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Author Topic: EP103: The Watching People  (Read 9705 times)
Russell Nash
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« on: April 27, 2007, 03:48:13 AM »

EP103: The Watching People

By Paul Berger.
Read by Stephen Eley.
First appeared in Ideomancer, December, 2004.

One must show the proper respect for knowledge, and learn by watching and counting and copying. The Doctor does almost nothing but learn – although he watches the wrong things — and some of us think he might be a little sacred as well, which is one of the reasons he is still alive. It might be unlucky to eat a sacred person.

But the main reason he is still among us is someday we will learn something valuable from him, and then maybe the village will support the lives of a few more of the People. We watch him carefully.


Rated PG. Contains mild language, some violence, and the Observer Effect gone very awry.

Referenced Sites:
Dr. Howard V. Hendrix’s “Webscab” essay
Jo Walton’s “International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day” essay
International Pixel-Stained Technopeasants Community
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Chodon
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Molon Labe


« Reply #1 on: April 27, 2007, 11:31:45 AM »

I really enjoyed this story.  I love hearing about how other cultures may handle things we don't even think about or take for granted.  A perfect example is in "Nightfall".  I was enthralled thinking about how terrified that culture was of darkness. In this story, the cultural difference was how rude it is to ask questions.  As I was listening I was trying to figure out why the Watching People get so upset when they were directly asked questions.  It was so interesting to me how this culture cherishes knowledge so much they find out things for themselves through watching, and it was considered pushy and rude to ask someone something you can figure out for yourself. 

The only think I felt this story was lacking was a concrete ending.  I prefer stories that wrap everything up in a nice, shiny bow at the end.  This did not do that.  In spite of that it is still a great story.
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mummifiedstalin
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« Reply #2 on: April 27, 2007, 11:37:22 AM »

The only think I felt this story was lacking was a concrete ending.  I prefer stories that wrap everything up in a nice, shiny bow at the end.  This did not do that.  In spite of that it is still a great story.

I thought the implication was that these super-observant Watchers were going to pretty much grok the ship. Poor doctor...poor rest of the galaxy. No more waste of meat. Smiley

I liked the nice touch that the Doctor wasn't made out to be a complete bumbling idiot. He knew how powerfully observant they were, and suspected that their unwillingness to answer questions was part of a cultural code he hadn't caught on to yet. He just didn't know how to respond appropriately. He might have figured it out (he was obviously a good watcher, too), but just not as good as the Watchers.

Cool story.
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Chodon
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Molon Labe


« Reply #3 on: April 27, 2007, 12:45:04 PM »

I thought the implication was that these super-observant Watchers were going to pretty much grok the ship. Poor doctor...poor rest of the galaxy. No more waste of meat. Smiley

Could you imagine learning how to sew a tunic together one day, then being commander of an interstellar spaceship the next?  I'm not sure what I would do first with that kind of power.

I think a race like this would most likely grow to be the best scientific race in the galaxy (universe?).  One of the big faults of humanity is we ask each other questions and we take what other people say for solid fact rather than making our own observations (the news media anyone?).  This race would find that rude.  Amazing.  I just love to think about what a benefit a cultural trait like that would be.
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slic
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« Reply #4 on: April 27, 2007, 09:53:18 PM »

I enjoyed the story.  A rare anthro-type story, well written and quite intriguing.  I thought the aliens and their culture to be fleshed out and well thought through.  I felt ripped off by the ending, though.  It was just getting to what I thought would be the Really Good part and the story was over - or rather it abruptly ended.  I started a thread about endings because "The Angle of my Dreams"() felt a little unfinished, but this one was worse.  It really felt as though the author decided there was too much more to the story and just wanted to stop, so he did.  It didn't even feel like a logical end, it seemed right before the climax. 

