Escape Artists


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Congratulations to the winners of the Podcastle flash fiction contest!

Author Topic: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]  (Read 17991 times)


  • Hipparch
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Reply #25 on: July 05, 2014, 08:19:53 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.

"My whole job is in the space between 'should be' and 'is.' It's a big space."


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Reply #26 on: July 28, 2014, 09:07:34 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, 09:09:53 PM by Fenrix »

All cat stories start with this statement: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this...”


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Reply #27 on: July 28, 2014, 10:05:55 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.


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Reply #28 on: September 16, 2014, 01:49:26 PM
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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Reply #29 on: September 26, 2014, 05:53:31 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.

The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad.


  • Hipparch
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Reply #30 on: March 23, 2015, 05:30:42 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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Reply #31 on: July 17, 2016, 07:05:37 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].


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Reply #32 on: April 27, 2019, 04:24:31 PM
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?


  • Palmer
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Reply #33 on: May 02, 2019, 05:19:41 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.


  • Palmer
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Reply #34 on: May 02, 2019, 05:20:10 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.


  • Hipparch
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Reply #35 on: December 30, 2019, 08:26:47 PM
Second time round, I still find this creepy, creepy, creepy. I just don't understand the motivation of the MC. I'm all for transcending humanity and becoming an AI, but not at the expense of my fellow human beings. If I had to inhabit unwilling people's bodies to achieve said transcendence, that's a hard pass for me. And I feel that anyone who would agree to this is rather evil....