Author Topic: EP455: Keep Your Shape  (Read 8176 times)

eytanz

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EP455: Keep Your Shape
« on: July 21, 2014, 04:44:15 PM »
EP455: Keep Your Shape

By Robert Sheckley

Read by Nathaniel Lee

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Pid the Pilot slowed the ship almost to a standstill, and peered anxiously at the green planet below.
Even without instruments, there was no mistaking it. Third from its sun, it was the only planet in this system capable of sustaining life. Peacefully it swam beneath its gauze of clouds.
It looked very innocent. And yet, twenty previous Grom expeditions had set out to prepare this planet for invasion—and vanished utterly, without a word.
Pid hesitated only a moment, before starting irrevocably down. There was no point in hovering and worrying. He and his two crewmen were as ready now as they would ever be. Their compact Displacers were stored in body pouches, inactive but ready.
Pid wanted to say something to his crew, but wasn’t sure how to put it.
The crew waited. Ilg the Radioman had sent the final message to the Grom planet. Ger the Detector read sixteen dials at once, and reported, “No sign of alien activity.” His body surfaces flowed carelessly.

Noticing the flow, Pid knew what to say to his crew. Ever since they had left Grom, shape-discipline had been disgustingly lax. The Invasion Chief had warned him; but still, he had to do something about it. It was his duty, since lower castes such as Radiomen and Detectors were notoriously prone to Shapelessness.
“A lot of hopes are resting on this expedition,” he began slowly. “We’re a long way from home now.”
Ger the Detector nodded. Ilg the Radioman flowed out of his prescribed shape and molded himself comfortably to a wall.
“However,” Pid said sternly, “distance is no excuse for promiscuous Shapelessness.”
Ilg flowed hastily back into proper Radioman’s shape.
“Exotic forms will undoubtedly be called for,” Pid went on. “And for that we have a special dispensation. But remember—anyshape not assumed strictly in the line of duty is a foul, lawless device of The Shapeless One!”
Ger’s body surfaces abruptly stopped flowing.
“That’s all,” Pid said, and flowed into his controls. The ship started down, so smoothly co-ordinated that Pid felt a glow of pride.
They were good workers, he decided. He just couldn’t expect them to be as shape-conscious as a high-caste Pilot. Even the Invasion Chief had told him that.
“Pid,” the Invasion Chief had said at their last interview, “we need this planet desperately.”
“Yes, sir,” Pid had said, standing at full attention, never quivering from Optimum Pilot’s Shape.
“One of you,” the Chief said heavily, “must get through and set up a Displacer near an atomic power source. The army will be standing by at this end, ready to step through.”
“We’ll do it, sir,” Pid said.
“This expedition has to succeed,” the Chief said, and his features blurred momentarily from sheer fatigue. “In strictest confidence, there’s considerable unrest on Grom. The Miner caste is on strike, for instance. They want a new digging shape. Say the old one is inefficient.”
Pid looked properly indignant. The Mining Shape had been set down by the Ancients fifty thousand years ago, together with the rest of the basic shapes. And now these upstarts wanted to change it!
“That’s not all,” the Chief told him. “We’ve uncovered a new Cult of Shapelessness. Picked up almost eight thousand Grom, and I don’t know how many more we missed.”
Pid knew that Shapelessness was a lure of The Shapeless One, the greatest evil that the Grom mind could conceive of. But why, he wondered, did so many Grom fall for His lures?



Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!

Max e^{i pi}

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #1 on: July 21, 2014, 06:14:10 PM »
Ahh, a golden oldie.
At first I thought maybe the story wasn't about Earth because they were looking at a green world, but then I remembered that in 1953 there were no publicized color images of Earth from space. Green was a pretty good guess though, rather close to blue.

Also, the trope-heaviness of this story irked me a little bit, but I kept reminding myself that this was before the tropes. This story and its kin helped shape the tropes (see what I did there?). Once I was able to overcome that hurdle I could sit back and enjoy myself (metaphorically speaking, I was jogging at the time).

