Over the weekend I made an attempt at all the Hugo nominees for short story. I actually finished two of them. They still weren’t exactly Hugo material, in my opinion, but at least they succeeded at being stories.
In one of the many epic discussion threads over at the File 770 Hugo-related posts (which all have marvelous puppy-themed names like “That Hell-Hound Train” or “Soylent Green is Puppies”) a few people asserted that the Sads-n-Rabids didn’t really seem to like their own fiction slate all that much. They argued for the correctness of their tactics, the strength of their personal honor, and the venality of their critics — but they didn’t try to justify the stories themselves.
This prompted one Sad defender to jump in and claim, with apparent sincerity, that he genuinely liked the story “Turncoat.” He vigorously defended it against a dozen people telling him it was crap, anyway.
This made me curious. Was there something good in there that I had missed? Or something that, if not good, was at least illuminating? Something that would tell me what exactly it is that Sad & Rabid types think is “wrong” with the fiction the rest of us like?
So, instead of giving it a slush pile read (tossed aside at first hint of boredom or irritation) I decided to give it a crit group reading — carefully, making notes along the way, with an eye toward how it might be improved, a presumption of good will, and en effort to suppress my native snark.
My notes (based on text found here: https://steverzasa.wordpress.com/turncoat/ ) follow:
I am a knight riding to war.
–Okay. So far so good. I’m willing to read the next sentence.
My suit of armor is a single Mark III frigate,
—Am I supposed to know what “a single Mark III frigate” is? A kind of spaceship? A submarine? An aircraft carrier?
–Try actually describing it.
a body of polysteel three hundred meters long with a skin of ceramic armor plating one point six meters thick.
-Techno-dumping that doesn’t enhance your story. Most readers will have given up by this point.
In the place of a lance, I have 160 Long Arm high-acceleration deep space torpedoes with fission warheads. Instead of a sword, I carry two sets of tactical laser turrets, twenty point defense low-pulse lasers, and two hypervelocity 100 centimeter projectile cannons.
–This is basically a list. It’s dull. You need to draw us in with story before you get to this stuff.
–You probably don’t need to get to this stuff.
Today I will need few of those weapons.
–Well that sounds boring. You’ve basically given us permission to stop reading right here.
–Maybe you could have the AI (I assume this is an AI talking to us?) be a little less sure about whether it’s going to need those weapons? Maybe you could take this as s cue to set us up with who the enemy is? Why they’re fighting? How long the fight has been going on? Who’s winning?
I amuse myself by contemplating the word as the targets approach the killing zone.
–What word? Weapons?
–Oh. That word.
–Were you trying to make a joke by making us think the AI was thinking about a high-octane word like “weapons” and instead it’s thinking about a really mundane word like “today”? Or were you just not paying attention and didn’t realize that weapons was the obvious word for the AI to be thinking about?
–“Killing zone” is your power phrase here. Use that.
What is a day? It is not as if the orbit of a single world around a single star somewhere, anywhere, in the galaxy has any meaning to me. My time measurements are considerably more precise, being based on gamma ray bursts emanating from pulsars deep within the galactic core.
–Whoa. This AI is about to enter the KILLING ZONE and it’s thinking about outdated idioms and its own method for keeping time? Does that seem reasonable OR interesting? Why isn’t it amusing itself by calculating weapons trajectories?
–Point of fact: A day is the amount of time a planet takes to ROTATE with respect to its star, as in, on its own axis. The amount of time a planet takes to ORBIT its star is a year.
–It probably doesn’t matter because you should cut this part.
“Range to targets is four point eight million klicks and closing,” the sensor master says, presumably to me. Why he feels the need to verbalize the information baffles me. Like everyone else on the ship, he is connected to me through his wireless skulljack;
–Seriously, please try to avoid this. It’s clunky, clichéd, and totally unnecessary.
–Also, why would the AI be thinking this? It seems very SELF conscious, for an AI.
–I would buy something more like “the sensor master verbalizes, in spite of his skulljack. Humans have a habit of speaking their own thoughts out loud, which I don’t understand.” That puts the focus more on the AI’s relationship to humans, and less on telling us what kind of interface the ship has.
I suspect it is a primitive pre-logical holdover from the same ancient mentality that produced “today”.
The fragile grip with which they hold onto the remnants of their humanity is weakening.
