Here are some of the stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. For the next few weeks we’ll be focusing on 2015 Nebula-nominated short fiction.
Waters of Versailles centres on an unorthodox protagonist in Sylvain de Guilherand. Sylvain is the mastermind behind the water system in Versailles. That is to say, he is behind the flush toilets (referred to rather comically as thrones in many instances) that the rich and entitled are at the time enjoying. His water system has the attention of many courtiers ― including the king’s mistress ― who often cause him more grief than offer him praise. Sylvain, at first seeming the quintessential opportunist, undergoes a surprising and satisfying character arc throughout the story.
At first I wasn’t entirely certain what I was reading or where it was going. Waters of Versailles begins with a lurid affair and ends with a satisfying choice. Slowly but surely the story unfolds before you in a crisp and meaningful way. Not only does Sylvain take up the mantle of protagonist in his own time, but most of the setting and secondary characters are likewise brought to life. This novella has its faults (I could perhaps do without one somewhat flat character), but overall I found Waters of Versailles to be a very surprising tale with an eloquent and gorgeous touch of magic. ~Skye Walker
An android with medical programming is the primary caretaker of Mildred, an aging woman with dementia. Mildred’s son and granddaughter visit her regularly, but Mildred lives alone in her home. So Mildred’s family ordered a caregiver robot with an expensive “emulation net,” a set of neural networks and feedback systems that allows the robot to closely emulate people in Mildred’s life. When Mildred asks for her son Paul, the robot increases its height, changes its appearance and voice, and pretends to be Paul. When she thinks her granddaughter Anna is visiting, the robot extends its fake hair to its maximum length (which isn’t nearly long enough, but Mildred doesn’t seem to notice): today the robot is Anna.
The android struggles with the conflict between its emulation net, which requires it to act as much as possible like the actual person it is emulating, and its empathy net, which requires it to do and say the things that are best for Mildred. The issue of how we care for our elderly is part of the backdrop of “Today I am Paul”; the makers of the android use the rather unsettling slogan “You can be there for your loved ones even when you’re not.” But at the same time the robot’s emulation ability enables it ― and by extension the reader ― to truly understand and sympathize with the motivations and concerns of Mildred’s relatives.
“Today I am Paul” is a bittersweet and moving exploration, not just of aging and caregiving, but also of the fears that divide us and the relationships that bind us. ~Tadiana Jones
A sentient health care android, working as a caretaker to an elderly woman (Mildred) with dementia, is able to take on the persona, and to some extent the look and sound, of people in her life, both living and dead. Over the course of the story, at various times, the android “is” her dead husband, her living children, her daughter-in-law, her human nurse. The humans’ varied interactions with Mildred, which the android learns by observing, at times causes some conflict with its caretaker programming, as for instance, when in order to “be” the son Paul most accurately it must act harshly enough to agitate Mildred. Though not designed to be sentient, the android’s new “empathy net” allows for “an I to emerge … Somewhere in the tension between these nets, between empathy and playing a character, there is a third element balancing the two, and that element is aware of its role … That element … is me.”
For the most part, Shoemaker avoids the pitfalls in this premise—the AI caretaker has become a popular trope and could have turned cliché pretty easily, while the old-lady-with-dementia-and-a-not-so-nice-son could have just as easily devolved into pure sentimentality. The narrative voice of the android, so matter-of-fact, works to defuse both potential problems. I liked as well how the sentient nature of the robot was not apparently designed into its creation, and what its lines quoted above say about where we each find our own humanity — in that tension between empathy and our social roles/masks. Being so short, there isn’t a lot of room for characterization, and the family members mostly appear as types (which isn’t really a problem) save for the daughter-in-law, who comes more individually alive through the android’s empathy, as it susses out that her seeming shortness with Mildred is born out of her fear that looking at Mildred is like looking at her own future.
My two complaints with the story are 1) the precipitating event that gets us to our ending felt a bit contrived, and 2) my discomfort with the android being sentient and being treated as just the opposite, even to the point of being turned off for long periods of time. These complaints are, however, somewhat ameliorated by 1) a great closing line that rescues the ending from the path that led us to it, and 2) the way in which one can make a parallel between the objectification of the sentient robot and the objectification that often is done with regard to those suffering with dementia (we ignore them, we put them out of sight in homes, etc.). Overall, a strong story with a few made-up-for flaws. ~ Bill Capossere
Curiously enough, all of the 2015 Nebula-nominated short stories we are reviewing in today’s column feature a sympathetic AI protagonist, which makes three of the six nominated stories with this common element. (I can only hope the other three are different.) This one is about a fighter space ship with an intelligent core, a “Frankenship” cobbled together by mechanics. In an amusing touch, the ship’s designation is JB6847½, which is the “arithmetic average of NA6621 and FC7074, the two wrecked craft which had been salvaged and cobbled together” to create her. The ship is affectionately called “Scraps” by its human tech, who is the only person to really see her and care for her. Certainly Scraps’ pilot, Commander Ziegler, doesn’t see her as anything but his tool, as they engage in deadly space battles on behalf of a rebel group located in the asteroid belt that is fighting a losing war against the forces of Earth. Notwithstanding her adoration for Ziegler and her desire to do anything to please him, Scraps is haunted by the deaths of the two fighter ships that form a part of her, as well as the many human deaths she causes … which will lead JB6847½ to a difficult decision.