I liked the idea that a professional "watcher" was being out-watched by his savage charges.  However, I was a little disappointed at the Doctor's amateurish mistakes - like when the bird people all had tunics and then the tunics just disappeared.  That's really odd, and would warrent some investigation - he seemed a very poor observer.  I didn't really consider this until well after the story though - the character of the young bird-kid was so very well wrought, and the story pulled me along. 

The whole bit about the young kid and the other,older, bird kid having fun talking with the spaceship had me smiling at my desk.

Is there another, longer, version out there somewhere, Mr. Paul Berger?
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Swamp
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« Reply #5 on: April 27, 2007, 10:44:44 PM »

This was a very entertaining story!  I will go so far as to say that this is my favorite so far this year.  It was cleverly crafted and set up a rich culture in a very fun way.  I loved that they found it rude to ask questions when they could know the answers if they just watched long enough.  That mindset has served them well.  I enjoyed the glee they felt as they acted "rudely" to the intercom.  The POV was perfect.  And yes, I was very surprised at where the story ended.  I wanted more.

As I side note, I know the Watching People were described as having beaks and all, but I couldn't help myself from seeing them as something similar to Ewoks.
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« Reply #6 on: April 28, 2007, 12:17:15 PM »

I pictured them looking kind of like the owlbear from the D&D Monster Manual.
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starfish
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« Reply #7 on: April 28, 2007, 04:54:17 PM »

I found the ending satisfactory.  The human scientist says to his colleague, "Our jobs would be in danger if they ever got loose on the galaxy."  (paraphrasing).  This is, perhaps, humanity's most short-sighted statement of all time.  Remember how the Watching People killed off their tall cousins to get their land?  The idea is that once the ship lands, they will kill the Doctor, take his ship, and spread throughout the universe, learning rapidly as they go.  I didn't need to see this spelled out in detail because it is foreshadowed well.  Is the Doctor naive?  Yes.  But this is a story about the anthrocentrism of humanity.  We assume that other cultures interpret reality the way we do, and in this case it is to our doom.

As for why asking questions is taboo in the Watching People's culture: asking a question means that one isn't being observant, isn't relying on one's own senses, and on their highly dangerous planet being unobservant for an instant often leads to death.  Questions, therefore, are seen as weakness - an unobservant soul could endanger the tribe.  Therefore, questions are shunned.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2007, 04:59:55 PM by starfish » Logged
slic
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Stephen Lumini


« Reply #8 on: April 28, 2007, 05:12:12 PM »

Quote from: starfish
The idea is that once the ship lands...
It wasn't that I was stumped at how the story could end, it was that I would like the author to show me. 
Part of being entertained is to have the entertainer tell the story and reveal things I may not have thought of.  For example, I would loved to read/hear the main characters' reaction to the landing spaceship.  Without the Doctor to mimic how well would they have figured the functions of the ship? They were shown to be clever in how they figured out stitching, but their reaction to a space vehicle wouldbe quite a bit different.

Quote from: starfish
But this is a story about the anthrocentrism of humanity.
I certainly didn't see it that way.  The Doctor is a secondary character.  I thought the story to be more about how people adapt and learn, that this was a neat extension of the adage my father told me - "Keep quiet and learn rather than talk and show your ignorance".  But that is the beauty of stories, people can take different things out of them.
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slic
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Stephen Lumini


« Reply #9 on: April 28, 2007, 05:31:55 PM »

I was answering a post on a thread about endings (http://forum.escapeartists.info/index.php?topic=774.0), and I realized what really bugged me about the ending.

As Starfish said, enough info was given to work out the basic ending, however the characters were just left hanging on the edge of a major change.  Like the sun just before it breaks at dawn, you can tell something transformative is about to happen, but then --- stop.

An ending doesn't have to wrap everything up, but a good ending makes sure the reader understands where the characters will likely end up, or at least have a resolution/decision made.  I agree with the ending to Angle of my Dreams - it was pretty clear that the boy and GrandDad would get along fine and have a "good" time of it.  The GrandDad has accepted his Grandson without any reservations.

