Episode 197: From Babel’s Fall’n Glory We Fled…

By Michael Swanwick
Read by Sarah Tolbert

First appeared in Asimov’s Feb 2008

Imagine a cross between Byzantium and a termite mound. Imagine a jeweled mountain, slender as an icicle, rising out of the steam jungles and disappearing into the dazzling pearl-grey skies of Gehenna. Imagine that Gaudí—he of the Segrada Familia and other biomorphic architectural whimsies—had been commissioned by a nightmare race of giant black millipedes to recreate Barcelona at the height of its glory, along with touches of the Forbidden City in the eighteenth century and Tokyo in the twenty-second, all within a single miles-high structure. Hold every bit of that in your mind at once, multiply by a thousand, and you’ve got only the faintest ghost of a notion of the splendor that was Babel.

Now imagine being inside Babel when it fell.

Rated PG. Contains the destruction of cities, a lack of trust, and sentient suits.

Comments (30)

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  1. Holiday says:

    This one was fantastic, well written, well read and well, great!

  2. phignewton says:


  3. Michael K. says:

    Is Alasdair recording by speakerphone now? Somebody buy the guy a $20 mic from bestbuy. Hell, I’ll buy him one…what’s your address Alasdair? 🙂

    Oh, and great story!

  4. We’re working on the Alasdair mic problem. Sorry about that.

  5. Dan the Man says:

    I though the millipede’s parts were hard-to-follow. I found a written version and it was much easier to keep up with. The audio version: 2.5. The text version: 5/5! I guess some things just have to be read.

  6. L33tminion says:

    There’s a jump in the audio sometime around the 45 min mark (unless that’s just a problem in my copy of the file).

    Otherwise a fantastic story. An interesting counterpoint to those futurists who suggest that the problems of capitalism can be avoided by changing the nature of the money (say, basing a currency on the exchange of information, or on some quantification of trust).

  7. Thanks for letting me know. We’ll look into the sound problem.

  8. Michael K. says:

    I was just jabbing at you guys. I always look forward to EscapePod landing in my podcatcher… I like hearing Alasdair, so don’t let it keep you from using him. His reading on CrimeWAV sounded good, any idea what the difference was?

  9. I’m not sure, but I’m told they adjusted some settings and figured things out.

  10. john says:

    I really wish that Victoria had read the part of the, um, whatever it was instead of glaDOS.

  11. Leigh Ann H. says:

    Hi. I’ve been listening to Escape Pod versions of the Hugo nominees this year and reporting on them to my local fanzine crowd, here in the San Francisco bay area. Unfortunately, I’ve become increasingly disappointed with the sound quality. Most recently, we were scheduled to be discussing this Swanwick story at our regular Friday cocktail hour, but the discussion had to be shelved, in part because Escape Pod’s audio version (which I’d suggested to everyone) was so problematic. Here’s the explanation I wrote up for someone who asked why we hadn’t been able to discuss it:

    “OH, PS, the problem with the Escape Pod version of the Swanwick story is that they were using this heavy processing on some of the voices in the story. Several recent things have had a metallic echo noise, and it was particularly strong in this story. Additionally, they have a habit of making any voices that are supposed to be computers or cyborgs very processed, to the point of being almost unintelligible.

    So, I was trying to listen to the story, but all that processing meant I had problems listening to the content. On top of that, there was a woman on the bus who was speaking very loudly into her cell phone, so loudly that she could be heard over my headphones. I kept turning up the volume to cover her, but at that volume, the metallic echo was physically painful. I finally gave up and switched to Anathem, which has much better production and processing choices.

    This is sort of the biggest problem I’m having with Escape Pod lately — I want a story read simply by someone with a good voice. I don’t want lots of sound post-processing or special vocal effects. I think the text should stand on its own merits; it’s a story, not a script, if that makes sense. “

    I realize that I may not represent the majority of your listeners, who seem appreciate the processed voices. However, I wanted to let you have the feedback, in case you’re interested in another point of view.

  12. scatterbrain says:

    No matter how many times I load this page, the audio is always sped up to an unlistenable pace: can somebody please save me?!

  13. JeremyT says:

    Leigh Ann,

    We most likely won’t be using any more effects in the future due to reactions like yours. Less is more in this case. I’m going to see about releasing this story minus the effects.

  14. JeremyT says:

    Scatterbrain, that’s unusual. I’m looking into it.

  15. Leigh Ann H. says:

    Jeremy: How exciting and wonderful! I would love to have a rerelease and would make sure all the folks here know about it. This year I’m trying to be a more active and informed Hugo voter; subscribing to the Escape Pod podcast has really helped with that. I really appreciate your response to this; I was worried my feedback would be unwelcome.

    I’ll make sure you get a shout out at the weekly cocktail thing (currently nicknamed FyDySyFy, for silly reasons) and mention the SF/SF and Drink Tank fanzines, over at http://www.efanzines.com. Thank you again for reconsidering the processing!

