Review of Nebula award nominee “Cat Pictures Please” / Reseña del cuento nominado al Premio Nebula: “Cat Pictures Please”

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.

575-manekiNebula 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

Reading during the winter quiet

This time of year, nearly done and begun, is generally one of my favorite seasons. It’s the time of mystery and wonder, and best of all, quiet, so one can read in peace.  If you are looking for something to read this week while you enjoy the deep quiet, here are a few short stories  I found particularly satisfying this year:

The Sixth Day by Sylvia Anna Hivén

Loving Grace by Erica L. Satifka

So Much Cooking by Naomi Kritzer

In Loco Parentis by Andrea Phillips

And here’s one more story — If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Xia Jia, translated by Ken Liu–which is a somewhat strange story, yet it somehow beautifully captures the feeling of reading in winter.