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EP158: Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?

2008 Hugo Nominee!

By Ken MacLeod.
Read by Stephen Eley.

First appeared in The New Space Opera, ed. Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan.

When you’re as old as I am, you’ll find your memory’s not what it was. It’s not that you lose memories. That hasn’t happened to me or anyone else since the Paleocosmic Era, the Old Space Age, when people lived in caves on the Moon. My trouble is that I’ve gained memories, and I don’t know which of them are real. I was very casual about memory storage back then, I seem to recall. This could happen to you too, if you’re not careful. So be warned. Do as I say, not as I did.

Some of the tales about me contradict each other, or couldn’t possibly have happened, because that’s how I told them in the first place. Others I blame on the writers and tellers. They make things up. I’ve never done that. If I’ve told stories that couldn’t be true, it’s because that’s how I remember them.

Here’s one.

Rated R. Contains profanity, nudity, and in flagrante delicto.

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2008 Hugo Awards

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Comments (32)

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  1. DaveNJ says:

    This is definitely my favorite of the Hugo nominees. The idea of new, powerful technology proliferating into poor, disorganized societies is such an interesting and current topic, and is told so well by McLeod. Terrific storytelling as well.

  2. wintermute says:

    Without having heard the story, my guess is “Benjamin Sisko”.

  3. Stuart Moore says:

    Steve, it’s not pronounced ‘Edinberg’, it’s ‘Edinburrur’.

    Thanks for giving me a laugh!

  4. epilonious says:

    Another little language nitpick:

    It’s “coo deh grahs” not “coo deh grah”

    Gras (grah) is French for fat/grease… so “coo deh grah” could be roughly translated as “blow of fat”, or as I like to call it, “the fat smack”.

    Grace (grahs) is French for Grace/Mercy… but the ‘c’ tends to get dropped because, well, it’s a French word with an ending ‘sss’ sound.. and people aren’t used to those.

    Otherwise, I loved this story, and I like the progression

  5. Stuart Dewar says:

    Steve, did I really hear you say ‘Edinberg’? You did, didn’t you? Even ‘Edinburrow’ is better than that (if not by much).

  6. Dan says:

    @epilonious I’m not so sure, the english venacliar seems to have moved to the “coo deh grah” pronunciation. I’ve never heard anyone actually say coup de grace while maintaining the original pronunciation.

    Just like no one says “creh-pe” for crepe they say “cray-pe”

    Similarly windows vista is pronounced “vhi-sta” not “vee-sta” no matter how many times you tell me it’s a spanish word.

    Laissez-tomber, laissez-faire autrement cela m’ennui :)

  7. BadMonkey says:

    Is this really the best the world of SF can offer. None of these stories do anything for me. We’ve heard much better stuff on EP this year than these choices.

    Maybe EP needs an award…

  8. Daniel Cotton says:

    Maybe I’ve read too much Asimov, E.E. Doc Smith, etcetera but I really liked this one. I still prefer Baxter’s story as far as the Hugo Nominees go but this is definitely my favourite EP for a while.

    My only complaint is that the detail in the second half of the story didn’t match that in the first.

    But there was much more good than bad. The use of the phrase ‘The Moon’s primary,’ was especially evocative and the little aside on Astronomical Units was clever. I also liked the long tube transport system, presumably it works like a rail gun, but for some reason it never occurred to me to use one on that scale.

    Everything else has been said.

    I’ve heard people say (phonetic) ‘Cou de grace’ and when I see it in writing it’s usually italicised to indicate that it’s French, if it’s written like that then it definitely needs the French pronunciation, otherwise there is more room for debate.

  9. iain says:

    Ok, so I was grocery shopping while I listened to this story, but still – I had a hard time paying attention to what was going on, this story didn’t really grab my attention; pique my interest. I wouldn’t have this pity review of the story, but for Steve’s comment at the end that, historically, conquerors have conquered because they are bored. Hmm… I don’t agree. Lust for land, money, game, women, men, power, oil, religion, pride, shame etc. are all plausible motivators for the uncertain conqueror, I doubt boredom is one of them. I could be wrong – examples? All of which is to say, I do love escape pod, and Steve’s commentary – I look forward to new installments of both every week. Love,
    iain

  10. scatterbrain says:

    This was good, but I’m still sick of all these cosy “Powerful AIs floating around space” pseudo-hard science fiction situations.

