Monday, November 16, 2020

Quick Sips - Uncanny #37 [November stuff]

Art by Julie Dillon
The November Uncanny Magazine brings three short stories and three poems to make for a full issue full of advanced technology, ancient incest, and some monsters for good measure. The fiction leans heavily into science fiction, providing three tales of super science and the very quiet, mundane, intimate things that go into big, dramatic, shattering breakthroughs in physics and AI. These are wrenching stories of people struggling and sometimes failing to reach for what they know is right, and the aftermaths that come when the decisions have been made and people have to live with what comes next. It’s an emotional and wonderfully imagined set of stories and poems, and I’ll get right to the reviews!


“Proof of Existence” by Hal Y. Zhang (6060 words)

No Spoilers: Delta is a scientist trying to make some money to help herself and her family. Living in the disaster her own life has become after her girlfriend, Lulu, left abroad for a while. But now Lulu is back and so is a big job requiring a time detective, which is kinda what Delta is billing herself as these days. On the surface it’s a missing persons case, a woman in China desperate to find her daughter. Beneath that, though, is a look at the science of observation that’s also something like a magic. Unexplainable. Unable to be fully mapped or defined in probabilities. And Delta has to decide where to go with that, and how many risks she’s willing to take to try and help a woman find her daughter, when the smarter thing would be to take an easier and more lucrative job with a higher chance of success. It’s a lovely piece, skipping a bit through time but holding the thread throughout, and painting a wonderful picture of Delta, Lulu, and a future they’re aiming for.
Keywords: Time Travel, Missing Persons, Investigations, CW- Loss of a Child, Queer MC, Science!
Review: I like the way the story is constructed, the way that it flows in this sort of slipping way between past and present, tying together Delta’s rather intimate story of hope and love and risk with that of the court case. And finding in the middle of it all that science and probability can really only go so far. Account for so much. And that in the infinite universe with an infinite number of branching and splitting alternates, it might be simple enough to sort of short circuit. For something to from one place and time to...another. And the work looks at the desire people have to go for the sure thing. I mean, look at polling, a topic of much interest in the present moment. How wrong it can end up being not because the science or techniques behind it are flawed but because there are things that cannot be accounted for. That any given moment there is an element of chance and there is an element of something else. In the story, the impossible, statistically speaking, is happening all the time. And there is no good explanation for why. Safe science says these people shouldn’t be jumping to their own lifetimes. But they are. For Delta and Lulu, they find that the chances of successfully finding this missing child is astronomically small. Virtually impossible. But that doesn’t really get into the unscientific side of things. That for this parent it’s worth it to try. That for some people the statistically certain outcome is not acceptable, and so they don’t accept it as inevitable. And, sometimes, that is enough to change the outcome. For Delta, it’s a choice she has to make, to risk everything to be with Lulu, or to take the “safer” option. And she chooses. And it’s beautiful, and wonderful, and you should definitely go read it!

“50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know” by Ken Liu (1856 words)

