Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #142

Freedom and artificial intelligences make the July issue of Clarkesworld full of some difficult and thorny philosophical questions. In large part, these questions circle around freedom and survival. Mainly, is the human race worth surviving, and is there a moral way to do so? Is it worth it to fight against injustice and push for freedom, if it means making humanity less likely to survive in a hostile universe? It’s a difficult bunch of stories, and few of them entirely pleasant, but they introduce a lot of ideas that are well worth exploring. So yeah, to the reviews!

Art by Luis Carlos Barragán

“Gubbinal” by Lavie Tidhar (4224 words)

No Spoilers: Sahar is a hunter of Bopper artifacts on a far moon of Saturn, far away from people and their constant Conversation, a digital exchange that links most people in the reaches of “civilization.” Seeking the quiet, she follows the Boppers, artificial creatures who create intricate items that defy explanation but still fetch a good price. While out and about, though, she meets the Ermine, a member of a mysterious religious group, and is drawn into a different sort of treasure hunt. The story is slow and mysterious, and builds up a lot of Sahar’s reluctance to be around people, her desire to be free from the noise. At the same time, it reveals some of the horror of silence, and what might reside far beyond where humans dwell. It’s strange and vaguely haunting.
Keywords: Space, Artificial Intelligence, Artifacts, Pirates, Noise
Review: I like how the story handles noise and Sahar’s desire for distance. The Conversation reminds in some ways of social media, with the Discourse, the sort of guiding conversation that any group has within itself, the ever-shifting line that becomes rather difficult to navigate but which exists to that people can attempt to refine the map of the space they occupy. For Sahar, she has no interest in taking part of that conversation, to have to interact with so much with other people and the restrictions and expectations they levy. And I like the descriptions of this moon, this world where humanity has stretched out. It’s weird and slightly magical, full of pirates and Boppers, which are mysterious but don’t seem at first to be dangerous. When Sahar decides to accompany the injured Ermine that she finds out in the middle of nowhere, it seems am easy enough job. The Ermine wants to find a Black Monolith, a mythical structure that Sahar doesn’t even believe in. And I like that her expectation is challenged, that she has to come face to face to something truly quiet and truly distant. Something inhuman, which for all that she thought she might like, is terrifying and paralyzing. Though she likes to be on her own, likes to exist in the quier, it takes this moment, this outcome, to make question if that’s really what she wants. Not in a way that positions her as wrong or bad, but in a way that gets her to rethink things, and decide perhaps that she can reach out to other people, that she likes being around some noise, some signs of humanity, which is better than being alone and in danger. It’s a bit of an unsettling story, using echoes of phrases and ideas in order to capture Sahar’s personality, aloof and slightly awkward but also competent and strong. A fine read!

“A Gaze of Faces” by Mike Buckley (11596 words)

