Saturday, June 9, 2018

Meat And Salt And Sparks, by Rich Larson

★★★★★ Great Characters in a Great Setting

(SF Mystery) An enhanced chimp and her human partner investigate an apparently pointless murder committed by a woman who was under remote control from an unknown source. (7,373 words; Time: 24m)

Recommended By: GTognetti+2 KBurnham+2

"," by (edited by Ellen Datlow), published on by .

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

Review: 2018.327 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: The mystery is solved, and, by the end of the story, justice is done.

But there’s a deeper story here—the story of how Cu came to feel she really had a place in human society. At the start, she’s so alienated from her coworkers that she doesn’t even like to come in to the office. At the end, she’s inviting her partner to her apartment for breakfast. The symbolism of her cleaning the place so it’ll look nice for him parallels the way she cleaned the apartment before her disastrous meeting with her mother, and it shows that she sees Huxley as her family now.

The dramatic meeting with Baby introduces a nice moment of tension. I was prepared for another smart chimp or even a trick to capture Cu for experiments, so the AI took me by surprise. I find this type of AI unrealistic in general, but the circumstance that it finds no reason to exist does ring true. More importantly, it holds a mirror up to Cu, and she’s forced to face the question of whether she herself has a reason to exist. She holds the gun to her head in her apartment, contemplates ending it all, and the tablet interrupts her. She focuses on the words “Need backup,” which remind her she’s not really alone. Not if she doesn’t want to be. And that’s enough. Touching and satisfying.

The little bits of technology were very realistic. The echoboy/girl technology is something we could almost do today, minus the neural link. Likewise the dress where the flowers change form based on a person’s mood.

Cu herself seemed realistic too, provided you bought the “what-if” regarding the uplift of her brain. Her inability to speak except through signs or typing on a keyboard makes sense too.  When I was a computational linguistics graduate student, we learned that the human vocal apparatus is a marvel that sets us apart just as much as an elephant’s trunk does, so it’s realistic that the researchers didn’t try to duplicate it.

Con: Cu doesn’t actually solve the mystery. She’s ready to give up when Baby contacts her and explains it all to her.

The emergent AI is not reasonable. The notion that an intelligence could arise at random online is at least as bad as the idea that atomic testing could produce Godzilla. The idea that it needed a virus to erase itself didn’t make much sense either.

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7 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Great points, but I'm not sure where you're getting that this was a self-emergent AI created by random chance. The inference I got was that this was a created AI that was left to grow online.

    1. Ah, I see what you mean. I think I must have missed the line, "Humans made me" or else took it to mean that they didn't realize what they'd created. Otherwise, deleting Baby does no good, as the creators would just restore her from the last checkpoint. That part of the story only makes sense if no one realized what Baby really was.

  2. This story's tropes are all well-worn, but the author puts them to good use. On the upside, I liked Cu's personal journey and found it touching. On the downside, I found some of the plot-points too contrived to be believable. Also, the story ends with Elody Polle (Baby's echogirl) still on the hook for murder, which seems undeserved.


    1. I guess that depends on whether you held her accountable for letting herself be brainwashed.

    2. I think the author is justifying the murder when he tells us about the victim and how he tormented Cu. It seems odd to do that, then let a minor character hang for it while Baby and Cu reap the benefits (the murder is what brings them together and thus drives their emotional journeys to a conclusion).

  3. Good story. I agree with the rating.

    It would have taken 1-2 lines for the writer to add that Cu would be making a recommendation for a reduced charge to be brought against the echogirl after her investigation. I noticed this too, but otherwise a great ending for Cu.

  4. Here's 4-minute video by the artist showing how the illustration was created.