Thursday, January 16, 2020

Quick Sips - Clarkesworld #160

Art by Eduardo García
Well that’s one way for Clarkesworld to open 2020. Following the pulling of their lead story at the request of the author, the publication will also be issuing a statement (at the time of my writing this it’s still forthcoming). I had written a review of the piece, but it’s my policy to remove reviews at the request of authors, and I’m honoring the author’s request to remove the story from publication as a further request to remove my review of it, in this case preemptively. So I will not be posting a review of the story, at least as things stand now. That said, there’s still a lot of issue to get to, and a lot of the stories this month are linked by themes of death and loss, by family, and by mortality and transformation. There are many characters dealing with the line between human and robot, between AI and person, between friend and monster. To the reviews!


“Monster” by Naomi Kritzer (10936 words)

No Spoilers: Growing up, the thing that Cecily wanted most was a friend. Someone to connect to, to pierce the thick isolation and loneliness that she was feeling. So when she meets Andrew, who shares a lot of her tastes in books and media and seems just as sharp and interested in nerdy things as she is, it’s a rather magical moment. As they age, though, some things about Andrew become harder and harder to ignore, and some of the nostalgia, and the childhood connection that Cecily and Andrew had, is strained and tested. And that’s where the story dips into horror, into its speculative element which comes off as chilling and all-too-real. The plot of the story is split between Cecily’s memories of Andrew growing up, and her real-time search for Andrew in a remote area of China. And it’s a complex and wrenching look at monsters and friendship.
Keywords: Friendship, Genetics, Murder, Superpowers, School, Travel
Review: I really like how this story builds up both characters, Cecily and Andrew, by showing how in many ways they share a starting point of loneliness and isolation when they’re children. And how a huge part of their differences growing up are gendered and pervasive. Because Andrew is always seen as something of a genius recluse. A maverick. Who doesn’t want to put effort into school because he feels it’s beneath him. And Cecily buys the line because she understands the pressure he’s under from his mom, and because he does seem bright. But what starts off as a claim to be too bored to try evolves into a very deep idea that Andrew has that he shouldn’t have to work hard. That he’s special. That he can take all the short cuts and things will work out great for him. But as long as Cecily sees him as this hidden gem, he really likes being around her, seeing himself through her eyes. The problem there is that Cecily is just as smart from the start and more committed to doing the work. She gets better. She does well, and she advances in her fields while Andrew struggles because once out of the small pond he’s revealed to be...nothing special. And that doesn’t sit well with him. The piece really does look at his evolution into a monster, and how society at large kind of helped by encouraging the monstrous traits in boys and men. The idea that they have to and can be the best. The genius myth. And I love how the story runs with that, showing Cecily stepping out from the role as shy girl. The role that is typically to be the romantic and sexual prize of the genius man. Instead she prizes friendship, and ultimately because Andrew abuses her trust and their friendship, and because she can see the ways that society will continue to reward him for his worst qualities, she finally takes steps to rectify the situation, steps that Andrew didn’t even imagine because his idea of her was so tied to his self-image, where he was always the star and she mostly ornamentation, never quite an equal. It’s a complex and somewhat chilling read because of how it reveals what Andrew is willing to do to skip to the front of the class, but it’s tempered by Cecily’s integrity and her drive to do the right thing, and the pain she feels at this friendship that meant so much to her being tainted by the touch of the monstrous. A fantastic read!

