After a whirlwind August (more travel and projects than either of your trusty reviewers can count) we’re back at the very end of September. The deluge of excellent short spec fic means that sometimes I don’t have time to cover some of my favorites in as much depth as I’d like with a busy schedule, and it especially means compiling year-end best-of lists is going to be extremely daunting. So I’m taking this opportunity to talk briefly–very briefly!–about ten or so of my favorites up to this point. I’m only including things published before August; I’ll do another at the end of the year, and a roundup post. But it’s easy to forget things that come in January and April, even if they’re lovely, and none of these should be overlooked. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list; I’m sure I’ve forgotten some work I’ve loved. But it gets a conversation started about what I’m enjoying and what, if anything, binds these works together.
“The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale”, John Chu, at Clarkesworld (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/chu_07_16/)
I imagine that everyone involved in SFF circles has by this point seen the programming for World Fantasy Convention, and the very merited backlash to it. There are a number of issues to address, of course, but one of the conversations I was quickly drawn into on Twitter was how much incredible SFF is being created by Asian writers, all ignored for the sake of an offensive in-joke. This blog has covered several of these stories, but there are countless more. In the face of the implication that Asian SFF writers and the work they produce matters less than someone’s tired and unfunny “joke”, I reject this narrative. Asian authors are producing some of the most beautiful, innovative, exciting speculative fiction right now, and I want to highlight their work. So today I’m discussing John Chu’s “The Sentry Branch Predictor Spec: A Fairy Tale”.
“The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One”, JY Yang, at Uncanny
“The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One” feels very much a spiritual successor to Arkady’s curated alien recommendation list; it also feels very close, thematically if not in structure, to Lynnea Glasser’s Coloratura. I wanted to keep thinking about communion as consumption, and about questions of voice and perspective and alienation in short fiction, and so I chose JY Yang’s story of capture, dissection, and cannibalism.
“Suicide Bots”, Bentley A. Reese, at Shimmer (http://www.shimmerzine.com/suicide-bots-by-bentley-a-reese/)
I haven’t been able to get Bentley A. Reese’s “Suicide Bots” out of my head since I read it weeks ago. Its prose worked its way under my skin, which is understandable, since the story relies on linguistic recursion to drive its narrative. But it’s one of my favourite stories this year about robots, AI, and ethical botmaking. Continue reading “SFF REVIEW: consciousness and the constructed self in “Suicide Bots””
Hello, fellow travelers. There’s been a minor hiccup lately due to travel, but the lifestyles of two peripatetic writer-academics means slight scheduling adjustments. When this post goes live, Arkady should be somewhere in Istanbul, and Cat should be somewhere in the middle of the US, heading east. We’re back on schedule, though. The following piece is Cat’s review (of sorts) on Robert Reed’s “The Algorithms of Value”, published in the January 2016 issue of Clarkesworld, and found here: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/reed_01_16/
I’ve found myself recommending “The Algorithms of Value” several times in the last week, in quite different contexts. This is perhaps not unsurprising. I knew of Robert Reed before this venture; if I say “I enjoyed this story by a Hugo-award winning novelist”, that is not exactly a groundbreaking assertion. But I keep coming back to it, not even primarily for the structure or the plot but for the world it creates, and what that vision might offer our own.
“The Algorithms of Value” depicts a world of sufficiency, in which each human’s basic drives are weighed and measured by artificial intelligence systems which assess and provide necessities. Safety, food, water, and shelter are accommodated for by these AI-controlled rooms; the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy are not the only provisions, however. The rooms can supply beauty, music, pleasure; the algorithms still have room for individuality and personal beliefs, and inequality is still a facet of the world. Equality without uniformity. All this is the work of a team of coders, lawyers, creative, and sentient AIs, in part led by the story’s protagonist, Parchment.
The story doesn’t detail the algorithms exactly, only their effects, but the effects are significant—enough to cause a shift which Parchment’s late husband claims will last ten million years. The backstory of Parchment’s complex marriage to her husband, the financier of the Algorithms, was compelling– a fascinating portrait of a facet of Parchment’s past, much in the way the room she wakes up in is. But it’s the Algorithms that draw me, again and again—the question Parchment and her colleagues ask—their attempt to answer “what will we make of our world?”
