The SFFaudio Podcast #425 – READALONG: Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang


The SFFaudio PodcastThe SFFaudio Podcast #425 -Jesse, Paul Weimer, Marissa, and Maissa talk about Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Talked about on today’s show:
1998, Arrival (2016), Ted Chiang has lost it!, you’ve pulled it off again, the vast sweep of history, the space of my life, Jesse doesn’t hold with modern writers (very much), savouring his stories, a technical writer, smart, wise, and young!, let’s sell out write away, he’s all ages at once, wisdom, his themes, Stories Of Your Life by Ted Chiang (the collection), too much chocolate, Tower Of Babylon, Liking What You See: A Documentary, style and tone, it’s right there in every sentence, when I talk about this on the podcast…, falling into place, in giant swaths, blocks, blocks of ash backwards and forwards, how memory works, changing memories by looking at them, heptapods, could they have done the movie any better?, a thoughtful science fiction story, more graspable, the rogue Chinese general, weirdly flowing hair, they’re doing it!, “oh gawd, Hollywood, what are you doing?”, which order is better?, movie first?, the future not the past, the clay figure, a breakdown, pieces building up, flashbacks, the house was so empty, past and future tense at the same time, movies do that all the time, less literary and more show, the movie-ish elements are not in the story, scale and stakes, Understand is a power, Flowers For Algernon, a meta-human super-mind, Hell Is The Absence Of God, a hilarious ending, too much dark chocolate is overwhelming, Seventy-Two Letters, The Merchant And The Alchemist’s Gate, The Life-Cycle Of Software Objects, he’s too wise, stories like bonsai trees, her first dream about her daughter’s death, where he puts everything, just the right spot, very Hollywood, so much more tragic, more mysterious, the writers sitting around…, the lady has to be younger because…, we’re going to give a 45 woman a movie?, how would they film that?, and how’s she gonna die?, incurable disease, nothing the mom could say or do could save the daughter, thinking about what the audience is thinking, outrage!, she seems to have more choice in the movie, an action sequence, she saves the world, the floating hair sequence, it doesn’t work as a memory, timey-wimey, a propagating wave of memory, it doesn’t work within the logic of the book, in trying to make it easy to the audience they’ve broken the logic of the story…, too dumb to understand, more rewarding and more hollow, is this a Science Fiction classic?, not at all, total brilliance, the whole movie in that sentence, my favourite second, our bar for science fiction movies is quite low, it’s legitimately science fiction, playing it up, fiddled with the aliens, a visual treat, a blockbuster, against the grain of the short story, the kangaroo, everything in my life points toward the fiction we’re going to discuss, Cognitive scientist explains why perceiving a false reality is beneficial, the duck that’s also a rabbit, the duck-rabbit’s direction, a complex reality we don’t need to know, whatever reality might be, the tiger would eat you, why do people have babies, “wanna make a baby?!, my kid’s gonna die, absolutely!”, all babies die, fearful of death, always looking at that end point, thinking about death is comforting, everybody does know the future, Robert J. Sawyer, any time now!, death is absolutely inevitable, outliving your friends and family, fragile and tiny, why daddy looks at me strangely now, Jean Paul Sartre, everybody lives forever, your forever has happened, that was your forever, giving it the forever life, the death of a child vs. the death of a 99 year old person, her “accident”, why the name change from Flapper and Raspberry to Abbot and Costello, the audience wouldn’t buy it, it’s very movie, Sam and Diane, definitely its, a thematic pair, classic comedy, highly neat, a weird theory, in the context of the movie logic, memories with the daughter, pointing at the problem of the movie, there’s no deciding!, it’s everywhere, talking for the sake of ritual, actors performing the lines, you have to read it on the page to grasp it in the theatre, seeing Shakespeare performed, to see an actualization of your experience, a positive story (a horror), not testing them limits, delivering their lines well, he’s improvising, I need a bowl like this (in order to hit my daughter in the head with it), choosing not to learn it <-this doesn't make sense - does it?, it's the written language, most people don't read, language ability, would you?, going to psychics, no one would go because they know it's bullshit (deep down), those who've read the book of ages never admit to it, conversations about certain topics because they're not read for it, good old days of forums, yelling against the wind, work it out themselves, a lesson from getting things right, you don't want to waste time, Fermat's most efficient system, you wanna be that way soon, computer games, no unlimited quarters, taking the ferry, the Sunshine Coast (British Columbia), riding the Queen Of Nanaimo, my Tron story, a clone of Defender, a side-scroller, demo mode, “insert coin”, a weird phenomena, at what point did I lose control?, computer games, Battlefield 4, the same kind of frustration, when you’re in the “zone” where time flows differently, your brain chemicals are elevated, it’s like I’m on drugs, where frustration comes from, why the ancient Greeks are all about fate, errors are going to creep in, in a certain sense it’s all scripted, dealing with this theme more explicitly, the one with the button, what to make of all of this?, a creepier sense of this poor woman, what a horrible existence, I cherish every moment, it’s only when things don’t going according to my script, even better!, only a lack of knowledge is upsetting, however we’re supposed to perceive it, it doesn’t make her upset, euphoric in the flow state, a logic defeated by the film, there’s no drama like that in the story, our realization of what Ted Chiange has done with that two hours of text, very Borgesian, a science fiction writer’s version of Borges, the text fixed, all the contents are immutable and yet we continue reading it, Big Trouble In Little China, Galaxy Quest, knowing the end doesn’t distract from the movie, is there a word for a fear of predictability?, do things unexpectedly all the time please, such a horror, he’s also Lovecraft, barrel shaped, At The Mountains Of Madness, The Shadow Out Of Time, an experience that the narrator can’t do anything time, if Lovecraft could ever write about a mom…, a professor who has a strange experience with an otherworldly creature, unavailability and a horror, a slow build up of tension, the whole bomb sequence, the alt-right talk show Alex Jones character, the latest series of Homeland, is in the death process, they knew it was coming, the spray (of shit?) all over the screen, their writing reflects their perception of reality, their speech doesn’t reflect their perception, from the end of the Mist, that’s just how we perceive it,they don’t really look like that, big pieces of silica, 12 vs. 112, why only 12?, this is a math problem, only one pair of aliens in all of those looking glasses, time fracture, all-time/no-time, there might only be one alien, when you’re perceiving things differently, why did the aliens come to visit?, we need reasons when we walk out of the movie theater, the 3,000 years thing, at the moment I was satisfied, Fermat and the light, for teleological reasons, knowing where it’s going and where it’s been all at the same time, we think of cause and effect, the universe is a book that can be read a couple of different ways, in a story vs. in a movie, we’re so conditioned, getting mad at the movie, are they just scientists?, the Strugatsky brothers, Roadside Picnic, animals, we are come and creepy like that, animals are almost never interested in having conversations,

The universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that could be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological.

the rabbit is ready to eat, the rabbit is ready? hungry rabbits vs. hungry people, time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana, fruit doesn’t fly, fruit stays still – like bananas, free as in software not as like free as in beer, FREE BEER!, free software is infinitely copyable, grammar allows for multiple meanings too, parallels with Contact (1997), a little bit like an homage, complete with the religious nuts, a cult, Heaven’s Gate, a nice metaphor for our current times, what the State Department is going to think, a clown show, nothing they do matters, clearly filmed before the Trump presidency, could you film it now?, somehow Trump makes it more realistic, who would do that?, a big tantrum, stop talking to them bigly, the score and cinematography, the same director and composer, I’ve seen the future don’t be so excited, moderate your expectations, dreaming about hectopod unlocking future memories, seeing snatches of the future, it rewired Paul’s brain, really affecting stories, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, TED Talks, a TED Talk talking point, linguistic relativity, stories are what come out of language, stories that resonate, when she’s reading Goldilocks to her daughter, you’re not telling it right, threefold magic, that’s all you need to know, always the same reaction and always a different reaction, the three chairs, the bowls, the three beds, somebody’s been sitting in my chair, somebody’s been eating my porridge, somebody’s been sleeping in my bed and there she is!, being able to retell, this is how Homer’s stories are designed, rosy fingered dawn, memory cues, hhmms and hawws, the epithets, tools and tricks evolved naturally out of us, Maissa enjoying Galaxy Quest again and again, Seth McFarlane’s The Orville, a whole series?, In The Mountains Of Madness by W. Scott Poole, I Am Providence by Nick Mamatass, the subgenre, Murder At The ABA by Isaac Asimov, mysteries set at mystery or science fiction conventions, authors writing what they know, Winter’s Tide, Lovecraft Country, is good for satisfying hate-ons, here’s my position: I’m better than you, you with your Lovecraftian tentacle shirt…, the opposite of Ted Chiang, some sort of ethos or ethical system, there’s not just going with it and seeing how it goes, he has something to say, crafted not rushed, awards are wrong on the grand scheme, Parsec and Nebula awards, if you’re aiming in that direction…, moving through the universe and collecting awards by accident, Hidden Figures (2016), why are they stopped there?, whatever…, should I call a tow truck?, “no, I’ll just bypass the starter?!!?!?”, what the fuck are you talking about?!!?!?, smart women engineers, you can’t bypass starters, IBM, come on!, now you’ve ruined it Jesse, the only reason that exists, they ruined it, they need the sequence, a movie supposedly about science and engineering and then they focus on what makes it actually interesting, an establishing character moment, their so smart they can do magic, for trailer moments, Kevin Costner smashing the bathroom sign, I want to be manipulated, Da Vinci’s Demons, an amazonian parrot in the time of Da Vinci?, we could use african greys, perfectionists and people who don’t care, every word is perfectly placed, he’s clear, every word is carefully place, actually it’s him doing Borges, a much finer point, brains and minds, Exhalation, you can’t use your mind to look at your own mind, doing experimental surgery on his own head using a mirror, The Electric Ant by Philip K. Dick, this is a master at work, everybody in there, he’s a wonder.

