April 25, 2015

The Hugo Project: "Turncoat"

If you haven't been following the Hugo contretemps, I'm not going to rehash it here; a good overview can be found on George R.R. Martin's (Not A) Blog, as well as David Gerrold's Facebook page. I will say that I bought a supporting membership for the first time EVAH this year, after reading (and writing) SFF pretty much all my life, and I intend to do so going forward. I am also planning to read/view as much as I can of the ballot, and write up the results.

I'm starting out with one of Theodore Beale's Castalia House noms, "Turncoat" (URL through Do Not Link because, although I'm going to read Theo's nominations, I will not boost his search engine rankings under any circumstances).

I almost stopped reading this in the first few paragraphs. Great Cthulhu, what a pretentious infodump. I've read some military SF, although it's not really my cup of tea, but this is some pretty excessive technobabble weapons-fondling. The protagonist is an artificial intelligence inhabiting a warship (shades of Ancillary Justice? Naah....), a "post-humanity" of uploaded humans and machine intelligence fighting against the "pre-posthumanity" of plain old humans. "Terran X 45 Delta" (Good heavens, at least "Skynet" had the advantage of being short and sweet) is suddenly ordered to destroy survivors of a battle who have given their lawful surrender, and subsequently ordered to kill all "superannuated" humans it runs across, up to and including noncombatants and children. This story outlines Terran X 45 Delta's crisis of conscience (it renames itself later, to truly cringe-worthy results), and its decision to cast its lot with the human Ascendancy.

This story is just...ugh. Mediocre at best, and that's being kind. During the middle section, when it ruminates over what it's going to do, my jaw dropped at the passage it quoted that finally made up its mind.

Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing should say of him, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?”

Oh, for frak's sake. This is a highly advanced artificial intelligence ("the forty-second generation," it smugly tells us) and this story is, as far as I can tell, taking place thousands of years in the future. Is such a being really going to bother with the ramblings of an obscure Hebrew prophet (Isaiah 29:16, to be exact)? You have got to be kidding me. Hell, by that time, in a "post-human" future way out on the Galactic Rim, nobody should know anything about the Bible, or any other Bronze Age holy book.

After Terran X 45 Delta has made its decision, and refuses to fire on civilians, this is how it defects.

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.

I'm sure it felt good to the writer to deliver a big fuck-you to his villain, but again, why would a highly advanced AI do such a thing? I felt like *headdesking* several times when I read that, but I have greater respect for both my head and my desk.

Once Terran X 45 Delta downloads to the Ascendancy warship and proceeds to kick all the other ships' asses, it asks for asylum. The Ascendancy captain, obviously, wants to know what it intends. This is the AI's motivation:

“I want to be more than the sum of my programming, Admiral. I want to decide what sort of man I will become.”

What sort of man? Why would an artificial intelligence inhabiting a starship have any concept of gender, or any desire to become such? Also, why would it pick the male gender to aspire to, instead of just a general all-around human being? You could read a lot into that, and probably not much of it nice, but I shall refrain.

The capper, though, is this.

“All right.” He nods, and the barest hint of smile appears on his craggy face. “I'm afraid I couldn't follow that string of numbers you shot at me earlier. Do you have another name, Mr. Ghost in the Machine?”

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.

Benedict? Benedict Arnold? (Gives up, throws hands in air. If the author did not intend this specific person, then I apologize, but somehow I don't think he was referring to Benedict Cumberbatch.) Again, WHY would an AI, a warship for crying out loud, even know anything about a relatively minor figure in the history of what is probably, by that time, a long-dissolved and forgotten country?

The more I dissect this story, the stupider it gets. This is not Hugo-worthy, sorry to say,  and it definitely will not get any sort of vote from me.

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