EP081: Margin of Error

By Nancy Kress.
Read by Christiana Ellis (of Nina Kimberly the Merciless and Pickle Tales)

She said, “What the project needs is for you to come back and work on the same small area you did originally. Looking for something–anything–you might have missed in the protein-coded instructions to successive generations of nanoassemblers.”

“No,” I said.

Rated PG. Contains minor profanity, explicit bodily functions, and people being very, very mean..

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Comments (30)

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  1. Jim in Buffalo (AKA WNYRPG says:

    Yeah, I dig it, I dig it.

    It reminds me of Hamlet’s monologue on the subject of the treachery of his two schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

    There’s letters seal’d: and my two schoolfellows,
    Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,
    They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
    And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
    For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
    Hoist with his own petar; and ‘t shall go hard
    But I will delve one yard below their mines
    And blow them at the moon: O, ’tis most sweet,
    When in one line two crafts directly meet.

  2. Kendall says:

    I read this story years ago and loved it then; I love it just as much now, but it’s so good that I haven’t forgotten it in the intervening years. Readers, treat your sister-scientist nicely, now!

    Kudos to Christiana Ellis on a great reading.

  3. slic says:

    Very cool, and very cold – I agree with your outro comment regarding scientific rivalry, and extend it to the engineering-side too.

    One suggestion, if you are going to take older Nancy Kress sci-fi, get the short story, “Beggars in Spain” It spawned a whole series, but the short story was the best part.

  4. Martha Holloway says:

    Great read by Christiana Ellis! Loved the story!

    Apparently I have been asleep under a rock–I’ve missed whole swaths of stories and novels by Nancy. Just on the strength of the two nano stories that I have heard so far, I can tell that I’m going to have to catch up on some reading. And it will be a pleasure.

  5. freedom says:

    Sci-Fi is good for wish fulfillment stories, but they do tend to reveal more about the wisher than anything else. I’ve seen exactly this attitude of bemused superiority in many parents of young children. “Everyone back in the working world is a self-centered backstabber. Poop-filled diapers are unto godliness. I may not be working anymore, but I’m still more competent than anyone in back in the office. The world does not value having children (me) and will not make allowances for it (me).” I’m willing to bet that this story started as a revenge fantasy while Kress was raising her kids.

  6. Skought says:

    Hell hath no fury…

    Nicely done for a conversation story.

  7. Dave T. says:

    Geez, that was a wonderfully creepy revenge story. And it gave me that feeling while just about completely dialogue driven. Great story, great reading.

    Sibling rivalry can be completely brutal in and of itself (remember Cain and Abel), especially coupled with professional rivalry.

    Thanks and keep up the good work!

  8. Aaron in Plano Texas says:

    Wow. How great was that huh?
    Christiana. You as usual, rock.
    Nancy… we have some catching up to do.

    I’m not sure how I should react to this story. I was thrilled that the older sister got her come-upence, yet still…. murder? Why am I ok with this?

  9. slic says:

    Aaron in Plano Texas said:
    >>…murder? Why am I ok with this?

    I rationalized this by thinking medical science would cure her. They flush her blood and get rid of the nanobots, then the cancer stops or gets cured.
    So she wasn’t killed, just serious pain and life distruption.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Wow, this is amazingly hateful of anyone who doesn’t want children. Just UGLY. “Gee, if you’d only wanted children, you wouldn’t have had to die?”

    I normally like Nancy Kress, but this is horrific. This goes beyond revenge for screwing over your sister in the sciences, it’s punishing her for having a different lifestyle choice as well. WTF?

  11. Will says:

    very very cold tale. early on I thought it’d be the reverse– the big sister would win the little sister over for the good of humanity. the ending was deliciously sinister.

  12. Jennifer and Slic,
    If you’re childfree and out of the closet about it, this kind of you-must-be-emotionally-damaged assumption is old news.

    There’s another horrible assumption here that had me snarling at my iRiver while listening: if she’d wanted/had children, obviously the older sis wouldn’t have been a backstabbing, husband-stealing, frog-torturing, totally selfish b****. WTF?! Can you say Sledgehammer of Here’s-the-Bad-Guy? I think a more believable character would have made a more interesting conflict.

    Also, I still don’t think that engineering the future murder can be excused. What if the younger sis died (even in childbirth)? Then all the CF folks who had received the treatment years after her evil older sister would develop this cancer. The younger sister wouldn’t be around to publish the cure, which we can’t be sure she even intends to do from the end of the story.

    I’m a CF(childfree) female scientist, let my bias be known. I’ve met several examples of the kind of self-centered academics this story assumes; some had kids, some didn’t. I’ve met great scientists and human beings who don’t have kids, too. This over-the-top Hitlerization of the CF lifestyle is just another slap in the face, but it still stings.

  13. Jim in Buffalo (AKA WNYRPG) says:

    I don’t think that we’re expected to excuse the narrator of this story any more than we’re expected to excuse Montresor, the narrator of Poe’s chilling classic, “The Cask of Amontillado,” or Alex, the narrator of “A Clockwork Orange,” by Anthony Burgess.

    “Margin of Error,” like other twisted stories of its type, presents a selfish and devious character who is overtaken by a plot hatched by someone who turns out to be far more diabolical. I don’t believe that either side is meant to appeal to the reader’s sympathies.

    I’d love to carry on this discussion on the official Escape Pod Forums, once Steve has anointed his hand-picked team of moderators and deputy administrators to clear away the thicket of spam that has grown there.

