Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SNARL: Turncoat

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the fourth of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of "Turncoat" by Steve Rzasa.

For a story where there is so much happening there is very little going on.

There is a lot of space-battle-porn going on in this story. Lots, and lots, and lots of explosions, and torpepoes, and cannons, and lasers, and BOOM-KABAM-ZZZZIIIITTT-ARRRGHHH-TAKETHAT-BOOOM-PEWPEWPEW. In fact, that is a fairly good summary of the story. I did warn you there would be spoilers in this review. I think I will give it two stars just for the space-battle-porn.

The author does try and inject a little philosophy.  Very little.  I should say the author drops an unattributed bible quote (it is Isaiah 29:16)  into an interlude where I suppose we are to see the protagonist as searching for answers to moral questions, but the AI is never developed to the point where it has a convincing set of morals, so we just see the AI randomly searching databases of philosophy. 

One, however, resonated with me. I find myself running and re-running a single selection from it again and again, fruitlessly seeking to understand it.
 Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing should say of him, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?”

The story starts with a bit of space-battle-porn where the protagonist AI uses kamikaze nanobots to carefully dismantle an opposing ship’s control systems so a few choice control orders can be slipped in, and the story ends with the protagonist AI simply beaming its entire self over to an opponent ship so he can become the control system for the ship, and end the story. I’m left wondering why simple orders require a nanobot ballet, but huge-bandwidth data dumps with integration boot-up just requires wanting it to happen.

The ending may have been predictable, but I had given up predicting it by the time I got close to it; I was looking forward to the place where the words ended entirely.

One of the things that irked me was the prevailing sense that the author wanted to write science fiction, but disliked science.

I’ve never liked it when authors throw numbers and units around in the futile hope that it creates context. Numbers demand context; they do not intrinsically create it.

I am also nonplussed by awkward units. The author of this story uses decaseconds and kiloseconds as if they speak to the audience. He also uses random bits of precision to make the story sound more “machiney”. The resulting Dunning–Kruger ambiance is annoying at best.

“Thank you, Alpha 7 Alpha. The enemy patrols are more frequent. This is the third such incursion in 584 kiloseconds.”

Why not make it an even 604.8 kiloseconds, and call it a week?

“The explosion is so near, and so intense, it overwhelms my visual and scanner feeds to starboard for nine point eight seconds.”

So all the scanners come online at once in a thousandth of a second? Do some come on at 9.75, and then some at 9.85? Why not call it “about a decasecond” and provide a little acknowledgment that events take time rather than being instantaneous. Also, you’ve already forced your readers to look up decasecond (who uses decasecond? Wiktionary: “Decasecond is not in official scientific usage and is rarely found outside dictionaries and word lists.”) , why not reward them with using it one of the few times when using it makes sense?

“The declaration came forty-seven point six days ago. Any human who resists Integration is now considered outmoded, pre-evolved, unnecessary.”

Is that forty-seven point six days when you started writing the sentence, or when you were done? OK, point one days is a lot longer than it takes to write a sentence. In fact it is impossible to resolve the time it takes to write a sentence using huge units like point one days. Anyone should know the level of precision communicated, and not confuse it for a more significantly-defined time span... Anyone that is except the author, who goes on to make that very same mistake:

“Our preparations take eight point six standard days. That is fifty-seven seconds longer than it takes for our six ships to arrive at Shandari Prime.”

Fifty-seven seconds is actually 0.000659722 days, which is much too small to be communicated with a measurement resolved to only tenths (0.1) of days. Fifty-seven seconds is also a rather awkward number to convert to fractional numbers of days; you need a large amount of precision to effectively denote 57 seconds. If you truncate the fractional day equivalent to 0.0006 days you are only talking about 51.84 seconds, and if you round it up to 0.0007 days you are actually talking about almost a minute and a half. So in order to effectively communicate a number of days that could be resolved to present a fifty-seven second time difference the author would have to say something like “Eight point six zero zero six five nine seven two two standard days”. I know why the author did not do this; it sounds stupid. Of course “eight point six standard days” sounds stupid, and pretending that you can resolve fifty seven seconds in such a number is just ignorant.

I will end this review in six point nine zero four seconds, which is –now-. Unless you are reading really fast, which would make it –now-. Of course you could be an ultra-speed reader, which would allow you to read this last paragraph over twice, and only then realize that the place this review really ended was –now-.


vortexae said...

"Why not make it an even 604.8 kiloseconds, and call it a week?"

Hee! Still lol'ing.

Rev. Bob said...

“Our preparations take eight point six standard days. That is fifty-seven seconds longer than it takes for our six ships to arrive at Shandari Prime.”

I took that a little differently, that the trip time and prep time were almost identical, so close that the difference was notable as a separate thing.

Compare to: “The trip to Disneyland took nine hours, which was one minute longer than Timmy could wait for the bathroom.” The eight-and-fifty-nine interval simply isn't important.

adult onset atheist said...

Yes Re. Bob, the difference was very small compared to the overall span. In your example this difference is used as a cute way of saying Timmy urinated in the car; very human. In the story the comparison is used to state that 57 more seconds on a clock passed after they arrived before their preparations were complete by what is essentially a talking clock. The author even shifts from his preferred time unit of kiloseconds to standard days in order to facilitate the juxtaposition (it might not have the same impact to say that it took 743.04 kiloseconds to prepare and this was 57 seconds longer than it took to arrive). However, these take advantage of a human’s predilection for blurring the rules for significant figures and the communication of data. What I think he wanted to say was “It took about a week and a half to get there, and a minute later we were ready”, but that did not sound machiney enough so he threw in some significant figures and poorly comparable units. This is counter to the rigid forms a machine communicates data using when they are programmed to present data that is to be compared. I think you hit upon the reason for the mistake… losing the voice the character would use, but I don’t think “humans talk that way sometimes, and it communicates part of their human-ness” really works as an explanation here.

Rev. Bob said...

Oh, don't get me wrong; I'm not defending the story as a whole. (I stopped reading before the end of the initial battle.) I just didn't feel the need to pick on that point when there are so many juicier ones available.

adult onset atheist said...

There are two things that hamstring this review. One is that it is framed around the somewhat jagged personality (me) that formed the opinions. The second is that it is colored in with some of my own questionable aesthetics. I can write more objectively, but here, in this blog, my opinion runs free-ish. This story got two whole stars for the space battles, but I can objectively see that they could be a major reason this story was unreadably tedious for many people. However, the idea of machine characters that fail a reverse Turing test (convincing me through interaction that they are machines and not people) or putting stuff in because it sounds technical and only being able to muster an amateurish stillborn parody of technical communication just makes my skin crawl. And, yeah, I know it is kinda soap-boxy of me at times, but I do try and poke fun at myself when I realize I am getting too serious. This is, after all, just an SF short story review.

Ray said...

Why does the computer say it was "the third such incursion in 584 kiloseconds" but "Our preparations take eight point six standard days" and "The declaration came forty-seven point six days ago"
Either seconds for all of them or days for all of them. And if you're comfortable with using days and seconds, why not say "8 days and arglebargle seconds"?