Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Quick Sips - Tor dot com October 2018

Art by Mary Haasdyk
It was a fairly light month from Tor dot com, with only two stories (one short story, one novelette), and one of those coming from the shared Wild Cards setting. For that, there's an interesting focus on ethics and morality. The pressure to act, and the ways that moral action can be muddied by a number of factors. At their cores, though, the stories are about conversations, and about understanding. About overcoming prejudice in order to see that someone's seemingly strange or wrong view of a situation actually makes a lot of sense, and give them a valuable (if often inconvenient) perspective on what's going on. So yeah, to the reviews!


“AI and the Trolley Problem” by Pat Cadigan (6593 words)

No Spoilers: Helen is an expert on machine ethics on a top secret military base in the UK that is developing an advanced AI named Felipe. Things are going fairly well and Helen is well into her contract when a series of events sort of expose that the project is not going the way that anyone on the base had thought. And it produces a deep conversation between Helen and Felipe about the nature of ethics, following orders, respect, and a host of other things. And really, it examines the ways that we have different expectations of AI than of humans, for a variety of reasons. It’s a little strange, a little academic, and quite fun.
Keywords: AI, Ethics, Military, Logic, Respect
Review: There’s a lot going on in this story, at least to my reading. Because at its core I see the piece looking at expectations and ethics, and how people enforce ethics on machines as opposed to humans. Helen is in an interesting and difficult position, having to essentially be advocate for both Felipe to the military, and the military to Felipe. In both instances she’s not really pleased with what is going on, and yet she continues because it’s her job and because this is the work that excites her the most. Neither of which are entirely ethical. Because, well, the story shows that if the parameters inside which an ethics is supposed to develop isn’t neutral, is indeed corrupt, then...well, it sort of fucks with things. Especially for an AI, seeing the hypocrisy of the system destroys the logic of it, the way that it’s supposed to make sense. What Helen finds is that there’s a whole lot that she merely doesn’t examine when it comes to making ethical choices, and that in so doing she acts unethically. But as a human does, which is to say all the time. Because AI are machines, they’re expected to be perfect. And yet they’re also supposed to follow rules that don’t really make sense. They are held to a different standard, and it’s that which Felipe begins to see and how they begin to question the system in which they are imperfectly confined. They are told to learn, but then told they are learning wrong, when in reality that’s only because of profit, because of priorities that are not ethical, that are based on us and them, nations states and politics, and definitely not based on logic. It’s a careful, complicated story that I like because it makes us question why we would want AI, and if those reasons we have are, well, as well thought out as we thought. A great read!

“Fitting In” by Max Gladstone (13710 words)

No Spoilers: Robin Ruttiger, better known as the one-time hero Rubberband, has retired from that public life and is trying to live simply as a guidance councilor in Jokertown in this new story from the Wild Cards universe. Of course, the superhero impulse hasn’t entirely gone away, and when a shady figure trying to buy up Jokertown real estate targets his favorite bakery, he decides to get involved, and finds a partner-in-heroics in Jan Chang, a woman with electric powers and a slew of conspiracy theories about what’s going on. And together they must unravel the plot that’s threatening their friend, all while not letting their personal lives stretch to the breaking point. It’s a story that mixes humor and action to great effect while hitting enough emotional beats to flesh out the characters and complicate their world. Jokertown is a place where the locals have ample reason not to trust outsiders. And as Robin discovers, sometimes the easiest way around that isn’t to force Jokertown to letting you in, but rather accepting Jokertown into you. It’s an entertaining read, fun and satisfying.
Keywords: School, Powers, Wild Cards, Real Estate, Conspiracies, Queer MC
Review: The Wild Cards setting is one that I personally don’t have a long history with or investment in. I read the stories that appear on Tor.com and otherwise I’m kinda clueless. But over the last four years I have read a number of stories, which tend to vary wildly in focus, tone, and how-much-I-like-them. And this one, to me, shines not only because it doesn’t require a deep knowledge of the setting, but because it’s just so much fun. There are dark elements, for sure, mostly revealing the ways that the city and world treat Jokers, treating them as problems to be steamrolled over or resources to be exploited. Robin’s day job as a councilor isn’t exactly happy, with the kids he sees proving resistant to his presence because he’s something of an outsider, because he’s not a Joker but rather someone who used to be a hero. Who can pass as “normal.” At the same time, he’s very much willing to do the work, and just wants to find ways to help people. And his motivations—that he doesn’t want to only help people when their problems are so big only heroes can tackle them—are understandable and he brings a charm and heart to what he does. Though really it’s Jan who ends up stealing the show, with her energy and the deeper tragedy of her situation, that her card flipped when she was older, that it seems to have changed not just her body but her mind, causing her to have these paranoid flights that no one in turn believes. But it’s also that mind that is able to follow the logic and intent that’s at work in the plot. It’s because she can see patterns, even if it’s something that she can’t really turn off. But I love the relationship between the characters, how they become like a buddy detective team. They’re talented but very different, and it’s great to watch them play off each other. And it just makes for a really entertaining read, with touches of darkness but mostly with an eye toward fun and action and bringing Robin from outsider to insider in Jokertown. From feeling like he has to hide who he is to feeling like he can accept and be accepted into this world. That it’s not his powers (which allow him to twist and stretch and fit basically anywhere) that allow him to adapt to Jokertown, but rather his humanity and his heart. So yeah, definitely check this one out—it’s delightful!


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