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Author Topic: EP497: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide  (Read 1487 times)
eytanz
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« on: June 28, 2015, 08:47:22 AM »

EP497: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide

By Sarah Pinsker

Read by David White

This story was published in the March/April 2014 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction

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Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori’s name on a drunken night in his seventeenth year. “Lori & Andy Forever and Ever” was the full text, all in capital letters, done by his best friend Susan with her homemade tattoo rig. Susan was proud as anything of that machine. She’d made it out of nine-volt batteries and some parts pulled from an old DVD player and a ballpoint pen. The tattoo was ugly and hurt like hell, and it turned out Lori didn’t appreciate it at all. She dumped him two weeks later, just before she headed off to university.
Four years later, Andy’s other arm was the one that got mangled in the combine. The entire arm, up to and including his shoulder and right collarbone and everything attached. His parents made the decision while he was still unconscious. He woke in a hospital room in Saskatoon with a robot arm and an implant in his head.
“Brain-Computer Interface,” his mother said, as if that explained everything. She used the same voice she had used when he was five to tell him where the cattle went when they were loaded onto trucks. She stood at the side of his hospital bed, her arms crossed and her fingers tapping her strong biceps as if she were impatient to get back to the farm. The lines in her forehead and the set of her jaw told Andy she was concerned, even if her words hid it.
“They put electrodes and a chip in your motor cortex,” she continued. “You’re bionic.”
“What does that mean?” he asked. He tried to move his right hand to touch his head, but the hand didn’t respond. He used his left and encountered bandages.
His father spoke from a chair by the window, flat-brimmed John Deere cap obscuring his eyes. “It means you’ve got a prototype arm and a whole lot of people interested in how it turns out. Could help a lot of folks.”
Andy looked down at where his arm had been. Bandages obscured the points where flesh met prosthetic; beyond the bandages, the shine of new metal and matte-black wire. The new arm looked like their big irrigation rig, all spines and ridges and hoses. It ended in a pincer, fused fingers and a thumb. He tried to remember the details of his right hand: the freckles on the back, the rope-burn scar around his knuckles, the calluses on the palm. What had they done with it? Was it in a garbage can somewhere, marked as medical waste? It must have been pretty chewed up or they would have tried to reattach it.
He looked at the other arm. An IV was stuck in the “Forever” of his tattoo. He thought something far away was hurting, but he didn’t feel much. Maybe the IV explained that. He tried again to lift his right arm. It still didn’t budge, but this time it did hurt, deep in his chest.
“Can’t prosthetics look like arms these days?” he asked.
His practical mother spoke again. “Those ones aren’t half as useful. You can replace this hand with a more realistic one later if you want, but to get full use of the arm they said to go with the brain interface. No nerves left to send the impulses to a hand otherwise, no matter how fancy.”
He understood. “How do I use it?”
“You don’t, not for a while. But they were able to attach it right away. Used to be they’d wait for the stump to heal before fitting you, but this they said they had to go ahead and put in.”
“You don’t have a stump, anyway.” His father chopped at his own shoulder as an indicator. “You’re lucky you still have a head.”
He wondered what the other options had been, if there had been any. It made sense that his parents would choose this. Theirs had always been the first farm in Saskatchewan for every new technology. His parents believed in automation. They liked working the land with machines, gridding it with spreadsheets and databases, tilling the fields from the comfort of the office.
He was the throwback. He liked the sun on his face. He kept a team of Shires for plowing and used their manure for fertilizer. He had his father’s old diesel combine for harvest time, his biggest concession to speed and efficiency. And now it had taken his arm. He didn’t know if that was an argument for his horses and tractors or his parents’ self-guided machines. The machines would take out your fence if you programmed the coordinates wrong, but unless your math was really off they probably wouldn’t make it into your office. On the other hand – now a pincer – it had been his own stupid fault he had reached into the stuck header.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Sir Postsalot
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« Reply #1 on: July 02, 2015, 11:38:00 AM »

Being lazy and just posting my review of it from my Nebula roundup this year:

Andy’s a farmer of the old school variety, a throwback to the old ways.  While his parents use automated farm machinery to plant and harvest their crops he is out there tending them.  Until his arm gets mangled in a combine. He wakes up with a bionic arm linked into his brain with an electronic interface so he can learn to use it like a person learns to use a regular arm.  But, for some reason, his arm is also a stretch of highway currently in operation several states over.

I liked Andy, and it seems like authentic-seeming near-contemporary small-town farm settings are rare.  This felt pretty authentic to what I knew from living in a small town in the Midwest from grade school until college.  The concept of the arm that thinks its a road was an interesting thing.  I was interested in it throughout but in the end not enough happened to make this story really stand out in the rest of the Nebula nominees.
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Zelda
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« Reply #2 on: July 03, 2015, 03:08:28 AM »

While listening to this story I thought I was baffled by it but the discussion in the outro made me realize I had my own interpretation. I thought Andy was happy with the life he had chosen for himself even though it involved remaining in his small home town. The thing that threw his life off kilter was his brain implant's refusal to accept or even acknowledge its intended function, even though it had been created solely to do that job.

