might not feel the same feelings a human lover would, but his actions are a million times better than any amount of feeling not backed by action. Words are cheap, but follow-through costs you something, and that's where the love is.

Even if Esth is really dang useful to him, and Dae's actions result from the fact that it benefits him to keep her happy, I'd argue this is the same thing that happens in even the best of human relationships. I love my husband like crazy, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't benefit. Romantic love is selfish. Parental love is selfish. Love for friends and family is selfish. This selfishness isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I don't think it diminishes the value of the actions of love. It just means that it's actually a good idea to behave in loving ways toward people, whether you think it's for evolutionary reasons or spiritual ones or both. As they say on the interwebs, it's a feature, not a bug. Smiley
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« Reply #13 on: January 08, 2014, 07:38:25 PM »

I am loving this conversation right now.

(Currently this is manifested as an emotion. It will become an action when I record the feedback segment!)
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« Reply #14 on: January 09, 2014, 10:03:58 AM »

And maybe it's a potato-potahto situation from her point of view, whether he loves her and spends decades with her and gives her a peaceful death because he loves her, or whether he is playing a long con to give her a pleasant death she can foresee to maximize her usefulness to him.  Either way, she gets an apparently caring lover who is good at sexytimes and treats her well.  So maybe it's just the distance that the narration allows me to see it from that makes the romance less satisfying if I'm pretty sure that it's a long con.
I tend to think love as action trumps love as feeling, so I found their relationship believable in spite of the hints in the text that Dae isn't really capable of love, per se. He might not feel the same feelings a human lover would, but his actions are a million times better than any amount of feeling not backed by action. Words are cheap, but follow-through costs you something, and that's where the love is.

Even if Esth is really dang useful to him, and Dae's actions result from the fact that it benefits him to keep her happy, I'd argue this is the same thing that happens in even the best of human relationships. I love my husband like crazy, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't benefit. Romantic love is selfish. Parental love is selfish. Love for friends and family is selfish. This selfishness isn't necessarily a bad thing, and I don't think it diminishes the value of the actions of love. It just means that it's actually a good idea to behave in loving ways toward people, whether you think it's for evolutionary reasons or spiritual ones or both. As they say on the interwebs, it's a feature, not a bug. Smiley

I hear you, and I don't exactly disagree.  If I were in Esth's shoes, I think the difference would be unimportant semantics.  

As a reader of the story, though, the difference makes a huge shift in how I view the story and the themes of the story.  I have read plenty of stories with romances in them, and plenty that have left me with a satisfied feeling of the coupling of two souls who are well suited to each other--if not soulmates, at least people who are devoted to each other for the time being.  This story didn't do that for me, because of how I view his side of the relationship.  I said before that the romantic relationship wasn't compelling, and I take that back--I'm not quite sure if my view has shifted as part of this back-and-forth, Varda, or whether I just said something that was a bit askew of what I really meant.  At this point, anyway, I'd say something more like:  "the romantic relationship didn't convince me that he wasn't in it for purely selfish ends."

Probably partly because I am a software engineer and I prefer to make most choices and to do many things in a fairly structured and rational manner, the alien's POV interests me here.  He is not a robot, but in some ways he has to operate like one--working under the axiom of telling the truth, making decisions and choosing paths for entirely rational reasons because he is not steered by biochemical interactions.  And sometimes, choosing the most rational and beneficial path may involve behaving as though you are capable of emotion because you are surrounded by humans, and humans are inherently irrational and emotional creatures who tend toward rationalization but rarely toward rationality.  How do you get what you want from such messy creatures of irrationality?  By doing exactly what he did.

Like I said, that didn't detract from the story, and actually I think it makes the story all the better because if it had been just another run-of-the-mill boy-meets-girl-and-fall-in-love romance, there would be nothing wrong with that either, but it wouldn't have inspired us to wax philosophical.  And I like to wax philosophical.  

I might've liked it a little better if the possibility of the one-sided romance had crossed Esth's mind before the story ended, to convince me that the story was aware of the possibility.  I have been known to construct internally consistent sideplots that were unintended by the author and which are as big as the main plots.  Possibly even more than once.  Then again, it might've just weakened my interpretation rather than strengthened it if she were aware enough of it to voice the thought, rather than rationalizing it into invisibility.  Anyway, whether it was intended by the author or not, I have enjoyed the mental exercise.  Smiley
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« Reply #15 on: January 09, 2014, 05:13:28 PM »

Anyway, whether it was intended by the author or not, I have enjoyed the mental exercise.  Smiley

Ditto! hope I'm not sounding argumentative,  because I'm just enjoying myself, as I believe you are. Smiley (as well as Dave, that lurker!)

