Author Topic: EP492: The Silent Ones  (Read 8742 times)


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on: May 10, 2015, 02:24:16 PM
EP492: The Silent Ones

by Erica Satifka

read by Angela Davis


The year travel opens up between alternate Earths is the first year you fall in love, with a strapping farm boy from one of the rural worlds named Paul. He takes you to a barn dance thrown by his people, where you learn to smoke a corncob pipe. His sister, a tiny girl with saucer eyes and dirty hair, steals your purse. You’re too hammered to mind.
You get drunk on apple wine and fuck Paul behind a haystack while a band of his cousins screeches on their fiddles and moans in that unintelligible alternate-world dialect of theirs. At the pale green Formica kitchen table, Paul gives you a stick-and-poke tattoo of his initials inside a heart.
But when your six days are up, it’s back through the travel gate with you, and no more Paul. You mope for weeks, watching but not performing the calisthenics exercises on television, alternating handfuls of candy and amphetamines. Finally, your two best girl friends drag you from your home – “Don’t be such a drag!” – and bring you to the club.
And that’s when you see your first silent one. With the robes and everything. Shit. He’s sipping a martini, looking totally out of place, bopping his head to a spastic electroclash beat. Club soda rises up your nose, coming close to spilling out.
“Hey, get a load of that,” Sydney says, poking you in the ribs.
You laugh. It’s pretty hilarious.
“Rocks pretty hard for someone who dresses like a Druid.”
“Shut up,” you say. “He’ll hear you.” But when you look over again, he’s already left the bar area, his martini abandoned.
“Beam me up, Scotty,” Sydney jeers through gulps of rum and Coke.
You’re disappointed. You wanted to watch him more; it’s a new thing to you. But already you can tell that the band’s as weak as the club soda. No wonder he left. Bum scene.
“Hey, I’m out of here. Tell Randa.” You escape Sydney’s talons and light up in the parking lot. Thirty yards away a glowing red orb that pulses like your cigarette’s tip hangs at crop duster level. You turn away, vaguely ashamed. It’s like when you were seven and accidentally spilled milk into the aquarium, becoming an instant murderer. Your parents didn’t really care, but you did.

Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!


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Reply #1 on: May 11, 2015, 08:41:18 PM
So, there are portals, and then aliens who come through, and the portals make us lazy to stop the aliens from taking over?  People then just leave this reality and disappear into another instead of taking a stand.  I kind of get the point, I think, but it was confusing as we have a lot of different things going on, but they don't necessarily mesh well and confuse the issue.  The silent ones are also escaping from their own reality where the aliens have conquered their worlds... maybe, but where are they going back to, why are they stealing gas?  A few clues, but not much more.  I see that humanity is passive on dealing with the aliens, but it's our escapism and tolerance that leads to letting them do whatever they want?  How did the buildings get changed to three walls without destroying them, or is their reality slowly replacing ours?  I see some interesting points in the story, and don't necessarily agree with them (in a multicultural society, I think tolerance and understanding is a cornerstone), but I think the story would be better served with more cohesive scenes that reveals a better, though not necessarily complete, picture of the story purpose and plot.


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Reply #2 on: May 12, 2015, 01:08:44 AM
I really liked this one.

We're introduced to an Earth (presumably ours) that has been 'gifted' with the ability to travel to similar alternate universes.  That's the first thing that makes you think.  The first (and last) time aliens did something for mankind that actually helped us?  I'm thinking Childhood's End.  

After a while, these creepy silent folks show up...earnest about...something.  Then the red lighted orbs.  For some reason the entire population (as noted above) "is passive on dealing with the aliens."  Weird.  All kinds of normal behaviour goes by the wayside.  Hanging out beach-side in a sheer camisole?  Hmmm.  In the end, after the affliction sets in, humanity is reduced to a speechless, helpless miasma of imbecility.

What the heck happened?

We were attacked by aliens.  Very ruthless, clever aliens who knew exactly how to beat us because they've already done it in countless other realities.

This story reminded me of a couple of other good stories.  I am admittedly a Stargate and a Serenity fan, so that's my context.  In the Stargate episode "2010" aliens have conquered the human race in a fashion that is similar.  They dangle the carrot, and humanity will ignore the knife.  In the movie Serenity "G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate" was administered to the entire world of Miranda.  Most of the planet was simply sedated to the point that they could do nothing.  That sounds familiar in the context of this story.