  14. Greg M. says:

    Both “Margin of Error” and “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” were interesting stories standing alone, but taken together they come across as very smug with superiority of motherhood and a Babies Über Alles mentality. Of course, the maternal attitudes portrayed in the stories come from a character’s prospective, and attributing beliefs onto the author are not duly warranted with only two samples, but since they were closely juxtaposed within the same month, I’m put on guard nonetheless.

    As fiction, “Error” worked much better than “Clifford Falls.” The sibling rivalry was more true and deliciously diabolical, I thought, than the back to the rustic simplicity.

  15. john says:

    I hated, HATED, the read of this story. The “mom” had a condescending tone of “I’m better because I’m a Mom” and the backstabbing-get-a-head-husband-stealing sister had this “whinney, please, please, please help me” voice. Yeah, right. Excuse me but no go-getter-girl is going to sound like that. I know all kinds of women like the nano morphed scientist and they are all about themselves. They never sound snivveley at all.

  16. Loz says:

    I really enjoyed this, with a little change in emphasis it could have easily fitted in as a Pseudopod story, I wonder if then people would be so interested in debating the main character’s point-of-view?

  17. Colin F says:

    I’m surprised at the strength of feeling being expressed here. I thought it was just a clever revenge tale – the double crosser gets double crossed – end of story!

    On reflection, I can see where the perception of bias comes from, but I think the conclusions being drawn are a bit strong. If someone writes a story about, for example, a corrupt police officer it doesn’t follow that the author believes all police are corrupt. In this tale the stay-at-home sister just tailored her revenge to her sister’s particular lifestyle and beliefs to have the maximum impact.

    Well, I enjoyed the story anyway.

  18. Jeff Wikstrom says:

    I have to agree with John. The particular blend of smugness, contempt, and general hatefulness didn’t appeal to me at all.

    I’m a little surprised by the comparison to “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls,” which I really liked, maybe because the narrator came across as so much more morally neutral.

  19. Tim says:

    Another story with two people just talking back and forth. ARGH! It’s a bit frustrating because I don’t want to hear them saying what happened, I want to live it! I mean, wow, the events that did unfold would have been great to see develop, from first conception, to the betrayal, to the final cruel revenge. In other words, if I cared for these two sisters as something other than two talking heads, man would I have loved this story.
    I know, show VS tell, old argument. But, I realized as I got done listening to Travels with my Cats that I liked that story so much because I cared about the character. Imagine how dull it would have been had the main character and some other guy sat across each other in a restaurant while he told the story. It wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact as it did.
    It makes me wonder, though. A story like this is pretty broad and far reaching (had it been shown instead of told) and would have taken a long time to write. Maybe that’s why we have so many talking head stories in Science Fiction, the professional writers don’t have time to sit down and write a long story so, as a short cut, they have two talking heads tell us what the story would have been had they had a few extra hours in the day to write it.
    Just a thought.

  20. Simon says:

    I liked this, well constructed, nicely written, well read and a nice concept piece.

    Need more like this – although maybe a little less self righteous about single mothers.

  21. I think this story is very good. I liked the ending, that cold revenge. Hah! More of that! Very good reading, too. One of my favourites.

  22. Brian Reilly says:

    More misandry.

    Two male characters, both with serious flaws regarding their relationships with women. One, the prof who fires a valuable scientist because (it’s implied) the woman he is sleeping with told him to, and of course he is wrapped around her little finger. Then there is the obligatory absent father. This one hasn’t just left his wife holding the baby (a common enough occurence, to be fair) but left after shagging her sister.

    Not that anyone comes across as good in the story (a schemer with the standard animal-torturing childhood and a murderer) but there is something about this author’s attitudes to us men which really sticks in my throat.

    If this story had not been written by someone with an axe to grind it might have been very entertaining. A realistic attittude to the effect of tech on the people who encounter it which avoids the extremes of utopia and dystopia. A genuinely surprising and shocking ending. Like a hilarious stand-up who turns out to be a racist, this story leaves me with a sense that this author has bags of talent which are unfortunately wasted.

  23. ruthling says:

    Reading the comments here, I am glad, glad, glad that I cut off the story at minute two. I recognized the smug superior attitude of the POV character woman-with-children from “nano” and wasn’t interested in that type of story with my morning workout. Now I know I won’t go back. Thanks guys!

  24. […] I was listening to Escape Pod while driving home this evening. It’s a short science-fiction podcast, and the story was ‘Margin of Error‘. It began with: Paula came back in a blaze of glory. […]

  25. Seainni says:

    Both characters felt pretty cardboard to me, unfortunately, which made the story kind of hard to believe, too.

    And I agree with the person who said the combined with “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (which I did very much enjoy), some kind of creepy attitudes to those who choose not to have children–or even who choose to have children but not be focused on them 24/7–come through.

  26. digit says:

    good story
    great podcast
    keep up the good work

  27. Disgusted says:

    Am I listening to EscapePod or Rush Limbaugh?

    Letsee. Career-minded women are evil vain creatures who’ll steal everything, apparently hate children so much that we’d eat them (If they were on our diet of course because we need to be pretty and vain here) We also apparently covet the husbands of dumpy housewives, who are secretly much smarter than we are. Of course, they know that we secretly really just need to be barefoot and pregnant. Then we’ll understand how brilliant mommies are. In fact, mommy is SO smart that she rapes all the silly vain ‘smart’ women, forcing them into pregnancy or death. It’s a wonder she isn’t up for the Nobel Peace Prize.

    I take it back. Even Limbaugh isn’t quite at one-sided and hateful as this story was.

  28. scatterbrain says:

    A good rift on the Romulus and Remus legend.

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