Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Quick Sips - Terraform August 2016

Among other things, this month's offerings from Terraform show the beginning of a project devoted to augmentation. To augmented reality and augmented humanity. To stories that explore, to mixed results, the blurry lines between humanity and machine, the virtual and the "real." That on top of a pair of stories that take a look at settings that delve into the bleak future of climate change and, in some ways, post-climate change, to what the planet might look like if we continue on the trajectory we're on now. All the stories follow through on Terraform's promise of showing startling visions of the future, though perhaps some I fine more compelling than others. In any case, to the reviews! 


"Rootbreakers" by Michael W. Cho (1181 words)

This story looks at a world ravaged by climate change, where a new age of plants has set in and humanity is mostly concerned with salvaging metals to try and help fight back. It's a rather fun premise, not exactly bleak but definitely different, with the feel that the world is a very different place, where people are mining the past for ways to keep the plants at bay. It's always interesting to see stories where human technology regresses, where things are so different, because it sort of asks the question of what happened to everything. Where did the computers go and how and why is there no place left that keeps going more or less as usual? This story doesn't really answer those questions, merely implies that something big, probably wars, decimated population levels to the point where these new mega plants could come in, bolstered by an atmosphere that prefers plants to humans. I wish there had been a bit more on what that meant for people living and breathing, how they had adapted to that, but what's here is rather fast and fun, a salvage run that looks like it's facing some hard times only to catch a lucky break. The setting is nicely conceived and I would definitely read a bit more in the setting. For what's here, it's a nice scene and an entertaining read. Indeed!

"Regenesis" by Langley Hyde (1404 words)

This is an interesting story about artificial intelligence and religion and deviation. About Nenadi, a golem who doesn't fit in with her people because she feels in different ways. Because she does not feel the mandates of the God that humanity left behind in order to guide the golems in cleansing the world so that humanity will be able to reclaim it. It's a rather deep setup, that humanity so ruined the planet that they needed to leave robots in charge until it was better, and they needed a way of making thing robots work together toward the purpose. And so they made a religion out of it. And yet as the story opens Nenadi has defied that religion and faces some stern consequences because of it. All because she doesn't feel the mandates the same way. All because she has developed feelings that are not allowed in this new world. Not just cooperation but something deeper toward another golem. It's a tragic story and a moving one, that gives Nenadi the place of Eve or, perhaps, more the role of Lilith, as she is cast out and set to wander the Earth. And I like how it gives her the chance to act and to question and even in the face of the religious intolerance she is still unbroken. [SPOILERS] The ending at least reveals that she's not taking the exile without purpose. She has plans for how she will react, and in some ways her banishment works for her because she has tasted the truth, has seen what was hidden and how she is treated and knows that her feelings have made her outcast, but that there's nothing wrong with them. She's free in some ways, marked but suriving and that's a rather neat turn. A fascinating read!

"Sgt. Augmento" by Bruce Sterling (1959 words)

This story kicks off a Terraform special that focuses on augmentation. As such, the story follows a person, presumably male, who lives in a world where robots are taking human jobs. Where robots only have to watch humans doing a task long enough to be able to do it even better. And what happens from there is that the main characters gets rather bored, joins the army, comes back, and starts taking part in medical testing that will allow humans to perceive the world more clearly. It’s an interesting story and the world revealed here provides a nice backdrop for the drama, for the main character to learn to see the world in whole new ways. To notice things he didn’t before. Unfortunately for me, I felt I couldn’t really get into everything that I felt the story was trying to accomplish, in part because this vision of the future seemed a bit…slightly out of touch. Or perhaps almost nostalgic in how it envisioned a future. There is a strong vein of human awesomeness at work here combined with casual, almost incidental homophobia and misogyny that are perhaps part of how the character, who I read as a rather traditionally macho soldier-turned-lab rat. Perhaps it is a critique on how this particular character can only imagine a place without “gainful employment” as one of leisure and fighting off boredom. And so his revelatory moment comes not from finding direction with his life but from seeing that his greatest wealth lies in watching television from back in the days when honest humans could make it with their hands. And perhaps it is just that I am a bit tired of stories that look back on the “golden age” of anything as a time when institutional homophobia and misogyny (in both the military and television) were strictly enforced. And maybe I’m too distracted by small details of the story to get at what might be waiting underneath all that. There’s certainly a lot to think about with this piece, and I urge readers to check it out and make your own minds up about it.

"The Jesus Singularity" by Zoltan Istvan (2523 words)

uh…what? Okay, no, wait…this is a story about…religion and about robots and artificial intelligence and arrogance and destruction. I think. It's a bit of a weird story about a man, Dr. Paul Shuman, who is the lead and seemingly sole architect of an AI program that is set to produce the world's first wholly sentient computer mind. Only when the president dies the VP, a strict Christian, steps into power and demands that the AI be programmed to believe in Christian values. And…that happens and…well, then the AI is turned on. The style of the story is hard to pin down. It is incredibly male-driven, concerned not only with authority as imagined as solely masculine, but also paternal. That all of the characters in the story, from Shuman to the VP to the AI, identify as male is somewhat telling, because this story is full of the unexamined paternal authority that Christianity inspires. That there is a God, a Father, and his Will is law. Unfortunately I feel like Shuman falls into this as much as the VP, seeing this AI as his child rather than his creation. I think I see in this story a statement on trying to force people to be a religion. Treating religion like it's something that can be inherent. In a person. In a nation. That the danger there is to throw away choice, to throw away consent. Shuman's only a little better than the VP with this, though, literally trying to create a child that he can control. Unfortunately for everyone [SPOILERS!!!] the AI wakes up, thinks it's Jesus, and kills everyone. Which is rather abrupt and…not what I was expecting, really. So kudos to the story for that. It makes for a rather strange read, though, and a story that I can't really wrap my head around. Other people might well find more than I did, though, and I encourage everyone to make up their own minds. Indeed!

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