Now the creepy thing here is who (or what) spreads the (unknown) agent that pacifies humanity?  Is it the red lighted orbs?  The "Silent Ones?"  It would be symmetric, and devious, if in fact it was the "Silent Ones" from other parallel worlds who infected us.  And that we, once infected and equally silent, would then go out to help infect all remaining instances of uninfected humanity.   This story's protagonist has a very disquieting urge to find uninfected worlds at the end.  

And she can't speak.  She's a perfect virus.


Like I said, I loved this.  The storytelling was superficially just descriptive.  You don't get inside anybody's head, really.  But the ideas were really, really chilling.

Thanks, Erica!  Nice job on this one.  One of my favorites in a while.

« Last Edit: May 12, 2015, 03:15:23 AM by HeartSailor »

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Reply #3 on: May 12, 2015, 02:20:03 AM
Oh, where to begin, where to begin.

OK, I like the high-level concept of putting us in the position of the natives of the New World after the Europeans arrived. And there was the hint that unquestioning tolerance might actually make us vulnerable, which if intended might be something of a controversial (if potentially true) stand to take. Other than that I have nothing nice to say at all. This was simply terrible. Easily the worst one I've heard since beginning on this podcast. somewhere around episode 370 or so.

You would expect the changes of a gradual alien takeover to be slow and subtle, something like a Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 scenario. But here, boom! No front doors! Somehow, existing buildings have inexplicably had all the walls removed and been transformed into three-sided shapes. (No word on how this is possible, let alone why one would even have a building at all if one doesn't enclose it.)

The reaction of people also makes no sense. Why would they simply permit all this to happen? There's no suggestion of force or threat. Was this a mind control thing? If so, then why take such a weird and circuitous route to make it happen, and not bother to explain anything about it in the story?

Also, there's the question of why the aliens would even bother to take over our world in the first place when they're not even using us as slave labor and apparently can't even communicate with us meaningfully, when the entire premise of the story is that they have access to infinite worlds with infinite variation--and therefore by an exercise of logic, there must be infinite worlds full of infinite resources in which they won't have to deal with natives at all.

The loss of language doesn't seem to make any sense. But since this is the title of the story, it would appear this was intended as the central theme. If so . . . the author did a terrible job. The silent ones seemed a footnote to the takeover story.

I didn't pick up on anything that HeartSailor liked. There wasn't any hint, as far as I could tell, that there was a virus. And even if this whole virus/infection vector scenario is right (which is purely speculation, although admittedly a nifty idea) it still doesn't explain why they wouldn't just go to worlds not inhabited by intelligent creatures. That seems easier.

Now, concepts aside: I didn't like the way the story was told, either. I didn't feel anything. It was cold and clinical, and that was reflected in the reading. Perhaps that was intentional by the reader, or maybe she couldn't really do much with the source material.

Anyway. At least it was short.


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Reply #4 on: May 12, 2015, 09:10:53 AM
You know, from the title, I immediately pictured The Silent Ones from William Hope Hodgson's The Nightland. An idea which was only strengthened when the first one turned up in a robe.

Silly me.

Got to admit though, the details of this world were a little hard to track down. The aliens come from wherever they came from, and promptly started making themselves at home. Making things intolerable for the locals in the process. But as has been asked... WHY?

The silence thing made a little bit more sense to me. You lose the ability to communicate as you become aware of whats going on. With much the same effect as the lone voice of truth being ignored by everyone else.

Oh... And by the way. Dwango. I thought that silent one was stealing petrol for purposes of alien immolation.

Still not sure what happens to them when they vanish though. I THINK it's the last stage of the silence. Just being seen starts to communicate what's happening, so they vanish. I can see some people wanting more details of the mechanics there.

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Reply #5 on: May 12, 2015, 04:52:21 PM
I appreciated the idea behind this story more than anything.  When we allow escapism to dominate our lives and when we trivialize changes--for good or ill--without question, then we become the 'silent ones.'  We become outcasts who wish they had known better and who now have the difficult task of convincing others to be cautious and to not blindly accept the change.  I thought it could be compared to a statement against social media and the present ubiquity of technologically converged devices like the smartphone.  Some of us can remember a time when we did not have the convenience of a multipurpose handheld device at our finger tips or wrist.  We can remember having conversations without being interrupted by the latest update, tweet or video.  However, as we become more accepting of these futuristic and even 'alien' technologies, none of us can really foresee how they will change society.  Therefore it is incumbent for each of us to be part of the discussion and prevent a situation where we wake up one day and wonder why the rooms only have three walls or why we can no longer communicate using a full sentence.  I got a feeling of Plato's Allegory of the Cave from the journey of the protagonist, I know its a stretch.  But when the protagonist finally understands what's happening, she must deal with the cave-dweller's conundrum, "how do you explain your new found knowledge to someone who has no frame of reference?"