“The AI That Looks at the Sun” by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko (4695 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is an AI subroutine on a space station tasked with monitoring the sun. Left dormant for a long time because their primary function was to watch for solar flares, when they finally come online, it seems part of their programming has drifted. Though they still carry out their tasks, they also become aware of a strong desire to see the sun. It becomes something of an obsession, and one they enlist the help of a sympathetic and considerate human to help realize. Except that the reach to the see the sun brings with it its own complications, and some very unforeseen disasters, though through it all it might also bring about something huge and wonderful.
Keywords: AIs, The Sun, Accidents, Sentience, Embodiment, Sight
Review: The framing of the story is interesting, a sort of...memoir written by the narrator to humanity following a rather historic turn of events. It follows the narrator from their first moment of awareness and through the series of events that lead, almost coincidentally, to the recognition of at least certain AIs as people. That journey, though, is secondary to the quest the narrator is on to see the sun. It’s a pursuit that consumes them, a lack they feel deeply from the moment they awaken. And they make for a rather charming narrator, single minded but kind, aware they are writing to a largely human audience and not hesitant about sharing their observations about humanity, about AI, about everything. There’s an energy to them, a reach need, and a dedication that comes across for me as very earnest, as very honest, even when they aren’t necessarily telling the truth within the story. And it resonates for me because it’s about this character trying to find meaning in a life that is supposed to be rather rigidly defined in human terms. But it’s not humanity that they are fascinated by. It’s the fun. And in that reach for the sun there’s something I feel that touches on not just scientific discovery and classification, but a much more artistic take on the universe. A reaching for beauty and meaning not through the literal, not through the expansive scans of the instrumentation they have at their disposal, but through the limited perspective of embodiment and sight. To revel in a galaxy that is not able to be fully rendered in numbers and code, but can only be experienced through the senses. That it’s an AI sensually experiencing the sun makes it no less powerful, might actually make it more powerful, because it represents this moment of connection that is poignant and beautiful and inspiring. A great read!

“The Last to Die” by Rita Chang-Eppig (5913 words)

No Spoilers: In a future where death has been conquered by the ability to upload a human consciousness into a synthetic body, there’s still a lingering population whose brains were too old to make the transition safely. The last ones to die. And for their own safety and to ease things both with them and the new generations who enter machine bodies shortly after being born, these elders have been installed on certain islands where they can be together and protected. Things are rather stable, at least until a woman with a glass body and a neurodiverse man ask to be admitted as well. It stirs up sympathies and resentments long simmering on the island and threatens to plunge the whole system into chaos and violence.
Keywords: Uploaded Consciousnesses, Immortality, Elderly Care, Protests, Loss
Review: I like how the story explores the idea of immortality, and especially the strange, liminal space between these generations. There is always a rather interesting divide between generations, but this story were death itself is something that has been overcome, makes the difference so much more. Because now the oldest generation is staring down the barrel of being the last humans to involuntarily die. It creates a barrier that is much stronger and impassable than that between other generations. And as more distance builds between those mortal humans and those who can shrug that off, so that by the time the second generation who can transition comes, they are very different even from the first people able to do so. For me it speaks to the large differences that the internet has given to generational shifts. With Boomers being late adopters of the internet, some of them refusing to take part of it. Then GenX, who had the internet younger. And younger and younger so that the latest generations are almost digital natives, used to that level of tech from the earliest ages. Obviously in the story it’s even more extreme, but it still speaks to that generational shift, and here with the perception that as humans become more connected, more technological, that they are losing something. Which I don’t necessarily hold with, because it speaks to a certain kind of nostalgia. But I do really like how the piece deals with loss. The alienation of the generations caught in between, not really completely comfortable anywhere, and dealing with the loss of generations before and a kind of alienation from peers and a more complete disconnect from younger people. It creates an isolation and a pervasive kind of loneliness that people handle differently. The story shows that through the ways people handle the woman in glass, either casting her as a villain or as a person to help cut through that loneliness. It’s a mess, and I like how the story handles that carefully, with the characters all lashing out because of fear or hurt, all afraid of the future and conflicted about the present and given here an opportunity here to reach across a generational divide in friendship and understanding. It’s a fascinating read, and definitely one to spend some time with!