I did particularly enjoy the Atomic Age -iness of the story. I always love reading stories written in the Atomic Age. It's such a clean, naive, quaint and adorable take on How Technology Will Advance Us And Perhaps Other Species. It's part of why I love the early Asimov stories much more than the newer stuff. But this made me wonder, in 60 years, will we be sitting around discussing the cute and naive stories of our era? How cybernetics, nanotechnology and the singularity didn't actually pan out as we blithely thought it would? I hope we all live long enough to find out.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2014, 06:17:53 PM by Max e^{i pi} »
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skeletondragon

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2014, 12:04:01 AM »
I was surprised and delighted by the sociopolitical commentary of this story. I've read enough 50s scifi to know that there was a surplus of militaristic fiction. (I'm looking at you, Heinlein.) Yet here is a humorous story about three deserter aliens from a society whose greatest taboo is what to humans seems their most defining feature, using their natural shape-shifting abilities. After discovering the joy of doing what comes naturally, they abandon their goal of invading Earth for their empire and decide to impersonate trees. That's...kind of great???

I know I've gotten into a few arguments here about my unwillingness to cut old stories slack, so I want to hold this up as an example of a story that really does withstand the test of time. This was a good story, well-told, and it has enough merits that it's very easy to overlook its few flaws. If the first Hugo Awards had had a short story category, I feel like "Keep Your Shape" could've easily won.

benjaminjb

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #3 on: July 22, 2014, 01:16:14 AM »
I've liked all the Sheckley I've read/heard and this is no exception. (Though my current favorite, at least in title, is still "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?")

This strikes me as an interesting revision of Clifford Simak's 1944 "Desertion": People are changed into Jovian(?) life-forms to survive and scout for human colonization, but realize that Jupiter is best enjoyed in Jovian form. Here, it's the aliens who discover that Earth is pretty great, as long as you're open to the options.

And this being Sheckley (printed in H. L. Gold's Galaxy), the social subtext isn't too far under the text. "Keep your shape" seems pretty recognizable as a version of "keep your place" (or "know your place"), a standard injunction to lower class workers and minorities. I think that's what I like most about Sheckley: he's caustic and humorous and cynical without ever being nihilistic about the situation.

Scott Spath

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #4 on: July 22, 2014, 02:05:35 PM »
I am often wary when Escape Artists podcasts run anything "classic," but this was really fantastic. The sociopolitical commentary was impressive.
 
The Grom culture appears to have a number of safeguards against dissent which parallel our own religious and societal institutions, and it's too rare that a character like the pilot in this story determines that, in order to optimize his own happiness and self-fulfillment, he has to discard all of them. Interesting that all members of all 21 expeditions replace hierarchy with anarchy as soon as the oppressive structures of their society are too distant to matter.

I am rather intrigued by the thought of these shape-shifting aliens spreading throughout the universe. What are the resources they are in need of? They can change size, so why do they need to colonize at all? Couldn't they just all become smaller? Maybe it's one more result of their failed caste system which requires certain shapes, or maybe they operate under a system which, like capitalism, simply requires exponential growth as a basic tenant.

I left wondering how many more expeditions will make their way to Earth, and if there is any hope for those Gromian shape-shifters who are left behind on the other worlds. I hope that their own liberation is not far off.

Chairman Goodchild

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #5 on: July 24, 2014, 01:56:12 AM »
I enjoy reading and listening to sci-fi stories from different eras.  It's interesting to see what people thought the future would look like in different eras, what people think technology would be like, and what these stories said about society in the time of their publication. 

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #6 on: July 25, 2014, 03:20:00 AM »
I was expecting this to be more humorous than it turned it to be. That's not bad - I actually needed the inspirational feeling I got from it this morning - but I kept bracing for some cute gags that never came.

That said, this story seemed well-suited to Nathan's voice, and he did manage to bring the humor that was implicit in the story nicely to the surface.