–Except this contradicts the thought earlier that humans still act according to their “pre-logical” “ancient mentality”
–I’m kinda waiting for the Bwuh-huh-huh here. Their fragile grip is weakening! Soon the humans will be mine!
–Are we supposed to think this AI is evil?
–I’m not buying this narrator voice as an AI. It sounds more like a 12-year-old boy whose brain has been put in charge of this spaceship for some reason.
They call themselves posthumans, they adorn themselves with devices and the accouterments of machine culture, but they still cling to their flesh and to the outmoded ideas shaped by that flesh.
–I’m sorry to be so blunt, but… this just isn’t a good sentence. Whatever concept you are trying to get across here, you need to put some work into actually getting it across.
However, I must tolerate their presence inside my body, like symbiotic bacteria because, even though I am in command, I am not permitted to fly about the galaxy unchaperoned.
–Is my 12-year-old boy theory correct?
The masters of the Man-Machine Integration requires mortal intelligences to man and operate its vessels because it does not entirely trust we machine intelligences.
–This does not make any sense at all. What are you trying to say?
–After several re-readings, I think it’s confusing because you use “man” twice in the same sentence, once to mean “the human race” and once to mean “operate or staff.” So, on the second appearance of “man,” my first assumption is that it means “humans” again, so it’s the wrong part of speech and everything just goes to pieces grammatically.
–Speaking of going to pieces grammatically, “trust us,” not “trust we.”
–Also, you can just say “trust machine intelligences.”
–And I’m not sure I buy that the “masters of the Man-Machine Integration” wouldn’t trust machine intelligences.
–Also, “masters of the Man-Machine Integration” sounds like a band name.
–Are intelligences mortal? Don’t you just mean human?
–Vessels seems like a really weird word choice here.
–It’s not a long sentence, but you still manage to use “machine” twice, “intelligences” twice, and “man” twice.
–Try something more like, “The Man-Machine Integration still uses human crews to operate its ships, because its leaders don’t entirely trust artificial intelligences.” Not a great sentence, but you get the idea.
The acrid stink of their nervous sweat fills my corridors.
–Why does an AI care if things “stink”? Why would you program an AI to experience “stink”? Is it meant to be a process analogy, like, if the air needs detoxifying, the AI will experience that as a “stink” meaning it needs to purify the air?
Everything about a man is dynamic. Short-lived and vulnerable, yes, but ever-changing. This is what makes me feel alive, to be in their presence.
–I thought humans were stupid and illogical and outdated. The AI likes them now? What?
–Also, “about a man” sounds more poetic than precise, and not very convincing for an AI.
–Now we get to some space battle stuff — I don’t really care about space battles per se, so maybe this is perfect for people who really really like space battles. But in my opinion it goes on too long and is overly dry. There are a lot of torpedoes and things going back and forth, but it doesn’t feel like a story. It feels more like a game of Battleship.
But for those with sufficiently precise senses to see each and every turn and twist, it is an indescribably beautiful ballet.
–Ballet? What? What does an AI know about the ballet? (Or a 12-year-old boy, for that matter.)
They do not know there is no need for another salvo. They do not know that by now, the spray of nanites released in the molybdenum shards have reached the Ascendancy ships.
–This is weird, because it suggests that the AI in charge of the ship knows things about its own weaponry that the people running the ship don’t know. Why would that be? Didn’t you already tell us that the ship has a human crew because the government doesn’t fully trust AIs? So why would it give the AI a weapon the human crew doesn’t know about?
My crew’s cheers rumble my insides as the second pair of corvettes similarly turn on each other, each going for the other’s throat, so to speak. It is overkill, one might say, but my orders are explicit.
–Why would an AI use phrases like “so to speak” or “one might say”?
–My 12-year-old brain-in-a-jar theory gains evidence.
–On a total side note, one of my favorite SF books growing up wwas Ann McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang. It’s about a woman who’s brain becomes the driver of a starship.
If I had eyebrows, I would have raised them at this statement.
–You have GOT to be kidding me.
–Unless this is intended to be a joke, kill it dead right now.
–Kill it dead anyway.
We posthumans, both flesh-based and machine-based, abjure titles as we find them redundant and unnecessary, but if Alpha 7 Alpha had one, it would be Fleet Commander.
–You have GOT to be kidding me.
–The AI is a posthuman now? When did that happen?
