Monday, April 10, 2017

Say, She Toy, by Chesya Burke

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(Horror) Cloe is a black android built to let white people act out their aggressions. (2,600 words; Time: 08m)

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Needs Improvement

"," by (edited by Maurice Broaddus), appeared in issue 95, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

The first section is crude, vulgar, and over-the-top.

The narration is intrusive and has point-of-view problems.

The story is all message and no plot.

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14 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I loved this story. And will use it this semester to teach sci-fi to my students. All sci-fi is message so that critique is certainly odd. The plot is simple yet clearly crafted. It is entertaining as she the android begins to come to consciousness. The so-called "vulgarity" is reflective of real life experiences. This is a cogent blending of sci-fi and mimetic literature.

    1. The problem isn't that it has a message. It's that the message is the whole point of the story, and that message is delivered in a clumsy, ham-handed fashion.

      What did you think the plot was? Cloe is the only possible protagonist, but she's not trying to accomplish anything, nor does she change as a result of the story. Or did I miss some key point?

    2. I'd say that the plot elements, aside from the obvious, were (a) what happens when the android's semblance of humanity allows her to be used as "safe" racial pornography, and whether such is actually safe; (b) the ethics of designing an AI that, although not having real emotions, is programmed to simulate such emotions even to itself and to refine its simulation through learning and experience; and (c) whether, and at what point, a non-human surrogate is an appropriate subject of anti-racist struggle. Cloe is a passive protagonist, but passivity is appropriate for such themes.

      Also, given some of the ways that racism has actually been acted out in the United States, I disagree that the first scene is over the top or that the vulgarity is inappropriate.

      Also, this story is intended to be, and is (at least to me), emotionally affecting - I realize you don't read for that, and not doing so is an entirely legitimate choice, but I think an analysis of the story's quality should take this intent into account.

    3. Also, note the "we" at the beginning of the concluding scene, which was never used earlier in the story. Cloe has, at minimum, changed the way she conceives herself.

    4. Normally, when there's any controversy over a story, I'd reread it carefully and (typically) revise the review to make it more thoughtful--even if I didn't change the rating.

      However, in this case, the mere thought of rereading the rape/mutilation scenes literally makes my stomach hurt. I think it will be very difficult for me to ever recommend stories that contain scenes like this. When I get back from Helsinki, I'll probably force myself to do it anyway--it's a weakness that I can't see the story for the rape scene--but I'm not looking forward to it.

    5. You are of course the judge of your own professional ethics, but I don't think you have an obligation to reread something that makes you physically ill - maybe just note that you can't recommend a story with such a scene but that there are differing views in the comments?

      Anyway, another thing that occurs to me about this story is that it uses the AI's programming to illustrate cultural programming. Cloe is programmed to learn adaptively from her encounters, and her interaction with the racists teaches her the stereotypes and submissive behavior to which they expect her to conform (and murder, mutilation and rape were among the methods white supremacists actually used in the Jim Crow South to "program" the black population into submission - occurrences as bad or worse than the opening scene of the story were reported matter-of-factly in many Southern newspapers of the time). The scene with her owner/programmer/counselor teaches her the rationale by which he expects her conduct to be guided. And the activist - who she isn't supposed to see - begins to reprogram her by showing her a different way to view herself, and given that her adaptive learning is cumulative, she'll never go back to her previous unquestioning acceptance of being a porn doll for racists. There's quite a bit under the surface of this story.

      Hope you and Eric are having (had?) a good time at Worldcon.

    6. Yes, I'm aware of the ugly history. I don't see how a story with multiple graphic rape descriptions does anyone any good.

      I might have missed the bit about the adaptive programming because I've worked with real adaptive systems, and they need a lot more than exposure to a single event before they'll change. Otherwise they'd be extremely vulnerable to random noise. E.g. in handwriting recognition, if you get 100 samples of the letter 'a' but one person writes 'c' by mistake, the system will learn to disregard the 'c'. Especially if it continues to learn from new samples and sees no more c's.

    7. Hence my view that she's the same at the end as at the beginning. She's a robot. Someone tried to reprogram her. But she's an adaptive system, and it was just one stray event, so she disregarded it. And the story ends with a rape scene even worse than the original one, showing that nothing has changed.

    8. OTOH, adaptive learning from human interaction involves many fewer samples than handwriting, making it less possible to dismiss any one of them as random noise - and who's to say that, after seeing that they can nudge Cloe's programming at least a little, the activists might not buy up more of her time and throw more c's into the mix?

      Also, unless I'm missing something, the last scene, which is two sentences long, doesn't portray rape (although it does show violence).

      Anyway, I'll accept that we have a fundamental disagreement about the story and leave it there.

    9. Fair enough, although the best discussions are where people politely disagree about a story. :-) I'm still hoping someone will explain how this story does anything to benefit black women. If it had had a homophobe raping a "gay robot" with a pinecone, I'd have been outraged--even if the author had been gay.

  2. I deleted one post in this thread because it violated our comment policy, which says, "Obviously-bad comments, such as spam, personal attacks, off-topic rants, etc. or comments which use abusive or disrespectful language are subject to deletion without notice."

  3. The story is intentionally brutal, but I felt it was carefully constructed. Cloe at first can only refer to herself in the third person. Then she reluctantly refers to herself in the first person singular to appear more human, as expected of her. Finally she refers to herself in first person plural showing that she understands that she is all black women (or all women, or all minorities, or all humans). What's done to her may not physically hurt her, but it is hurtful as she represents a real person.

    1. That may be, but even six months later, the thought of rereading it makes my skin crawl. Maybe there's such a thing as being too effective. :-)