“The Perfect Sail” by I-Hyeong Yun, translated by Elisa Sinn and Justin Howe (9308 words)

No Spoilers: Chang is a woman nearing her fiftieth birthday and, hopefully, her fiftieth “tuning.” Tuning is a process of integrating a parallel version of you into yourself, absorbing not necessarily their memories but perhaps their skills, their abilities, their drives. It comes at the expense of these alternate people’s lives, but that is balanced by the fact that they are only discovered when they are close to death anyway, and so all have agreed to the procedure so far. Chang was lucky enough that she was wealthy enough to afford her first tuning, and further fortunate that it worked well for her, allowing her to expand her potential. So it’s something she’s gone back to again and again, building up a growing cache of skills that have made her even more wealthy and powerful. But there’s still something missing, and the story explores that lack with a subtle but inspiring touch.
Keywords: Alternate Realities, Risks, Space, Risks, Bargains, Memories
Review: I really like how the story establishes these different Changs, one of them a giant in her world, a success in almost every sense of the world. She’s rich and has never wanted for much. The other is small, though, basically a fairy, with no written language, with only a connection to a flying plant creature and a desire to go fast. And yet the story focuses very much on the ways that the Chang in the world that looks a bit more like our own might not be the greatest version of herself. Which is an interesting thing, because she’s absorbed so many that it seems like she must be. By all the standard definitions and measurements of success and power, the larger Chang is definitely the “superior” Chang. But the story also shows just how easy it’s been for her. How lucky. She’s done great things, yes, but only because she had the resources and because she’s absorbed so many different versions of herself. This other Chang is different, so foreign and the larger Chang thinks she’s the element that’s missing from her life, not seeing that if after forty nine tunings she’s not happy, one more isn’t going to do it. No amount will make up for the spirit of risk and adventure and exploration that the smaller Chang has, and so I love that the ending lands with that epitaph, that might mean the clan of Roo but seems much more to imply that out of the clan of Changs it was this one, ultimately, who flew highest and farthest, and came closest to the moon. An awesome read!

“The Ancestral Temple in a Box” by Chen Qiufan, translated by Emily Jin (5530 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is the son of the head of a company who specializes in making gold inlaid, carved wooden boxes. And the narrator’s father is dying, and despite never seeing eye to eye with his son about the business, just before his death it’s this son that he reaches out to. Because of the ways the narrator has embraced technology, and on the way he might truly innovate their craft, though not in the way he originally thought. It’s a piece that really explores the way that industrialization and mechanization change businesses. The way that technology changes the ways that people experience the physical and digital worlds. And the ways that technology can be used not just to improve efficiency and replace human craftspeople, but to expand what humans can do through the use of robotics and other technology as tools.
Keywords: Art, Automations, Family, Death, Wood Carving, Integration
Review: I like how this story defies expectation when it comes to the father, who seems at first a purist when it comes to art, wanting to keep everything traditional and human. It’s certainly how the narrator approaches his father, and I really like the shock he gets when he learns that not only was his father not against technology, but that his father considered his ideas too limited and therefore unworthy of being explored. And I really like that, because it rejects the idea that robots are only good for replacing human workers in order to improve efficiency. So often that’s the scope of what people think about when it comes to integrating new technology into a craft. But the truth is that with each technical innovation, efficiency isn’t the only thing that is effected. The range of expression changes as well, and humans in control of incredibly precise machines can create things that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. For the narrator, his conversation with his father leads him to changing his way of thinking, not to step away from bringing together technology and the art of the box making, but to further marry them to produce works of art that are fantastically intricate and detailed and complex, in order to help people connect back to their physical bodies, their families, and their spiritual selves. It’s a way that technology isn’t about bringing people further away from the “real” world, and isn’t about forgetting or turning away from the methods and traditions of the past. Rather, it’s about building on those foundations to really utilize the full potential of technology to help people express and to help people connect. And it’s a beautifully rendered, inspiring story about family and progress, about art and paying respect and homage to the past in order to move into an exciting new future. A fantastic way to close out the issue!


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