EP178: Unlikely

By Will McIntosh.
Read by Stephen Eley.
Discuss on our forums.
Originally published in: Asimov’s, January 2008.
All stories by Will McIntosh.
All stories read by Steve Eley.
Special closing music: “Mandelbrot Set” by Jonathan Coulton.

“The mayor seems to believe there’s something to this,” Tuesday said.

“He’s desperate. Clutching at straws.”

“So why did you agree to meet?” Tuesday asked, her Keds back on the
black and white tile floor.

Samuel paused while the waitress plunked down two glasses, followed by
big metal milk shake tumblers. His strawberry milkshake looked as thick
as cement. Damn, did he love this place.

“Professor Berry said there was an easy way to prove him wrong: meet
with you on and off for a week. If the city’s accident rate didn’t go
down when we were together, and back up when we were apart, he’d return
his consulting fee to the city.” The shake made a satisfying plopping
sound as he poured it into the glass. “His ideas are wacked. ‘Data
mining for non-intuitive connections?’ You can smell the bullshit from
three pastures away.”

Rated PG. Contains profanity. Including in the closing song.

Comments (51)

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  1. Zathras says:

    Boy meets girl.
    Boy causes girl to lose gall bladder.
    Boy wears girls tooth.

  2. Randomtime says:

    Good story, but not relay Science fiction, more Fantasy

  3. phignewton says:

    soooo, is human life based on destiny or is it just random stuff squeezed into a workable narrative by our individual conciousness? I get the feeling this story was written to sorta poke at that basic conflict in teh human psyche… you gonna need a much sharper or longer stick to get at the interesting bits inside though.

  4. Me says:

    I agree with Randomtime, I liked the story but it wasn’t “Science Fiction”.

    It had a level of unreality about it, for sure, but this wasn’t from some technological or ‘other wordly’ cause, it was described as being just the way life/the world/the universe is.

    And the method used to discover these underlying patters (and so the underlying forces at work in our lives) was scientific in the sense that it used mathematics. But that would like saying if you used a torch to find a dragon it would make it a science fiction story about dragons.

    Still a good story, like I said.

  5. norm says:

    I’d disagree. To me this is science fiction. It may be slight, but the element ties the piece together. The characters wouldn’t have met without the statistics of safety. The statistics may be a bit of a leap, but fantasy would be a less anchored in reality imo.

    Anyway, I liked the story. Well written, held my interest.

  6. CM says:

    Yay! I loved it 🙂

    I was so expecting one or the other to die… I’m glad they didn’t.

  7. Me says:

    Not that I want to have a comments-argument but what was the sci fi element?

  8. Old Man Parker says:

    I don’t know. I have the feeling the goverment was making up the numbers just so they could control the behavior of the people. The story was well written, but a tad sappy. I couldn’t get past a slight feeling of dislike for the “girl” and her new age mind set. I think the story was too short to fully develop the love.

  9. George says:

    Will McIntosh weaves data mining and romance in a story I think Asimov would have been proud to author. As for if this is SF, the SF component is in the speculation. Who’s to say that these patterns do not exist today, undiscovered and unobserved? I think it’d be a great way to perfect various types of surveillance technology, and maybe that’s why projects like this might never take place. I enjoyed it thoroughly!

  10. scatterbrain says:

    I feel in essence it is more science fictional than fantastical because it deals with what I like to call ‘quantum balance’:the universal laws of how order is kept.

    McIntosh carries his philosophical flare into this story like he did Friction, which I was glad for because I still regard Friction as one of best of the genre I’ve ever read. I hope we see more of him…

  11. DrCrisp says:

    Let x be the function of Science Fiction. As x goes from 0 to Escape Pod, the value of x approaches true.

  12. Norvaljoe says:

    Did anyone else hear him say, “the pink sweater soiling his dashboard”?

    I thought it was her feet up on the dashboard.

  13. Raving_Lunatic says:

    I’ve got to say, the best book concerning data mining I’ve ever read was MT anderson’s feed.
    It is a “young adult” story but it’s got some pretty complex themes. Basically it’s the old internet “chip in head” world with huge evil corporations (which have replaced the government) thrown in. You buy things on the “feed” and they create a profile about you using data mining. There’s one non-conformist girl who the protagonist falls in love with, but when her feed malfunctions the corporations let her die because she wasn’t a good investment- they didn’t think she was likely to buy enough products if she lived to make it worthwhile for them to cure her, so they didn’t.
    As for this story, I liked it a lot because of all the philosophy. When I wrote stories, they were so thick with my own personal philosophy that they didn’t really have much of a plot. Or characters. Or dialouge.
    But they always had a good title!

  14. Technobabble says:

    I lived in Savannah for years and listening to this story took me back. It was almost like I was right there with the characters. Great story!

  15. Tyson of the NW says:

    I thought this fit into a more traditional SciFi, like some of the early Bradbury or Asimov, more of a “Science as mysterious force”. On the whole I enjoyed the piece.