(Of course, now he's going to read this in the feedback with his classic deadpan inflection, and it will probably cause some kind of meta-ego wormhole. Shhh...maybe he won't notice that i said that!)
« Last Edit: July 25, 2014, 08:33:21 AM by eytanz »
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SpareInch

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #7 on: July 25, 2014, 10:32:52 AM »
Well, after an epic wrangle with the audio version of the registration security question, reminiscent of the alien's attempt to get through that gate, here I am, making my first post on the forum! YAY!

I'm not sure I was laughing exactly where I was supposed to though. Admittedly, the only Nucliar Facility I have ever visited was the Sellafield site in North West England, but I seem to remember that the security was a lot tighter than just one dog lover on the front gate. Or was it that the elite alien pathfinder team were stymied by something that wasn't even part of the real security setup?

I did enjoy it though, once I got past my usual 'Where's The Cold War Reference' approach to these old stories. And I loved the idea that a naturally thoughtful person would, of course, turn himself into a tree so he wouldn't have to distract himself by moving around.
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skeletondragon

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #8 on: July 25, 2014, 05:10:59 PM »
I'm not sure I was laughing exactly where I was supposed to though. Admittedly, the only Nucliar Facility I have ever visited was the Sellafield site in North West England, but I seem to remember that the security was a lot tighter than just one dog lover on the front gate. Or was it that the elite alien pathfinder team were stymied by something that wasn't even part of the real security setup?

Yeah, the only question that really bothered me about the story was "how the heck did these guys conquer even a single planet if they can't even use their shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate the most laxly-guarded nuclear installation ever?" but I've been working lately on better suspending my disbelief.

Unblinking

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #9 on: July 28, 2014, 01:45:24 PM »
I enjoyed it, especially keeping in mind that it's an older story.  It holds up to modern view better than most stories of that era.  The metaphor for class/race etc in our world was clear and held up pretty well.  "Let's invent some social norms and religious behavior rules that reinforce my coveted position!"  I thought the blocking of the request for a new mining shape was especially telling about the stupidity of their rules--"this mining shape has been good enough for 50,000 years" is their justification, when really that should convince a reasonable person of the obvious, that after that long of a time maybe there are new ideas that could work better.

if we were sent in small groups to another place where we were free from all of the social problems we have here and were given the opportunity to open a door to let all the problems back through I can totally see it happening like this.  The only thing that surprised me is that the others didn't actively try to stop the pilot when the pilot declared he was still going through with the mission.


Gamercow

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #10 on: July 29, 2014, 08:08:20 PM »
Also, the trope-heaviness of this story irked me a little bit, but I kept reminding myself that this was before the tropes. This story and its kin helped shape the tropes (see what I did there?).

I have the same problem with Tolkein's stuff.  It is so overly tropey because it was the source of the trope.  It's like saying "this water's awfully wet, isn't it?"  Still, it niggles.
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Devoted135

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #11 on: July 30, 2014, 03:16:29 AM »
I really enjoyed this. I love how each member of the expedition gravitated toward a shape that was particularly conducive to the thing they've always wished they could do. The pilot was very happy being a pilot, so it wasn't until he tried a flying shape that he understood how anything other than the 5 pre-approved shapes could possibly be desirable. So glad that the invasion was once again stymied!
Hmm... *pokes a tree to see if it moves*

bounceswoosh

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Re:
« Reply #12 on: July 30, 2014, 03:26:31 AM »
This story may be an inkblot test. I read it as an LGBT allegory, even though I'm pretty sure that wasn't the author's specific intent.

Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Loved the reading. Loved the take on a doggie perspective.

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Re:
« Reply #13 on: July 30, 2014, 01:42:19 PM »
This story may be an inkblot test. I read it as an LGBT allegory, even though I'm pretty sure that wasn't the author's specific intent.

That's a nice thing about a theme that doesn't spell out it's metaphor explicitly--it can speak to different people in different eras even if that's not the intent.  I think that the premise of this story could speak to just about anybody on some level.  LGBT is a particularly good match since it's something that you can try to suppress or hide long term and just try to act like everybody else but how it could seem like paradise to reach a place where you can act natural without being judged for it.

But it could just as easily have to do with any other number of things where a person feels pressure by the community to pretend to be something they're not.