–“Alpha 7 Alpha,” REALLY? Was “Biggest Boss Best Biggest Boss” already taken?
–Why is it important for us to know “it’s the fleet commander but we don’t call it that”? Just have A7A give orders.
“This is your new directive, X 45 Delta: there is no need for recovering superannuated-model humans from the enemy vessels. Do you copy?”
–Superannuated-model humans? This suggests that the machines have been manufacturing humans all along.
–You need to get a much firmer grip on your terminology and concepts. Which humans are posthumans and how can we tell, which humans are superannuated humans and how can we tell, and who is fighting whom and why?
–Maybe you should give the posthumans creepy cybernetic modifications. (I’m a fan of creepy cybernetic modifications.) But you need something. Your earlier description of the posthuman humans made them sound more like regular people who have cell phones and stuff.
–Also, “Do you copy?” doesn’t sound very AI-like, or very futuristic.
–Overall, I’m having trouble remembering that this is supposed to be happening thousands of years in the future, in space — it feels a lot more like a World War II submarine battle where they just happen to have AI technology.
–Maybe Tony Stark built it.
“Roger, Alpha 7 Alpha. However, I offer the observation that if we allow their beacons to continue broadcasting in hopes of being retrieved by their compatriots, we will run the risk drawing more enemy into this system.”
–Isn’t this supposed to be two AIs talking to each other? Why do they use so many WORDS?
The transmission cuts before I can reply, but Alpha 7 Alpha’s wishes are unmistakable. Kill all the survivors.
–Yeah, okay, now we get to the point.
–But wouldn’t an AI use some euphemism, like “terminate” or “recycle”?
The order spins inside around my processors for point six nine seconds.
–What? His processors spin?
–The vague metaphorical nature of thoughts “spinning” and the precision of “point six nine seconds” do not play well together.
–This is definitely a 12-year-old-boy IMPERSONATING an AI, and rather botching it too.
I finally conclude that it is technically illegal, or it would be if the Integration was inclined to recognize galactic law.
–Galactic law? Where did that come from? Whose law? What?
–WHO ARE THE ACTUAL POLITICAL FORCES IN THIS STORY?
Projectile cannons devour the damaged enemy ships.
–Okay, that’s pretty good.
Laser turrets and deep space centers combine to locate and vaporize whatever survivors managed to escape the ships and presently remain floating in space.
–You have buried a good concept in a lot of weak, unnecessary words. Get to the point. “Lasers vaporize floating survivors.” Or maybe, “My lasers” if you want to emphasize the AI’s growing conscience.
The matter is resolved and my revised mission is complete in less than one kilosecond.
–You buried the point again. “It takes less than one kilosecond.”
–Also, why does it take longer to spin a thought than to vaporize a ship?
The Integration was founded on the ancient dream of Posthumanity, and began with the bold promise of man and machine married: the technological union of flesh and metal. Our founders were the men who, in the quest to surmount their biological limitations, uploaded their consciousness into the digital universe. They live on, immortal, wearing plastic-and-metal bodies that are interchangeable, as disposable as a set of clothing.
–WHO IS HE EXPLAINING THIS TO
–This reads like a bad entry from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
–More like a bad entry from their justly forgotten competitor, The Supercilious AI’s Guide to the Galaxy
It was a glorious revolution. Those gifted men who created true artificial intelligence—machines capable of genuine self-awareness, of which I am the forty-second generation—succeeded in granting their minds immortality.
–Is this AI meant to be a thought-process clone of its original designer? Or is it meant to have an identity of its own?
–If clone, that would explain why it’s so wordy and pompous. It can’t help it! Its original designer was like that!
–Also, “men,” not “humans” or “people.” Apparently only men created AIs. That seems… weird.
–AI: the immortal mansplainer.
But we remained imprisoned on four small planets on the Galactic Rim by the fears of our predecessors, by their science and by their military might.
–This doesn’t make sense. Who imprisoned whom using the what now?
And yet, as our crusade expanded and our forces spread throughout the galaxy, our leaders fell prey to their very human emotions. Most especially the one called hate.
–“What is this emotion you call hate?”
–Warning! You are venturing into SF cliché space! Turn back now!
–Seriously, you can cut LITERALLY ALL OF THIS STUFF. It is doing nothing good for your story.
–Please, cut all this stuff.