    It feels like I’m trapped in an Orion’s Arm nightmare…

  11. Gary H says:

    I like the idea of the story, and would probably really enjoy the full length novel version. The meat of the story was what happened in the last quarter, but all the good description and writing were in the first three-quarters. I like the “space opera” aspects, but had to listen to the ending twice to really understand what was happening. It spend up too much at the end.

    But it has stuck with for a few days, including a busy weekend. It was fun and did give me plenty of food for thought.

  12. Ogion The Silent says:

    I loved the moral ambiguity of this story. Was the “Rise of the Empire” a good thing or a bad thing? MacLeod leaves it up to us to imagine the possibilities, rather than hitting us over the head with them.

    Am I alone in finding parallels between this story and the “Culture” Galaxy of MacLeod’s neighbour Iain M. Banks? It’s the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove style of diplomacy hinted at towards the end of the story that is so reminiscent of The Culture way of doing things.

  13. tim callender (babylonpodcast) says:

    I’m a huge fan of Space Opera (“Doc” Smith from an early age!) and, like others have mentioned, I liked the first two-thirds better than the last.

    I liked the character’s reaction to finding himself on an actual planet. His abhorrance of such a place befits an individual who has spent his entire life within artificial habitats.

    It makes me wonder if this story would have been more effective as a novel. MacLeod could have stretched his narrative and given an account of the rise of the Wolf 359 interstellar empire and how it personally affected the main character.

    Additionally, I found the use of “The Moon’s Primary” to be a bit too precious. I came to understand the word “Earth” was taboo because of the horror that word evoked amongst the denizens of the civilized worlds. However, in our own time, nobody refers to the town in Poland about 50 kilometers west of Kraków; they refer to Auschwitz. That single word invokes everything one needs to know.

  14. The story has some fun detail, no plot and abysmal pacing. MacLeod can do much better!

  15. Sushma says:

    Myeah!

    I didn’t really care too much for this story. It spent too much time up front, and then sort of rushed through at the end.

    Plus the whole narrative of third world types being destroyed by first world technology is soooo 19th century, and boring.

  16. BadMonkey says:

    I had the chance to re-listen to the story while in line at the DMV. I’ve decided that there was a seed of a great and epic story in this podcast. Something worth naturing and caring for.That this short could be grown into something much bigger, and even epic in scope. I now officially like this story.
    The DMV is much like sub-light travel between planets — too slow. Thanks to EP for making it easier to endure.

    Keeping the “chatter” at the end of the podcast is great!

  17. Delysid says:

    As my son would say before he mastered the phoneme /l/: “I yike this one yots!” Indeed. Yots & yots.

    The compressed yet epic sweep into deep post-Earth future history had a similar feel, though very different content, to the Cory Doctorow/Ben Rosenstein (may have Ben’s surname wrong) co-written novella “True Names”, recently read by the authors on Doctorow’s personal craphound.org podcast.

    I like that kind of really mind-expanding biiiiiig-picture imagining of the far future in stories. I also like how in this story, Ken MacLeod does a neat temporal wrap-around by taking us through the far future straight into a reborn primeval earth.

    But I agree with the previous comment(s) that the tale’s brevity left me wanting much more expansion of this fascinating notion. The portion of the story from the fast clipper ship’s landing on neoEarth to the rise of the Empire could easily grow from the few paragraphs it takes in this version to a whole novel.

  18. Delysid says:

    Oh yeah, one more thing I really liked in this story — as we learn more & more about subatomic & cosmological physics, the prospect of interstellar travel seems less & less possible due to the fundamental nature of space & time.

    So I very much appreciate richly imagined methods of interstellar travel that manage to be plausible anyway, such as that presented by Ken MacLeod in this tale.

  19. Mikejd says:

    Really like the story. Though as others have said the ending came in a rush, and I quite honestly don’t think I got the full point of the story, might need to listen to it again. Maybe Steven can comment on some people’s ideas.

    Fun though, my favorite of the Hugos.

  20. wez says:

    constructive criticism helps make better writers – however, not being so critical about the issues mentioned, i discovered a story that i really loved.

    i have my ideas and interpretations, more than likely different than yours, but that’s what makes fiction so great!

