EP144: Friction

By Will McIntosh.
Read by Stephen Eley.
First appeared in Albedo One #30.
Discuss on our forums.
All stories by Will McIntosh.
All stories read by Steve Eley.
Closing music: “Blue Genes” by George Hrab.

Gruen was on the sixty-first master, and while his wisdom had
grown steadily, he had worn very little. He was incredibly
well-preserved–the palms of his three-fingered hands still sported the
deep, swirling ridges that had worn to nothing in most people before
they’d lived thirty years. Indeed, all of the myriad folds and ridges
in his thick maroon skin were for the most part intact. His eyes were
still housed in tight sockets, surrounded by thickly-ridged cheeks.
Besides the feet, the eyes were the greatest point of weakness for those
who aspired to read the works of the masters. Ceaseless up-and-down eye
movement caused the sockets to wear out, and eventually the reader’s
eyes fell out. At that point they were forced to trace the carved words
with their fingers. Friction quickly took its toll on the hands;
readers rarely made it through one master’s teachings this way before
their hands were ground to the wrist, and they were finished.

Rated PG.

Referenced Sites:
Nawashi, a podcast novel by Graydancer

Comments (60)

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  1. Robert says:

    Loved this story. Beautiful, simple concept wonderfully executed (and read).

    This is a great example of the kind of SF that works best in short stories. Worked out to book length the constant references to friction would no doubt grate, but in this story they slid easily by.

    (Sorry for that last sentence, couldn’t resist…).

  2. Oliver says:

    Favorite EP so far!

  3. l.m.orchard says:

    This one definitely ranks up there in my favorites with Cinderella Suicide and The House Beyond Your Sky.

    At first I was thinking that the friction and sand connection was so obvious – but it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be so without a particularly scientific civilization, or at least a lot of insight. Bodies just rub away – why should they instead turn to dust?

    I wonder if the next pligrim down the line might realize that the sand – ironically made from themselves – contributes much to friction? I half expected the pilgrim to drag Western along with him for his lubricated trail, but he had too much decency for that.

  4. windyforrest says:

    this has to be one of my favoite escapepods. I lisented to it twice to let it sink in. i think westerns race was very intlligent, i don’t its realitic that they could gain nothing from each other. but mayby they did learn something about where the desert comes from and perhaps laern something more.

  5. DaveNJ says:

    I’ve been listening to Escape Pod since the early teens and this may be the best episode of EP I’ve heard yet. McIntosh’s story is an example of everything good Sci-Fi is: it takes a brilliant, original concept (the idea of “friction”), places it in a semi-realistic location (the planet and the desert are described well enough to seem real to the reader), and then uses it as a metaphor for our own lives. So much of this story resonates with human existence, but never blatantly or with a heavy hand. “Friction” manages to combine many of the best aspects of good Sci-Fi (and good writing in general) to create a poignant, interesting, and deep tale about existence itself.

    Bravo, Will.

  6. Synergy says:

    Hmm, well, I need to think about this for a while. It was a good story, but I knew what western meant. I was kind of expecting Gruen would have told the etcher to write THE END.

  7. Mark in St. Louis says:

    Loved this story, although I’ll admit that the first thing I thought Gruen might have had etched was, to quote Ted “Theodore” Logan, “All we are is dust in the wind, dude!”

  8. AnneC says:

    This story was probably the most hauntingly beautiful thing I’ve ever heard on Escape Pod. I think stories of this length definitely work best when only a few characters take center stage — sometimes I think authors try to cram in too many personalities when they write short fiction, and in those cases it’s a lot harder to really get to know any of them. And that didn’t happen in this case.

    All in all, wonderful. A+

  9. Daniel Cotton says:

    This is a wonderful story. I listened to it whilst walking in the park at sunset.

    At first I thought that I couldn’t really add anything to the discussion but no one has yet mentioned the story as a metaphor for the increased education required in scientific study in our world.

    To be able to contribute the main character had to spend his whole life studying the knowledge amassed by his race. And when he added his knowledge it was in a way that none of the uneducated could understand.