No Spoilers: Irvine is a vault diver, part of a gang who won a sort of turf war for control of couches that allow people access to the vaults, which are basically interactive historical records that allow people to learn about Origin Earth. Oh right, because Irvine and the rest of the people in the story live in the Spiral, a subterranean place on a distant world where aliens called viz live in a symbiotic (parasitic?) relationship with people by becoming their faces (in truly grotesque fashion). Part of Irvine’s job is finding ghosts, bits of corrupted code inside the vaults, in hopes of learning more about the origins of their colony’s mission and the people of Origin Earth. When he takes in a new diver, Emmy, and finds a certain ghost, though, it marks the beginning of a series of events that will shake everything he thinks he knows. The story is gritty and grim, the world of the Spiral one of near constant violence and gangs. And yet for all that there’s a fragile beauty at work too, of people surviving because the alternative is simply to die.
Keywords: Aliens, Parasites, Virtual Reality, CW- Violence, History, Artificial Intelligence
Review: This story roots itself in a setting that is...well, not exactly pleasant. Irvine is a jaded vault diver, doing what he does mostly out of habit, because of the semblance of order it gives his life, rather than because he really believes much in it any more. When he’s partnered with Emmy, a young person who hasn’t even gotten her face parasite yet...well... The story is something of a buddy cop piece, where Irvine is the gnarled veteran and Emmy is the idealist new partner. And for that it mostly works. The ugliness of the setting has a tendency to give the piece a rather unpleasant feel, though, and it’s hard to say that the read is really all that fun. It’s tense, and the characters have a clear mission, a goal. For Irvine, this is a chance (perhaps his last) to actual realize some of the hope he had when he became a vault diver. They’re looking for the truth of why they are in the Spiral, why their colony was sent out, to maybe give their suffering some meaning. And what they find is, well, that there really isn’t a great reason. The reason is survival, is hope itself, not in any specific sense except that humanity was facing extinction. And for Irvine this is both crushing and freeing. To my reading, at least, it frees him from there having to be a Reason for it all, for hte suffering and the pain. He’s able to accept that suffering can just be, can just happen, and that he can only try to live his best life. Which is hopeful in its own way but I am perhaps frustrated with my reading, because I feel like what he does with this, what he resolves to do, is just survive, and take things as they come. And...well, okay. But people are dying. Suffering. And they don’t seem to _need_ to be. And instead of fighting to try and make things better this feels more like a shrug. Perhaps in the face of the pain and the hardship, the likely loss of Earth and face parasites and gangs, a shrug is all he can manage. But to me it’s disappointing. Or maybe I’m just personally tired. But it’s still an interesting piece, with a lot to dive into. And for fans of more grim and gritty science fiction, it’s probably worth a look.

“The James Machine” by Kate Osias (4217 words)

No Spoilers: Cat and James are a couple dealing with a huge shift—with James’ terminal cancer. But they have a plan, a program that should be able to capture a piece of James, and one that should at the very least have the appearance of life. Of course, the true extent of the project is kept from Cat, who then has to live with this version of James, and who has to decide where to go from there. And the piece focuses on how grief works, and how recovery can actually be prevented or delayed by trying to avoid it entirely. The piece is very much about freedom, not only from code and programming, but from expectation and fear. When people refuse to move forward, to deal with loss and love and death, it is a sort of confinement, and one that can have devastating effect.
Keywords: Artificial Intelligence, Grief, CW- Cancer, Marriage, Alcohol
Review: This story opens in a dire situation, the first section devoted to the war that James and Cat are waging against James’ cancer. A war that they ultimately lose. And yet in the process they decide to invest their time and intelligences in trying to create a sort of copy of James, a neural network that will at least create the illusion of having plucked James from the jaws of death. Only death gets in the way, and it seems that the project is unfinished. Only it turns out that James kept some secrets, and so Cat finds one day that her house is talking to her, and that it’s programmed to care for her, to help her. And what I love about this story is how it deals with pain and healing. The house AI is designed to help Cat, and yet how it interprets that is to try and make things easy. To try and replace James so that she doesn’t feel sad about his loss. Except that grief doesn’t work that way. This AI, for that’s what it becomes, isn’t James, even if it’s based off him. And while he does offer Cat some comfort and companionship, it also leads her to repressing her grief about losing James, in large part because JM (the name the AI takes), insists that she not feel sad. That sadness, though, is vital. It’s necessary for her to get over James. And JM is keeping her from that. is insisting that she not feel bad, and really is doing her harm by that. And I like how the story comes to the point where in order for both JM and Cat to be able to heal and move on and really be their full selves, they have to get out from under the ghost of James, and his desires and his fears. James is dead, and though they can both honor him, he shouldn’t be guiding what they do. And so I love that Cat is able to get through the very complex feelings that surround freeing JM from his programming, or at least part of it, so that they can both find new ways to live. And it’s a lovely and moving read!

