Peter Crowther’s DAW anthologies are a regular treat, consistently full of top quality stories by top quality short story writers. In recent years each of Moon Shots, Mars Probes, Constellations, and Forbidden Planets has furnished stories for the Year’s Best anthologists. So what, then, of this volume, the theme of which this time is artificial intelligence?
Stephen Baxter. Tempest 43.
I’ve seen fewer Baxter short stories of late, which is a worry. Here he takes us a few centuries hence, with Earth reaping what we are currently sowing in terms of climate change. An AI-controlled orbiting weather station tasked with preventing hurricanes devastating the US coast (by beaming down microwave energy in such a way as to dissiapte the energy in the hurricane) has notably failed in its task. Baxter cleverly mixes some historical backstory to create a more rounded story as the actions of previous corporations, and invididuals, are part of the mix. There is a human on board, and the ship’s AI has fractured into three parts, one of which is now esconced as a virtual companion to him. A strong start to the collection.
Brian Stableford. The Highway Code.
A story seen through the eyes (or should that be the headlights?) of an AI which has been birthed to drive long-haul freight on the roads. Stableford has fun with Asimov’s three laws, in having the AI proscribed through the three main principles of the Highway Code. And this very much self-aware AI finds than in acting instantly to an imminent disaster that he may well have broken those principles. However, he is assured that the did indeed act for the greater good, a morally satisfactory action. However, his career is over, and the only saving grace, if that is really the case, is that instead of the breaker’s yard, he is left to ponder matters on the sea bed, whence he ended up as a result of his actions.
Eric Brown. Salvage Rites.
Ed has been on a lifelong mission. Two in fact : one, to find a resolution to the whereabouts of St. Benedictus, a cathedral of a spaceship crewed by religious zealouts who answered the call from a far distance race; and to find a resolution to the death of his sister in their childhood – is there an afterlife in which she resides?
The Gothic interior of St. Benedictus provides the answer – in that those returned monks now do indeed have eternal life, or, perhaps more accurately, eternal (zombified) death. His current relationship (so to speak) with a virtual companion comes to a head as he flees those who his to embrace him into their world. If a sort of Alastair ReynoldsLITE – good if you don’t have the time for the several hundred pages of a Reynolds novel.
James Lovegrove. The Kamikaze Code.
British military intelligence (no jokes about oxymoron’s please) has a basement full of putative SF authors who are tasked with hammering out a 4,000 word story each day. What earth use could this output be put to?
One writer, and the attractive administrator, find out the terrible truth : a basilisk text is being tested out, and their stories are being used as a weapon, with the fatal text being hidden in theirs. Whoever reads the final version of the story will die. But how to prove it? To make one of the stories available, and to have its deathly impact evinced. And what story might that be?
As Lovegrove notes, a self-aware story.
Adam Roberts. Adam Robots.
Roberts notes that at school he was regularly called Adam Robots, and has already had the last laugh (should he wish so to do) in having several parodies published with humorous pseudonyms (such as The Boggit by ARRR Roberts)
Here he postulates an Adam without original sin, a virtual construct in a virtual Eden. He is shown the forbidden fruit, but is able to resist the tempation. Adam 2 then joins him, and the pair of virtual siblings between them ponder the fruit that is within reach, and all that is offers. The second robot takes the fruit, and is banished from the Eden. Will Adam #1, a ‘thinking, sentient and alive creature’ be rewarded for being without sin? Reader, I think you can guess the answer.
Tony Ballantyne. Seeds
The complex and changing relationship between an AI and the man who created him (although this relationship is not quite as clear as you would expect) is explored.
The AI is able to review Malcolm’s life, loves and setbacks and the assumption is that the AI has the controlling hand (now having the controlling share of itself). However, human ingenuity and sheer bloody-mindedness enable a very human touch to be made on, or in, Procycon 4
Steven Utley. Lost Places of the Earth.
A virtual Paleozoic Earth is used by an aged professorial lothario to get his hands on the much younger body of one of his students. But at least he does impart some knowledge, and gossip about past scientists in so doing.
Marly Youmans. The Chinese Room.
There will be some of you familiar with John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ theory of ‘strong AI’. For others, wikipedia is our friend, and you could usefully read a couple of pages by way of a background prior to reading the story, or as I did, after reading the story. Is there a difference between simulating a mind, and actaully having a mind. The author ponders – are we robots or are we merely humans? (Actually she doesn’t ponder this, but I’m sure as hell not going to get a better chance to make such an awful pun on her name).
Are the responses online from the Chinese Room those of an intelligent human, or an AI, or simply a system capable of transmitting Chinese ideograms? Or is this too subtle a distinction?