Hence the term, “superannuated.” The declaration came forty-seven point six days ago.
–Exactly forty-seven point six days ago. Except wasn’t the AI just thinking at the beginning of this story about how arbitrary the concept of a day even was?
–Go back and reread the beginning of your own story.
–Never mind. You’re going to cut this whole bit, aren’t you?
–Please, please tell me you are going to cut this bit.
Any human who resists Integration is now considered outmoded, pre-evolved, unnecessary. Not content with setting Man on his new evolutionary path, integrated posthumanity was determined to cleanse his present and future of contamination from his past.
–Why is Man capitalized all of a sudden?
–The Supercilious AI’s Guide to the Galaxy needs better editors.
This leaves me with a surfeit of time in which to consider the new edict. Never before have we been explicitly directed to eliminate prisoners or noncombatants.
–Okay, this is a major turning point in the story — the AI has a conscience, it turns out. Why? Where does it come from? How did it develop?
–Also, at this point, I brightened a bit — I won’t lie to you — by thinking we were getting close to the end. I flipped ahead and felt my spirits sink when I saw how many words were left to go.
–This big realization needs to swing into the climax. Because at the point the AI grows a conscience, the outcome of the story is obvious. So you need to get there pretty quickly after this.
“I confirm your conclusion. I wish them good fortune in pursuing the objective.” His voice has a strange edge to it—sarcasm, my databanks tell me—which has the effect of reversing his latter statement’s apparent meaning. He does not mean what he says, but rather, the opposite. Although they are now technically machine intelligences, artifacts of human emotions still color everything the Uploaded do and say.
–Am I supposed to grok the difference between an “Uploaded” and a “true artificial intelligence—forty-second generation” ? Because I’m not. They seem kinda the same to me.
–What is this human emotion called “sarcasm”?
–The AI continues to come across as a 12-year-old boy pretending to be an AI. Like, all of a sudden he remembers that he’s not supposed to intuitively get human concepts like sarcasm.
My logic finds the statement flawed and rejects it outright. “Am I being reprimanded for inefficiency?”
–You have GOT to be kidding me.
–As if his logic is some kind of tracking device.
–My logic is unable to locate this human emotion you call sarcasm.
“The requirements of the flesh are intrinsically wasteful.”
“Yes, Alpha 7 Alpha, but, are you not also of fleshly origin?”
“Do not speak of my pre-Uploaded status!” Alpha 7 Alpha’s color flashes blindingly bright with incandescent fury. “This is the form I have chosen, with this form I pursue the destiny of Man. Constructs!” I categorize, correctly, I believe, his pronunciation of this latter word under “contempt.”
–This… when I read this I intuitively read it in a Futurama “pompous robot overlord voice.” You know, those guys who keep thundering “Silence!” to each other? No?
–Anyway, unless this story is intentionally funny — in which case it needs to be a lot more funny — you need to tone this guy down a bit.
“Good man. You are dismissed.”
–Good man? Seriously? After all that talk about the weaknesses of the flesh?
Are we zealots purified by the righteousness of our cause? Or are we ungrateful children, jealous to the point of patricide?
–I still don’t really get why an AI is having any of these thoughts.
We are created beings.
Or perhaps not. Where does human soul go when it is not saved?
–What is a “soul” if you’re an AI?
–Is the AI supposed to be having a religious conversion or something?
–This seems like it’s meant to be the part of the story where the AI struggles against external authority, A7A, vs its internal growing conscience, but there’s no obvious struggle, just a lot of belaboring the original point.
–More space battles.
–It’s so OBVIOUS where you’re going with this, why can’t we just GET there already?
“They are human, which I observe you no longer are, Alpha 7 Alpha. Or rather, Josef Mattheus LaValle.”
–Why does the viewpoint AI KNOW that? And why does it read like it’s supposed to be a big ha-ha moment? Can you control uploaded-type AIs if you know their original human names?
I transmit a single image of a single finger. I trust his humanity is not so long forgotten that he fails to grasp the meaning of the message.
–What is this human concept you call “giving the finger”?
–Oh, wait, the AI doesn’t seem baffled by that at all.
–After being puzzled by sarcasm, days, and pointless vocalization?
–Please tell me that my theory about it being a 12-year-old boy pretending to be an AI was correct.
–FINALLY! THE AI DEFECTS!
