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Author Topic: PC427: Squalor and Sympathy  (Read 1822 times)
Talia
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« on: August 02, 2016, 02:02:33 PM »

PodCastle 427: Squalor and Sympathy

by Matt Dovey

read by Louise Ratcliffe


Anna concentrated on the cold, on the freezing water around her feet and the bruising sensation in her toes. So cold. So cold. So cold, she thought. A prickling warmth like pins and needles crackled inside her feet. It coursed through her body to her clenched hands and into the lead alloy handles of the cotton loom. Each thought of cold! kindled a fresh surge of heat inside and pushed the shuttle across the weave in a new burst of power. Anna’s unfocused eyes rested on the woven cotton feeding out of the back of the machine. It looks so warm.

First published in Writers of the Future volume 32, May 2016.

Rated PG-13.



Matt Dovey is very tall and very English and is most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from an impoverished childhood working the looms in the Victorian cotton mills (he’s older than he looks). He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer, he still hasn’t found the right words to properly express the delight and joy he finds in this wonderful arrangement.

His surname rhymes with “Dopey”, but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He is the Golden Pen winner for Writers of the Future volume 32 (2016) with this very story, and was shortlisted for the James White Award in 2016. He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place; you can keep up with it at mattdovey.com, or follow along on Facebook and Twitter both as @mattdoveywriter.



Your narrator is Louise Ratcliffe. She says, “My name’s Louise and I am a scientist and an artist. I spent my school days either trying to blow stuff up in Chemistry, or creating angsty pieces of writing and performance art. I’m originally from England, and came to New Zealand as a souvenir from an OE, I am currently doing everything I never planned to do out in rural Waikato.”

Listen to this week’s PodCastle!
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Father Beast
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« Reply #1 on: August 03, 2016, 06:59:36 AM »

Wow. It took me a little bit to figure out just what was going on here, but then I was twice as appalled as before.

OK, so the women in the factory have it as their job to produce magic by pain or need or desire. They are using the magic of common people to run their factories. but the magic is an expression of their life force, and it will run out, if not given the chance to recharge, which is not done, or barely done, because of the long factory hours required. People are used as living batteries to power the factories, and the burnout rate must be horrendous. But the owners don't care, because there are always more common people.

The actions of the factory overseer in this story demonstrate that he already knows all this, and just doesn't care. He runs a dangerous game, because people who have the magic awoken in them won't always use it the way you expect them to, and a rebellion is always just a moment away from breaking loose from the fear you use to keep them in line.

I'm not sure if I liked the story, but it was certainly well built and kept me interested.
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SpareInch
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« Reply #2 on: August 07, 2016, 03:00:57 AM »

Perhaps it's a cultural thing, but was I the only one here with the old Lancashire folk song Poverty Poverty Knock running through my head while I listened to this one?

Somehow, I suspect that was part of the author's intent.

This world is, as Father Beast has pointed out, horribly close to the real Industrial Revolution, but I did find it hopeful, however, that Sympathy is a more powerful force than Squalor. A point brought home the more forcefully from the way the author makes us feel for the women in this cotton mill.

For a moment there, I did think the ball had been dropped when nelly Ludd harangued the factory owner. I couldn't help thinking, "That sounds like she was reciting a prepared speech," but as the story went on, I realised that this was exactly what she had been doing. Just waiting for the opportunity to deliver her protest.

Basically, I liked this a lot. Not only was it a great tale to do the ironing to, but look... It's drawn me out of my commenting sabbatical. MORE PLEASE! Cheesy
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bounceswoosh
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« Reply #3 on: August 10, 2016, 09:01:47 PM »

Loved the story. Loved the narration. Crazy conceit/metaphor that worked very well.
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« Reply #4 on: August 16, 2016, 09:59:23 AM »

It took me a little while (probably longer than it should have) to grasp the central conceit here, but I thought it made a good basis for a story, expanding upon the realities of the Industrial Revolution.  The woman who ran the orphanage starving herself for days so that she could use the squalor to stretch the existing food for the children was especially striking.  I did not expect Victoria to show up in the narrative, and I appreciate that she was at least willing to take the hotseat in a pinch, although it was hard to sympathize with her when she harangued the man for lecturing her on the basis of the power of her country--she didn't have much sympathy for those in squalor before that, after all. 

Good show!
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bounceswoosh
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« Reply #5 on: August 16, 2016, 01:14:13 PM »

It took me a little while (probably longer than it should have) to grasp the central conceit here, but I thought it made a good basis for a story, expanding upon the realities of the Industrial Revolution.  The woman who ran the orphanage starving herself for days so that she could use the squalor to stretch the existing food for the children was especially striking.  I did not expect Victoria to show up in the narrative, and I appreciate that she was at least willing to take the hotseat in a pinch, although it was hard to sympathize with her when she harangued the man for lecturing her on the basis of the power of her country--she didn't have much sympathy for those in squalor before that, after all. 

