Author Topic: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]  (Read 11852 times)

Richard Babley

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #20 on: July 03, 2014, 10:16:05 AM »
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

I get your point of view, but your situation wasn't her situation.  You could find out what life is like after high school, what life is like outside of your town.  I'm not saying that pushing for your greatest potential in that kind of situation is easy, but there's a clear incentive for it--if you can push through the worst years of your life with good grades that might be enough to help you push through college, try to get your dream job whatever that is.  I know that was a huge reason why I kept pushing in high school despite there being more convenient social reasons not to push--I wasn't rich enough or well groomed enough to be with the popular clique and in our school the only other clique were the people who were content spending the rest of their lives in that flyspeck of a town.  I could've fit in more easily with the latter group if I hadn't tried to hard, but instead I ended up in neither group.  Because I could see beyond that boundary and see that what I did then had an effect on what I could do after.  Even in retrospect, I don't see anything smarter that I could've done than what I did--those were the worst years of my life, and now they're behind me forever and that never makes me sad.

Her situation is very different despite some obvious similarities.  From their point of view, and given their past history with the outsiders, the valedictorian presumably ends up dead, tortured, exploited in some way.  She can't talk to any previous valedictorian because they're gone.  She can't see the outside world because of the wall. 

Your response makes me think that the story was possibly trying for the metaphor.  Trying to show that when you are in the middle of the high school peer-pressure cooker it can seem impossible to see outside of that little world.  I imagine in a small town it can feel that way to a lot of kids--especially when a lot of the adults around seem to have not left the high school mentality.

I went to high school in a moderately-sized city, so it was always possible to see the world outside of the walls of the school and the town.  Maybe not as easy in flyspeckville.

So what your saying the metaphor is:  The valedictorian it is a big fish in a pond, but is going to an ocean full of sharks... 

I like that perspective.

Varda

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #21 on: July 03, 2014, 11:00:20 AM »
I really loved this story. My perspective was very similar to Albionmoonlight's--that this story is a metaphor for life in a small town. Additionally, I'd say it's a metaphor for poverty, and the difficulty of escaping the poverty cycle when everyone else in your immediate social circle treats the Outside World with suspicion and hostility, and when you're given every incentive not to reach beyond what your parents achieved.

This was especially apparent in how Zinhle's parents encourage her to get pregnant to escape the possibility of leaving town, or how at school there's pressure to flub your grades. While pretty much no one *tells* teens that it's a good idea to get pregnant or fail in school, it's interesting to me how sometimes there are unspoken social incentives to do so anyway. I was recently talking with a teen in my extended family about her post-high school plans, which she'd thought out really well. The whole time, her mother kept interjecting badly reasoned comments about why the teen's plans were no good, which I kept rebutting. Finally it came out that Mom just wasn't happy that her daughter's plans involved a career that would take her far from home.

I think this is pretty typical of the small-town mentality--there's a sense that leaving is the worst thing you can do, both because the outside world is Evil and Dangerous, and because if you leave, somehow it means you're rejecting the people you grew up with, that you're somehow "too good" for them. So achievement paradoxically becomes a wedge, even if on the surface your family says they want you to achieve. Far better to get pregnant or drop out and follow the same path in life as everyone else around you. In Jemisin's story, this idea is literalized by putting actual scary creatures outside the walls with nebulous motivations. No one is really sure what the AIs *do* with the children taken away, so their interpretation ends up being a reflection of their beliefs. And of course, that ties into the ending nicely, where the AI dude points out to Zinhle that her people are unwilling to fight for her anyway. When the day comes they value their overachievers that much, they'll be ready to rejoin the rest of the planet. Until that day, it's probable Zinhle's people are secretly relieved that the AIs are taking her off their hands, because her very existence is, in their eyes, a condemnation on their own way of life.
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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #22 on: July 03, 2014, 01:41:19 PM »
Yeah, when you're a teenager, you don't actually *know* that real life is going to be any better.  I sure didn't.  People kept talking about stuff after high school, but they might as well have been talking about life on Barsoom for all I knew or could bring myself to believe.  All I could see was the endless grind of isolation and ostracization continuing indefinitely into the future.
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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #23 on: July 03, 2014, 01:47:30 PM »
Yeah, when you're a teenager, you don't actually *know* that real life is going to be any better. 

Not universally. Knowing that high school would end was probably what actually kept me going from day to day.

But I see your point.  I can see that metaphor in the story, but it's not one that makes a lot of sense to me personally, I guess.  I like the story better without the metaphor.  *shrug*

Varda

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #24 on: July 03, 2014, 01:49:30 PM »
Yeah, when you're a teenager, you don't actually *know* that real life is going to be any better.  I sure didn't.  People kept talking about stuff after high school, but they might as well have been talking about life on Barsoom for all I knew or could bring myself to believe.  All I could see was the endless grind of isolation and ostracization continuing indefinitely into the future.

Seconded. I had no IDEA adult life would be a bajillion times better. Funny thing: for me, I think it was a good thing I didn't realize how much better the future was going to be. Without having anything else to compare it to, I never fully understood just HOW much middle/high school sucked for me, and was able to just sort of accept it as how things were. Sort of like when you go camping, and everyone develops camping-stink from not showering for days, but you don't really notice it's that bad because EVERYONE stinks and it's just how it is.
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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #25 on: July 05, 2014, 03:19:53 PM »
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

Wow.  Sounds like we had almost the same adolescence, offset by what I presume to be about 20 years or so. 

