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EP155: Tideline

2008 Hugo Nominee!

By Elizabeth Bear.
Read by Stephen Eley.

Closing Music: “The Fall” by Red Hunter.

They would have called her salvage, if there were anyone left to salvage her. But she was the last of the war machines, a three-legged oblate teardrop as big as a main battle tank, two big grabs and one fine manipulator folded like a spider’s palps beneath the turreted head that finished her pointed end, her polyceramic armor spiderwebbed like shatterproof glass. Unhelmed by her remote masters, she limped along the beach, dragging one fused limb. She was nearly derelict.

The beach was where she met Belvedere.

Rated PG. Contains implied violence and themes of death.

Referenced Sites:

2008 Hugo Awards

WisCon May 23-26, Madison, WI

Comments (52)

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  1. Storman_Norman says:

    Good story. I thought I was going to hate it at first: here we go again: a robot develops feelings story. Still with a re-hash of 2 common themes: robot / human connection and a carrying a torch for a loved one and a predictable ending, it’s still a solid story. What one should expect from a pro writer, but still a little lackluster for an award nominated story.

  2. L33tminion says:

    Solid, but not as great as I expected, although I loved the premise. It reminded me a lot of Friction, and I really liked that story… but I didn’t like this one as much.

  3. Void Munashii says:

    I will agree with L33tminion that this story does feel a little similar in tone to “Friction”, but it somehow does not seem as heavy. There’s nothing really new in the story, but it is so well written that I am more than willing to forgive that.
    If find it interesting that the story asserts that Chalcedony is only doing what she does because it is in her programming, but it’s almost as if that is an excuse she is telling herself to explain why she is doing something so clearly based on emotion. the whole story is rife with these excuses as to why she is doing things clearly not in her self-interest.

    The only odd things in this story for me, was that Chalcedony kept making me think of Charlotte from “Charlotte’s Web”, but I think that may have largely been due to the voice. Also, physical description at the start of the sotry aside, I kept picturing her as a tachikoma from “Ghost in the Shell”

    I look forward to more Hugo nominees.

  4. V says:

    Ok, I don’t see how a battle bot would have the flexibility of programming to become a beader, but its an interesting concept.

    Cute little postapoalyptica. But nowhere near the depth of Friction. Also, I like Steve’s reading, but I’d like to hear more variety of voices, if possible. Also Flash Mondays (if anyone’s submitting it, argh) might be nice. If that needs more bodies to do it I might be interested….this podcast kep me awake through busywork at my job.

    And actually, just anyone can’t vote in the Hugos. Anyone with $30 – $50 bucks of disposable income can. That’s more credit that food stamps recipients get to live on for a week, if I remember correctly.

    Nowadays, with skyrocketing costs for food and energy, and the wages of low-income Americans (and other I figure) remaining stagnant…that’s actually a luxury for most folks…let alone an attending membership.

    That said, its nice that folks do this.

    But I admit, although I still like reading SF, I’m increasingly disenchanted with fandom…hanging out in hotels listening to folks talk about robots seems rather like fiddling Nero while folks die in food riots….or, this summer, in heat waves.

    Just my 2c. I know, people need distraction. Where’s that Prozac? wry

  5. Sylvan says:

    Unlike previous commenters, I want to say how much I enjoyed this story. I found it interesting to see this artificial lifeform -long after a war has ended- trying to find a purpose within the context of its programming. In the wake of the death of soldiers, it focuses on creating a memoriam and sets about its task in a very logical, systematic fashion.

    The introduction of Belvedere provided not only a foil for Chalcedony to react to, but also to provide a context for her actions. Without saying it, here we see the ideal behind a soldier’s sacrifice for those who do not fight. It isn’t preachy but, rather, elegantly demonstrated.

  6. ryanbeed says:

    I second the (third? fourth?) the comparisons to friction. But in a totally different way. Friction was a stroy that had sweep and depth and for lack of a better word, presence, whereas this story has a lot more personality, a lot less weightiness. That said, good piece, the writing is arresting. There’s something poetic about the prose, and the themes are interesting and topical. It’s interesting to see a post apocalypse story that deals in no way with the world after the apocalypse, just two very isolated characters dealing with it.

