Escape Artists

News:

News

ATTENTION: NEW FORUM THEME Please see here for details: http://forum.escapeartists.net/index.php?topic=13188.0

Author Topic: EP451: The Aliens Made of Glass  (Read 9012 times)

eytanz

  • Moderator
  • *****
  • Posts: 6109
on: June 24, 2014, 01:56:37 PM
EP451: The Aliens Made of Glass

By Helena Bell

Read by Donna Scott

This piece was published in The Indiana Review in December 2013. - See more at: http://escapepod.org/#sthash.0YHIPCCV.dpuf

---

Sister Charles Regina, formerly of the Daughters of Perpetual Help, attends to her boat, the Nunc Dimittis, as if it were the sole member of her parish. She scrubs the white transom, the gunwale, the wooden steps leading to the bridge, and the metal railings. She vacuums the carpet in the salon, empties then refills the refrigerator and checks the interior cabinets for ants. Once a week she cleans the bottom of the hull and even in this she is practiced and ritualed, reciting a dozen rosaries in time with the digs of her paint scraper, the bodies of barnacles swirling around her like ash. It gives her peace. Each action and inaction she commits will lead to consequences and she revels in the knowledge that everything worn away will be built up again. In these moments she does not miss the convent or her religion or God. She does not mind that the aliens are coming.

Sister Charles Regina, née Kathleen, brings the dock-master filets of tuna, wahoo, mahi mahi and sheepshead. For this and her company, Gray gives her electricity, use of the slip, and help with the lines. They watch the evening news together, and Gray does not ask about her lack of prayer over the meal. Kathleen does not ask after his parents or sister. He is her family; she is his. It is enough.

“The aliens passed Neptune today,” the local weather girl says, but she has been announcing the passing of Neptune for several days. A countdown glows in the right-hand corner with flickering dates and estimations. They will be here in 467 days, three years, or seven years, decades, soon, soon, sooner than we are ready.

The aliens move as slowly and perpetually as shadows on a sundial. The anchors express disbelief that we spotted them near Pluto at all. Should not they have zipped in at the speed of light? At warp? Hyperspace? Should not they be in our skies one minute, the valleys of the moon the next? Kathleen wonders if space is more like the ocean than anyone thought with currents and tides and troughs. She pictures the aliens adjusting a compass set to the pull of opposing suns. She imagines long, bone white fingers turning the knobs of a LORAN adjusted for eleven-dimensional space.

Instead of sports, a man in a checkered suit announces the decision of all space-faring nations to reroute their shuttles, their satellites, and refitted weather balloons. Like marathon racers or a soapbox derby, the line of them stretches from Baikonour to the moon. A tech company has announced a prize for the first privately-funded spaceship to reach the aliens. A second prize for the first to establish meaningful contact. A third for the first to determine their intentions and draft an appropriate response.

The checkered man begins to stutter, his face reddening under the studio lights. He misses basketball and baseball, where the most threatening stories were coaches throwing metal chairs across the gleaming laminate floors. He takes a deep breath. He has a job, a purpose; his world is not so different that he has forgotten to be professional. “Whether the prize will be in currency or fame or nonperishable foodstuffs is unknown at this time.” He smiles and hands off to a field reporter at a local high school. The seniors intend to build rockets. They do not expect them to reach the aliens, or orbit, or the upper levels of the atmosphere, but on each rocket the students will write a message in any and all languages in which they have proficiency. English, Latin, Spanish, German, French, Klingon, Elvish, Binary. . . They no longer care about prom or AP English exams, but of a future filled with higher-level mathematics.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
« Last Edit: July 01, 2014, 01:32:43 AM by Ocicat »



Max e^{i pi}

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1038
  • Have towel, will travel.
Reply #1 on: June 24, 2014, 05:15:47 PM
Well, it looks like I'm king under the mountain. I only wish I had better things to say about this story.