Robert Reed. Three Princesses.
Reed’s capacity to draw on the minutiae of real life for inspiration is once again displayed, as standing in a queue in a theme park sparks a very sardonic, bleak look at the near future (if that can be called a future). In amongst the plastic themery, the cosmetic surgery, the awfulness of the ongoing war on turr, a father catches a glimpse in the eyes of an AI embodied in a fairytale princess that gives him pause for thought, and reason for hope.
Paul Di Filippo. The New Cyberiad.
Another author whom I have read less of in recent years, the lack of which is reinforced by a very entertaining story – almost too entertaining, as you can get to the point where the author’s enjoyment at his cleverness can become too much. Not quite here though, in a story of two very far future AI colossi, who, in a post-human (as in late-human or extinct-human) universe are masters of all they survey and they create. Suffering from an almost terminal case of ennui, this very Odd Couple decide that the answer is to go back in time, to bring some real live humans back to their time to offer something different and unexpected. Whilst a simple time travel device is in hand, the challenge of a much more convoluted process tickles their fancy, as does a hot female-type companion, who threatens to throw a spanner into the works and spoil their friendship.
Patrick O’Leary. That Laugh.
A somewhat more chilling tale, in which an interview takes place, with the person being interrogated being simply a voice coming from a loudspeaker. Is it an alien? An AI? Is it even the one being interrogated? The psychologist who undertakes the interviews has as little success as those who preceded.
Gary Kilworth. Alles in Ordnung.
A neat little story, although not really about AIs as such. A journalist takes a phone call from a rural farmer, who is phoning in his concerns about the new owners of the neighbouring farm. The farm is much more organised than before, the the point of geometric precision, and when the cows in the field starts grazing in formation, the farmer decides to make tracks out of there at speed. However, the influence of the geometric precision is evidently far reaching.
Keith Brooke. Sweats.
Brooke’s ‘The Accord’ was one of the stories which impressed in the Solaris Book of New Science Fiction #1, and was Dozois #25ed. This is in the same milieu, and along with a third story, makes up Brooke’s imminent novel ‘The Accord’.
Here a man wakes up in the body of someone who has rented out their body for control by such a third party. Typically young, financially constrained people are happy to spend a couple of days uploaded in a virtual reality, whilst their paying visitor uploads into their brain and makes us of their body. In this case the body is being used by a hitman, who proceeds to carry out his task, but not able to leave the body of the person used to carry out the task. And the person whose body it is, is held by the police, as it would transpire that the person who used his body wasn’t in fact a ‘real’ person, but one created from several persona, of one which was his own. (Not sure if I’m explaining this clearly!)
The hitman decided that he needs to upload to the virtual heaven, ‘The Accord’ to confront his victim, perversely someone who was campaigning against its very existence. It’s a clever peice, and raises some complex issues which would benefit from greater exploration.
Ian Watson. Some Fast Thinking Needed.
Watson has been writing SF for 30 years or more, but you wouldn’t guess from this story (nor his others). As with Di Filippo he has fun whilst remaining very much within core SF tropiary. A Suicide Matrioshka is being investigate – an AI which has utilised all the mass in a solar system to build a series of concentric spheres around a star (in this case, a Black Hole), with each in turn filtering the energy of the sun so that the outer sphere can use the energy for almost infinite processing power.
To investigate this Mat, a virtual suicide crew is on an intercept mission. The main protagonist is one Mary Marley, who is also five organic chaos clones, each of whom has their own virtual clone. It is the virtual clones, running in a virtual space on a small vessel, who have limited time to live. But at least one of the five, who are not pure clones, but who had random elements introduced when created, is in fact a male, and capable of providing recreational relief to the female crew. (THis is in fact his sole role on board, and he is able to thus concentrate on scale model car racing).
So in terms of the title, Watson also hits the spot, as the multiple variations have to react to the imminent First Contact and Last Moments. Unless there is a way to survive?
Chris Roberson. Dragon King of the Eastern Sea.
In Roberson’s ‘Celestial Empire’ setting, he also provides a neat alternative to Asimovs Three Laws, as the spaceship AI which has got stuck in an infinite loop has to work within the confines of The Three Governing Virtues of Machine Intelligence.
Summoned from slumber, the Chief Operator finds not only the AI not working, the ship thus in imminent danger, but the death of a crewmate. He has to work out what is wrong with the AI, which is simply spouting historical texts, and work out whether the death was an accident as thought.
Daw and Crowther provide the goods once again, in a pocket-sized collection that manages to 15 almost invariably top quality stories.