    That said I kept thinking that the ‘bot shoudl have just moved around on alternate days or weeks adn recharged those batteries enough for a final push out of the water, but it wasn’t too distracting.

  7. nademagnet says:

    Hi, I’ve been listening for about 30 episodes now, give or take. I figured I would stop lurking now and comment :p

    I like this story. It did not deliver much of an emotional impact, but it did make me smile at the end. The young man, raised by a broken war machine, charged with the task of passing on memories of people he has never met… it really feels like the beginning of a great journey.

    I think this is a good example of a story that serves as a primer for an even better one. It leaves you with the simple question, or questions really. Where will the young man go now? Who will he meet? Will he come across more remnants of the war? The reader is left free to continue the story in any direction they desire.

  8. Void Munashii says:

    @ryanbeed

    I did wonder about why she did not try and find a way off the beach too. surely somewhere along the coastline there was an area where the edge of the beach was flat enough to move inland.

    @nademagnet

    I agree with your last statement. I too would like to see what happened to Belvedere next. As Stephen said, that is a way religions get started.

  9. BadMonkey says:

    I think she stayed on the beach for two reasons.

    1) it was where she was finding the beads.

    2) it was easier for her to move on sand with the bad leg.

    I think there is some mention on this in the first few minutes of the story.

  10. Yicheng says:

    I liked the story, especially the Arthurian twist at the end, although I’m not sure I understand the robot’s motivation to make the beads in the first place. The overly-logical part of me would think that its programming would have defaulted to one of several preset missions: return to base, seek & kill enemies, or shutdown/stand-by to conserve power.

  11. Mari Mitchell says:

    Worthy of many awards.

  12. [...] Escape Pod #155 – Tideline, written by Elizabeth Bear and read by Stephen Eley. [...]

  13. excalibur says:

    A surprisingly emotional and generally good story. This, for me, was an interesting twist on a story type that is usually full of “evil killer robots or deadly cyborgs” yet it did not go Disney with the emotions.

  14. I love that Chalcedony reads Belvadire King Arthur stories alongside Richard Adams and Patrick O’Brian. :) Also, where may I find The Fall in the arrangement in his podcast? I’d happily pay money for it, but Red Hunter’s site wasn’t very clear about what was on each CD, and the MP3 there is not quite the same version as the one here.

  15. TurboFool says:

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one drawing comparisons to Friction. Both stories produced a concept that I’m surprised was new to me: preserving every bit of energy left with a knowledge of how little is available to you. I suppose that really doesn’t exist in humans, as we have very little consciousness toward our energy reserves, which is what makes this so foreign.

    As for the story, I’m torn. I found it overall quite beautiful, although primarily in concept and in moments. I found the robot’s effort to remember and mourn the lives of her team, and her attempts to honor and pass on their memories to anyone who could carry them especially touching. But I still found it hard to grow attached to her. There was something about her “personality” that didn’t endear me. Same with Belvadire who was similarly uninteresting. So it became the story, and not the characters that got me. This is the opposite of what I often love in sci-fi, as authors like Heinlein seem to be able to take a story that goes nowhere and doesn’t stand out and make it deeply enjoyable due entirely to the characters.

    I think the biggest problem I had with Chalcedony is a deep-seated sci-fi background regarding AI. I have difficulty accepting robots having genuine emotions, as it’s normally portrayed as nearly impossible. But Chalcedony seemed, to me, very conflicted in concept, as well. There was talk if liking, loving, being pleased by, etc. So clearly she had some range of emotion. Yet when it came to caring for the boy, too much time was spent discussing her files, protocols, etc. So was she carrying out her actions due to programmed standards, or was she carrying them out due to her AI desires and interests? I suppose there can be a combination in place, but the story seemed to touch on one or the other, and never both. It would have worked better had there been at least one moment where she had to reconcile one against the other, so we could see that this was a genuine form of how she was programmed and not merely an oversight in the writing.

    Still, I enjoyed the story and won’t argue the nomination. But I do hope for better out of the upcoming nominations. Escape Pod has brought me what I believe to have been much better stories that didn’t get nominations, so hopefully the best is yet to come.