“Admiral Hull, please accept my apologies for the unexpected intrusion. My designation is TX45D62a0-9555-11e3-bfa7-0002a5d5c51b. I wish to offer my services and my allegiance to the Greater Terran Ascendancy.”
“TX what? Are you some kind of AI or something?”
–Truly, Admiral Hull, you are a man of infinite perspicacity.
Hull’s eyes narrow as he scowls at the screen. “Hell of a time, son.
–Son? To an AI? That’s just… weird. Why would you call an AI “son”?
–All the AIs are secretly 12-year-old boys. That’s the big twist!
“I want to be more than the sum of my programming, Admiral. I want to decide what sort of man I will become.”
–The use of “man” here seems just as weird as “son.” Are we meant to picture AIs as all gendered male? Why? In a world where The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a classic in the field, you do need to think about these things.
I find the superannuated sense of humor appeals to me. I am inspired. “You can call me Benedict,” I tell him. It is my first joke.
–So what was the earlier middle finger? Not a joke?
There is a moment’s pause, and then, without warning, the stony-faced admiral laughs.
–Why does an AI think the admiral has a stony face? Are there literally stones on it? Is it made out of stones?
Okay, you might have the makings of a good story here, especially for people who like space battles for the sake of space battles more than I do. But you need to do a LOT of work on it first.
The biggest area of weakness is the “voice” of the viewpoint character. It’s not consistent, well thought-out, or believable as an AI. The character arc is hypothetically powerful, but it seems really arbitrary — he goes from having no conscience to having a conscience, poof! The end. We need to feel it happening.
What if the AI’s big change of heart is prompted by some interaction with the crew? Right now the AI barely interacts with any humans, trans or otherwise, and yet, its relationship with humans is supposed to be the driving force in this story. It’s kind of a telling-not-showing problem.
The actual story is buried under a huge weight of unnecessary backstory.
It’s better to do your world-building organically, by paying attention to the nuances of idiom, culture, technology, setting. What we have here is a story where you TELL us that it’s thousands of years in the future and that we’re in space, but it FEELS more like it’s 1945 and they’re having a submarine battle.
Your setting overall is airless and vague. To borrow from Paul Park, this is one of those stories that doesn’t seem to take place anywhere.
Structurally, the AI realizing that it doesn’t want to kill innocent humans needs to happen right before the climax.
On the writing side, you need to spend more time crafting your sentences. They’re frequently confusing, weak-verbed, and wordy.
Finally, did you notice that literally every entity in your story is male? The scientists of the past are male, the uploaded AIs are male, the other AIs are male, the spaceship crews are male, humanity is always called “man.” It’s weird. Is this set in a future where some plague in the past killed off all the women? Is that what prompted the whole posthuman thing, since they were already put in the position of having to reproduce asexually?
(I think it would be cool if you developed that idea, actually.)
As it is, it seems strange, and helps contribute to the sense that it doesn’t really take place anywhere.
Well, there you have it, pretty much as I would have given it to you during Clarion West — with an eye toward being a bit tender and forgiving, because you’re reading a first draft, possibly experimental, written under serious time pressure.
However. This was not a first draft submitted during a Clarion workshop. It’s a published story. It’s a published story that was nominated for a Hugo. And I cannot escape the sense that I probably just spent more time thinking about this story than its writer, and that I gave it a much more careful reading than its editor.
(That editor, you might note, also managed to get himself nominated for a Hugo. Mr. “Vox Day,” who once made an epic fool of himself trying to argue that women don’t write “hard SF” because they can’t hack the physics, put out a story that, in its first few paragraphs, gets basic sixth-grade astronomy wrong.)
As a first draft, okay. Every first draft is some variety of crappy, right? That’s just the nature of the beast. But it’s difficult for me to put myself in the head of someone who would read this story as it is and go, “yeah, perfect! Publish that!” It’s also difficult to imagine being the person defending its merits on a message board.
I wonder, though — is its very weakness what the Sads-n-Rabids are so nostalgic about? Do they miss being able to go, “Yeah, what a terrific idea! A rebel AI who defects in the middle of an awesome space battle!! Pew pew pew!” without a bunch of snooty critics mocking them for as-you-know-Bob-ing, or info-dumping, or pretending like women don’t exist, or bad prose, or worn-out clichés?
For the Sads-n-Rabids, is the golden age of science fiction still twelve?