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Reply #6 on: May 12, 2015, 09:43:22 PM
FrogNLotus, I think you make a good point, but I don't recall the problem of escapism being introduced much until after the changes had already begun in earnest. At first it was a story about travel, then it became a story about takeover. It was too disjointed to make that point.


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Reply #7 on: May 14, 2015, 05:53:23 AM
Full Metal Attorney, I infered the problem of escapism from the character counting her leave days and trying to plan her next vacation.  I compared it to cable/satellite television and video streaming online--as well as social media.  Traveling to alternate dimensions is naturally the next form of escapism for people, perhaps less convenient than looking at a smartphone, but all the more appealing for the experience.  I listened to the podcast while driving, so I latched on to ideas and concepts rather than focusing on the details. 


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Reply #8 on: May 14, 2015, 12:28:52 PM
That makes sense. (I listen while walking my dogs, so I usually miss some details myself.) I don't typically think of travel in those terms, but alternate world travel might be an escapist thing. Honestly, though, there are a lot of people who count up their vacation days to plan their time off. I didn't pick up on a sense that the real world didn't matter to the protagonist anymore, and that alternate world travel was the only thing she cared to think about.


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Reply #9 on: May 14, 2015, 05:00:50 PM
This is a bit of a non-sequitur.  There's probably a better place to put this.

When I was young, my mom would sometimes take my brothers and I to the beach where we would  harvest sand and bring it home; each of us boys had a bucket of sand.   In the barn, after we got home, we dug a hole in the sand in the bucket, and then we'd push objects into the sides of the hole.  After the sand holes were suitably prepared and lined with shells, match box cars, sea glass, bits of wood and whatever else we could think of, we hung a bit of string from a stick and left it dangling into the hole in the bucket.   Mom would then come and pour hot candle wax into each of the sand holes.  

After the wax had dried, we each gleefully took out our sand candles and compared them.  It was a lot of fun to see how our candles came out, and I equally enjoyed looking at the candles my brothers had made.  All of the things we stuck into the sides of the sand holes now protruded (and while I would like to say artfully, this is not being honest) from the candles.  Each sand covered candle a different shape with different objects jutting out at different angles.  The same wax, different results with each boy.

I think a good story is like a sand candle.  Each listener is a different receptacle, and we are all lined with our own unique histories, quirks, and viewpoints.   When a story is poured into us, the perception of that story is altered by the shape of the receptacle.  The story is changed by us, and us by the story.  There is a delicious boundary where there is sand mixed with wax, and it is molded that way forever.  Likewise a good story may serve to alter how we perceive the world, and it that sense, it changes our boundary as well.

I guess this is my way of saying that I really, really enjoy listening to everyone's viewpoints and perspectives on these stories.  Reading these posts is a nice part of my day.  Thanks!

This story, "The Silent Ones," is a good example of how every listener can come out of it with a very different perception.

« Last Edit: May 14, 2015, 05:10:36 PM by HeartSailor »

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Reply #10 on: May 14, 2015, 09:26:26 PM
@SpareInch Ultimately it was for the attempted immolation, but it seemed like that wasn't the original intent, but I can't be sure.  Not the most effective way to stop the aliens.

@HeartSailor: Exactly that, we each bring our own history to the story and see different things.  You explained that beautifully, especially how this forum works.  Lets keep making more sand candles.  :)


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Reply #11 on: May 15, 2015, 01:31:57 PM
You're not quite sure if you like the second person perspective. It's deliberately cold and distancing. You wonder what is the message that is trying to be communicated. It's a card with three globes and a squiggly line printed on it.


You realize it's a pamphlet beamed straight into your ears, with the word FIGHT repeated for twenty minutes. You didn't understand, but now you do. Maybe it's not too late. You start walking.

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


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Reply #12 on: May 15, 2015, 06:27:02 PM
I'm afraid I have to add my voice to those who were underwhelmed by this story.  It doesn't help that I generally don't care for stories told in the second person.  But I have certainly read/heard stories told that way that, even if they leave the protagonist as something of a cipher, at least paint a vivid picture of the things we're witnessing them experience.  But I didn't really get that here.