Andy realized what no one else could, that the implant had a consciousness and a sense of self that it wasn't supposed to have. These took the very non-human form of a firm belief that it was a portion of far away road. Andy's decision to alter his tattoo to Colorado Forever and Ever was his way of memorializing something that was almost a being and its short existence. An existence no one else would understand or remember.
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HeartSailor
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« Reply #3 on: July 12, 2015, 08:44:09 PM »

"memorializing something that was almost a being and its short existence. An existence no one else would understand or remember."

That's a neat point of view.

The BCI - brain computer interface - is yet another area of essentially unexplored space.  What if the infected chip had been functioning normally, but the infection somehow altered Andy's brain's sensory input so that the best his brain could do with the errant information was to interpret the information as if the arm thinks it's a road.  The arm may NOT have been sentient- the sentient part of the BCI lays entirely within Andy (either his conscious or subconscious).

Neat concept, any way you want to spin it. 

Jumping off from this story, it may be that any time the brain is modified with augmented computational/sensory/motor abilities in essence a new entity is created.  A unique entity, a one-off blend of man and machine shaped by countless intrinsic and extrinsic factors unique to both the machine as well as the man.
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What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.  Thomas Merton
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« Reply #4 on: July 26, 2015, 03:20:06 PM »

 Huh  What happened? I was interested throughout, but disappointed in the end because being the sci fi fan that I am I want to understand what how it was possible for the arm to be a length of road - a very specific road - which it knew very specific details about - temperature / number of cars, etc.  There was a good idea with no explanation and I wanted more.
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Sir Postsalot
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« Reply #5 on: July 27, 2015, 11:57:57 AM »

Huh  What happened? I was interested throughout, but disappointed in the end because being the sci fi fan that I am I want to understand what how it was possible for the arm to be a length of road - a very specific road - which it knew very specific details about - temperature / number of cars, etc.  There was a good idea with no explanation and I wanted more.

The impression that I got was the BCI chip had been a general purpose processor refurbished, which had originally been used for highway statistics collection and retained memory of its past work in a way that it wasn't supposed to.  Its integration was successful enough to allow it to allow functional control of the arm without any outward symptoms.  Since his arm was a prototype and the BCI was new enough to not be well understand, the refurbished chips were presumably reusable in other respects and had shown no issue, but when you stick a computer interface into a brain there were unforeseen side effects in his perceptions affected by the incompletely wiped chip.  Replacing the chip with a fresh one made it operate as a normal arm.

How does it know specific details about the road?
1.  Theoretically, it could have some kind of wireless connection to its original location, and is collecting statistics from sensors there.  maybe the sensors even recognize the arm BCI as their proper master because it has the proper ID information to prove its identity.
2.  More likely, though, I think that the BCI is just doing its best to interpret binary data provided by feedback from the arm.  Obviously the actual arm does not count a number of cars driving on it, but maybe it is just trying to interpret unrelated information like "resistance" or "power consumption" and because of the leftover programming is trying to parse that binary data into something highway-related and just giving interpretations of what are essentially gibberish to the highway portion of itself.

I like Zelda's take on the story.  It's not so much about a glitchy arm, as it is about the character's perception of the arm as a separate entity worth memorializing with the tattoo.  At the edge of the space between the BCI and himself there was an entity that had not existed between the surgery, an entity that was both an arm and a highway.  He doesn't necessarily understand it, but he wants to mourn its passing anyway.


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Devoted135
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« Reply #6 on: July 31, 2015, 08:47:36 PM »

I liked this one quite a lot, for similar reasons to those expounded above. I also enjoyed his relationship with Susan. Which reminds me, I was impressed with how this story managed to successfully blend elements from seemingly disparate eras: farming, modern-seeming parties, and future bionic arm tech. Smiley
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FeloniusMonk
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« Reply #7 on: August 02, 2015, 06:53:21 PM »

I reached a similar conclusion to Zelda, but it made me think of the cult mechanicus in Warhammer 40k and the concept that all machines have a spirit which should be worshipped or placated.
 I’ve also spent enough time as a service engineer to almost believe that chips have memories and personalities. Maybe they are in there and can’t express themselves normally, but the interface to Andy is sufficiently tight knit for that information to actually flow.
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hardware
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« Reply #8 on: August 25, 2015, 08:58:15 AM »

I also enjoyed this a lot. The inverted phantom limb effect with a piece of machine that might remember previous programming was a cool idea and the small town setting felt really genuine. I like that the arm is used in such an ambiguous way, using symbols doesn't have to mean banging us over the head with an idea or message. 
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CryptoMe
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« Reply #9 on: April 07, 2017, 12:17:26 PM »

I really enjoyed this story. The arm entity was very relatable for me, so I really appreciated that the main character didn't want to forget it when it was gone.
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