Probably partly because I am a software engineer and I prefer to make most choices and to do many things in a fairly structured and rational manner, the alien's POV interests me here.  He is not a robot, but in some ways he has to operate like one--working under the axiom of telling the truth, making decisions and choosing paths for entirely rational reasons because he is not steered by biochemical interactions.  And sometimes, choosing the most rational and beneficial path may involve behaving as though you are capable of emotion because you are surrounded by humans, and humans are inherently irrational and emotional creatures who tend toward rationalization but rarely toward rationality.  How do you get what you want from such messy creatures of irrationality?  By doing exactly what he did.

At the risk of talking circles around each other, I guess don't see the difference between rationality and emotional reactions, when you really get down to it. I mean, I completely 100% follow what you're saying about how a creature who has a different biology and psychology might choose to imitate human psychology in order to interact with them, but I still rather think that Dae does exactly what we do, except he's more consciously aware of it.

I know it's traditional to set up a dichotomy between logic and emotion, but I tend to think that, biologically speaking, emotions are completely logical. Their underlying logic is just more convoluted to trace and account for than you get with circuitry. Emotions are something like biological shortcuts that get you to engage in certain helpful behaviors without the need to think through why, exactly, they're helpful, but they're undergirded with a distinct logic. The fight-or-flight response is a classic example. I'd argue that love is another one.

So I agree that Dae has probably thought through human psychology and arrived at the conclusion that if he treats Esth according to the human template of "love" for her entire life, she will be more inclined to be helpful and useful to him. I'm just saying that any human lover engages in the exact same logic, only with an emotional shortcut that allows us to use romantic terms like "unconditional love" or "self-sacrifice" while ignoring the fact that treating each other according to the template of "love" carries with it a huge reward for the lover as well as the beloved.

I can see how it would have left you unsatisfied, anyway. The story goes out of its way to emphasize that Dae almost certainly doesn't "love" her (I believe Esth herself thinks this at some point, but decides she isn't bothered by it.) That demands to be accounted for, by wrestling with the reliability of the narrator, the definitions of "love", and questions of alien intelligence colliding with human... and so, here we find ourselves. Cheesy

Incidentally, I'm going to echo you and say I love it when a story has enough complexity to allow for these types of conversations!
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« Reply #16 on: January 09, 2014, 11:48:59 PM »

What a smart, interesting discussion! You have helped me think through something that I hadn't quite pinned down myself: as the reader of the story, I initially felt uncomfortable with the relationship between Esth and Dae, but I also decided to go ahead and read it because I thought it otherwise had real redeeming value.

I felt exactly the same way about the last story that I read for Podcastle ("Throwing Stones," ep 251), which also centered on a marginalized woman's sexual relationship with an alien creature who cannot love her. Both relationships struck me initially as unequal and even exploitative ... which normally would have meant I'd have turned down the reading assignment, but something stopped me from doing that, and your discussion has helped me figure out what that was.

There's a huge difference between someone who *cannot* reciprocate love and someone who simply *will not*. The men in both these stories are entirely alien in the sense that they simply do not have those feelings. But does that preclude them from intimacy of another kind? Does it automatically make the human women who love them masochists? I'm not so sure. The women in both stories have a strong sense of self, and while they've both taken big hits to their senses of self worth, they are hardly milquetoasts. So I don't think they enjoy the company of these feeling-less males because they secretly hate themselves. I think they are fascinated by the possibility of a relationship with someone who objectively, openly, and reliably appreciates them for their many skills and attributes.

Sort of reminds me of the idea that a marriage might be happier if it is companionate and sexual but not romantic.
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« Reply #17 on: January 10, 2014, 12:19:48 PM »

I know it's traditional to set up a dichotomy between logic and emotion, but I tend to think that, biologically speaking, emotions are completely logical.

I've got to disagree with you there.  Emotions are rarely logical.  They're based in the lizard-brain chemistry that managed to get us where we are today, and they're a vital part of our brains, but they exist on a lower level than the logic--the capability for logic is built upon that infrastructure.