    The story works on many levels I just thought this one was worth mentioning.

  10. Shoshannah says:

    Loved it!
    (I have nothing intelligent to add to what everypne wrote)

  11. iain says:

    Amazing story, well written and thought provoking.

  12. Amory Lowe says:

    So make a long story short, this episode was simply amazing.

    To create a world with a truly unique idea of how the inhabitants on it live is really hard to do, and McIntosh managed to pull it off without a single hitch or moment of disbelief.

    Bravo Will, Bravo!

  13. Shane says:

    absolute favorite story in a long long time. DaveNJ is right on. I beg you, more stories like this one.

  14. This story reminds me of a short story I read some time ago called “The Folk” I cant even remember who wrote it so if anyone knows please post.
    I was late to the podcast party. However it didnt take me long to discover escape pod. Ive since backtracked and listened to just about every episode and I think this is my favorite. I love the out of the box style of thinking. Thrust into a world with no explanations and none necessary. I think we often become so self involved in our writing as a people that it can choke the message.
    These creatures had two different goals and two different sacrifices they were willing to make, both ending in death. Thats love baby. Dust to dust everything is everything.

    A long winded first post.

    Well done.

  15. Connor Moran says:

    Chalk up another vote for “Best Escape Pod Ever.” I mean, wow. Really wow.

  16. mumblebear says:

    A wonderful, well-paced story set in a fresh and interesting world. I’ve listened to it three times and will probably listen again before I go to sleep tonight. I loved how the story asks us to consider the things we spend our lives on, and I also enjoyed the simple wisdom that Western brought to the encounter.

  17. Void Munashii says:

    This was a very unusual episode, in my opinion. By all counts it should have been boring; no explosions, or gun battles. or sex. There wasn’t even any cursing or robots. Instead there was this deep story that was at the same time reasonably uneventful, but also intensely riveting.

    I’m not ready to throw in a vote for “best episode ever”, but it may well be the deepest one. What could easily have been slower plodding train wreck of a story in the hands of a lesser writer instead had me hoping Gruen would succeed in his goal, marveling at the wisdom he gained from Western as opposed to what he gained from the masters, and feeling sorrow at Gruen’s loss of his friend/mount.

    I agree with all of the other requests for more like this. This episode should definitely become a classic.

  18. Gulliver says:

    I’ve been listening to ESCAPE POD since episode #61 and have only shed tears as a result once before (“Barnaby in Exile”) … “Friction” touched me deeply, deeply, and inspired me to reevaluate my priorities in life. Can a work of fiction do more than that?

  19. Namelis1 says:

    Score! Just awesome. Pure awesome.

  20. Yeah, this one was great! Very alien, yet funny, and touching.

  21. In one sense, yes, “very alien”.

    However, in another sense, not. I’m probably only thinking of this because of the timing of this particular episode, but here it is:

    Those of you who don’t observe the Western Christian liturgical calendar may not have noticed that last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday. Those of you who do, though, probably attended a service in which these words or a close variation thereof were spoken to you up close and personal:

    Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return

    I half-expected the 138th master to have those words inscribed on the wall.

  22. Capn Trips says:

    Brilliant story. Really enjoyed the other-worldly feeling and the twist toward the end, as well as Gruen’s questioning of what he was doing. Although the constant use of the word Friction really got on my nerves after a while.

  23. Rich says:

    never posted here before, just a great story. Simply written, superbly executed

  24. mfmjos says:

    Was I the only one yelling “It’s people!”?

  25. Gary H says:

    This story is the reason we have the Sci-Fi genre. As soon as my 12 yr old finishes Ender’s Game, she’s listening to this.

  26. Nicole says:

    My favorite Escape Pod story ever! Aside from being so relevant–it inspired me to rethink my life’s priorities–it was a pleasure to listen to throughout.

    I’ve never posted here before either, just had to add my applause for this wonderful story.

  27. Phill says:

    I have been listening to Escapepod since it began, and this, simply put, is my favourite story hands down.

    Classic sci-fi in the style of the greats.