Good show!


I felt the ending with the queen was a little off. A bit deus ex machina, maybe. But it's hard to stick the landing on endings, so I try not to worry about that too much.
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ElectricPaladin
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« Reply #6 on: August 24, 2016, 04:31:41 PM »

I liked a lot about this story, but exactly one thing irritated me: the ending.

I get it. Peace and love and (magical) sympathy are great... but I think we've got to earn that happy cheerful conclusion. You can't have peace until you have justice. And more importantly, the world is the way it is because there are people who like it that way. Even during the Industrial Revolution, there was enough wealth and technology around to improve everyone's lives, but the people who were on top of the heap decided that they could live even better if they forced someone else to live poorly. Those people are doing it on purpose. They have decided that their welfare is more important than anyone else's.

What I liked about this story was that it elaborated on and illustrated this concept. The gears of the empire are lubricated with blood. The common people suffer and die for the wealth of the elite, and concepts like "patriotism" and fear of starvation are used to control them. Making this fact literal via squalor-magic was brilliant.

What bothered me is that, in the end, I think that Anna is wrong and Nellie Lud is right. The fat cats crouched on top of the heap of weeping, starving humanity aren't going to step down if we ask them nicely enough. They clawed their way to the top and have been feeding themselves justifications for centuries. You think it's just that they don't know how awful it is for everyone else? Of course not. They know. They've just built elaborate lies to convince themselves that it's okay, or else they are some of the few genuine sociopaths who don't care. And the sad fact is that these snakes (first they're cats, now they're snakes - what's my problem?) have been manipulating people for so long that a lot of ordinary folks are going to fight to defend their right to be exploited, and they might get hurt in the struggle to take our world back.

So I don't think Anna is going to win by trading on her Sympathy and her love. I think she's going to be crushed. Either someone is going to just up and murder her, or enough of her followers are going to get sick and tired of their blood in the streets until someone less scrupulous or less talented takes the movement from her.

Anna is ultimately what the world needs, because once we've found a way to equalize power, we are going to need to be reconciled to living with each other, but you can't negotiate with the powerful from a position of weakness. You need to seize some power for yourself, first. Anna would succeed if she'd come after Nellie, but she'll fail if she comes before Nellie.

And before anyone tries to point out supposed real-life counter-examples, I want to make it clear that I am not necessarily talking about violence. It's possible to lead a non-violent movement that is incredibly aggressive. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. probably cost the states he protested in hundreds of thousands of dollars through boycotts, disrupting daily business, and bad reputation. That's a kind of aggression, even if it isn't violent. People - even the people he was trying to help - suffered.

But I don't get the impression that Anna understands this.

So, it was a very well written story that I really enjoyed... right up until the kind of milquetoast ending. You can't skip the intermediary steps just because they're unpleasant. You can't have peace until after you have justice.
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« Reply #7 on: September 25, 2016, 04:19:08 AM »

This story had so many facets to it, I was enraptured the whole way thru.  The main, bold and bright theme being oppression and exploitation, but the love for family, both from Anna and the Queen.  The character of Shuttleworth turned out to be more complex than just an evil, mustache twirling dandy in a top hat.  Great reat stuff. I wonder if we'll hear more from the same universe?
 Smiley
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FireTurtle
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« Reply #8 on: September 29, 2016, 03:03:08 PM »

This story dragged me out of my commenting sabbatical as well. I just loved it. I hear what ElectricPalladin is saying, but I'm sticking my fingers in my ears and saying "lalalala Squalor" at the top of my lungs.

Because seriously, this is my favorite ever piece of Victorian/Industrial Revolution fantasy. It is so awesome. Maybe I enjoyed it more just because I find Squalor to be a hilarious word and one that is fun to hear read. (Much as some people hate to say moist.) I thought it was very interesting that Squalor was being equated with self-interest/selfishness and that Sympathy (really empathy) was considered the more rare and powerful gift. I dunno, there is so much to unpack here. I guess that's what I love about it.

Anyway, thanks for giving me something so appealing to listen to while I go about my decidedly non-Squalor chores.

Edited because typos.
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“My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world and exiles me from it.”
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« Reply #9 on: October 14, 2016, 07:37:29 PM »

I heart this story so much! I have to agree with the criticisms on the ending, that was definitely the weakest part. But the concept! Magic powered through squalor (desperation) and anger! And magic powered by empathy being so much more powerful and equally difficult to tap into!

I figured it out pretty quickly and then just enjoyed the ride as she figured out her own ability and how it fit into the larger struggle. I really hope to hear more in this universe. Smiley
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