The way I see it, there were three stories here:
1) Interstellar shards of glass are discovered out in the Kuiper Belt. Traditional worldwide media coverage ensues as the world population watches as they slowly move into the inner system. The novelty of the idea doesn't wear off (for some reason) even after several years. Humanity, as a whole, decides to embrace a new Federation-style worldview where peace and love rule supreme. And then the glass crashes into the planet.
2) This one woman used to live in a nunnery but doesn't anymore because of interstellar glass. She has a boat and she goes fishing and also sometimes smuggles people and objects around. There is something going on with a childhood sweetheart but that doesn't happen. She is inexplicably hospitalized for a foot injury and spends an inordinately long time there. While at the hospital she makes friends with her comatose roommate.
3) Donna Scott has a Roomba and he sometimes wanders into her office to see if she is done talking to her computer and will play with him.

There was some attempt to weave those stories together, but I didn't see how that would work. None of the story lines interested me enough to become invested in any of the characters.
I can see how the first two stories could be used to speculate about humanity, science, god, life, the universe and everything. But they just didn't hook me enough for me to care.

Win some, lose some. Here's hoping next week's tale will be better.

Cogito ergo surf - I think therefore I network

Registered Linux user #481826 Get Counted!



Warren

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 18
Reply #2 on: June 24, 2014, 11:17:11 PM
I may have something more thoughtful to say later, but I made it through almost 25 minutes of this story hoping it would improve and assuming it was leading to a payoff, hating it thoroughly and absolutely all the while, before giving up and skimming to the end of the text on the website, only to find it was all a really, really bad shaggy dog story. Really just terrible through and through, and not helped by the narrator's inconsistent diction on a tinny microphone in an echoing closet to the occasional refrain of a vacuum cleaner in the distance.



ToooooMuchCoffeeMan

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 24
Reply #3 on: June 26, 2014, 06:59:08 AM
Poor recording quality really ruined this one for me. I had to listen so diligently to catch each individual word that every few minutes I would realize I'd completely lost the thread of the story as such.

That said, I have to agree that there really wasn't much of a story here, just an unconnected series of incidents.



ArbysMom

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 22
    • Twitter
Reply #4 on: June 26, 2014, 09:10:29 PM
Whether the sound quality was the fault of the narrator's circumstance or the EA sound editor trying to fix it, or both, I couldn't listen to this for more than about three minutes. When the background noise has been digitally stripped from a file to the point where it sounds tinny, the result is usually more annoying to listen to than the noisy original. So I read the text version instead.

I felt unsatisfied after I finished reading. The lack of emotion left me with a mental image of the story that was more in black and white (and gray) than any colors, despite mentioning the blue clothing. It wasn't entirely bland, only mostly so.


Unblinking

  • Sir Postsalot
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 8729
    • Diabolical Plots
Reply #5 on: June 27, 2014, 02:01:48 PM
I don't get it.  What was the ending supposed to reveal?  It just confused me.  Were they just supposed to be shards of drifting glass as Max said?  But it said they were landing on all parts of the world at once, so that doesn't make sense.

As Max said, I didn't feel that the threads really tied together nor did I really care about any of the threads.  It seemed like the story was all about the anticipation but I didn't really care about what they were anticipating so it was just waiting for something to happen.  Something happened at the end, I guess, but I have no idea what it was. 

I guess looking at the show notes this story didn't come from The End is Nigh anthology, but that's what I had in mind all the time with the impending arrival of the aliens overshadowing the story and not a lot happening. Maybe part of my general dislike for it is that I'm getting pretty weary of hearing the promos for the Apocalypse Triptych, especially the catchphrase "The End is Nigh is the match".  Perhaps wrongly, but I associated this story's attempted sense at anticipation with being tired of hearing promos for that antho. 

Oh well, on to the next episode.