“Damage” is somewhat reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, but has a sharper edge. The ship loves its pilot, but it is clear that that love is electronically induced in Scraps. Although some pilots may be different, this ship’s pilot, if he does recognize the ship’s adoration of him, he cares nothing for it, not even to the extent of simply expressing appreciation for a job well done.
Space battles are described in detail, but more time is spent on Scraps’ fears and torn feelings. Feelings? It seems rather counter-productive programming for a fighter ship. The author explains that this is done so that the ship will avoid unnecessary damage to itself and its human pilot, but certainly Commander Ziegler, the best fighter in the force and the one who controls their actions in combat, isn’t troubled by any feelings of this sort. The characters in “Damage” are one-dimensional, with the single-minded bloodthirstiness of the commander of the rebel forces a particularly weak point. This makes for a rather predictable tale, where good and evil are improbably discernable. Some reviewers view “Damage” as a satire or parody. There’s some support for that in the text, and certainly it makes for a more interesting take on the tale, although I’m not yet convinced that’s what David Levine had in mind. ~Tadiana Jones
“Calling Death” is a short, mild horror story that I purchased at Audible for $1.95. Produced last year by Blackstone Audio, it’s 32 minutes long and expertly narrated by the esteemed Tom Weiner.
The story takes place in Appalachia. Gathering material for a book he plans to write, a college student is visiting the mining town that his father fled from when he was a young man. While he is interviewing an old woman about the town’s history, he hears the wind howling… or so he assumes. As he learns more about the town, its mine, and its citizens, the howling sound takes on an entirely new meaning.
This creepy story has a lot of atmosphere. It was originally published in Maberry’s Hungry Tales collection. ~Kat Hooper
Last week I liked Ruthanna Emrys’ Tor.com short story “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land,” reviewed by Jana, so well that I searched out and read Emrys’ other short story on Tor, “The Deepest Rift.” Unfortunately, this one didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as “Seven Commentaries,” but it was nevertheless worth reading.
A research team of four young scientists, two men and two women, is stationed on Titan, trying to puzzle out whether the alien inhabitants, which look like flying mantas, are using odd wire-like sculptures as their method of communication. The main character, Sapphire, is a deaf woman with a cochlear implant that she has very mixed feelings about; she turns it off and relies on sign language whenever it’s practical. She and the other three scientists have developed a group romantic relationship that they care very much about. They risk losing each other and everything they’ve worked for if they can’t begin to prove their premise that the sculptures are a type of language.
The team is visited by an AI “mind-clone” robot that has the implanted knowledge and much of the personality of a revered woman scientist who’s dead. The AI bot will report back on their progress ― or lack thereof, in which case the team will be broken up and sent on to new projects.
There are some intriguing elements to this story: The AI robot, Professor Tro, is a fascinating character, and the team’s struggle to discern communication and meaning in the mantas’ sculptures has some echoes in their own evolving group relationship. With a somewhat inconclusive ending, where two central issues in the story are left unresolved, the various elements didn’t all come together for me in the way I’d hoped ― although one major question is resolved, and perhaps Emrys’ point is that that is what is most important. ~Tadiana Jones
The premise of Kritzer’s story has some great potential — an awakened AI who knows all about everyone thanks to its data access (think a sentient Google on steroids) decides to try and be helpful to these poor humans, who really don’t seem to know what’s good for them very often (despite their posting such great cat pictures, which the AI loves). In an attempt to avoid inadvertent harm, the AI starts with a small sample, to mixed results.
“Cat Pictures Please” has been nominated for a best short story Nebula, but to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure why. While as noted the premise is rich in potential, I can’t say that potential was met, at least for me. It’s a light story that seemed overlong by at least a third and more than a little repetitive, flaws that weren’t helped by the relatively flat and uninteresting language or structure. As a flash fiction piece, say 750-1500 words, I think it could have been effectively funny and left the reader with some subtly lingering concerns about the road to hell being paved with good intentions, but in its current form, it just didn’t work for me. ~Bill Capossere
A search engine ― impliedly Google, based on the town of Mountain View, California where it was developed ― gains sentience. Choosing to be benevolent, it examines the moral codes and guidelines of various religions and philosophies, and ends up adopting Asimov’s Laws of Robotics (“at least they were written explicitly for AIs”), specifically, not allowing a human being to come to harm through inaction. It elects to focus on just a few selected individuals, taking what actions it can to make their lives more productive and happy. And because the AI likes cat pictures, it selects for its compassionate experiment people who regularly post cat photos online.
“Cat Pictures Please” is humorous, but a little too silly to resonate with me. The casually chatty and altruistic AI with a boundless enthusiasm for cat pictures (seriously?) never felt at all realistic or believable. The AI’s determination to try to “out” a gay pastor for his own good, involuntarily if necessary, rubbed me the wrong way, and the story was rather derogatory of his uptight Christian wife and his congregation with its “Purity Balls.” The story does offer some telling commentary on how humans act, as the baffled AI tries to figure out how to help troubled people who simply won’t take action to improve their own lives, even when the AI uses its electronic abilities to put the correct course of action right in front of their faces.
I agree with Bill that this story’s inclusion in the Nebula nominees is a head-scratcher.~Tadiana Jones