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Author Topic: EP499: Sounding the Fall  (Read 5704 times)
eytanz
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« on: July 20, 2015, 09:26:23 AM »

EP499: Sounding the Fall

by Jei D. Marcade

Read by Amanda Ching

---

Sometimes, Narae can almost convince emself that the AI’s Voice was a dream. Some kind of minor stroke misremembered, a neurological glitch retroactively given recognizable shape.

But sometimes–less frequently of late, but still, sometimes–Narae wakes to find emself sitting up in the dark, jaw slack, a sustained, atonal note spooling from the back of eir throat.

#

Narae steps through the open archway of the southwestern gate, bare toes curling in the cool blades of real grass with which the temple grounds are seeded. The lotus-shaped lanterns hanging from the eaves go dim as the sun activates, and from its single-tiered pagoda at the top of the hill behind em, the morning bell tolls.

The alms left anonymously against the outer wall in the night include a couple bolts of inert grey fabric, some bags of rice, and a stack of real tea bricks. Upon hefting the rice, Narae’s eyebrows inch toward the shadow of eir hairline at each bag’s weight: not synthetic either, these. Something that is part bemusement, part nostalgia tugs at the corners of Narae’s mouth, and ey shakes eir head as ey piles the bags and bolts into the bottom of the wheelbarrow before turning to gather the rest.

There, on the topmost tea brick, tucked along the raised edge of an elaborate curlicue that must have gone overlooked when the temple’s faceless benefactor hastily scraped off the embossed logo, is a perfectly rolled joint.

Narae plucks the thing up by one tip and crosses the outer lawn, ready to cast it over the rail that wraps around the temple grounds and down along the winding stone staircase to the lower levels.

Steady as a heartbeat, the temple’s morning drum begins to sound out. When its reverberations subside, they leave an even deeper reservoir of silence behind them.

Narae falters at the edge of the lawn. Ey brings the roll of rice paper to eir nose, gives it a tentative sniff, and releases an explosive sigh; Narae would bet a week’s worth of chores that it’s real–none of that backstreet synth hash with its foul aftertaste. Muttering a guilty prayer, ey palms the joint.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Chairman Goodchild
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« Reply #1 on: July 22, 2015, 09:33:38 AM »

I didn't read the author's note before listening to the podcast, and spent the first several minutes wondering who Ai was.  I belatedly figured out the pronouns, but I felt it was unnecessary and distracting and drove me out of the story, which I did not finish.  The story was difficult to parse as it was, without the added strangeness.

Made-up gender-neutral pronouns have popped up for a book I've recently read, Alasdair Reynold's On a Steel Breeze, and I didn't think they worked there, either.  But there, they weren't such a large part of the story.  Here, they're almost in every paragraph and were a constant dissonance for me.  Perhaps the effect wasn't as bad for other listeners.
« Last Edit: July 22, 2015, 07:53:25 PM by Chairman Goodchild » Logged
Thunderscreech
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« Reply #2 on: July 22, 2015, 12:55:19 PM »

I was unable to complete this, I was immediately lost and after several minutes felt further and further from any beacon or trail.

I suspect reading it will be the key for me.
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bounceswoosh
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« Reply #3 on: July 24, 2015, 12:44:21 AM »

I enjoyed this piece. I'm not sure if it's so much a story as it is a slice of life. And I really wish I knew what sent the MC away for 15 years when 5 years is described as punishment for a severe infraction.
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Zelda
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« Reply #4 on: July 24, 2015, 02:57:05 AM »

The narration was a bit too fast for me. There were quite a few words I am unfamiliar with and I had some difficulty following the story at that speed.

I realize Domabaem only asked Narae what life was like in the monastery but wouldn't the compassionate thing to do have been also telling Domabaem what being an ox felt like? It's much more unpleasant than the popular conception of it.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #5 on: July 24, 2015, 03:14:09 AM »

I listened to the first minute or so 3 times before I pulled over to the side of the road, stopped my car and checked the website for this. I thought that maybe the author was using gender neutral pronouns, but maybe there was someone else there and I couldn't be sure and it wasn't making sense.
As a general rule, I have no quarrel with anybody about whatever pronouns they choose to associate themselves with. However, since a lot of the newer pronouns are rather rare (in my section of meatspace), I've mostly encountered them in text form. There, it is easy to recognize them and they get parsed properly. The two times I've heard gender neutral pronouns spoken, each speaker was using a different pronunciation (for the same pronoun), and that was hard.
The pronouns in this story were ones I've never encountered before, so running into them in audio format was... difficult.
Once I internalized the pronouns and listened to the beginning of the story a fourth time, while reading along, I was able to handle the rest of it much better.
Might I suggest that in the future, when one of the EA podcasts decide to run a story with gender neutral pronouns, have Mat (or somebody) give a heads up before the episode begins. "Hey guys, the gender set being used for one of the characters in this story is gender neutral. So that's ey/em/eir for he/him/his or she/her/hers".