The question of what we’re doing to and with our AIs has been exceedingly relevant lately; we all remember Microsoft’s experiment with Tay, the bot who was supposed to mimic a teen girl and who the internet trained to spew racist, sexist, anti-Semitic remarks within twenty-four hours. There’s significant overlap between the IF and AI communities, especially with twitterbots and Kate Compton’s Tracery tool for procedurally generated fiction, and the overwhelming response in my communities was “…yeah, we could have told you this was going to happen” and “you didn’t do basic things we learned about years ago?”
It wasn’t as if Microsoft didn’t take some steps, which makes the matter more vexing. Tay was trained to respond to a specific incident, like the shooting of Eric Garner, with more nuance than some people on our Facebook feeds. Despite this, there were (seemingly) no checks against the user-submitted corpus of information which Tay was barraged with. This is, to put it mildly, a gross and offensive oversight for which the community of Twitter bot makers has been creating interesting solutions for some time; for instance, there’s Darius Kazemi’s solution to stopping his popular TwoHeadlines bot from telling transphobic jokes. In the end, the overwhelming feeling seemed to be confusion and frustration—how many more times will this happen before we learn that we can correct for sensitivity, that we can weigh input for greater or lesser import, and that transparency in our algorithms of what we value is always better than silence?
Reed’s story, to me, suggests that the solution to the gnawing need in us once all of our needs are satisfied is not exploration or trailblazing, not reaching out but reaching across. “The Algorithms of Value” poses empathy as the solution, that arriving at a nuanced understanding of ourselves and each other is perhaps of inestimable value. Perhaps that’s a lesson to take away as we—writers and developers, dreamers and programmers—ask ourselves, and each other, what we’ll make of our world.
This week’s story is “21 Steps to Enlightenment” by LaShawn M. Wanak. Published February 2014 in Strange Horizons, it can be found here: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2014/20140203/steps-f.shtml
Continuing last week’s theme of “elaborately structured speculative fiction with numerals in the title”, Wanak’s story immediately sank its hooks into me when I discovered it.
Coming to—or re-entering—the world of SFF very late, I’m aware there’s a lot of great fiction out there that I’ve missed and which generated a lot of buzz when it was published. Most of of my access to pre-2015 speculative fiction comes in the form of deep diving into the bibliographies of authors where I’ve found something I loved; sometimes, though, I find myself leafing through old issues of Clarkesworld and Tor and Strange Horizons.
Which is great, because sometimes you find gems like “21 Steps to Enlightenment”. It’s a piece of magical realism which explores the idea of spiral staircases that simply appear in the world, and that hold dizzying epiphanies at the tops for their climbers. Mostly, Isa narrates, in a series of vignettes and meditations, her own experiences with these structures. How they’ve affected her, how they affect other people. And slowly, the story of her family unfolds; the complex telling of a generational history.
I’ll confess from the outset that I love these sort of deliberate, separated structures.
Today’s work is A. C. Wise’s “Seven Cups of Coffee”, published here in the March 2016 issue of Clarkesworld: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/wise_03_16/
I knew I wanted to write about “Seven Cups of Coffee” from the moment I finished it; I’ve been returning to its exquisite structure in idle moments for several weeks now. The interplay of precise anchor points and looping, loping temporal shifts is a brilliant speculative fiction example of what I gravitate to within interactive fiction; the mechanic wedded seamlessly to the thematic, unable to see seams or scars. But despite my interest in narrative design, and my impression of this story as a well-crafted whole, I found “Seven Cups of Coffee” difficult to speak of precisely.
Looking back, that shouldn’t have surprised me.
Wise’s piece is a time-travel tale; it’s a story of a woman who, rejected by her family for being a lesbian, and driven by economic deprivation, agrees to a mysterious stranger’s offer to travel back in time to act as a “cleaning woman” – in fact, committing murder to order. The innocuous phrase allows our narrator to convince herself that she is simply arranging an accident for her target instead of ending a specific, individual life. Haunted by the murder, the narrator returns to attempt to halt the events she set in motion; instead, she falls in love. Again and again, our protagonist tries to change her lover’s fate. Again and again, she fails.
That’s the chronological version, at least. Far less striking when I tell it that way.