    Thankyou so much

  28. I did like this story, though not nearly as much as so many other posters. I thought it was a simple concept, well executed, but saw no great complexities for further perusal. The story was what it was, self-contained, mildly thought provoking, and interestingly writen. There seem no more implications in this story than in any basic meditation, only that this story was well in harmony with such thoughts. As I wrote before, well executed, but I prefer more grist in my mill.

  29. chornbe says:

    What a well-done story, in every day. Life that is completely different than Human, yet with understandable behaviors and properties. I love the idea that writers aren’t afraid to take a different view of Life some times. Very good. And the notion of life expectancies being so very different for various species.

    Oh, and hey… just plain old good story telling to boot. And Steve, as always, your narration was spot on!

  30. planetheidi says:

    Okay, this is what science fiction is about. I know this is a story that I’ll listen to over and over again. One of the best Escape Pods evar!

  31. Hawthorne says:

    I thought the concept and story was amazing even if the end was a little predictable. It is still a really beautiful piece of writing.

    I do agree with “thegodwaffler” the story was a little simplistic, although it think in this piece it was necessary. A lot of sifi is about the tech or the worlds or the races them selves, and thus requires a good amount of detail. However in a story like this one, which is about the individual, i believe this simplicity was essential to convey the natures and beliefs of this being.

    Great job excellent story

  32. Motti says:

    Excellent story!

    I just wanted to point out two thoughts I had.

    1. Did anyone else think that the 110th master (the preachy one) was suspiciously reminiscent of Ecclesiastes (“.. This too is vanity and striving after wind”, “Vanity of vanities all is vanity”).

    2. I see Western as a Zen master with a throwaway phrase that can only be appreciated by the enlightened.

    Again thanks for a great story.

  33. Merike says:

    The first episode I’ve listened to that I can’t stop thinking about. Thoughts go off on so many tangents, on so many levels. First episode that has prompted me to comment, here as well as on Ravelry. Thanks.

  34. Mike says:

    I concur: best Escape Pod episode in a very long time. It’s right up there with “Cinderella Suicide”. Speaking of which, why haven’t we heard more from Samantha Henderson?

    This story rewound my jaded brain back to the Golden Age of thirteen and made me see the universe anew again.

    Steve, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to buy more stories like this. It was intelligent, well-imagined, delightfully strange, and that magic combination of both thought-provoking and entertaining.

  35. Zytheran says:

    I have been listening to Escape Pod since before my first toes wore down and this is the best story to date. It conveyed big time fantastically.

  36. JulioTijuana says:

    I could see reflected on the tragedies of the two main characters many of my family’s sad events.

    This is a story that I felt very close.

    My new favorite definitely.

  37. Kord says:

    I thought this story had real depth to it, yet didn’t beat the reader over the head with its questions. I very much liked the literal problem of friction for the main character – that he was in danger of wearing himself away before achieving his goal, therefore having to avoid mundane tasks and normal daily life. The relationship between philosopher and the creature carrying him on his back was nicely done, and provided a couple of moments of profound, but subtle, emotion. Of course, there are resonances here for all of us – not least the writers amongst us, i.e. how much do we avoid real life in the belief that art must come first.

    The only criticism I have is that perhaps it was a little too long for what is essentially a linear story. There are no great surprises or twists in this tale, and the final frustration of the philosopher with the material he’s been reading all his life was predictable – which is okay, but because we could see it coming, perhaps it could have come sooner. Also, the relationship he reluctantly goes into was pretty much forced on him, not really putting him in a position to have to make a difficult choice. It might have increased the moral conflict if the proposed relationship was something he actually wanted.

    But overall, this is a real achievement in that it’s quite a long story, and mostly based in philosophical concerns rather than material ones, yet is for the most part very gripping.

  38. Another vote for favorite episode.

  39. foshizzle says:

    Loved. I actually liked the pace of the story and the fact that Gruen did not skip the 110th master because people were watching him was my favorite part. It was very thought provoking without being preachy or in-your-face. And yes, I did think of “Soylent Green”.