That's not to say that emotions and logic have nothing to do with each other.  I've read multiple SF stories recently that posited that for an AI to be truly functional, they have to be capable of emotions to help them weight their decisions, or they'd be paralyzed with all the tiny meaningless choices we make each day like "should I wear a red shirt or a blue one".  The choice of a shirt might not have much emotion so can be done randomly or with little consideration in many situations, but deciding whether or not to do something else would be weighted more heavily if it has to do with maintaining your marriage, maintaining your health, etc.  I don't necessarily buy into that argument fully, but I see its basis.  I agree that an AI would need to have some kind of utility function that would help it weigh minor decisions vs vital ones, but I don't think that emotion need be the basis of it.

Quote
Emotions are something like biological shortcuts that get you to engage in certain helpful behaviors without the need to think through why, exactly, they're helpful, but they're undergirded with a distinct logic. The fight-or-flight response is a classic example. I'd argue that love is another one.

I think I agree with the basis for your argument on this, but not your conclusion.  I can buy into emotions being biological shortcuts aimed toward certain helpful behaviors.  Without the fight-or-flight response, our species would not have survived to this point.  Without love, likewise (reproduction can happen without love, of course, but I think there's reasonable reason to think that multiple-parent childrearing encouraged by love as a motivation has an evolutionary benefit in harsh conditions).  But that just means that on a species level our characteristics have proved to be part of our evolutionary package that has allowed us to get to this point.  That doesn't mean that these things always help with individual survival, and often drive an individual to states that are detrimental to that individual--death by hypertension caused by stress, someone cheating on their long-term lover and ending a marriage as a result, cravings for fatty food  because that was a valuable trait when we were in the wild. 

Anyway, I don't think that it's right to have a dichotomy between emotion and logic, because they are entangled in a way that at least in a human brain can't be disentangled.  But I also don't think they are equivalent. 

I'm just saying that any human lover engages in the exact same logic, only with an emotional shortcut that allows us to use romantic terms like "unconditional love" or "self-sacrifice" while ignoring the fact that treating each other according to the template of "love" carries with it a huge reward for the lover as well as the beloved.

Again I think I agree with some of your bases of argument but not your conclusion.  I can see how you can say that human lovers might start a long-term relationship based on the logic of the benefit they will receive, and that's what Dae does here.  So far so good.  But then what drives some men to beat their wives?  What drives some people to cheat on their spouses?  What drives some people to kill themselves?  It ain't logic (or it ain't OFTEN logic, I should say).  Emotion can drive you to ends that are ones you might logically choose, but it can often drive you the opposite way as well down paths that destroy you or destroy those you love.

On the one hand, I might say that Dae would make a superior lover, because he is focused on the long-term end which she has already seen is to be with her a long long time, and won't be distracted by the emotional impulses we all have to contend with.  On the other hand, I might also say that I'm less impressed with Dae's ability to do this for hundreds of years than I would be by any married person who managed it for 10 or 20 or 30 years because he lacks the biology that MAKES it hard.  He doesn't have to struggle with ethics and morality and emotional impulses--he has decided this is the beneficial course for himself, and he follows through with it, end of story.
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« Reply #18 on: January 10, 2014, 01:30:57 PM »

Alright, Unblinking, I yield!  Smiley

That last post of mine was written pretty off-the-cuff. I think you've done a good job pointing out the holes. And I really liked this:

Quote
On the one hand, I might say that Dae would make a superior lover, because he is focused on the long-term end which she has already seen is to be with her a long long time, and won't be distracted by the emotional impulses we all have to contend with.  On the other hand, I might also say that I'm less impressed with Dae's ability to do this for hundreds of years than I would be by any married person who managed it for 10 or 20 or 30 years because he lacks the biology that MAKES it hard.  He doesn't have to struggle with ethics and morality and emotional impulses--he has decided this is the beneficial course for himself, and he follows through with it, end of story.

It's fair to give us poor, squishy humans credit where credit is due. Good relationships, whether they're ultimately beneficial or not, take a heck of a lot of work. So high fives to everyone slogging it out in the human-fashion. Smiley
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« Reply #19 on: January 15, 2014, 02:42:14 PM »


So high fives to everyone slogging it out in the human-fashion. Smiley


Oddly enough I hear this in Graeme's voice and not yours. Apparently ending a sentence with "in the human fashion" is permanently corrupt.
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