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Author Topic: EP429: The Little Black Bag  (Read 2449 times)
eytanz
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« on: January 06, 2014, 03:09:27 AM »

EP429: The Little Black Bag

by C.M. Kornbluth

Read by Mat Weller

--

Old Dr. Full felt the winter in his bones as he limped down the alley. It was the alley and the back door he had chosen rather than the sidewalk and the front door because of the brown paper bag under his arm. He knew perfectly well that the flat-faced, stringy-haired women of his street and their gap-toothed, sour-smelling husbands did not notice if he brought a bottle of cheap wine to his room. They all but lived on the stuff themselves, varied with whiskey when pay checks were boosted by overtime. But Dr. Full, unlike them, was ashamed. A complicated disaster occurred as he limped down the littered alley. One of the neighborhood dogs–a mean little black one he knew and hated, with its teeth always bared and always snarling with menace–hurled at his legs through a hole in the board fence that lined his path. Dr. Full flinched, then swung his leg in what was to have been a satisfying kick to the animal’s gaunt ribs. But the winter in his bones weighed down the leg. His foot failed to clear a half-buried brick, and he sat down abruptly, cursing. When he smelled unbottled wine and realized his brown paper package had slipped from under his arm and smashed, his curses died on his lips. The snarling black dog was circling him at a yard’s distance, tensely stalking, but he ignored it in the greater disaster.

With stiff fingers as he sat on the filth of the alley, Dr. Full unfolded the brown paper bag’s top, which had been crimped over, grocer-wise. The early autumnal dusk had come; he could not see plainly what was left. He lifted out the jug-handled top of his half gallon, and some fragments, and then the bottom of the bottle. Dr. Full was far too occupied to exult as he noted that there was a good pint left. He had a problem, and emotions could be deferred until the fitting time.

The dog closed in, its snarl rising in pitch. He set down the bottom of the bottle and pelted the dog with the curved triangular glass fragments of its top. One of them connected, and the dog ducked back through the fence, howling. Dr. Full then placed a razor-like edge of the half-gallon bottle’s foundation to his lips and drank from it as though it were a giant’s cup. Twice he had to put it down to rest his arms, but in one minute he had swallowed the pint of wine.

He thought of rising to his feet and walking through the alley to his room, but a flood of well-being drowned the notion. It was, after all, inexpressibly pleasant to sit there and feel the frost-hardened mud of the alley turn soft, or seem to, and to feel the winter evaporating from his bones under a warmth which spread from his stomach through his limbs.

A three-year-old girl in a cut-down winter coat squeezed through the same hole in the board fence from which the black dog had sprung its ambush. Gravely she toddled up to Dr. Full and inspected him with her dirty forefinger in her mouth. Dr. Full’s happiness had been providentially made complete; he had been supplied with an audience.

“Ah, my dear,” he said hoarsely. And then: “Preposserous accusation. ‘If that’s what you call evidence,’ I should have told them, ‘you better stick to your doctoring.’ I should have told them: ‘I was here before your County Medical Society. And the License Commissioner never proved a thing on me. So, gennulmen, doesn’t it stand to reason? I appeal to you as fellow memmers of a great profession–”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
« Last Edit: January 25, 2014, 10:05:26 AM by eytanz » Logged
matweller
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« Reply #1 on: January 06, 2014, 09:23:46 AM »

You have my apologies for the delay of this episode. It was a large undertaking wrapped around general holiday confusion.
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Sgarre1
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« Reply #2 on: January 06, 2014, 01:38:25 PM »

Excellent!  I remember this episode of NIGHT GALLERY!
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egamma
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« Reply #3 on: January 06, 2014, 02:26:46 PM »

First though: oh, someone watched Idiocracy and turned it into a short story. Big deal.

But, as I kept listening, it turned into a much more interesting story.
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Grashtel
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« Reply #4 on: January 07, 2014, 03:24:23 PM »

First though: oh, someone watched Idiocracy and turned it into a short story. Big deal.