  40. Jim Cox says:

    Definitely one of my favorites – it has the depth and flavor of SF:TOS (Science Fiction : The Original Stories) – it’s an instant classic.

  41. Pete Aldin says:

    A moving and engaging piece of art. Thank you for bringing that to us!

  42. Mitch says:

    Very very good story – one of EP’s best!

    The atmosphere reminded me of Dune – the unrelenting focus on friction and how it rules every action in life was like Dune’s focus on water. A deep obsession that dictated every last move and thought… very nice!

    Very good character development!

    The ending, though, was depressing in a way. The highest, loftiest thought from a student of an entire race’s wisdom concludes with a statment so obvious to Western’s people that it’s a throw-away statment. Even a day-old slug child would know it.

    The “life’s work” and the importance thereof also reinforced some negative biases I have about most college professors. 🙂

    Keep ’em comming!

  43. AmberBug says:

    Moving. Wonderful. This made me stop dead still in the middle of my day and go “huh”. This writer neds to write more. This story moved me deeply. Thank you!

  44. AmazingSteve says:

    Just wanted to add to the chorus of people who loved this story.

  45. I’ve been reading science fiction for close to a half-century, from the era of Asimov and Heinlein on through with Scott Card, and many, many others. I just finished listening this short story, and I must say it was the most innovative, compelling, engaging and out of the box story I can recall reading/hearing….well, truth be told, EVER.

    And on top of it’s innovativeness and out-of-the-boxness, I found it touching and poignant to the point of bringing tears to my eyes. I’ve just shared in my daughter’s 16th birthday celebration and so the character’s willingness to go to any length to assure his daughter’s existence was recognized… Well, it leaves me speechless, or at least nearly so.

    One other point I noticed — Gruen spent his entire life reading the wisdom of the Masters and yet his greatest insights came while away from the wall and having his own experience and learning from another first hand. So, the moral of the story — don’t get too stuck in book knowledge. Go out and learn from our experiences.

    Great work. I look forward to reading more of this author’s stories in the near future.

  46. scatterbrain says:

    Desevres the Hugo!

    So deep and symbolic; my favourite Escape pod.

  47. csrster says:

    This is my first episode of Escape Pod. Are they all this good? 🙂

  48. Bluedarky says:

    I’ve recently started listening to Escape Pod and have listened to most of the stories from EP117, but this is the first that called me to actually comment.
    The story shows that although Gruen had the collected knowledge of his entire race, the only knowledge he thought worth recording was that of a race he at first deemed inferior, showing that although Gruen’s race had an impressive display of knowledge, it was the knowledge he gained from his time with Western that he considered to be the most important to him.

    A lengthy first post but that’s my view.

  49. The Office Troll says:

    Absolutely amazing. I have made copies of this for many friends who do not subscribe & they have all appreciated it greatly.

  50. Pops says:

    Pretty good. Thank you.

  51. David Phillip Oster says:

    “What happens if you don’t finish?”

    “I’m stumped.”

  52. Gaudio says:

    David Phillip Oster’s post = rofl!

  53. […] June 2, 2008 Listen to it at Escape Pod. […]

  54. Brent says:

    Excellent story! The thing I like best about it is the sheer number of interesting ideas you get out of it. The setting draws you in but it the story has a real philosophical side that you can take many different paths down. This reminds me of the great Sci-Fi novels I have read that not only tell a compelling narrative but also raise philosophical insights that are relevant regardless of the setting and era.

  55. […] fiction podcasts. Very useful when hands are otherwise occupied. The following caught my ear, Friction, by Will McIntosh, a beautifully imagined and carefully paced short […]

  56. […] “Friction” by Will McIntosh (read by Stephen Eley), an alien priest spends his whole life reading […]

  57. […] September 2008) was both entertaining and thought provoking, and his profound, finely crafted “Friction” (heard over at Escape Pod) is one of my favorite SF stories ever. In “Bridesicle,” he […]

  58. […] story is Friction by Will McIntosh and you can hear it read by Stephen Eley as part of the Escape Pod […]