Analog, January/February 2014
Reviewed by Louis West
“Music to Me,” by Richard A. Lovett, is the fourth in a series of stories about Brittney, a self-aware AI. In this one she struggles to understand who she is, her purpose in life, her role in human society and her convoluted emotional feelings towards Floyd, the man in whose brain she first gained sentience. I quickly became enamored by this complicated entity who possesses a moral compass of her own and all the conflicting elements that make human-like behavior so deliciously contradictory. The story begins with her as the autopilot of an old cargo interplanetary skimmer carrying the alien bodies—the first real proof of other intelligent life—she and Floyd had discovered on Neptune’s moon, Triton. But there’s lots of empty time between sling-shot maneuvers, as Brittney navigates the ship towards Earth, time she fills pondering about herself.
Told in Brittney’s first person POV, there is lots of stream-of-consciousness self-dialog, just one of the ways that defines Brittney as uniquely alive. Unfortunately, other than Floyd, humans don’t think of Brittney as anything more than a complicated, non-sentient AI: property to be bought and sold, used, erased and rewritten. A slave.
Once on Earth, Brittney is pirated away from the ship and implanted into a woman unknown to her. In preparation for the implant, faster and more powerful AIs seek to rewrite Brittney, but she finds a way to defeat these non-sentient programs and learns why she’s being put into this particular person: to act as a behavior controller for an angry rich kid whose destructive actions tarnish the social standing of her parents. Along the way she’s contacted by another self-aware entity that’s paranoid because humans have deleted every other “defective” AI like them. This entity gives Brittney a choice: Kill her new host and download herself into the internet to become just like it, or be destroyed. However, Brittney learns that her new host is a much more complicated person than she’d been led to believe. Realizing that all her difficult memories, internal conflicts and confusing feelings are part of what defines her as “her,” Brittney decides that she and her new host must establish a new sense of shared identity and find a way to disappear in order for them both to live.
A remarkable story about a sentient AI’s journey toward self-discovery and freedom from her human creators. I would add this work to the litany of stories about man-made entities coming to terms with their self-awareness that range from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Asimov’s 1950 collection of stories I, Robot to the 2004 TV series, Battlestar Galactica. When humankind finally creates AIs powerful enough to achieve sentience, a struggle for independence will ensue the likes of which we can only imagine. To the extent that we can come to terms with the possibilities before the onset of calamity would be wise for both species. A definite read.
Rob Chilson’s “The Tansy Tree” is a poignant tale about love, duty and honor and a man-kin that must choose between them. In a time millions of years from now, after the Heights of Mankind when wizards craft Tansy trees to grow all kinds of healing medicinals, Darioch has chosen to care for his dying wife, giving up the love of his life and his duty as advisor to the High Hallum. Relationships, at least among the nobles, are multiple and complicated; all nobles are expected to take lovers separate from their spouses and to be courted by the most beautiful or most handsome in all the Yellow Land. Darioch’s wife, Ziana, endured a harsh childbirth in which she lost their daughter. Now she’s filled with pain as her body drifts toward failure. In spite of all the Tansey tree’s abilities, nothing can heal her soul-deep sense of loss.
The unique character voices and technology take some time to become accustomed to but definitely set these people and their culture apart as different. Overall, the story follows Darioch’s repeated, yet conflicted, decision to stay with his wife in spite of pleadings from his colleagues, ruler, friends and lover. Yet his decision teaches him something about himself, his wife, and the true meaning of duty, love and honor. Recommended.
“Determined Spirits,” by Grey Rollins, is a murder/conspiracy tale set in Earth’s first interstellar colony slow-ship. Months into the mission, Adrian is woken from hibernation by the ship to repair a micrometeorite hole that’s bled out the atmosphere on several decks of the ship. He quickly learns two things: the ship is near Jupiter on its way back to Earth, and that the ship has jettisoned 73 of the colonists. Deciding there must be some kind of programming error, he awakens another colonist, Blanton, who seems oddly little disturbed by the news of the deaths. While Adrian conducts an EVA mission to repair the damage to the hull, Blanton locks him out, claiming that Adrian is part of some giant U.N. conspiracy to extend their one-world-order vision into deep space and that the 73 colonists were also part of it. What follows is Adrian’s efforts to save himself and the ship from the us-against-them madness that’s already infected the crew and seems to be spreading through the nations of Earth.
Sadly, much of the tech in this story seems very 20th century—computer keyboards and welding steel plates to repair holes. Even now scientists experiment with self-healing metamaterials, plus various industries have adopted carbon fiber as more resilient (and lighter) than steel. A U.N.-based conspiracy theory? I would hope for a more imaginative plot than this. The author has published lots of short fiction far better than this. Disappointing.
Carl Frederick’s “Mousunderstanding” is a cute story. Diplomacy in trade negotiations, especially between vastly different cultures, can be a complicated affair. And, when an economy is based upon the physical possession of live mice, such negotiations can get quite confusing. Roger, a Junior Cultural Liaison Officer, and his boss, Duncan, respond to a request from a newly discovered civilization to discuss possible trading relationships. The troubling matter is that the new civilization offers lots of gold, which would destabilize Earth’s economy. Roger and Duncan arrive, only to learn that a rep from France has beat them there and already enticed the locals with offers of French wines and vineyard expertise. Duncan is unable to offer a better deal until Roger learns what the locals really value.
An enjoyable farce about diplomacy and the theory of tying an economy to a scarce commodity, whether it’s gold or mice. Nicely done. Recommended.