SpareInch

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Re:
« Reply #14 on: July 30, 2014, 03:57:02 PM »
This story may be an inkblot test. I read it as an LGBT allegory, even though I'm pretty sure that wasn't the author's specific intent.

That's a nice thing about a theme that doesn't spell out it's metaphor explicitly--it can speak to different people in different eras even if that's not the intent.  I think that the premise of this story could speak to just about anybody on some level.  LGBT is a particularly good match since it's something that you can try to suppress or hide long term and just try to act like everybody else but how it could seem like paradise to reach a place where you can act natural without being judged for it.

But it could just as easily have to do with any other number of things where a person feels pressure by the community to pretend to be something they're not.

Aint THAT the truth!

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #15 on: July 30, 2014, 04:32:20 PM »
This story may be an inkblot test. I read it as an LGBT allegory, even though I'm pretty sure that wasn't the author's specific intent.

That's a nice thing about a theme that doesn't spell out it's metaphor explicitly--it can speak to different people in different eras even if that's not the intent.  I think that the premise of this story could speak to just about anybody on some level.  LGBT is a particularly good match since it's something that you can try to suppress or hide long term and just try to act like everybody else but how it could seem like paradise to reach a place where you can act natural without being judged for it.

But it could just as easily have to do with any other number of things where a person feels pressure by the community to pretend to be something they're not.

Aint THAT the truth!

You want to see a happy person?

You want to see a Trans getting served in a dress shop for the first time.  ;D

I bet!
« Last Edit: July 30, 2014, 06:13:34 PM by eytanz »

InfiniteMonkey

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #16 on: July 30, 2014, 11:12:13 PM »
Sheckley is one of those names with which I'm familiar, but not actually read a lot of his stuff. Clearly I missed this completely, and that's too bad because it was quite enjoyable. While I, too, think it unlikely they would have failed *that* many times, especially against a facility that seemed to have been guarded by Gomer Pyle, I like the message it has for the rigidity of the Grom culture.

And I should point out that in the early 1950s, this could have just as well been directed at the "Second World" - that is, the Commies - as our own culture. Perhaps it is meant as an example of how seductive the freedom of the West was??

As for shrinking, I don't think that's a solution for the From - they're in need of energy resources, and in the end it wouldn't matter if you were 100 people in ten buildings or a 1000 in one building… if you're using non-renewable resources, eventually the math catches up with you.  Plus there's the whole "keep your shape" prohibition against shape changing in the first place.

hoby

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #17 on: August 01, 2014, 05:35:59 AM »
After several episodes I didn't really enjoy, it was nice to hear this story. It's simple and predictable but I really enjoyed the alien-ness of the aliens and the nature of the humor. Similar in some ways to the Way of the Needle, they were bizarre and rigidly structured enough for me to look past the human cultures they're borrowing from. It turned the second half of my bus commute into a rich visualization of what these various "shapes" might translate to—and speculation about whether the author would add a twist. He did not but it was still well done in a light-hearted way.

It's cartoonish fun for the whole family while taking jabs at various world views. It didn't get bogged down in needless details or pseudo-science, instead it utilized the "magic" side of sci-fi in order to tell a story short and sweet. Who wouldn't want to be such talented shape shifters? Well, as long as we weren't oppressed out of practicing those talents :P

In reading other comments, I didn't realize this was an older story. I agree that it carries through time very well.

slic

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #18 on: August 03, 2014, 09:19:50 PM »
Adding my praise to the heap!  And similarly I was a bit worried about this one - in fact it was only the very positive feedback that convinced me to listen it at all - Thanks everyone!

Lovely point, well-written, and thought provoking - everything I want in my sci-fi :-) 

Hmm... *pokes a tree to see if it moves*
Same here!

This story did also remind me of another story - though only tangentially.  The Man who fell to Earth.  A really good book about another failed invasion by aliens, and not too bad movie to boot.

Zelda

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Re: EP455: Keep Your Shape
« Reply #19 on: August 04, 2014, 04:59:42 AM »
I really liked this one.