  16. MasterThief says:

    Wow. Everything that good sci-fi should be. Unfamiliar yet familiar setting, a well-crafted and detailed world (especially the strange branching alien speech!), and a message that’s relevant to modern times. Simply wonderful.

    And can I just give a quick shout-out to Escape Pod for allowing me to go deeper into scifi? I just bought my Worldcon supporting membership. I look forward to hearing the results!

  17. DrCrisp says:

    Complex story. And well layered.

    Keep the obvious British defeatist and socialist political commentaries out in the future though, if you please. This is a podcast of fiction, not political diatribe. Excising the last 5 minutes would have been preferred.

  18. sound quality says:

    I’ve read several complaints about sound quality on various Escape Pod episodes, and I can’t ever figure out what they mean. I’ve listened to all the episodes and they’re crystal clear. Every now and then, there’s a difficult accent, but never anything wrong with the recording itself. Are these people with the complaints listening in surround sound or something?

    Keep up the good work.

  19. DrCrisp says:

    Sound quality is ephemeral. Depends on the environment and equipment. I listen on my Ipod with some Logitech bluetooth headphones while excercising. Never had any problems but I listen LOUDLY. Best quality I’ve found is with real over the ear headphones plugged into the computer.

  20. scatterbrain says:

    It’s sort of fixed itself Jeremy, but, after listening, I don’t think I should have bothered. Or maybe I should have listened to it in fast-mo; at least it would has gone quicker!

    I thought it was dull, over-long, over-epic, over-mythologised and of that clumsy “Big AIs floating in space” genre which, I must admit, have grown pretty sick of.

    There are also some strange inconsistencies: why didn’t a high-tech space colony detect a meteor shower? 1920s bottle rocket makers could have done better!

    A weak effort by Swanwick–I really feel he owes me some fifty or so minutes of my life back.

    I can say without a doubt now, that Chiang will win in a landslide.

  21. Julie H. says:

    I love this story, I listened to it three times. It is not a story that the listener can be passive with it requires attention and imagination. This is hands down one of my favorite Escape Pod stories to date. I had no trouble with the audio quality or the voice processing. Please more broadcasts like this one!!??

  22. ben says:

    So DrCrisp, I’m curious. Where was the socialist part? The only thing I can guess is that you mean the bit about the Sheriff of Nottingham needing a better publicist, which if anything would be counterpoint to Robin Hood’s celebrated socialism, wouldn’t it? Maybe I’m missing something.

  23. Fluffy Bunny says:

    I, for one, loved the weirdly modulated vocal effects in this story – in fact they’re the main reason I came to leave a comment today. Furthermore, I’ve never had a problem with EP sound quality. At least never often enough to recall or complain about it.

    Please, please continue using audio effects in your stories – when it’s called for – they add life and character to your productions. Feel free to offer a ‘plain’ version for others, I’ll always prefer the ‘spicy’.

  24. Leigh Ann H. says:

    I listen on an Ipod Touch with good quality in-ear headphones, usually with the equalizer adjusted to spoken word, though sometimes I will adjust around to get a better sound. I download from iTunes. I actually redownloaded the three episodes that had the metallic echo, with no change. Because others in my group reported the same sound, I don’t think it’s just me. Maybe I hear different frequencies or something? Can those of you who don’t hear these sounds hear the “mosquito” ring tones, or the ones near them? (Not that I’m young; I just can hear pretty high frequencies.)

    Having both available would be one solution, certainly!

  25. Gia says:

    It seems like most people are more concerned with the perceived lack of sound quality than with the actual story. I thought that the sound was fine and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

    I liked it well enough, but I had trouble sorting out who the different groups were and I had trouble understanding what the bug guy (Uncle Something) was saying. I mean his syntax, not the sound. “Something branch something something branch something else untranslatable.” I completely lost what he was saying.

  26. Jorge says:

    Sorry for posting so late on this, but I wanted to just mention how great Sarah Tolbert’s reading was. It was just as good as the story itself.

  27. I will agree that the sound quality of the entire EA family has suffered lately, I’ve complained several times about it.

    That said, the story quality has been pretty good. This story in particular, as well as Komodo over on PC, were really spectacular.

    The reading of this story was excellent, I thought. I didn’t realize the voice for Uncle Vanya was being processed, I thought she was just doing that herself- and I thought it was perfect, contrary to the several comments against it. I can’t remember what it reminded me of, but giving each “branch” a different inflection came across perfectly as far as I’m concerned.

    Great story, great reading. Thanks, EP!

  28. simon says:

    Great story.

    Exemplifies Science Fiction as the literature of ideas.

  29. Tom J. Byrne says:

    I really enjoyed this story. It was really well read, the sound quality was good, as far as I could tell (listening on the 2nd of June 09) and it’s richness of writing was excellent. Very interesting story and very intelligent. Thank you.

  30. […] You can hear a reading of it on Escape Pod that really brings out the lyrical quality of the prose, and has some fun with the […]