Cutter McKay

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 952
  • "I was the turkey the whoooole time!"
    • Detention Block AA23
Reply #6 on: June 28, 2014, 03:46:58 AM
'Fraid I have to join the naysayers here. Maybe it was the poor recording, or the accent (and don't get me wrong, I LOVE British accents), but I had to work so hard just to understand what she was saying that I couldn't focus on the actual story. When the end came I had no idea what had happened. None of it seemed to mesh at all. Like others have already said, it was several threads of stories that failed to tie together cohesively.  :-\

-Josh Morrey-
http://joshmorreywriting.blogspot.com/
"Remember: You have not yet written your best work." -Tracy Hickman


rendall

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 19
Reply #7 on: June 30, 2014, 09:58:10 AM
Unfortunately, I'm one of the people who could not understand the story through the sound quality.  I, too, gave it a good go, listening intently 3 times, but the sound issues distracted and my mind wandered.



Richard Babley

  • Guest
Reply #8 on: June 30, 2014, 10:30:17 AM
Not one of my favorites -

I didn't have a big problem with the sound quality or notice the vacuum.  I am able to block things out really well sometimes.
The meaning of the story was about as clear as mud, and while I like a story that I have to work thinks out, be it metaphorical or not, this is an example of asking too much from the reader.  I wasn't impressed with the large statements such as "The things we know we do no know are more than we'll ever know."  (or what ever it was), after working in research for a while that is less of a philosophical statement and more a statement of the obvious.  Also I am not really sure that I got the whole "like a human and an alien meeting for the first time" statement.   

That said - I liked the imagery.

P.S. I also visited the author's blog.  The subtitle is:

clarity is overrated

I found it a very fitting outlook for this work, but I do not agree. 
Furthermore, if you add in the sound quality factor, that statement is extremely ironic.



Unblinking

  • Sir Postsalot
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 8729
    • Diabolical Plots
Reply #9 on: June 30, 2014, 12:11:04 PM
Regarding the sound quality--I noticed it was lower than usual, with noise and stuff in the background.  But I found it quite listenable.  This may be a case where my usual environment of listening in the car helped if the road noise blocked a large portion of the noise or something.  Others may be more sensitive to other pitches and the problems may be more pronounced in other listening setups.



bounceswoosh

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 305
Reply #10 on: June 30, 2014, 12:32:07 PM
The sound quality was rough. I listened anyway. I want to speak up as someone who didn't hate the story. It reminded me a bit of Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World. We watch people deal with massive upcoming change. I liked that in the end, the "aliens" were just glass. After all, for years they had acted as a mirror for humans. The point of most first contact stories is what we learn about being human. Same here. The aliens don't need to be real.



Unblinking

  • Sir Postsalot
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 8729
    • Diabolical Plots
Reply #11 on: June 30, 2014, 05:44:43 PM
Typo in the big title in the first post of this thread:
Quote
EP451: The Aliens Made of Glassa



Devoted135

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1252
Reply #12 on: July 01, 2014, 01:28:28 AM
I had a really hard time following the story, partly due to the audio, and partly because I couldn't figure out how the various threads were connected to each other. I'm glad that I wasn't alone in this! If the aliens really were just shards of mirror/glass then the symbolism that bounceswoosh referred to is pretty cool.


P.S. I also visited the author's blog.  The subtitle is:

clarity is overrated

I found it a very fitting outlook for this work, but I do not agree. 
Furthermore, if you add in the sound quality factor, that statement is extremely ironic.

Knowing this is the author's approach helps put this story in perspective.



Chairman Goodchild

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 159
Reply #13 on: July 01, 2014, 10:25:12 AM
I'm going to join in with everyone complaining about the poor level of audio.  I listened for about ten minutes, and the audio buzz was really annoying, the story was slow-moving, and the narrator really could have improved her inflection.  I don't want to be too critical of the readers, but I thought the reading was flat, and the narrator could work on improving her inflection. 

With those three issues, I gave up on the story.  I don't normally do this, but I did here.  Reading the review ArbysMom wrote of the story,

I felt unsatisfied after I finished reading. The lack of emotion left me with a mental image of the story that was more in black and white (and gray) than any colors, despite mentioning the blue clothing. It wasn't entirely bland, only mostly so.

I'll consider this one a washout and try again next week.



