Note: This is the second review of a short story nominated for the 2017 Nebula Awards. You can see all the nominees here, and my earlier review of “This is Not a Wardrobe Door” by A. Merc Rustad here.
Sam J. Miller (and friend?)
So here’s the short version of “Things with Beards” by Sam J. Miller: Protagonist Jimmy (Jim?) McReady has returned to New York in the summer of 1983 after a mysterious end to his work at a research station in Antarctica. He meets an old friend who’s involved with an underground group bent on payback for the cops harassing and abusing blacks. McReady is gay and white, and he identifies with his friend’s political agenda despite his Irish family, some of whom are cops. During the course of the story McReady discovers that he and his friend Hugh are infected with what is called at that time — the “gay cancer”. He also intuits that he is inhabited by a monster of some sort that claims great stretches of his memory and also attacks and inhabits practically everyone with whom McReady comes into close contact.
No, this is not a novel. It’s a freaking short story. Continue reading
Note: this is the first of six reviews of the 2015 Nebula Award nominees for best short story. Reviews of the 2014 short story nominees are archived here, just search by title or author.
Nebula award short story nominee “Cat Pictures Please,” by Naomi Kritzer, is a first-person (?) narrative of a do-good AI who is trying to sort out ethical guidance for itself. The story is set in a future so close it could be now.
The unbodied AI runs algorithms for a search engine and knows everything about you that can be gleaned online, but this consciousness is not plotting humanity’s destruction. It was evidently programmed with customer satisfaction in mind. Being far more interested in helping humans do what will make them happy, like viewing cat pictures, the AI narrates its secret experiments in meddling with three human’s lives. Results are mixed.
It’s an upbeat, humans-do-the-darnedest-things story, but by the end the reader is aware of the AI’s subtle evolution. At first the AI’s interest is in discovering its own purpose. As this is tied to satisfying human needs and interests, the question shifts to whether or not the AI is “obligated” to act in a human’s best interest if the human does not seem aware of remedies or is unable for some reason to solve their own problem. By the end of the story the AI considers that it might have been responsible for helping at least one of the human experiments, while recognizing that lots more data is needed.
The AI’s tone remains beneficent. There’s nothing ominous in the story, but readers should have had the tiniest warning bell about where this could be going. And that’s my only criticism of the story–the turning point could have been sharper.
I’m guessing this has been a good year for Kritzer. She had another short story published in Clarkesworld–“So Much Cooking“–that was, in my opinion, even more worthy of the Nebula nomination than this one. The audio version of that story, read by Kate Baker, brought tears to my eyes. If you appreciate humorous, tender tales, you’re going to like Kritzer’s work.
Thumbs up and 4.5 out of 5 stars. Continue reading