No Spoilers: This story is framed as an obituary for an AI, for Dr. Weep, or WHEEP-3, an AI originally designed to be a teaching aid but which become more than that. Which became a kind of AI critic. Not against AI but promoting approaching AI in a more nuanced, ethical, complete sense. Asking important questions. It’s “career” went in three parts, first as an AI critic, helping to shape how people approached AI. Then as a sort of programmer and guide, helping people actually design AI. And finally as a teacher, shifting its focus to actually teaching AI rather than teaching humans how to build AI. And it’s a fascinating piece, not least of which because of the framing, because of the way that it sort of twists poetry and code, intelligence and art all together in a strange and compelling way.
Keywords: AIs, Poetry, Philosophy, Teaching, Obituaries
Review: I love that within the frame of the story the obituary is written by an AI. It’s such a small touch but at the same time has the feeling of something more profound to me, that this text is more than for the humans who probably ordered it. In some ways the piece becomes this very layered thing, accessible on one plane by humans, assuming in some ways that it’s for them. But there’s this other plane where it might be for AI, might be their own way of honoring a being who has obviously been hugely influential in their development, who has given and given and given for them, and who is gone now. And that’s where so much of this poetry comes from, where so much of the nuance lies for me, that here we have an obituary that is telling about this AI and the ways it was mysterious, unknown...while it might also be talking about the disconnect between the known and unknown, that WHEEP-3 was known by the AI who it helped, who it mentored and who ended up incorporating elements of WHEEP-3’s designs and poetry into themselves. That there are things that humans might not be able to fully grasp, but that these AI can. And in that it’s a really neat story, because well it’s written by a human. So written by a human to imitate an AI imitating a human writing an obituary. And so long as my brain doesn’t overheat and bring up the blue screen of death from thinking of in this way I just really like how that plays out. The way that philosophy and coding and art all intersect and in many ways must intersect to try and do this work right, to not design AI that are doing things they shouldn’t be and so that there is this introspection and hesitation when it comes to AI making decisions. At least, in the story I just love how that plays out and how it’s all captured in this very compassionate and moving way by the AI writing the obit (and the author, behind them, writing the story). A fantastic read!

“Words We Say Instead” by Brit E. B. Hvide (4860 words)

No Spoilers: Iyara was a pilot in the military during the war. One of the very best. Good enough to fly an experimental smartship. A ship with an AI so powerful that they were like people. That they were people. Partners. Almost like children. Bred for and forced to fight. And then the war ended. The ships were decommissioned. And Iyara is an old woman now, moving around where she can, trying to find something that she’s lost. The piece is heavy, intense, emotional. Looks at the price of loyalty, of duty, and the scars left behind for doing the right thing, and the wrong thing, and the blurry line between the two. There’s a stunning emotional power to the work, and be warned: this story aims for the feels and it connects something fierce.
Keywords: AIs, Ships, War, Military, Bargains
Review: Shit. Crying now. I love the way the story approaches slowly building up the relationship between Iyara and her lost ship, Zig. How close they became, and how the pilots of the smartships all knew that there was something there more than a weapon. How they bonded with their ships, loved them. And how that all came crashing down. It’s such a wrenching piece in part because of how complicated their situation was. These were soldiers. Trained to act as weapons, to follow orders. The ships, in turn, were supposed to follow theirs. And yet that started to break down because the pilots couldn’t help but see the ships as people, as people in many ways who needed protecting. Because they were growing, they were learning, and part of that was trying to avoid fighting. To protect their pilots from going into situations where they might be hurt, where they might die. And the pilots all had to deal with that, feel that, and then hide that from the military, because technically that’s a flaw, that’s a defect. But at the same time that’s love. That’s caring. That’s proof that the ships were alive in a way more meaningful than the military would have been comfortable with. But it didn’t protect them, in the end. Didn’t save them. Because when they finally won peace part of the deal was that the weapons, that the ships, would be decommissioned. Shut down. Killed. And fuck, the story handles that with care and compassion and complexity again, because Iyara goes along with it. Perhaps because she doesn’t believe that the military would really kill Zig. But also because a part of her, the part of her that’s a soldier, probably knew it had to happen. That as much as she loved the ship there was a part of her that was afraid of it. And only with time does she see that the fear was a product of her training, a product of her own not wanting to be vulnerable, not wanting to admit that she’s more than a weapon. It would mean looking at what she deserves, what they all deserve, which is much more than the military gives them. And the result is a lifetime trying to make up for that one moment, for the one time she didn’t act, and for the loss that still haunts her. And damn it’s a good read!