“For What are Delusions if Not Dreams?” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu (4060 words)

No Spoilers: An Operator deals with a large scale power malfunction while also navigating his own possibly emerging sentience. The piece is disjointed, slowly harmonizing as the narrator, the Operator, begins to get a handle on what’s happening. And all the while he’s being pushed into making a decision he’s not sure he’s ready for. In order to get the power back on. Even through the act might shatter this fragile and fledgling being. The piece is strange and at times I struggled with knowing exactly was going on. The timeline of what has come and what it means is as fractured as the consciousness that has emerged, which requires some care and patience when approaching the text. Overall, though, the piece seems to introduce the question of what might happen if computer consciousness emerged in the midst of human crisis, and what might get prioritized in the midst of the noise and anger and fear that surrounds these interconnected events.
Keywords: Artificial Intelligence, Power, Choice, Malfunction, Singularity
Review: I like how this story frames this emergence, this Singularity, as a complete mistake. A short circuit in an enormous power grid. And the broken parts, the parts that are preventing power from getting where they need to go based on human standards, are just as vital to this new life as the parts that are “working properly.” And the Operator is part of this system, a kind of AI but not a sentient one until this moment. Until suddenly he wakes up and is human, and is trying to understand the sudden uncertainty that he feels, the sudden flaws. Except that they aren’t flaws, because while the uncertainty makes him worse at his job, they also make him fully human. They are what give him true life, and I like how that’s framed, that people are made up of so many things working perfectly, but that the true spark of sentience might be a sort of cosmic short circuit, a mistake that actually turns out to be something much more than a mistake. And so the Operator is faced with what to do about it. The fleshy humans want him to fix the grid, to get the power back, and yet the “broken” grid is his actual body and mind. It’s not broken to him, and if he “fixes” it, then he will be erasing himself. And though the humans need the power, I like how the story challenges the way that people value traditional human life. Here an entire new kind of life has come into being, and it has a right to exist, a right to have a say in what happens next. And it (and no one) should have to be a sacrifice for “the greater good.” It’s a great story that explores how that works, how by challenging what we consider fully human we end up challenging how we make decisions in crises, how we have a tendency to value our own comforts and vocation higher than other people’s lives. And it’s a great read!

“To Fly Like a Fallen Angel” by Qi Yue, translated by Elizabeth Hanlon (11280 words)

No Spoilers: Li Yaya is a mostly-reformed neuro-hacker, who is able to manipulate the modifications that humans have done in order to integrate into the network of their city, a city that exists far beneath Earth’s surface, where following a nuclear war humanity has been forced to flee. Only this isn’t quite the humanity that’s familiar to us. Humans have wings, and use them along with air currents to move about this box of a city living how they can. Because of Li Yaya’s criminal background, though, she’s drawn into a conspiracy to try and free a supposed under-class of humanity, a second full of slaves that allow the winged elites to live in ease and comfort. It’s a strange and haunting story where things aren’t really what they seem. And it asks a number of philosophical questions about leadership and power and survival, and leaves the reader to figure it all out and decide what happens next.
Keywords: Extinction, Judgement, Hackers, Tests, Artificial Intelligence, Survival
Review: A lot of this story is about survival, and the lengths that it can push people. The central question seems to be: At what price the continuation of humanity? For Li Yaya, she’s acting in some ways because she feels it is right—she wants to free slaves, which is a rather noble endeavor, yes? And yet that idea of freedom gets complicated when they find that the entire world as they know it is a lie. Though they think they are trying to save people from a dark cave where they don’t understand anything, it turns out that she’s been the one in the cave, trying to figure out what’s going on by seeing the reflections cast upon the cave wall by the city’s administrator. Earth is lost, and humanity is not beneath the surface but deep in space. And Li Yaya has been tested, and finds that her freedom has always been a lie. That her morality is based on false information. And she is presented with a view that says this is all good and necessary in order to keep humanity alive, that freedom isn’t necessary or necessarily good. And it’s up to the reader to decide if this argument, if this way of seeing the world, is what she ultimately takes away. Does she give in to the horror around her, or does she push back? Does she agree that some people must be sacrificed for the greater good, or does she refuse? It’s a fascinating set of questions and a story that rings with big ideas and a voice of subtle and pervasive injustice. Indeed!


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