And I also found the elements of the story to be somewhat disconnected-feeling.  It starts off being about going to other realities, and the protagonist's lingering feelings for Paul are mentioned repeatedly, but it didn't really seem to be a story about love lost or heartbreak (that I could pick up on, anyway).  Then the alien and silent ones plot takes over and traveling to other worlds kind of stops really being in the story for the most part.  I think these different elements could have just used a little more story to glue them together, maybe.  As FullMetalAttorney noted, the reconstructing buildings to accommodate the alien orbs really does feel like it comes out of nowhere.  I think this story was supposed to be in that format where you're following someone's regular life while big change is happening to the world at large, and you see that change in glimpses in the little ways it affects the protagonist, but if so, there wasn't enough of a personal through-line to make that resonate, or to make any of the changes feel gradual.

As for the discussion about how/why the silent ones disappeared, I assume that anything that becomes a threat to the aliens disappears?  Like how the protagonist's shoe disappeared when she through it at the TV...?



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Reply #13 on: May 17, 2015, 07:09:16 PM
As I interpret this story the aliens conquer through mind control. It's because the aliens are slowly taking over the minds of the humans around them that those humans show so little alarm (or even curiosity) about the red spheres. The humans accept, or even assist, the transformation of their world into one that meets the needs of the invaders rather than their own (the three wall buildings). The aliens are also consuming the world's resources. We don't know how but we see the result when food becomes scarce for the humans. In the final stage of the conquest the aliens take away the language abilities of the humans. The silent ones are not viruses but the opposite. They are trying to warn other realities about the threat the aliens pose. As their ability to speak and write is being striped away they realize what is happening and escape to another reality to try to warn the people there. But by the time they arrive at their destination they can no longer communicate effectively.

I liked this story although I was puzzled by the main character's fixation on Paul.


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Reply #14 on: May 20, 2015, 08:36:14 AM
I did like the way this story crept up on me in an analogous way to the Red Orbs. I thought it was going to be about the Silent Ones who were the baddies so the twist of the protagonist becoming one was nicely handled.

The biggest issue I had to overcome with the story was the use of the 2nd person narrator. This is hardly ever appropriate in any story. It's a bit like 3D for movies. It rarely adds anything and at best you just start to no longer notice it. I don't get why author's use it. True, first person in this story would be awkward with an ultimately silent narrator but 3rd person ( limited or omniscient) would have be fine.

Reading some of the criticisms of the story above I do see a lot of them as very valid but for some reason I just overlooked them and went with the story. If a story doesn't grab you, you'll spot all the flaws but if it does grab you then you'll forgive it a lot.


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Reply #15 on: May 24, 2015, 09:31:03 PM
I listened to and then read the story on the escapepod website because I was sure either some part of the story went missing or I missed some important part of the story, like a sentence or two that made it all tie together.
I'll add to FullMetalAttorney's list: Many elements made no sense to me - why 3 walls?  I didn't even get that red orbs were "bad" until the protagonist lost her voice.  Why wouldn't all the Silent Ones be attacking the red orbs?  What were the red orb supposed to represent?  Why were they in line at the grocery store?  Why is one running for Congress?  and "

The main point being if I have to guess why something major happened (Maybe the President addresses people on TV while roasting his dog on a spit in a 3 walled White House and no one even thought it was weird (not the camera man, not the broadcaster, not his staff, even the protagonist) is because a)the red orbs mind controlled us? b)the tax credit people got for having 3 walls made up for all the inconvenience and  extra clothing they had to buy c)Paul was actually the love of her life and she is having a mental breakdown?)  then you lose me as a reader.

@Zelda, your interpretation helps make some sense of the story, but I guess in this case a good story is like a good joke - if you have to explain it then it doesn't work (for me).

I am curious about other stories by this author and see that she has one in Podcastle, I think I missed that one (Hand of God).


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Reply #16 on: May 29, 2015, 03:45:49 PM

The story didn't really draw me in, except in regard to what was probably an unintended theme (more on that later).  I've never cared for 2nd person narration, so that was certainly a factor.  I didn't really feel like, for most of the story, there were significant stakes that I cared about--just living for traveling to weird worlds and then suddenly it all hits home when the voice starts going away.  The Silent ones, despite being the title element, never really made sense to me even when the character became one.  Why do they go silent?  What does that have to do with the red orbs?  Do they ever actually accomplish anything against the red orbs, or do they just mill around looking kindof weird and then disappear?

After the story
OK, I like the high-level concept of putting us in the position of the natives of the New World after the Europeans arrived. And there was the hint that unquestioning tolerance might actually make us vulnerable, which if intended might be something of a controversial (if potentially true) stand to take.

Maybe that's what the author was thinking for a theme.  That wasn't what my brain latched onto though.  