    And thanks for the nod in the comments section on this one. It’s a great honor to hear my name permanently cached in the Escape Pod library.

  16. Dan Paddock says:

    I really enjoyed this story. It didn’t level me to a quivering emotional jelly, like Mike Reznick tends to do, but it really hit on my deep seeded love for the soldier-as-steward theme. It’s the same reason I tend to tear up frequently while watching Battlestar and why I am nearly non-functional any time I see that picture of the soldier in Iraq, in full battle gear, petting the kitten.

    I am a sucker for stories that remind us of the people who give themselves and sometimes their lives to protect others. And if you throw in the devotion to preserving the memory of fallen comrades, I am nearly helpless to resist.

    On the topic of AI and emotions: I think it possible that a sufficiently advanced AI could achieve some true emotionality as long as it had some fundamental directives. Such directives, regardless of the actual directive itself, if enforced strongly enough in the programming could give rise to any number of emotions. In fact, if an AI doesn’t feel in relation to its directives, it may not be nearly as effective at achieving them as another AI who does.

  17. Eric says:

    Needed more depth…
    or explosions and monsters.

  18. Daniel Cotton says:

    Friction is my favourite EP so far. Listening to this story I never thought to compare the two. Only after reading the comments did I see the simularities. I guess the reason for that was I was focussed on the ‘robot as intelligent being’ aspect of the story. The journey of the story was fine and it is well written but I found it to be one paced.

    After hearing Steve say that Stephen Baxter’s nomination won’t be cast I went and read it (The links are easy to follow). I found it to be an excellent story best described as “Bradburyesque”. I look forward to hearing the other Hugo nominees to see if they compare to Baxter’s work.

  19. dreaminguy says:

    Good story! I love Friction very much~

  20. Savanni says:

    This is the first story in a very long time that has moved me to tears.

  21. scatterbrain says:

    It takes simple stories to be good stories.

  22. J says:

    I like sad stories with sad endings. Without them, the happy ones are meaningless. Without them, you know automatically that the hero is going to survive and save the day. It robs the story of any tension because that’s what always happens, and you come to expect it.

    That’s modern mainstream entertainment, a sea of empty Hollywood endings because no one wants to risk depressing the audience. So when a story like this comes along, it glitters like a tear in the moonlight. It cheers me up by inspiring me to feel sad, by reminding me that fiction can still do that. It breaks from the depressing monotony of marketable cheer, and gives back some meaning to the few genuinely happy stories out there. That’s why i respect Escape Pod.

    Ah well, at least i will eventually die, along with everyone i love. Everything i know will corrode away to dust, my species will go extinct, my planet will be consumed by it’s sun before that too dies and goes cold. Then it’s just a short eternity’s worth of entropy before the rest of the universe settles down the same way. It doesn’t make Enterprise any more watchable, but it keeps me going.

  23. Sushma says:

    I saw the ending miles away. But the characters were so well drawn and the unfolding of the story was so pleasurable, it did not matter that you could predict the plot. It was like listening to myths or fairytales, you know exactly what will happen but you still want to see how it does happen.

  24. Evo Shandor says:

    In addition to mature themes warnings at the top of a podcast, I would appreciate a “You will be bawling your eyes out by the end” warning. I must have been quite a sight — male, 34, goatee, shaved head, tall — to my fellow bus riders with tears running down my face.

    I guess having a dog in distress, and something willing to sacrifice its own well-being to tend to it, will always get me. I enjoyed this story’s exploration of a number of themes: friendship, sacrifice, honor, and honoring the dead.

    A criticism I have that I do not see here is should Chalcedony been conflicted about killing the two boys who attacked Belvedere? Granted, she saw them as enemies, but could she have developed past her base programming to understand they might have been as desperate as Belvedere? Could she, instead of killing them, tried to add them to her “platoon”?

    Otherwise, very evocative story.

  25. debergop says:

    I really enjoyed this story. Others have already highlighted various aspects of the story. For me, stands as a good reason for published authors to continue writing short stories. I started and didn’t care much for one Elizabeth Bear novel, but this story is really well written and makes me more open to giving some of her longer work another look.