But, as I kept listening, it turned into a much more interesting story.
Paying a little more attention to the intros might be a good idea, it is somewhat unlikely for a story first published in 1950 to be based on a 2006 movie.  In fact Idiocracy is largely inspired by the follow up to this story "The Marching Morons" which explores the future world glimpsed in this story.
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Jompier
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« Reply #5 on: January 07, 2014, 03:30:56 PM »

I found this story to be very interesting, conceptually. What I liked in particular was how Kornbluth used time travel to highlight the distinction between tools (in this case a doctor's kit) and the technology of medical practice (if we understand technology as a situated set of practices that require manipulation of tools, guided by a particular set of motives and ethics). We typically use the terms "tools" and "technologies" interchangeably, but when you tease them apart you can start to talk about some pretty interesting ideas without fetishizing the tool itself.
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albionmoonlight
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« Reply #6 on: January 08, 2014, 09:51:41 AM »

Much like Norm, I like Golden Age SF.  I like that Escape Pod tends to focus on the contemporary stuff, but it is great to have that broken up with some classics.

For instance, in a golden age story, you can look back to a world in which journalism involved people conducting in-depth investigations of social problems and then writing detailed stories about the results of those investigations.  In 2013, the reporter's shoe-leather investigation into medical quackery would be replaced by firing the reporter and having an unpaid intern instead create a slide-show of "Top Ten Botched Celebrity Boob Jobs!"

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PotatoKnight
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« Reply #7 on: January 09, 2014, 05:05:11 PM »

The "Marching Morons" part in the frame narration smacked a bit too much of eugenics for my taste, and some of the female characters were kind of uncomfortably stereotypical--as one might expect from a story from the 50s.  I suppose the girl reporter character helps round that portrayal--while also a bit of a stereotype, at least it's a charming one. Politics aside, the story definitely dragged for me in the middle.

That said, I came around a bit as the story wrapped up. I liked how it gave us a stock film noir ending, dismissed that, then came around to a much more chilling conclusion.

(Edit: cut half-finished closing sentence)
« Last Edit: January 10, 2014, 11:07:38 AM by PotatoKnight » Logged
Listener
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« Reply #8 on: January 10, 2014, 08:07:52 AM »

This story was SUPER DUPER LONG. If I hadn't been wearing gloves because it was so freaking cold in my car I probably would've skipped ahead to the outro. Not because it was long, but because I wasn't really feeling it with the whole Dr. Full is a drunk storyline.

I, like Norm, appreciate flawed visions of the future -- the fact that even in the 2400s we'll still have police chiefs, lights that blink on and off, and rampant sexism (as evidenced by the blond woman who asked whatsisname -- Walter? -- to keep telling his story). However, the idea of having "minders" is pretty believable.

Where the story stopped working for me, though, was when Al shut off the bag in the 2400s and it stopped working in the past. Even though Al's remembered discussion with the temporalist does make sense. It's just, all my founding knowledge of time travel comes from the 80s and later.

It was a pretty good story, all told, but sometimes old stories take so long to develop that today's readers aren't able to sit through the opening. That's why I almost didn't read The Name of the Wind -- because it took almost 12 (admittedly-short) chapters to really pick up. Once it did, though...
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FireTurtle
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« Reply #9 on: January 12, 2014, 08:57:13 PM »

Agree with the loooooooong build up to the actual action. I could be heard muttering under my breath "this better get better real quick" after again looking to see how much was left of an almighty lengthy story. I also love golden age stories and this is mainly why I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. All in all I found it interesting if a bit squirmy in bits. The eugenics-y bits being the worst of the squirmy parts but also, for me, the eerie predictions about plastic surgery as an easy money maker to pay for the "real doctoring" was equally uncomfortable because it is a reality I face every day at work.