    I disliked how one minute Tuesday was rebuking Samuel for making assumptions and then being snippy about him not making those same assumptions the next. It seemed like the two characters were heading down the path of best friends or life partners like Jay and Silent Bob, or Stadler and Waldorf. But because of their gender the story must end up with the two of them romantically connected. Not for any particular twist or purpose, but that was just how the story was expected to end.

  16. IanisIan says:

    is the correlation about elderly bicyclists and crime true? (not asking about causation) or did the author make it up. my aunt is full of facts like this.

  17. Patrick a.k.a. Samual says:

    Great story. I agree that it’s a fantasy story, with the conceit that all the random data-mining favored by, for example, astrologers (“libras are safe drivers”) turns out to be true. As a real-life Samuel, I was expecting him to be proven an idiot, but the semi-conversion at the end was handled gracefully. I liked the story a lot, and it’s a great tool to show those data-miners: “Okay, if libras are safe drivers, then if only libras are allowed to drive, accidents per capita should go down. Let’s try it.”

  18. Patrick a.k.a. Samual says:

    Tyson: Great point. The romance could have been left out. But when Tuesday said her husband had been an older man, well, after that, it couldn’t end any other way, could it? I mean, it’s impossible for someone to be really satisfied with living alone…

  19. For me (working on statistical methods for natural language processing and mainly machine translation) the story just painfully points out the pointlessness of some of the research done today. There’s enormous amount of money being spent on the tweaking of the parameters of statistical models without the tiniest bit of understanding of why this or that modification helps. I really wish people would think more about why and how things happen, rather than how often and in connection with what other things do they happen…

  20. Brave Space Monkey says:

    I’m really not impressed enough with this story to leave a comment other than to leaving a comment that says “I’m not impressed enough to leave a comment.”

  21. Awwww, made me all romantic it did. I liked the absurd nature of the bicycling grandads (which sounds like a surfer band!)

  22. DrCrisp says:

    Brave Space Monkey: This is not a comment.

  23. Ben the Space Pirate says:

    Sci-fi or not, I loved it. As Steve says Will McIntosh stories always seem to come at the right time.

  24. DogFog says:

    This was such a sweet little story, quite a nice surprise.

    And it’s definitely science fiction. Massive data crunching is quickly becoming a bigger scientific tool these days, even when causes are not entirely understood.

  25. Brave Space Monkey says:


    Than I lose the redundancy of it all…

    My original comment was a long looping comment that filled a lot of space but didn’t say anything entertaining (like the story). I decided not to post it and wrote something quickly I hoped funny.

  26. Brave Space Monkey says:

    would be funny…

  27. ExiledinSeattle says:

    Interestingly, when the inexplicable is brought in close proximity with Escape Pod there is an increased incidence of comments questioning whether its validity as scifi…

  28. Derek "skippy" Dadey says:

    This may just be a personal bias but I loathe the cliche of “rational straight-laced boy meets free spirit girl”, where all the guy needs to be happy is to stop thinking so rationally and “let go”. Uggh, why is a rational life always assumed to be less enjoyable or “magical” than a life based on fantasy

  29. Skippy, the official term for that sort of stock character is the “Manic Pixie Girl” as championed on The Onion AV Club.
    Now have fun picking out all the Manic Pixie Girls in cinema 😉

  30. salishsilver says:

    If you added chaos theory to the statistics and weave the thread through human lives, the math and story make perfect sense to me. I just went to a science conference on global climate change, and the math they were trying to use there wasn’t half as elaborate or detailed as this story eludes to. The real kicker is that the mathematicians looking at the subject are currently saying they can’t make the models complex enough to make accurate predictions. To me that makes this story a reflection of better times to come.

  31. Slye says:

    I’ve noticed an odd statistic, The amount of times I’ve gotten into an accicdent while listening to Escape Pod in my car is significantly less than while not listening to Escape Pod. I suggest everyone listen to Escape Pod while driving! No more accidents!!!

    oh, and the story was pretty good to.

  32. Slye says:

    Oh.. and I wonder if the statistician in this story helped inspire Hari Seldon to develop his Psychohistory… It sounds like the kind of leaps that need to be made to make that happen.

  33. Bob says:

    I have to say I really like Will’s stories, mostly because the storyline is something I would never have thought of. Granted, this story never addressed the cause-and-effect analysis. It’s one thing to see a correlation, quite another for it to indicate anything useful. But it is a short story, not a novel, and the concept of finding correlations from the hoards of data being collected on people, and actually used for something useful, is interesting.

  34. Steph says:

    Really enjoyed this one. Regardless of what genre it is (I really don’t care), it’s a great story. I’m glad it had a happy ending.

  35. J English says:

    Good story. I was enjoying the song too, until they got the math wrong. And being French, I’m pretty sure he pronounces his name “man-del-bro”

  36. Jennifer says:

    I’m not sure what to make of it, but the “inexplicable this happens and we don’t know why” is reminding me of a story I’m having trouble writing.

    I think I’m a bit like Samuel in that I would also be resistant to “I have to hook up with this girl?” I dunno if I was that into Tuesday (and I am a hippie sort), but maybe I just didn’t really see the chemistry going on here either.