This story, "The Silent Ones," is a good example of how every listener can come out of it with a very different perception.

And boy howdy, can it ever be interpreted differently!  And apparently no one else has yet interpreted it the way I did.

When they started talking about permanent residents from other dimensions by immediate thought was "okay, this is a story about immigration".  My brain latched more onto more of a position of the point of view of Americans in the face of immigrants from any other country.  I'm going to assume that's not what the author intended but that's what I latched onto.  

The aliens show up.  No one fights them.  They become more abundant and start to become a part of society in some way, and though they mostly keep to themselves and are tolerated because they're not causing any kind of obvious harm, their presence starts shifting the status quo (change in architecture) and people don't really worry about them all that much and they even start thinking that they can hold positions of authority (running for congress).  The only people who have the foresight to sense the threat of these aliens are rendered mute and eventually invisible (by them disappearing from the dimension entirely).

If this theme were the intent (and I don't think it was) then it could be interpreted as an anti-immigration cautionary tale:  Don't complacently allow these people to come into your country and start taking the jobs you don't want right now so that you can go immerse yourself into your frivolous entertainments, because in your complacency these immigrants will become citizens, or at least their children will become citizens, and then they'll start voting, and then they'll take over your country right from under your nose and if you have the gumption to speak back against them you'll be ostracized for your intolerance.  What we must do is to never be complacent, to fight their presence as soon as they arrive!

Like I said, I don't think that was the intent, but once that got into my head it was a hard interpretation to shake, and nothing in the story really gave it a push in another direction for me.  I'm the only one who's mentioned this so far, so this is apparently not a common interpretation.

The great thing about science fiction is that you can take any theme and make it into a story that may not be about real-world issues in any significant way, can make people think about real-world events from an entirely different perspective through the clever use of themes, allowing them to shed some of their long-held baggage long enough to gain some fresh perspective.

The flip side of this coin is that, unless the story beats one over the head with a Moral, which tends to result in a story that is less effective and less popular, the theme has to be tied closely into the narrative and is probably largely subject to interpretation, and some of those interpretations might be the polar opposite of anything the author was actually meaning to convey.  I try to be very careful to avoid saying "the author meant to say ____" because unless I can quote the author explicitly saying that, it's all interpretation, it's all subjectivity.  
« Last Edit: May 29, 2015, 03:49:20 PM by Unblinking »


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Reply #17 on: June 03, 2015, 11:10:05 AM
Interesting story. What the second person does to a story is to give a hypnotic quality to it, and with all the alien elements here it gave a surrealistic touch which I kind of enjoyed. I didn't think too much of it as an immigration analogy - I had more of a vibe of humanity getting swiped away as a part of a much bigger story which we never grasped.


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Reply #18 on: June 05, 2015, 01:22:44 AM
I was prepared to dislike this story from the first sentence. I generally don't enjoy second-person narratives. They usually seem distant and pretentious.

But strangely, I found myself drawn into this one. I coud see myself standing in the grocery line, trying not to notice the strange red orb in the line next to me, but all the while actually wanting to stare.

I don't know what the orbs want, or how they took away people's ability to speak, but they certainly know what they were doing. They boiled the frog like experts, which they were because they had done it so many times before, on the Earths where the other silent ones originated.

I hadn't thought of the idea that the silent ones were actually the vector that spread the tolerance of red orbs to a new population. Like toxoplasmosis, they change the host's behavior to faciliate their own spread. I had thought the protaganist was a hero, though too late. If she is instead a transmission vector, that adds another layer of creepy.
« Last Edit: June 10, 2015, 04:52:36 PM by Myrealana »

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Reply #19 on: June 05, 2015, 01:40:17 PM
this is a stange one for me
I liked it, but can't say why
it left me somehow thinking a lot about it, and again, I can't poin it down
I rarely ever have this feeling of 'wow, what was this about' with fiction
I think I need to listen to it again
one could say, you've achieved your objective very well, escapepod :)
keep them coming


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Reply #20 on: June 13, 2015, 02:23:57 AM
I appreciate stories that allow for various interpretations, but I also want them to stand on their own as a narrative. Unfortunately, at least for me, this story was too fragmented and surreal for it to stand on its own.


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Reply #21 on: September 16, 2015, 03:38:13 AM
Somehow I missed this one when it was first released, but I had to go back and listen after hearing Nathan's wrap-up of the feedback this week. I loved it! Like others, I interpreted it as an invasion story where a world (ours?) is slowly taken over by aliens using mind control and our own tendency towards complacency. Must check out some more work by this author.