The explosive impact that a spaceship will have in the Watchers will take them in a new and unexplored direction, and we aren't even clear what the initial impact is on the main character.
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ajames
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« Reply #10 on: April 28, 2007, 06:23:04 PM »

I enjoyed this story immensely, for many of the reasons already stated in this thread.

In thinking about the ending, I think the author was wise to end it where he did.  The implications in the story are clear enough, but getting there would be another thing all together.  So the watchers found a reed boat, learned about it, made more, and were able to take a village by surprise.  So they were able to sew by merely observing some clothes.  All very impressive, and fascinating, and, well, wow.  But still, even with a space ship and some supplies, spreading throughout the galaxy would be another thing all together.  [Unless, perhaps, the good doctor took the Death Star with him on his expedition].

I just don't see it happening.  And the alternate endings I have imagined so far just don't work as well as the actual ending of the story.

However, I fully concede that just because I don't see it, doesn't mean it can't be done.  And if this were the beginning of a novel, I'd love to read the rest.  But as a short story, I think the ending was right.
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Wingates_hellsing
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« Reply #11 on: April 28, 2007, 10:37:26 PM »

This has to be my third favorite story.

I particularly like the beginning where the narrator comments on human features and thereby telling us what they look like. After that there is the mentionings of his near-death attempts to do harmless things and the use of the phrase "nonsense words". The viewpoint of children seemes to make it sound better and in the end alot more sinister.

I've been listening to escapepod on my PSP for a long time now and this one's a keeper.

(sorry about spelling, this comp is messed up)
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clichekiller
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« Reply #12 on: April 29, 2007, 03:05:24 PM »

I liked this story very much.  I too thought the ending was a bit abrupt but only because this story felt like a great set up into a much larger world; and dammit I wanted to explore that world.  I think it's a little too far fetched to think one starship will have the watching people spreading across the stars but it definitely has dire implications for the doctor.  Even if he lives he will most certainly wish that he hadn't.  Talk about contamination!!!
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Jonathan C. Gillespie
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« Reply #13 on: April 30, 2007, 09:29:49 PM »

This tale was really terrific; right up there with "How Lonesome a Life Without Nerve Gas" as another example of well-written, concise science fiction at its best.

I love the dark edge to this piece, particularly how the Pandora's Box humanity has released is alluded too, but isn't thrust into our face needlessly.  Think about it: these aliens miss a relative because the *meat* was wasted.  Yeouch.  That's going to be a hell of a war for humanity, and I'm glad it's fictional!
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Paul-Berger
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« Reply #14 on: April 30, 2007, 11:19:12 PM »

Thanks for the feedback and the kind words, everybody!

I'm sorry the story ends too abruptly for some of you.  It was a couple of years ago, but I'm pretty sure I did that for two (entirely subjective) reasons:

1) The story is set up so that, to my mind anyway, history is bound to repeat itself, and when I plotted what would come next, I realized there wouldn't have been any real surprises after that point.

And

2) Although it would have been fun to explore that world and the Watching People's reaction as they go loose on the galaxy, no matter how I told the story, the climax would always be just at the point when it's all about to open up for them. That tiny interval of equilibrium where we know their whole world is about to change forever still strikes me as the most powerful moment in their tale.  (Plus, I basically wrote myself into a corner -- it would have taken me a novel to build them back up to the point where something else equally significant could happen to them.)

But that's all based on the way the story hits *me*.  Your mileage may vary, and I'm okay with that.

I wrote the first draft of this story about ten years ago, when I was coordinating an overseas internship program for a university.  As part of the training to prepare the students to live and work abroad, we played a simulation game called BaFa'BaFa'.  The players split up into two cultures with different sets of values, and then send visitors over to try to guess what the rules of the other culture are. One group has certain topics that are taboo, and its members have to respectfully change the subject whenever they're asked questions about them.  That drove the visitors crazy, and I began to wonder what it would be like to try to make sense of a culture when you couldn't ask any questions at all.   That idea grew into "The Watching People," which immediately went into a drawer and didn't see daylight for a long while afterwards.  Then I got involved with a bunch of other writers that eventually evolved into the Altered Fluid writer's group, and was finally motivated to clean the story up and send it out.  It appeared in Ideomancer in 2004. 