I liked the complexity of the time traveling medical instruments and really wanted me some. Did not like the female characters but expected nothing more from a story of this era. I was also oddly moved by Dr. Full's redemption. To bad he got a knife in the back for doing the right thing but, thems morons is everywhere mucking up things for us smart uns.

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HueItzcoatl
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« Reply #10 on: January 13, 2014, 10:36:22 AM »

When I first started listening to this episode I was about to turn the damn thing off and skip it altogether. The time skips were a little confusing at first and I had no clue what was going on. I think the confusion had more to do with my attention span than the anything wrong the story was doing.

I am glad that I stuck with it though, because by the end I was completely smiling like an idiot over the thing. Sure, the story is horribly dated but it's a pretty interesting take on greed vs altruism when it comes to scientific accomplishment. I especially loved the ending, I think that the woman got exactly what she deserved, but I will be the first to state the obvious fact that I am horribly biased on this fact because I have a deep moral objection to any kind of purely cosmetic alterations to the human form.
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albionmoonlight
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« Reply #11 on: January 13, 2014, 11:17:01 AM »

because I have a deep moral objection to any kind of purely cosmetic alterations to the human form.

I am not challenging you; I am just curious.  What do you consider "alterations?"  Surgery, certainly.  What about earrings?  Makeup?  A "high-maintenance" hairstyle?  Dying hair?

And, what if someone is born with something generally considered a disfigurement--like webbed toes.  Would you be opposed to cosmetic surgery in that case?  Or, is the objection limited more toward enhancing "normal" bodies?

(re-reading that, it sounds like I am trying to challenge you.  I really am not.  I am just interested in exploring the basis of a moral objection to cosmetic alteration--an activity that I personally find kind of silly, but pretty amoral on the whole.)
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Jompier
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« Reply #12 on: January 13, 2014, 12:21:50 PM »

because I have a deep moral objection to any kind of purely cosmetic alterations to the human form.

I am not challenging you; I am just curious.  What do you consider "alterations?"  Surgery, certainly.  What about earrings?  Makeup?  A "high-maintenance" hairstyle?  Dying hair?

And, what if someone is born with something generally considered a disfigurement--like webbed toes.  Would you be opposed to cosmetic surgery in that case? 

The operative word here seems to be "cosmetic" rather than "alteration" and I would describe the skin tightening and fat removal described in the story to be more cosmetic surgery. This is opposed to surgery to fix things like a harelip or webbed toes, which seems to fall under the heading of reconstructive surgery. Of course, tightening one's skin to appear more youthful than one's age is a kind of reconstruction in a way, but what makes it cosmetic is that it is done more out of a sense of vanity. We expect older adults to have wrinkling skin and so it is not outside the norms of appearance to look our age and no more of a social hardship than for any other older adult with wrinkling skin. Webbed toes or a harelip are a different matter.

Anyway … it's interesting from the story's perspective how the availability of tools that make cosmetic surgery possible quickly cultivate the desire to have and provide those services.
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Unblinking
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« Reply #13 on: January 14, 2014, 12:16:58 PM »

I liked it.  I'm with Listener that the prelude with the drunk doc was overlong and more than necessary to establish the drunken baseline from which he rises.  But other than that I liked it through and through.  I wasn't expecting the ending, but it tied together well with the rest.

The one part where I got confused was when the newspaper editor was clicking through articles with his smart-pen (unless I misunderstood that)--I thought that was the 25th century at first, but it turned out to not be.

The "Marching Morons" part in the frame narration smacked a bit too much of eugenics for my taste,

I didn't get the eugenics impression.  Rather, I thought he was extrapolating the trend of specialization to an absurd degree for comic and philosophical effect.  Society generally rewards people for being very very good at a particular thing, but doesn't so much reward, say, a doctor architect.  You can't be the best doctor you can be if you're spending half your time being an architect, and vice versa and someone who's kindof good at being a doctor and kindof good at being an architect isn't going to be praised for his roundedness, but rather scolded for his wasted potential in both fields .  That's been expanded here to apply not just to career choices but to basic skills.  Hemingway's a good doctor, but he doesn't know how to read (IIRC).  That's because he's a professional doctor, not a professional reader.  I assumed there was a professional reader out there who had no other major skills for similar reasons.  The idea is ludicrous of course especially for a skill with such obvious benefit as literacy since that can be used to learn new skills, but makes sense as an extension of current trends to the point of absurdity.  