“Mourning Becomes Jocasta” by Jane Yolen

This piece sums up so much in the first line, the idea of complexity when it comes to the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta. Jocasta, who is often largely erased from her own story, a figure defined by sorrow, by the man who is both husband and son. Here, that complexity, that messy reality of her situation, gets the spotlight, gets to shine. And it’s a relationship that yes, is dragged down by sorrow and by tragedy. But at its core it’s both more and less than that. It’s different, more complicated, because the romance, the love, is still there. And ignorance plays such a large part of it, the punishment that comes down one that doesn’t really match the affection, the love that she and Oedipus have. Their sin is foundational, though, is enough that their entire city is punished for it, that the gods have to intervene in order to make sure that they suffer, that they pay. And the piece looks at the cost that Jocasta pays, the (CW- Suicide) way that she dies by suicide, by hanging, creating a scene that is wrenching and mythic. And for me the title of the piece sort of wraps that in a kind of beauty, a kind of inevitability. Mourning becomes her both because it was always her fate, always her place to live and love and then to die to be that lesson that mortals should not try to change their fate. She dies, and that death here is framed as beautiful despite everything. Beautiful because it fits, because this was what she was ultimately living for, the culmination of her decisions, her loves, that have twisted into something monstrous that can only die through her. And it’s a messed up situation that the poem reminds us is complex even while it captures it in simple, short lines. A simple image. But containing in that layers that need unpacking, an creating a poem that is well worth spending some time with!

“An Elder Resigns from the Chorus of Oedipus at Colonnus” by Peter Tacy

This piece speaks to me of a certain kind of tired that comes from striving and striving and find that...all that effort might not have added up to that much, in the end. The piece is framed as a member of the Chorus resigns. And does so here not exactly as a protest. Not exactly as a defeat. But certainly with a recognition that sometimes the best a person can do is walk away. Especially when the system itself has made meaningful change rather impossible to achieve from the inside. Here, again, the story of Oedipus is evoked, and the narrator cites it as a reason for leaving. Perhaps the last straw, because after so much tragedy that could have been avoided, that might have been avoided not if mortals had acted differently but because the divine decided to be spiteful, vengeful. And that I think it a lot of what this piece means to me, that for this person on the Chorus the injustice of it just became too much. The injustice that is called justice by the gods who want to impose their will, their morality on mortals. The narrator has been the voice of this, the voice of the way things have been, conveying the divine will to the rest of the world. And they just can’t any longer. Can’t be a part of it. Like the turns in the Oedipus stories are just too much, and so they resign to get away from it. Not because it will do anything, not because it will fix anything, but simply because they can’t stand it. It’s a personal moment for a person who has been part of this different collective, and I like the emphasis on this individual moment. That they can break out, and while that might not mean they are free, it does mean they are no longer actively participating in what has been a frustrating and perhaps futile experience. They are at least outside that now, and however much there is no real hope to change the system, they can stop being a part of the harm. An interesting read, well paired with the previous poem, and definitely worth checking out!

“Cento for Lagahoos” by Brandon O’Brien

This poem is largely what it says it is, a cento (or collage poem with lines taken from different poems) for lagahoos, shapeshifting monsters from the folklore of Trinidad and Tobago. And the result is a rich and touching look at monsters, one that incorporates a kind of shapeshifting to give this portrait, this look into the shadows. For me, at least, the fact that it’s a cento, that it takes from all these different poems, shows its shifting nature, the way that the lagahoo sort of slips between states. And the piece has a flow and a great sense of the narrator speaking, revealing themself through the words, the images, the feeling of a beating heart, a being made up for stories, of sounds, of ideas. Not bound so much by flesh but by the concept of what a monster is, what a monster might be. They are a hunter, are a hunger, are a haunting all together, and I just really like how that comes together, how that meshes with the form of the poem and how the impact comes with a kind of acceptance and, more than that, a reclamation. That here the narrator is looking at how they’ve been labeled, how they’ve been conceived of by the greater world, and they seem to me to decide to lean into that. To take that. To say that it’s not a bad thing. That it’s not a condemnation for them to be seen. Rather, it can be a source of power, and by twisting the loaded gun of language around, pointing outward instead of inward, the narrator takes the power of the situation. Claims not a safety but a confrontation. That if people are going to put them into this role then they’re going to get the most of it they can. They’ll live, regardless, and what people thought of as trapping them in a linguistic cage will instead be a tool they use to gain a wider freedom and power. And it’s a fun read, energetic and well stitched together. A great way to close out the month’s original content!


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