  21. Mayhos says:

    I’m a new listener to escape pod and I like what I’m hearing.

    This is the first comment on any of my podcasts I listen to. My grueling commute is thru 42 stoplighs on a thirty mile stretch. Escape pod is a weekly audio treat I savor on rainy or otherwise dreary days.

    Steve,
    Because traffic and times change, I definitely prefer the new set-up with the ‘story-first’ approach. I’ll still listen to any clips or info at the end of the podcast, but I don’t like feeling captive in my garage just to finish the story due to an overly lone preface. I enjoy your commentary, and I’ll gladly listen to it, but it’s obviously not what I subscribe for. Thanks for the understanding.

    My opinion on this story is mixed. I think there was a ton of extremely interesting tangents unexplored which made the story seem cramped. This could easily have more in-depth aspects. There really wasn’t any character development, so much as we follow this guy who’s tossed through the universe, only to find corporate BS evrywhere. The only triumph on this point is that he had the balls to throw some stones back at “the man.”

    I like the reversal of primitive experiments overthrowing their oppressive civilized corp-mongers. It’s kinda like Ewoks overthrowing stormtroopers on Endor with help from the rebels to save the galaxy. Seem familiar, or am I too much of a geek?

    I didn’t dislike the story, but I did enjoy previous stories more. I think this one needs more character development, like a sinister face for the corporation to bring it home.

    Just my rusty 2¢…

  22. V says:

    Loved the hard science, less so the social science.

    But you’ve introduced me to an author I’d like to read more of, I’ll say that.

    This felt rushed, trimmed somehow, very much like part of a larger work. I don’t think I can judge it fairly as a result; the background of the narrator was interesting and important to the story, but we didn’t get very much; unless that was intentional (for some reason the song “Sympathy for the Devil” kicks off in my mind) that’s something that can use some improvement here. The opening reminded me very much of Baron Munchausen’s tall tales.

    Several features of the setting also recall Glasshouse by Charles Stross, minus the gender play of course.

  23. V says:

    Separate comment to weigh in on changes to intro: Yes, that’s a good idea. When listening to a story again, I often want to skip over any intros to just get to the meat of it. First time round, its news. Second, its old news–generally but not always true. That and well if you do an analysis after the story, no worries on spoilers.

  24. lever says:

    I really liked this story. I didn’t mind the rushed ending. Sure, this could have been made into a novel, but it’s clear the author felt he didn’t need a novel to tell his story, why pad it out?

    Steve, as for your commentary, I prefer it at the beginning of the podcast, myself, as I think it sets the storytelling mood. I prefer letters and feedback to follow.

  25. AmoryLowe says:

    It’s hard to write a good science fiction story in the informal first person narrative that this story used, but I think MacLeod pulled it off. Kudos

    As for the intros, I just can’t get into a Escape Pod story with my Steve Eley intro first.

  26. Ralf says:

    I was amused by the story.
    It started out great, but it was a bit of a fast forward towards the end and then “The End”.
    Apparently it was more imported to the emperor to tell the story how he got there than “Why?”.

  27. Audita Sum says:

    I remember thinking “this is what sci fi should be,” but now I have trouble recalling details from the story. It must’ve been pretty good.

  28. Peter Coffin says:

    Very much enjoyed this story. I liked the rich backstory that didn’t need to be fully explained, and I’ve been building “long guns” in my head on my own as well (although mine were circular…). Great job, Ken and Steve!

  29. [...] A reading is available on Escape Pod. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad [...]

  30. [...] Listen to Ken’s Hugo-nominated short story “Who’s Afraid of Wolf 359?” on the Escape Pod podcast here [link]. [...]

  31. [...] “Who’s afraid of Wolf 359?” by Ken MacLeod (read by Stephen Eley) starts off as one man’s punishment for a relatively minor crime but soon escalates into a historical saga of galactic proportions. The tale goes from the minutely specific to way beyond global, in a kind of exponential narrative. When our hero, tasked with community service, arrives on a planet seeded with genetically reset humans, he sees a way of completing his sentence in an unconventional manner with far-reaching consequences. [...]

  32. Mike G says:

    I realy enjoyed the tone of the reading here – Stephen found a nice balance between not too gruff and not too piercing – just right.