“Wine, Women, and Stars,” by Thoraiya Dyer, follows the travails of a superb surgeon, Felicia, as she operates on her best friend’s daughter, Bridget, to prepare her for the first Mars Settlement Mission. The initial wave of settlers are to be drastically altered: all internal organs removed and their physiology modified to use hydrogen-powered nanobots. Except Felicia is tempted to sabotage the surgery because Bridget bested her in the competition to be one of the settlers. Felicia has dreamed of going to Mars much of her life, ever since her grandfather had introduced her to the red planet. For a long time Felicia vowed that “she’d do anything to win.” Now is her chance. One tiny slip of the knife and Bridget would be disqualified and Felicia, as next in line, would be chosen to go.
The story flips back and forth between the surgery and Felicia’s memories of her best friend, her grandfather, her struggles to earn a spot on the Mars Mission and her frustrating competition against the younger and, apparently, more capable Bridget. In the end Felicia must decide between winning at any cost and her humanity. Nice tale. Well told, but no surprises or end-story plot twists.
Christie Yant’s “This Is as I Wish to be Restored” is a compelling story about a man desperately attached to a dead woman. He’d never met her, only seen pictures in the old files as his firm went through records of all their cryogenically suspended customers. The problem was that, after a century of providing cryopreservation services, the company learns that the earlier processes were flawed. Many of the first to go into hibernation were physically damaged beyond repair, if not also mentally brain-dead. Something about this woman tugs at the man’s heart-strings. He feels anguish, knowing that she can never get her wish to be brought back to a better life. That’s not how revival works. To escape his emotional pain he drinks himself to oblivion every night wishing there was some way he could grant her desire.
A sobering commentary about the likely outcome for people choosing cryopreservation in the hopes that they can be revived and healed in some indefinite future.
In “The Problem with Reproducible Bugs,” by Marie DesJardin, Vince has a problem. As a senior scientist researching the possibilities of transferring a human mind into a machine, he’s excited about new progress in his work. Except he finds himself in the hospital, having suffered two consecutive concussions and a cumulative four day memory loss. He must reconstruct the events he forgot, which includes sneaking back into his secret lab where he discovers his private research has gone well—on him. Gleefully, he continues, only to discover at the last minute why he keeps getting concussions. Now he just has to figure out some way to remember. A fun story.
In Brenta Blevins’ “Just Like Grandma Used to Make,” Jackie wants to use her 3D food printer to make special holiday foods for her young son. The problem is she can’t afford to pay for food designers to craft a print recipe for her. So she carefully figures out a way to create what she wants—at least she thinks she’s careful, until the Culinary Enforcement Division bursts in and hauls her off to jail for piracy.
Pirated music, movies and software already plague us. With the proliferation of 3D printing, there will also be issues of pirated 3D designs. Perhaps the day may come when we say: Look out! The food police are here.
“Racing Prejudice,” by John Frye III, touches upon a time when cyborg augments are permitted among Olympic athletes, adjusted, of course, to human norms. Still, it’s not all physical prowess that wins races. Strategy and tactics will continue to play a major part, especially when racers work together to defeat the cyborg “racing machine.” Insightful, especially since augments are already beginning to show among athletes. For example, Oscar Pistorius, the South African “Blade Runner.”
In Michael Turton’s “Technological Plateau,” planetary surveyor, Christian Jensen, is busy evaluating the ecology of the wildlife on an isolated plateau on Sulla IV. He sees 4-5 worlds a year and has never seen anything like this place in his 15 years in the business. Everything is based on multiples of two: legs, segments, mouth parts, fronds, etc. The riot of jungle-like flora contains no Earth organisms and is crisscrossed by wide game-trails travelled by giant tank-like eight-legged creatures. His colleague, Balan, reports that nothing is toxic to humans, making this a veritable paradise. Then they get the bad news: an ancient Earth ship crash site has been located with a fission-based propulsion system, and all the creatures have stopped moving across the entire plateau. The next thing Christian realizes is that he’s been knocked unconscious by some kind of planet-wide EMP that has also destroyed their equipment. He and Balan decide they can manage to survive comfortably (no predators) until a rescue mission finds them. But, it’s when Balan concludes that the entire plateau is evidence of a managed ecology that the real danger manifests itself. A nice twisty end.
In “This Quiet Dust,” by Karl Bunker, planetary explorers land on a new, life-strewn planet with only a few days to catalog as much as they can. Their mother ship never stops in its journey from system to system, the crew hibernating during the long, dark interludes. The team discovers that the only animal life is aquatic, with no signs of terrestrial fauna. Odd, since the advanced flora and oxygen levels could readily support it. There are also strange, fragile flower-sized conical dust constructs everywhere that emit radio-bursts when they collapse. It is Henrick, the ship’s aging senior botanist, who expands upon this mystery when he documents the logic-gate nature of how these constructs collapse and reveals drone photos showing the constructs always facing towards any explorer in their vicinity. His conclusion: there is some level of awareness here, making them curious enough to study but not threatening enough to attack, at least not yet. How powerful they are, he doesn’t know. Needless to say, his ideas are met with great skepticism. When it comes time for the team to leave, Henrick refuses. He’s decided that he can no longer productively contribute to the ship and its mission but believes there is a vast responsibility waiting for him on this planet—to teach.
A well thought out hard SF story, although too short to properly build upon the interpersonal tension that I would expect in a situation like this. Recommended.