Varda

  • Rebound
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 2710
  • Definitely not an android.
Reply #14 on: July 01, 2014, 11:52:30 AM
I agree with the consensus that the audio quality made this story very difficult to follow, especially in any sort of background noise (I listened to it in the car), even if I really liked the narrator's voice itself.

Given that, I liked what I heard (and Helena Bell's stuff in general) enough to go back to the EP website and reread the text afterwards, and I'm really glad I did. This story was outstanding and had a lot of depth to it, even if it makes you work to get at it. The story is very existential at heart: the world is slowly dying off and running down as people wait for the aliens to arrive, and as they debate the aliens' purpose and how to make contact. When the aliens do arrive, I think the implication is that the aliens were already dead or dying, and that their arrival was a final desperate bid to make contact and be remembered after their end. There's quite a bit of tragedy in the fact that the humans are also on the fade, perhaps partially because of the chaos of the aliens coming to Earth in the first place.

I especially loved all the building imagery suggesting the aliens' fate, and the theme of the difficulty of two intelligences trying to communicate. For example, you've got Kathleen thinking about dying and her bones falling into the ocean to be washed until they're like sea glass for someone else to collect. This mirrors the aliens' bodies adrift in the "sea" of space, shattering on Earth to be collected but not entirely understood by someone else. Then there's Kathleen's relationship to her ship, something she cares for but ultimately is forced to abandon, and the parallel to the legendary sailor YZ at the very end of the story, who experienced a moment of connection with the sinking ferry before they both died together. And of course, there's the metaphor of Kathleen's faith, and the question of how people relate to the supernatural, how such communication would need a Rosetta stone before any communication were possible, or else the message would be lost. The first problem of communication between two intelligences of any sort is establishing that you exist to each other to begin with. The tragedy is that sometimes we never get the chance to move beyond this, because by the time we're aware of it, it's too late.

To pick on a better-known example, I might compare this story thematically to "Ender's Game", if that's helpful for anyone, although this story is much bleaker and more tragic in many ways.

I also really enjoyed Bounceswoosh's take on it. I hadn't thought about the glass/mirror connection when I read it, but you're right: what the people read into the aliens' motivations very much reflect each person's character, from those who want to kill the aliens before they arrive, to people like Agatha who pray to God to bless the aliens as another beautiful and irreplaceable piece of the universe.

Good stuff all around, and it's a shame the audio quality understandably made this one hard to follow.

Medical Microfiction: Stories About Science
http://rckjones.wordpress.com


Thunderscreech

  • Lochage
  • *****
  • Posts: 344
Reply #15 on: July 01, 2014, 05:03:56 PM
Early, it's established that the people of Earth call out to the aliens via shortwave, CB, microwave and more.  (paraphrased): "We welcome you in peace!"  "Tell us who you are"  "Stay away!"

The sister, injured terribly, calls out on the radio for help.  Is she actually calling the Coast Guard or is she, in a moment of animal need, calling out to something that might fit into the faith-shaped hole in her life? 



bounceswoosh

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 305
Reply #16 on: July 02, 2014, 02:18:40 AM
For example, you've got Kathleen thinking about dying and her bones falling into the ocean to be washed until they're like sea glass for someone else to collect. This mirrors the aliens' bodies adrift in the "sea" of space, shattering on Earth to be collected but not entirely understood by someone else.

Nice! I didn't catch that. I may need to go back and read the text, too.



DerangedMind

  • Peltast
  • ***
  • Posts: 104
Reply #17 on: July 02, 2014, 04:55:02 AM
This story just didn't work for me.  Based on a few of the comments, I'll have to get the text and read it and see how it goes.  I just had trouble getting immersed in the story and understanding what was going on.



Windup

  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 1226
Reply #18 on: July 05, 2014, 08:39:46 PM
I find stories like this one, which rely heavily on metaphor, symbolism and thematic resonance rather than conventional plot and character to produce their effects, very difficult to appreciate. It has to be extraordinarily well done to work for me, and this one wasn't that extraordinary. I worked at it for a while, tracing the parallels between the ex-nun and the aliens, trying to grasp what was meant by the various responses from Earth people, and so on, but there was a point in the middle someplace where I quit trying to thread the pieces together and said, "This is just too much work for the payoff."  And the ending didn't do anything to alter my opinion.

