Wednesday, September 16, 2015

"Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World" by Caroline M. Yoachim

What a strange experience! On a sentence-by-sentence level this is very much of the blandly well-written norm of the contemporary short sf field (particularly at the Lightspeed et al level), and I will confess I almost stopped reading before I had time to realize how deeply unhinged the story is, in very much the way that Sandra Newman wished for (in the solitary worthwhile entry in the Guardian's ongoing series of columns published with the intent to outrage gullible sf twitter into days of unpaid promotional work). The moment that convinced me to stick with it was when, early on, Mei's ruminations on the impracticability of her desired human colonization of the universe are interrupted by the sudden appearance of a disembodied, timeless voice speaking to her from nowhere and nowhen — and technically Mei may blink, but the story displays so little concern with placing her reaction in the "emotionally plausible" or "psychologically realistic" way that the field typically concerns itself with so fussily that I found myself needing to read on. Soon enough it's millions of years later and (sort of) formerly human spaceship (sort of) AIs are playing games with evolution from orbit — and things have just barely begun.

The story allows itself a lot of things that could be interpreted as massive failings — all this vastness, these disjunctive elements, all are shoehorned in together "awkwardly", but it is precisely the way that their coexistence and progression is not smoothed over (in the way that the basic language suggests they would be, and the way I normally expect this field, alas, to require at this point) that is so important. As just one example, the moment in which Mei's mind is transferred into the "black cube" of a computer and suddenly finds that, with this increased processing speed, mere seconds stretch out boundlessly, is followed almost immediately by the moment in which she and another AI casually engage in recreational activities that last millennia as part of a much longer strategy, as if the time were inconsequential, just a brief moment in the vast span of their lives. The story says nothing in words about this contradiction, but the unspoken juxtaposition speaks loud and clear — and what it speaks so clearly of is, specifically, the unspeakable.

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