And if technology has advanced to such a degree that it can do pretty much anything without people, that kind of extreme specialization might be a handy way to keep everyone occupied so they don't get into trouble.


and some of the female characters were kind of uncomfortably stereotypical--as one might expect from a story from the 50s.  I suppose the girl reporter character helps round that portrayal--while also a bit of a stereotype, at least it's a charming one. Politics aside, the story definitely dragged for me in the middle.

I actually thought rather the opposite.  I thought Angie was an unusually real person for a woman in a 1950s SF story.  She was intelligent, ambitious, capable, and driven to act in the pursuit of happiness.  She saw something was fishy with the original situation and moved it to her advantage, and she worked out a deal with the doc that was mutually beneficial.  She was not a vapid setpiece, nor a sexpot, nor a betraying Delilah.   Was she a bad person?  Sure.  Does that make the portrayal of her sexist?  Not to me it doesn't.

And on the subject of the female reporter--I don't think it's fair to consider her character a stereotype because she is never onstage to prove herself otherwise.  The only exposure we get to her voice is through her words that she wrote was meant to be published in the newspaper.  No matter what a unique individual that she is, she is gainfully employed in a career where her continued employment depends on fitting into her boss's (and the public's) expectations of how she should write.  Could she write something that really steps out of expectation?  Sure, but it would never get published and she'd get fired--her story about Dr. Full already got axed because of its variation from the norm, so there's good reason to think that there are limitations on what she's allowed to say and there's also good reason to suspect that she's pushing those limits by submitting that article.


All in all, I think that from this story alone, I'd guess that Kornbluth had a worldview much more sympathetic to women as real people than did many of his contemporaries.
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Sgarre1
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« Reply #14 on: January 14, 2014, 12:56:22 PM »

Excellent story and excellent reading!  Those interested should hunt up the NIGHT GALLERY episode as a compare/contrast.  I didn't find it long at all and actually quite liked the long hangover start, as it allowed the chance to get to know the Doctor a bit better.  Also loved the real-world editor details of the time and the woman reporter (who seemed to have gone above and beyond)
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HueItzcoatl
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« Reply #15 on: January 14, 2014, 04:40:14 PM »

because I have a deep moral objection to any kind of purely cosmetic alterations to the human form.

I am not challenging you; I am just curious.  What do you consider "alterations?"  Surgery, certainly.  What about earrings?  Makeup?  A "high-maintenance" hairstyle?  Dying hair?

And, what if someone is born with something generally considered a disfigurement--like webbed toes.  Would you be opposed to cosmetic surgery in that case?  Or, is the objection limited more toward enhancing "normal" bodies?

(re-reading that, it sounds like I am trying to challenge you.  I really am not.  I am just interested in exploring the basis of a moral objection to cosmetic alteration--an activity that I personally find kind of silly, but pretty amoral on the whole.)

No worries, I have no objection when someone does challenge my views. That's what makes things interesting. I should have probably clarified what I meant. I have an issue with alteration to the human form which radically alter the underlying infrastructure for purely vain reasons. Corrective surgeries are another thing entirely and I personally love body modification such as tattoos and piercings and make up. To me that's more like decorating the canvas not tearing it down.   