Better luck next week.

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


AM Fish

  • Palmer
  • **
  • Posts: 24
Reply #19 on: July 08, 2014, 01:49:01 PM
P.S. I also visited the author's blog.  The subtitle is:

clarity is overrated

I found it a very fitting outlook for this work, but I do not agree. 
Furthermore, if you add in the sound quality factor, that statement is extremely ironic.

Yes.  As said in many other reactions to this story, the sound quality really made me work hard to get to the end of the story.  When I got there, I thought, "Who? What?"  Thinking that someone else understood the story better than I did, I looked over the forums and found that the amount that I know is less than the amount I thought everyone else thought they didn't know.  However, I really liked the story.  I liked the main character and her relationship with her childhood friend.  I liked her contemplation of the sea and outer space.  I especially liked her relationship with the girl in the coma in the hospital.  Her faith that her roommate will revive and then their walk on the beach where the roommates arm became lighter as she regained control of her body.  Not sure what to make of it but I will give it another go.  I'll read the text this time.



meggzandbacon

  • Extern
  • *
  • Posts: 6
Reply #20 on: July 11, 2014, 03:12:30 AM
Agreed that the audio quality of the reader wasn't that great for this story but it didn't bug me as a lot of other people here.  I thought this was a very evocative and poignant story about losing touch with "the moment" because of anxiety about the future.  The ending was powerful and I don't think it could have concluded better any other way. To me, this story felt a bit more "literary," (whatever that is) than what's usually on the menu at Escapepod, which i didn't mind at all.  I'm surprised no one has commented that, well, there weren't really ever any aliens and so this might not even be science fiction.  I liked that about the story, I just thought that those things usually came up round here. :)



Unblinking

  • Sir Postsalot
  • Hipparch
  • ******
  • Posts: 8729
    • Diabolical Plots
Reply #21 on: July 11, 2014, 02:03:32 PM
I'm surprised no one has commented that, well, there weren't really ever any aliens and so this might not even be science fiction.  I liked that about the story, I just thought that those things usually came up round here. :)

Unfortunately it does tend to, and when you've heard that argument once you've heard it all, there's nothing interesting in that line of discussion.

In any case, whether or not it's technically science fictional, it is certainly aimed squarely at a science fiction audience and that is us!



Dwango

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 165
Reply #22 on: July 18, 2014, 01:16:20 PM
I thought the way the story was written was poetic in its descriptions and some of it I really enjoyed.  The desperate attempts to contact the aliens, the fears and societal issues that the aliens are coming were interesting in their array of responses.  I liked the way she described events and scenes.

But the main character was very two dimensional, the stereotypical "Nun who loses her faith".  I did not feel she legitimately was ever a nun and I don't think she ever felt real.  Where is her angst, her memories, or her emotional crisis.  Not once was Christ mentioned which is so important to the faith and such a part of her beliefs.  I don't know the author, but I get the feeling she didn't really understand her main character, and hence the main character became just a cipher in a story trying hard to be symbolic of a world in a amazing, historic moment.



Fenrix

  • Curmudgeonly Co-Editor of PseudoPod
  • Editor
  • *****
  • Posts: 3937
  • I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.
Reply #23 on: July 30, 2014, 01:12:42 PM
I think it's worth discussing how distancing the coldness of the protagonist was. She was also emotionless and colorless as glass. Reading this thread helped me get a little closer to pulling deeper meaning from the story, but I never quite connected enough to want to really dig in.

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


hardware

  • Matross
  • ****
  • Posts: 192
Reply #24 on: September 16, 2014, 02:06:02 PM
I enjoyed this quite a lot. The author is definitely going for something more 'literary' here, and for me the juxtaposition of the nun trying to keep keeping on after losing her faith with the long wait for what turned out to be an empty shell and the other stories about ships breaking down had some resonance. Not that I have a readymade neat analysis, but this wasn't the kind of story that would gain from that anyway.