I'm gonna make a separate post about the story in a few minutes.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #6 on: July 24, 2015, 03:23:53 AM »

I also thought that this story was more of a section of life episode. It was very rich with an intriguing world that left me with a lot of open questions.
What cataclysm forced all the people to live in arcologies? How did the monostary end up being the only place with natural food and AI free?
I also really liked the open-ended question at the end. Does the AI have a soul? If the AI governs every detail of human life in the arcology, including who lives and who dies (weather control), what is there to differentiate between AI and any other man-made god being worshiped? Heck, the AI might actually run a sort of after-life. If they have the technology to erase whatever it is that makes up a person's "self" and then reconstruct it, what is to prevent them from having that "self" live on in some database somewhere after the biological body has died? That's a form of afterlife.
All in all, a great speculative piece with some very rich world-building that I'd like to see in a larger piece.
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bounceswoosh
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« Reply #7 on: July 24, 2015, 08:50:46 AM »

The narration was a bit too fast for me. There were quite a few words I am unfamiliar with and I had some difficulty following the story at that speed.

I realize Domabaem only asked Narae what life was like in the monastery but wouldn't the compassionate thing to do have been also telling Domabaem what being an ox felt like? It's much more unpleasant than the popular conception of it.
I like the implications of "ox," but in the story, it's "aux." (I just checked the text - I heard it as "aux," but when I saw your post, I thought, hmm, maybe I got it wrong,)

As for pronouns several people mentioned - I found them unusual, but not difficult. Perhaps it helped me to notice early on that they were collective pronouns with the "th" lopped off. What I found more interesting was my internal reaction to them - I kept speculating about the protagonist's "real" gender, then mentally slapping myself.

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HeartSailor
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« Reply #8 on: July 24, 2015, 09:38:41 PM »

I find the whole "gender neutral" pronoun thing a bit of an obstacle (or perhaps its a gimmick) when it comes to a story.

Q:  Are you a policeman or a policewoman?    A: Police Officer
Q:  Are you a man or a woman?      A: I'm Pat.

This story could have been written with gender neutral proper names/nouns and it would have felt better to me as a listener and a reader.  I'm guessing that was the point of the storyteller, though.  I suppose I assumed that these were human-based folk that had perhaps some commonalities with me.  Perhaps they were not, and did not.  

Once I was able to dodge "bein' slapped upside the head" with the pronoun thing, the story was OK.  
« Last Edit: July 25, 2015, 08:30:52 AM by HeartSailor » Logged

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
SpareInch
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« Reply #9 on: July 25, 2015, 09:04:08 AM »

Hmm... I have to say, I didn't have any trouble with the gender neutral pronouns. I twigged them early on and just mentally penciled in They, their, them etc. I can understand why a lot of people who see themselves as gender neutral don't like the old English Language convention of using the plural pronoun as a genderless singular, as in, "If a person wants to do that, they can," but roll on the arrival of ONE definitive alternative.

As for the story... Well, you can add me to those who saw it primarily as a slice of life. There was a lot of great world building and a lot of questions posed, but at the end of the day, everything just carries on unchanged. This is the way the world is, style of thing. I really wanted there to be more conflict and soul searching before reaching a conclusion.

It was still enjoyable though, just for the world building.
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The_Hol-Man
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« Reply #10 on: July 25, 2015, 02:15:52 PM »

I liked this one for the questions it raised, but did feel like some of them could have used more exploration.  The pronouns threw me at first, mostly because I couldn't tell how I was meant to actually picture the main character.  Eventually I guessed that, in this world, the default for everyone is the gender-neutral, with some characters specifically identifying with a given sex, but that still didn't answer for me whether every character was androgynous, hermaphroditic, maybe had no reproductive organs at all, or what.  I'm slightly concerned that it's kind of regressive of me to ask that any of these things be defined in terms of modern societal "norms," especially since the nature of gender and sex isn't actually what the story's about.  But, then again, the author did decide to include that element of the story, so I don't think it's too unfair to mention that it raised questions for me.

As a sort of aside, this story vaguely reminded me of parts of the anime Knights of Sidonia, since one of the characters there is neither male nor female.  That show also doesn't really explore what that means for the character.

 -Andy
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SF.Fangirl
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« Reply #11 on: July 26, 2015, 03:07:38 PM »

So ... for the first time ever, I think, I didn't finish the story.  I found it confusing and unengaging.  I listen to the first 10 minutes in the car before I got to where I was driving, and then I restarted the story because my mind had drifted but my attention drifted off again and I gave up.

The unusual pronouns tripped me up; I don't think I ever caught on that those were meant to be pronouns and not additional characters with unusual names (this is science fiction so I am used to unusual names).  It might have worked better in writing, but only two days ago I listened to a story from Lightspeed's Queers Destroy Science Fiction issue that used the zim/zer (can't recall exactly) non-gendered pronouns and had no issues because I had encountered that before.  The author's preferred gender neutral singular pronouns were distinctly non-standard didn't work for me in audio without any explanation either in story or pre-story warning.