   -- Paul Berger





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spatial_mongrel
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« Reply #15 on: May 01, 2007, 01:45:46 AM »

I think I've enjoyed this story the most of all the stories we've heard so far, and I think it was exactly the abruptness of the ending that did it. I love a sharp ending where you see, suddenly, a whole array of possibilities suddenly laying themselves out before you - its like the author is inviting you to use your own imagination at that point, and choose the rest of the adventure to see where the story goes. It literally gave me a chill down my spine, just imagining what happened next after this.

I wonder about the questions, particularly at the end when they are questioning the computer. It seems to me the big advantage humanity has is that we question one another, and by so doing, we "stand on the shoulders of giants" and are able to build upon past knowledge without necessarily having to learn it ourselves from the beginning. While watching and observing may work well at a primitive hunter/gatherer level, I think at a more advanced stage, questioning and inquiry will be required. I wonder if the discussion the two youngsters had with the computer, and how secretly thrilled they were by the game, was not the next step for this race in proceeding to that more advanced level. If so, maybe they would begin to question other things, like who these human beings are. The doctor lived with them in harmony for quite some time. Perhaps, with such an expansion in their own thinking, they could learn to live with us as well.

Thanks again for the story!
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sayeth
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« Reply #16 on: May 01, 2007, 09:35:08 AM »

Abrupt endings can feel like a cop-out sometimes, but in this case I think the ending works because it fits in with the themes of the story. You're not given a direct answer to the question "What happens next?"  Instead, you have to figure out what will happen by using your observations from the rest of the story. I think the Watching People would approve.
« Last Edit: May 01, 2007, 09:36:54 AM by sayeth » Logged

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Simon Painter
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« Reply #17 on: May 02, 2007, 05:42:28 AM »

I enjoyed this one  Smiley  I wasn't bothered by the ending at all, there would be no way to continue the story past that point without a radical change in focus and plot.

I thought this was a fun exploration of an alien culture and mindset, and the story finished once this was accomplished.

My only real problem was the use of present-tense narration, I've said here before, it really doesn't work for me.

Kudos to the writer for posting here as well, it was interesting to read some of the background behind the piece.

Here's a thought: how about a short interview with the author being included with future episodes?  Or at least a brief statement from them being read out to give some background to the story.

Also: one (very) minor correction concerning the neat quote from Göthe at the end, his name is actually pronounced 'Gurr-tuh'.

Otherwise a neat episode this week  Smiley

Simon Painter
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« Last Edit: May 02, 2007, 08:34:18 AM by madSimonJ » Logged

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« Reply #18 on: May 03, 2007, 04:48:29 PM »

Geez, I don't think even the prime directive could've saved the good doctor and his people.  Great story. 
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Thaurismunths
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« Reply #19 on: May 04, 2007, 06:06:32 AM »

First off, I loved the story. I enjoyed the indigenous perspective, and thought that Mr. Berger did a great job writing about this planet, it's people, and especially how bumbling they thought the doctor was. The idea of a people that not only stresses the importance of paying attention but finds questions rude is a cool and novel.
The ending didn't feel like an ending only because it left the possibilities a little too open. It was foreshadowed that they'd be fearsome competition with the whole "gee I hope they don't get in to outer space" thing, but there are some pretty big hurdles to clear to get from mimicking the doctor's voice to running interplanetary raids. The doctor isn't the happy-go-lucky idiot the natives think he is, and there are lots of things in our society (and presumably that of a future version of ours) that you can't just watch and learn, so if they eat the doctor there won't be anyone to watch and learn from.
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