  26. kolibri says:

    Yep yep, cried in the end. In the bus. Thanks, Steve… (no seriously, actually, I love crying)

    Yeah, it was predictable – I mean Chalcedony said as much herself, she knew what would happen. But it’s not often about what as it is about how. As for AIs and emotions – I though she didn’t go beyond her programming in any way. She was programmed to care about humans and obey and protect her own. Making of the memorial necklaces was clearly part of her functionality, and getting Belvedere to spread them out was just part of that. In the same that way she had been programmed honor the dead enemies and had to bury them, no choice.

    Didn’t change the fact that I bawed my eyes out in the end. Fantastic story.

  27. Connor Moran says:

    I also thought of Friction while listening to this story–it hit the same kind of aching beauty buttons. I think similarity of tone comes from the fact that both are stories about very alien creatures with very alien problems and needs that take alien forms. But underlying those needs is are very human desires. Whether that desire is to honor a fallen comrade, to know everything there is to know, or to give an offspring a chance at immortality. These are needs that we can imagine, but that rarely become the organizing principles of human lives the way they can for these alien creatures. It gives us a chance to imagine living exclusively on a higher part of Maslow’s Heirarchy. For a human it’s just not possible to devote every finite piece of one’s life to one’s children or to remembering comrades or to learning. Too many lower level needs get in the way. Yet as a romantic vision, it’s perfect. The added element of a character perfectly aware of how finite the resources they are devoting are makes the whole thing even more bittersweet.

    For me, this isn’t a story of an AI becoming human, it’s a story of an AI that, while very different from humans, lives a way that humans wish we could.

  28. Blaine Boy says:

    It’s a truly touching story. You think of any other army story and you probably won’t get something this good. (Except in Halo, sorry guys I had to throw that in there.) If this is one of the Hugo Nominees I want to see what else you guys have. The others writers already have some stiff competition from Ms. Bear here. The ending of course is predictable, I mean it was being predicted the whole time by Chalcedony. Although, I do like to think that somehow she was saved by Belvedere, like he got her processor and memory and all that crap out or whatever. I love the image of Belvedere as this post-apocalyptic knight saving everyone with his hero dog, kinda like Return to Thunderdome.

  29. Rindan says:

    I think people are missing the point. The battlebot didn’t have “emotions”. It had a set of fuzzy directives that led it coming up with the seemingly insane task of spending its remaining days making memorial necklaces. The seemingly pointlessness of the tasks isn’t proof of emotion, but instead proof of an alien logic. I have lots of emotions, but I am pretty sure making necklaces for fallen comrades would rate roughly last on my list of things to do if I ever found myself wounded on a post-apocalyptic beach.

    If there is some science fiction statement to take away from this story, I would take away an appreciate for the potentially alien nature of an AI. Heart warming as it was, the AI came up with an insane task out of a few general directives about obeying and protecting humans. This isn’t a story about a robot that found a heart. This has more in common with stories that find fun ways to make the three rules of robotics create out evil robots of d00m than it does with bad robot films staring Robin Williams.

  30. Gary H says:

    I just love this time of year on Escapepod. Loved the story. It took me out of my world, into another, then made me think, made me smile, made me sad, and gave me hope.

  31. V says:

    I second TurboFool vis a vis robos with emotions…
    Although I also admit I’m a person who has broken my own rule for Commander Data.

  32. hawthorne says:

    all my compliments for this story could not fit in a comment and would probably end up crashing the EP server with their sheer amount.

    So I will some up

    WOW

  33. Synergy says:

    It was fun to listen to. I teared up at the end.

  34. fishyswaz says:

    It was a nice story (which is either a compliment or not depending on what you feel about “nice”). Heartwarming, but not memorably so.

    The setting resonated with me a bit as I had just taken my daughters to the beach to search for seashells a couple days earlier. It’s an interesting environment that has a fascination and melancholy all its own.

  35. Vaporlock says:

    I agree with Rindan’s comment @ #29.

    BTW this story is great, I loved it.

  36. kevinea says:

    I really liked this story. It seemed to me an exploration on what is important in one’s legacy to the world, but from the perspective of a logical thinking machine whose emotions are just dawning on it. The ending was poignant and, as Steve observed, in just the right place. It was really well written too. Definitely worthy of a Hugo nomination! I can’t wait to hear the others.