  37. Blaine Boy says:

    I like how scatterbrain described this as science fiction. And of course Brave Space Monkey hitting the infinite oxymoronic loophole cough causing the fabric of space and time to rip apart when the unsaid becomes said cough (That would probably make for a great story). Anyways… the story raises an interesting question of fate, fated love, love, etc and I’ll just let the philosophy buffs got to work here.
    Now here comes the your daily dose of teenage cynicism (it is actually recommended by doctors that you get a daily dose of irony, sarcasm, and cynicism…parents, that is why there are teenagers, we keep you healthy and sane). I, too, thought it was obnoxiously sappy that the guy falls for the girl. But I did feel a kind of connection with Sammy’s predicament because, unfortunately, I am much the same way. I am a very passive person, but I hate it when things are forced on me. and just the way I am, sometimes I can’t accept things for what they are without knowing how it happened. It’s all very complicated and I’m sure I could fill pages with all this bull-crap which should actually be going to a therapist…anyways back to the story.
    It reminded me a lot of Mike Resnick’s story Distant Replay with the idea of destiny, love, and those people who are “meant to be with each other.”
    Nice story, though, none the less. Still having fun fitting in for once. 😛
    Yours faithfully,
    The Blaine Boy

  38. Amusing, but jebus crow, can’t the cynics win once in a while? I mean, really. I liked the story well enough, but I had to clean the sap out of my ears afterward.

    As light scifi (yes, it is, criminy, shut up about it already!) romances go, this was not bad, but nowhere near as good as the movie store one from way back.

    Also, as my friend who listened to this one before me said; so, what happens when they find out they’re causing earthquakes somewhere with all the tugging on the patterns?

  39. Chortle says:

    I liked the story but could not stop thinking about
    freakanomics when I was listening to it.

  40. fractal says:

    Wow. This story really floored me. It was reminiscent of an Asimov story I once read and loved (All the Problems of the World) that concerned data-mining in a similar way. The sheer plausibility of something like this being developed by a government is unnerving, especially in this age of RFID and ever more ubiquitous wiretapping. Great choice, Steve.

  41. madjo says:

    This is one of a few EscapePod stories that I’ve listened to at least 3 times.
    I loved it. Can’t really put to words why though.
    While some might not consider it as science fiction, it’s also not fantasy (though the story was rather fantastic) nor horror. (though losing ones gallbladder seems pretty horrific to me)

    It really is an interesting idea to data mine life to look for correlation between events. If only it were real… 🙂

  42. Lucianno says:

    I liked it. Yes, maybe the ending is a little sappy, but it has a neat premise, and overall, the execution is well-done.

  43. SF Fangirl says:

    Meh, again. I found this to be more fantasy than sci fi and as a general rule I don’t like fantasy. I didn’t like this fantasy. I’m a girl and I like romance, but I thought this romance was not well done. There was no chemistry between the characters. Like Samual, I felt like their romance was being forced on them and me. I didn’t buy it at all.

  44. […] on my iPod during my run: Pheddipidations # 158 (”Running the Bay State Marathon”) and Escapepod # 178 (”Unlikely”).  Escapepod, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a free science […]

  45. Azure says:

    I liked where this story was going, but I wanted more from it. I wanted something I could sink my (baby) teeth into. It felt too fluffy.

  46. Calculating... says:

    i know its late, but i always like to comment

    i don’t think this belongs on escapepod, maybe on podcastle, but not escapepod

    other than that, i really enjoyed listening to it, but the story really had no where to go. it was just a fun way to spend a half hour listening in on someone else’s life

  47. jennyM says:

    For me, this story has two compelling elements: great characters – always the most important part of a story – and an original idea. Also, importantly, the idea is intertwined with the characters’ journey, not separate to it, as can often happen with SF stories. So, even if the idea itself is rather flimsy when looked at too closely, it doesn’t matter because it is there primarily as a catalyst for the central relationship.

    On the strength of this story and his previous one on Escape Pod – the marvellous ‘Friction’ – Will McIntosh has that rare gift in a writer, which is to be able to get inside the skin of his characters so you cannot help but care about them. And because he’s so good at doing this, he never resorts to colour-by-numbers characteristics. Often in this story, the characters surprise you, or do things that a lesser writer wouldn’t have thought of. The result is that you root for both of them, despite their differences.

    Yes, it’s a sweet story but there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s married to intelligence rather than romantic slop.

  48. […] Escape Pod begins with Will McIntosh’s “Unlikely” in which the logical fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc—“after this, therefore because […]

  49. KDH says:

    I everything about this episode. The introduction, the story, the closing remarks and quotation, and Mandelbrot Set. Fantastic!

  50. KDH says:

    Add “loved” between “I” and “everything”.

  51. Number_6 says:

    I didn’t want to like this story because of the small amount of bile that comes up in the back of my throat around the kind of hippy-drippy “trust the universe” theme of the story. The characters caught me though. I can identify with the man in the story, so despite my reservations, I like this story a lot.