That being said, if someone chooses to have a tummy tuck, or a breast augmentation, or a face lift, I am not going to think less of that person. I have very strong opinions on the matter but don't try to impose those opinions on others. Free will and all that jazz.
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ThomasTheAttoney
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« Reply #16 on: January 14, 2014, 04:55:35 PM »

Good recording of a classic.  It is going in my mix of sample escape artists podcasts on an sd card to give to a friend you orignally introduced me to CM Kornbluth.  I am looking for other recommendations.  Which is the Tim Pratt with the sentient spider robot?  Who did the one about the librarian or barbarian who was going to kill a Troll who was very honored to be killed by the famous Conan or Cohen and called his troll kids over to witness his best day ever (the hero did not kill him in the end).  What other main stream would be recommended?  Thanx
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Varda
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« Reply #17 on: January 15, 2014, 10:25:58 AM »

Great story! I love hearing the classics, mainly because half the time I've not read 'em myself. Was glad to learn in the comments that "Idiocracy" has its roots in this author, as I couldn't get it out of my head while listening. I agree with the consensus that the story took a while to warm up and get going, and that the time jumps confused the heck out of me at first. But I really enjoyed watching the drunk old doctor transform into a well-respected do-gooder with his magical black bag (and more than a little coercion from his young "friend" Angie).

While this story definitely had the expected sprinkling of embedded sexism, I'm mostly with Unblinking on the character of Angie, who was better-drawn and more interesting as a character than you usually get in stories of this time period.

It's actually the target of cosmetic surgery that made me roll my eyes the most. I know it's common and accepted even to this day to make fun of people who get these procedures and mock them as shallow, but I think it's only fair to point out that in a culture that places such a high premium on youth and beauty, it's hardly fair to blame people for buckling under the pressure. I had a lot of pity for the old woman character, who was socially isolated and who was really only seeking a way to be taken seriously again after the loss of her youth and beauty. After all, we'll mock women as shallow for spending too much time on making themselves meet beauty standards, then turn around and mock those who don't spend enoughtime/money meeting those standards.

So the message is, "You'd better make yourself look good enough, but you'd better hide how you did it, and what the cost was." Thus leading to some truly hilarious conversations with my male friends where they claim to like girls who "look natural", but then when you push for clarification, they don't mean they're okay with unshaven legs, unplucked facial hair, and skin that's as naturally blotchy and uneven as their own.
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evrgrn_monster
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« Reply #18 on: January 15, 2014, 09:36:25 PM »

Ah, good ole golden age sci-fi. It's a security blanket of warm fuzzies for me. Much thanks for this story.

Since pretty much everything I would say about this story has been said, I'd just like to take a sentence or two to say that I thought the narrator did a great job with this story. Sound editing as a whole was actually very solid; I think without some of the effects that were added, I would've gotten quite confused with the time jumping.
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Unblinking
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« Reply #19 on: January 16, 2014, 10:04:09 AM »

It's actually the target of cosmetic surgery that made me roll my eyes the most. I know it's common and accepted even to this day to make fun of people who get these procedures and mock them as shallow, but I think it's only fair to point out that in a culture that places such a high premium on youth and beauty, it's hardly fair to blame people for buckling under the pressure. I had a lot of pity for the old woman character, who was socially isolated and who was really only seeking a way to be taken seriously again after the loss of her youth and beauty. After all, we'll mock women as shallow for spending too much time on making themselves meet beauty standards, then turn around and mock those who don't spend enoughtime/money meeting those standards.

Did you think the story dealt with the plastic surgery patient poorly?  I had sympathy for her, and I didn't feel like the story was telling me otherwise, but I might've missed some cues.  I can understand the position she's in that would make her feel such a thing was important, and I appreciated that she was shrewd enough to raise objections when she saw the cutting tools instead of just passively accepting whatever would happen after she's seen a red flag.  That shrewdness saved her life, as it turned out, otherwise Angie would surely have cut the woman's throat and killed her by accident when the tools were switched off.  She didn't get out of it free of consequence since she did have to witness Angie accidentally cut her own throat (the urge to sell concessions onna stick and sausages of questionable origin just overcame me at that phrase), but she avoided dying at least.
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