Yeah, this one rang true for me in terms of the high school world.

However, I heard it mostly as a metaphor for the politics of populist conservatism. The world is out there changing in scary, hard-to-understand ways, beginning with the marginalized and the elites, and working toward the middle. One response is to try to hold back the tide, remain real 'muricans and try to contain it by demonizing The Other.  However, when the changes take (and invariably, some combination of those changes do succeed) you can go the Lost Cause/Dead Ender route, or you can be swept into the New World Order.  Which is not to say that the New World Order is always an unalloyed good, or that joining it will not result in some serious losses and compromises.  Thus the AI's callous attitude toward the "culls" and lack of interest in the society they had defeated and marginalized.

Good stuff.

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #26 on: July 28, 2014, 04:07:34 PM »
Maybe I missed something but I got the distinct impression that the bottom 10% were sent to the Soylent factory (or brainwiped for meat puppets - but effectively eliminated from existence) and the Valedictorian is brought through the firewall to evolve into posthumanism. They get uploaded into the collective and this is the manner in which the post-human species can continue to evolve and grow. The Valedictorian test is to see if they are ready to evolve past the conforming mass. I suspect there's another story out there for a school where there are two vying for that top spot, and that they would both ultimately be recruited.
« Last Edit: July 28, 2014, 04:09:53 PM by Fenrix »
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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #27 on: July 28, 2014, 05:05:55 PM »
They get uploaded into the collective and this is the manner in which the post-human species can continue to evolve and grow.

I don't think the outside collective actually need the valedictorians - the guy she spoke to mentioned that his human part was born outside the firewall, so I think the outside people are quite capable of evolving and growing on their own, they're supporting the valedictorian tradition because they want to test the inside people.

hardware

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #28 on: September 16, 2014, 08:49:26 AM »
This all felt pretty contrived as far as premises go, in that it was only there to make an allegorical point rather than something that feels in the slightest possible. This in combination with rather flat characters hampered my enjoyment. The discussion in this thread is more interesting though, so I'll give it credit for inspiring that.

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #29 on: September 26, 2014, 12:53:31 PM »
I massively related to the protagonist.  Its tough being better than everyone else.  j/k

Good story, touches on a lot of themes and it stayed with me for longer than most stories.  I appreciated reading through the discussion here too.
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CryptoMe

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #30 on: March 23, 2015, 12:30:42 AM »
Okay, High School was no picnic for me. As Unblinking said, those were the worst years of my life. But, that doesn't mean I understand the MC's motivation one bit. I also like to do things my way and can stubbornly go against the grain (to this day still). But, if some dude told me that my current course of action would put me in a position to inhabit the bodies of the dumber 10% of my cohort, well, that is would just be too creepy for me!

Aliquid Novi

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #31 on: July 17, 2016, 02:05:37 PM »
A very late comment on this story, which I've recently listened to again after finally having read the text version.

I liked this one a lot. I found I could empathise with Zinhle, having, like Scattercat, had similar pressures in high school. Also, being deeply involved in computers and programming professionally, I would probably have been beyond the Firewall first chance I got.

The story was read really well too, except for one issue that annoyed me for some reason. Given that Zinhle twice in the story comments on the pronunciation of her name, it irked me that the narrator pronounced it incorrectly every single time. Zinhle Nkosi is an African name, almost certainly from the Southern African Nguni languages, e.g., Zulu. In those languages, which I have some familarity with, it should be pronounced, using IPA symbols, [ˈziːnɬe] [ŋˈkoːsi] and not, as I heard throughout the story, [ˈzɪnlei] [nəˈkosi].

Jebkr

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Re: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
« Reply #32 on: April 27, 2019, 11:24:31 AM »
Can someone explain the plot like I’m 5? I listened to it and read comments and still don’t understand what will happen to Zinhle if she is the valedictorian. Does that mean she will turn into a human/ai hybrid?

skeletondragon

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Re: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
« Reply #33 on: May 02, 2019, 12:19:41 AM »
Can someone explain the plot like I’m 5? I listened to it and read comments and still don’t understand what will happen to Zinhle if she is the valedictorian. Does that mean she will turn into a human/ai hybrid?

Don't worry, it's meant to be confusing and ambiguous! Something like a transhuman though, something like a human/ai hybrid, something like a symbiotic organism, or a networked mind? Lemuel explains through metaphor and Zinhle maybe can't fully understand because nothing in her education has prepared her - quite the opposite, in fact - and perhaps because human brains are incapable of fully comprehending. But at the end, she takes the risk of continuing on the path she's on. What does that say about her or her society? What does it say about ours? That's left up to us.

skeletondragon

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Re: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
« Reply #34 on: May 02, 2019, 12:20:10 AM »
I will say...4 years on, I like this story a lot more than I did the first time. I think I'm finally smart enough to appreciate how brilliant Jemison is  :)

My realization this time around is that this story works as a metaphor for the way schools in America treat minorities and working-class students. Do too badly and you're "culled" - barriers put up to your participation in society, due to a teen pregnancy, lack of diploma, or incarceration. Succeed too much, and you're tantalized with the promise of a different life if you assimilate into the ways of the ruling class and leave your community behind. *You* are special, so put your energy into individual success. Work long enough and hard enough, erase enough of your identity, serve on enough diversity panels, and maybe you can create some tiny changes in our system eventually and enrich us, make the system stronger and more resistant to any efforts by future smart kids to making systemic change.