So after drifting off on two attempts to listen I decided to log in to try to figure out what the heck was going on.  I saw a few people who made it through said it was more a slice of life piece and not a plotted story, and I decided not to make a third attempt.  That's just not my cup of tea.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #12 on: July 27, 2015, 02:06:19 AM »

Oh! I nearly forgot!
Whatever happened to Nathan and episode feedback? It's been ages since we've heard from him...
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Chairman Goodchild
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« Reply #13 on: July 27, 2015, 07:52:20 AM »

Oh! I nearly forgot!
Whatever happened to Nathan and episode feedback? It's been ages since we've heard from him...


I don't know who Scattercat is, but either Scattercat is Nathan or is close to Nathan and has this to say:
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matweller
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« Reply #14 on: July 27, 2015, 06:16:06 PM »

The author's preferred gender neutral singular pronouns were distinctly non-standard didn't work for me...
Part of the problem is that there is no standard yet. We're in that awkward finding-you-way time. I think it's kind of neat to have things like this be the testing ground for one over another. I knew right away while reading that the author was going for gender-neutral, but I will also agree that it's decidedly difficult to discern in audio. Maybe when the Gender Neutral Alliance gathers to vote they'll take this episode into consideration.
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Windup
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« Reply #15 on: July 28, 2015, 01:53:13 AM »

I was among the many confused by the gender-neutral pronouns in audio. At first, I thought is was some sort of sound-system glitch, so I restarted the episode and unplugged and replugged the earbuds. ("Yes, I have worked in computer support. Why do you ask?") Finally, I looked at the printed text and realized that, yup, that really was the sound the narrator meant to make.

Once I got that out of the way, I liked the story, though I continued to find the pronouns a bit distracting. I liked the wordplay with "aux" and "ox," and I was genuinely intrigued by the interplay between the protagonist and the woman. The ending was delightfully creepy, though it would have been even creepier if we'd seen some inkling of what the AI might decide to do with its supposed divinity. Or perhaps its supposed humanity? All sorts of cool ambiguity there...

On the more general subject of gender-neutral pronouns, I agree we're at that awkward figuring-it-out stage for specific individuals. It's clear to me that "their" will replace "his or her" for situations where gender and number are indeterminate, since that's happened in all but the most formal situations and carefully-edited documents. However, as responses to this story make clear, we are a long, long, way from having a standard answer for specific individuals whose gender is unknown or non-binary.

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Devoted135
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« Reply #16 on: August 04, 2015, 12:34:28 PM »

I really struggled to get through this story. It had a few of my personal pet peeves (present tense, I'm just typically not a fan), plus there was the difficult time parsing the gender neutral pronouns. The ze/zim ones don't trip me up, but this set really did. I also heard it as "ox" which made perfect sense to me. Tongue On the whole though, I could only get glimpses of the world. What peeked through seemed very cool, with lots of interesting questions to be explored. I'm afraid I just couldn't appreciate this exploration of it.
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LucretiaBorgia
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« Reply #17 on: August 06, 2015, 01:47:47 PM »

I couldn't finish this one, the gender neutral pronouns were just too distracting, as many above have mentioned. It felt awkward and forced and the reader seemed to stumble about in the story, so it just didn't flow and wasn't really strong enough to carry me past the clunky language.  Shame really.
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literatish
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« Reply #18 on: August 16, 2015, 12:02:52 AM »

I seem to be a bit on my own here, but I really loved this story. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it and I would love about a million more stories set in this world. Maybe a novel or three?

I find it almost amusing that so many comments describe the gender-neutral pronouns as "unnecessary," "gimmicky," and other words that are shorthand for, "It confused me so I didn't like it." For me, the fact that the monks had no gender was critical to my understanding of the story.

Judging by the descriptions of aux appearance and the fact that it's... a computer program, I judge that the AI is genderless and probably considers its auxiliaries genderless too. Regardless of how Narae thought of emself before spending 15 years as an aux, we know that ey chose to become a monk afterward, and being a monk means being genderless, too. This connection is what gave me the idea that it was actually the remnant of the AI that compelled Narae to seek religion. In this world, gender is simply one of those affectations of materialism that is eliminated by monastic life, to better facilitate communion with the divine. So, is this religion a conception of the AI that deems gender superfluous? Or maybe the voice of the AI, which is within Narae as a former aux, but also connected to every character in the story and all around them in their indoor world, has managed to impart to the human race that gender is something that can be modified, expanded or eliminated in the search for higher purpose. It makes sense that an AI would compartmentalize gender into just another "modification" on that basic human form.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #19 on: August 16, 2015, 01:40:21 PM »

Thank you literatish, I will now listen to the story again with that in mind, and I think I'll enjoy it more.
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