  37. Audita Sum says:

    I liked the originality and weirdness of this story. I didn’t mind that it wasn’t as depthy as “Friction.” Deep philosophy isn’t what I usually like in a story anyway.

  38. Thank you, Rindan, for saying what I wanted to say better than I would have said it.

    Aside from that, enjoyable story. Steve is a great narrator.

  39. Alex says:

    I too didn’t see a comparison to friction until the comments here pointed it out. I think they were right on. But were as this story struck me as being about a sick and dying main character, friction (my favorite story thus far) was about much more than that. I thought that the selfish quest for wisdom , and the achievement of that wisdom through selflessness had much greater emotional impact than the “creation of a living memorial” that Chalcedony achieved. I really just had one question.
    Do you think here platoon was really good and noble or she was just programed to view them that way? And if that distinction had been made in the story, would it have had made a different statement about myth making?

  40. [...] You can hear it read on Escape Pod. [...]

  41. Ben Longman says:

    Interesting. If I view Escape Pod as an RSS feed, this entry links to Starship Sofa instead of the podcast itself. Interesting.

  42. [...] May 29, 2008 Listen to it at Escape Pod. [...]

  43. Francis Burdett says:

    Sad evocative post-Apocalyptic story from Ms Elizabeth Bear I just listened to in this download of “Escape Pod” from iTunes.

    That story was not of course “Tideline” but evidently “And the Deep Blue Sea”.

    At first I thought Mr Ely was having a guest presenter in the guise of some North of England Bloke.

    Then I gave a moments thought that “Escape Pod” had been “hijacked” by “Starship Sofa”.

    I now assume it was some iTunes screwup.

    To hear “Tideline” I will have to listen directly from the website, which is not my want, but there you go.

    I wonder which I’ll prefer.

  44. Steven says:

    Thanks to the iTunes mixup, I’m now a fan of Starship Sofa. Plus, the Elizabeth Bear story was pretty good and well-read by Amy Sturgis. But funny how it grabbed another Bear story from a different podcast. I haven’t been able to track down that episode on the Starship Sofa site.

  45. Peter says:

    I can’t stand the Starship Sofa presenter (he’s barely comprehensible, not even that lot of time). But I loved “And the Deep Blue Sea”.

    It was… interesting reading these comments and knowing that something is off, but not knowing what exactly ;-)

  46. Changwa Steve says:

    Here’s another one I really liked. The robot is the only being left that remembers the rules and standards of civilized life, which she passes on as a kind of reconstructed chivalry to her adopted human son. Not only is this a touching idea, it actually dovetails pretty nicely with the historical role of chivalry in medieval europe. Awesome story.

  47. [...] “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear (read by Stephen Eley) is the first of Escape Pod’s run of Hugo-nominated short stories for 2008. It’s a tale of a worn-out war machine carrying out its final task. Such is the obsessive programming of this mechanical intelligence, its final task is to honor its fellow platoon members—all dead—by collecting gemstones and other glittery or interesting objects from the beach in order to make commemorative necklaces. But there’s someone else on the beach, watching, and curious to know what this robot is up to. The idea of a fighting machine so dedicated to its comrades-in-arms is fascinating, and this story explores how such an intelligence might see farther than its immediate programming. [...]

  48. Jeremy says:

    This won the 2008 Hugo for Best Short Story.

  49. Andy says:

    I’ll echo what Peter said… The Deep Blue Sea was really well done, and as someone who’s ridden a “Connie” across the desert, it was easy to imagine myself there, sweating in the leather.

    Wonderful mistake. I’ll have to find the actual story…

  50. [...] of unfamiliar names and titles. That is, until I came across the Best Short Story category. “Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear was a story most familiar to me as a remarkable episode of Escape Pod from a [...]

  51. [...] up was Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline. It’s about death and mourning and new life. And a robot and a kid. Chalcedony is the last of [...]

  52. [...] just finished listening to a great Escape Pod podcast about the Hugo award nominee. I HIGHLY recommend you give it a [...]