TANTOR MEDIA - Stories Of Your Life by Ted Chiang

Arrival by Ted Chiang

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

SFFaudio Review

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris StrugatskyRoadside Picnic
By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky; Translated by Olena Bormashenko; Read by Robert Forster
7 hours 8 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Release Date: October 2, 2012

Eastern European Science Fiction has not been on my RADAR for decades. Of course, it would be easy to blame the Anglo-American dominance in the genre for this, but another reason might have been the ill-timing of my first touchpoints with SF from what was then still (even though barely) the Soviet Union. As a kid, I got a box of books from the German Democratic Republic with Soviet and other Eastern Bloc Science Fiction stories (Utopian Novels they were called to avoid the Anglicism). I read one of them and browsed a few others. Suffice to say, that I was not impressed. Blame my immature literary taste buds, but to me, they seemed overly intellectual, a bit cumbersome, boring. After that I hardly touched any book that came from beyond the Iron Curtain, with few exceptions. What an idiot I had been! A recent trip to Moscow sparked my interest in Russian culture, so I thought, what the heck. Gimme some of those Strugatsky brothers that everyone is going on about. Luckily, there has been a fairly recent re-release of the brothers’ Arkady and Boris Strugatsky most famous work Roadside Picnic. Published in 2012, it not only has been newly translated but it is also based on a restored version of the text prepared by Boris Strugatsky (Arkady having passed away in 1991) to repair the damage that was done to the book by Soviet censorship, including all of the filthy language. It is a testament to the brilliance of the novel that even in its crippled version it was nominated for a John W. Campbell Award in 1978 and came second, a rare occurrence for a foreign-language book.

What’s it about then? It’s a First Contact story, with a clever twist. It’s about alien contact alright, but without the aliens. At some point in time, Earth was visited by alien beings, who settled at six different locations around the globe. The result was disastrous with weird phenomena wreaking havoc among the human settlements that were affected. However, this was no attack, no attempt at invading Earth. In fact, no one ever got to see the aliens. There was no attempt at communication and no intention to stay by the visitors. After a while they just left, leaving behind so-called “zones”, in which marvelous artefacts could be found; some completely baffling, others very useful and thus quickly becoming coveted contraband. The problem is that getting these artefacts is highly dangerous. The laws of physics as we know them do not seem to apply in the zones and there is a plethora of hidden traps for unwary explorers. Because of the dangers and study the valuable artefacts (which stubbornly defy any attempt to fully comprehend them), an international research institute has been created which cordons off the zones and occasionally sends in expeditions to collect specimens for examination. Apart from the sanctioned officials there are illegal treasure hunters, called Stalkers, who risk their lives for the high profits the items from the zone yield on the black market.
The story is based around one of the visitation zones, near a small town in Canada and is mainly told from the point of view of Redrick “Red” Schuhart. Red is a stalker, who at the beginning of the novel is employed by the Institute where is experience in the zone is needed when he accompanies a researcher into the zone. The expedition ends badly, Kirill, the Russian scientist has an accident and dies shortly after his return from the zone. This doesn’t stop Red from being a Stalker, and the further the novel progresses it becomes clear that although he doesn’t mind the money it is not his only reason to risk his live. The zone has become an obsession for Schuhard and nothing can keep him out. The novel follows Schuhart for eight years, in episodic chapters with a few changes in points of view but always coming back to him. He has good times and not-so-good, going in and out of jail, sometimes living the good life from the profits and sometimes worrying what will happen to his wife and kid when he’s in prison. In the meantime, life around the zone is changing, security is getting tighter, the government wants to re-settle all of the remaining population. No wonder considering that the dead are returning from their graves and reclaim their lives among their families and the children of frequent visitors to the zone are showing strange mutations. Life is getting harder for Stalkers, as not only does it get more and more difficult to get into the zone, but the amount of artefacts dwindles until only one big prize seems to be left. A golden orb that can grant its owner any wish – unless it really does come from the heart. This is what Redrick Schuhart is going for in the final chapter of the novel. But – what to wish for?

Schuhart reminds one of the tough, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking and chain-smoking protagonists of a Hard Boiled detective novel and to no small degree is it exactly that language and approach to the narrative that makes it so accessible. Yes, this book touches on some pretty philosophical topics – this is Literature with a capital L – but in the best tradition of the Science Fiction genre, it does so in wrapped in a damn good story. What can human being ultimately know? Could we really ever hope to communicate with an alien species or are we just like some frightened small animals coming out of hiding only after the picnic party has left and all that remains to do is to fight for the scraps they left behind? The narrator, Robert Forster, does a fine job indeed, breathing life to Redrick Schuhart, both when he’s being a cynical bastard and when he’s ridden by doubt and despair. One could not have wished for a better narrator for the audio book.

The recording concludes with a very interesting afterword by Boris Strugatsky about the long and complicated history of getting the book through the Kafkaesque maze of censorship and bureaucracy that was the Soviet publishing industry. The foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin that is included in print version is missing from the audio but that’s about the only desideratum of an otherwise brilliant production. Highly recommended!

Posted by Carsten Schmitt