Clarkesworld has gotten a lot of media attention lately with its problems with AI-generated story submissions. We see plenty of negative effects of these new tools, but this short story manages to propose something a bit more constructive use of these tools – with respect to the more questionable moral dilemmas they also add.
In this near future a journalists hears about a new app that apparently is great at helping people to be more productive and happier. At first she thinks it sounds like a cult thing with how every user talks about it a bit too passionately. She tries it though and the key element is that the app is built around a community where other users are instructed to make real phone calls to other users. Like telling them it is time to wake up and remind them of their personal goals. This turns out to be quite effective. As we all know, the motivation to actually do something is low if it is just an app telling you, but if you have a friend waiting for you at the gym – then you have to go.
The story centers around this journalist and how she tries to unravel who or what is behind this special app. What starts as a great community where people help each other is quickly ruined by an influx of scammers and commercial interests.
I found this story to be fairly realistic in what tech could evovle into in the near future, while also acknowledging how easily otherwise noble intents can be quickly ruined by a few bad people. Not unlike how AI tools are used today.
This 10 year old story was quite fun to read today, because we aren’t far from the “app”-controlled future depicted here. When smartphones were new, the phrase “there is an app for that” quickly became popular. This story presents a near future where there is an app in practically everything, which isn’t far off from all the IoT devices we have today.
A man has his life controlled by various smart apps as he tries to loose weight hoping it will impress his new girlfriend. His fridge controls what he eats and his shoes how long he runs.
There isn’t exactly any hidden message here as the story is fairly straightforward about how we should make our own decisions in life. Should we satisfy the apps or the people we care about? A pretty good story that barely feels like science fiction here in 2023.
A couple of years ago I tried reading some of John Varley novels, but didn’t find them interesting. Reading his short stories is a completely different things. There are so many interesting stories from him the 70s and 80s, and this is just one among many in the big collection The John Varley Reader.
The basic setup for this story is really something else. A young girl stranded alone on an abandoned space station with only some dogs and plenty of alcohol for companionship. After years of living like this a Lunar police officer manages to get in contact with her, after it is discovered that someone is actually alive aboard this station that is about to crash. The mystery of who she is and why she is alive on the space station reveals a fascinating back story about a terrible virus that ravaged decades ago.
It is a very tragic and sad story, but not overly so because Varley often writes with a little added humor and lightheartedness. It wasn’t a particularly sad reading experience even though the actual story is.
Read in The John Varley Reader Originally published in Blue Champagne Rating: 4
Sean McMullen is an Australian author I have just recently discovered and have been very impresses with basically every short story I have read of him so far. His collection “Dreams of the Technarion” is worth checking out.
The story follows Lars who has worked as an engineer on a large telescope project located on the Moon. He goes on a sort of date with a woman who turns out to be a contract killer on a mission to kill him. Somehow Lars is neither surprised nor very upset about this. The assassin can’t help being curious about why this seemingly harmless engineer has a price on his head, so Lars gets to tell his story.
McMullen manages to create an engaging story even though it is on the surface just two people talking. The main character even acknowledges this directly:
I have found that questions are the best way to explain a difficult idea. Do an info-dump, and people’s eyes glaze over. Force them to follow a trail of reasoning, and you have a convert.
Both characters are interesting and the actual mystery about what Lars know and why someone wants him dead was well done and original.
A common thing for science fiction stories is to take a current trend and extrapolate it into a more extreme form. This short story looks at social media influencers in a future where the technology allows a bit more following than today.
Amber is a popular influencer with many followers. She gets lured into taking it to the next level with an operation that gives her an implant in her brain, allowing her follows to hear, see and feel literally everything she feels. Anything just short of reading her thoughts. At first she is horrified, she didn’t read the fine print in the contract, but accepts her situation since it is only 6 months.
Most of the story is pretty straightforward and somewhat predictable with its message, however it takes a rather dark turn in the end. A good story but I was slightly annoyed that the whole premise relied too much on Amber not reading anything about what she actually signed up for. I thought that could have been handled better.
Read in Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2023 Rating: 3
This was a good and very Analog-ish story with believable scientists doing science. Which I always love.
A young professor is given some papers from his former supervisor after his death. Among the papers is a long list of various mathematicians, physicists and cosmologists from around the world. Many names with a checkmark next to them, some without. One of the names is his own – without a checkmark. At first he tries to ignore it, but he becomes increasingly intrigued by the puzzle.
This will be a slight spoiler for the story, but I think most readers will be able to see broadly where this is going. The names that has a mark have all died – some of natural causes and others by more strange circumstances, usually at a young age. All were doing interesting work in their fields, though without any clear link. It is revealed that all the scientists were doing work that could potentially lead to the invention of time travel. And something is trying to prevent that of happening.
This premise have been done at least a couple of times before, but that doesn’t take anything away from Chase who has written an engaging and thought provoking story about the limits of scientific research.
McAuley sets this long novella at around 2060 in a world trying to deal with climate change, though that is not central to the story – merely an inevitable pre-condition.
The plot moves rather slowly and mostly concerns world building, with a few somewhat crude jabs at what people in our present time did wrong. We follow Rose who suffers from being a victim to some sort of psychic weapon. She knows of a clinic in Czech Republic that might have a treatment, but she needs some money first. She comes across some information about a stack of soul chips that could be valuable. The so called soul chips was an attempt for people to upload their minds into a chip in the hope of living forever once the technology has advanced enough. Though it becomes pretty clear that it was more or less a scam based on crude machine learning creating superficial simulations of human personalities. However, in this lower-tech future some collectors find them intriguing.
This story is really mostly about our present and less about this future. The characters have plenty of conversations about our time and how people were back then, their hopes for the future and naive outlook that things could just continue forever. I think McAuley gets across what he wants to say without being overly didactic and still giving the reader an interesting story on its own.
A straight forward murder mystery on Mars. Except it is not outright murder, but someone is still responsible.
The setting is a settlement on Mars in its early stages and the story follows Blaine who is working as a marshall, serving the role of the practically missing law enforcement. A dead body of a woman turns up and he sets of to investigate how and why.
Might be a slight spoiler, but there is no murderer per se, but Blaine uncovers an unjust cooperate system that fails to take proper care under tragic circumstances. The woman was married to an employee stationed on Mars, but when he died of an illness, she lost any funding or rights to keep alive on Mars. There is a fine point to the story here about unemphatic cooperations not willing to take responsibility if they are not legally required to, but I had a somewhat hard time accepting this premise. If we ever get a settlement on Mars and have people employed on work contracts there, I am pretty certain lawyers and insurance companies would write up a plethora of clauses to handle every possible and impossible scenario. That aside still a decent story.
Read in Forever Magazine, March 2023 Originally published in F&SF May/June 2021 Rating: 2+
Rusch is known to write about a future with advanced spacefare and aliens, but where some of the injustices in todays world still lives on. I recently wrote about “The Impossibles” with that theme. In this story the narrator isn’t exactly a likeable person that wants to fight injustice – though she might end up doing just that.
The narrator is a woman who works as a private detective, sort of, on some planetary settlement. She ended up there after she left her life and family on Earth behind when she signed up for a voyage across the galaxy. She signed all the waivers on the consequences of time dilation, but it took her a while to actually understand it – and then there was no going back. Now she offers investigative services to other people in a similar situation, by going through various data sources for information on their families back on Earth where at least a 100 years have passed. She gets a big case where she is tasked with investigating hundreds of travelers, which unveils a much greater crime that she is used to dealing with.
Rusch has made an interesting choice by having a narrator that is rather unlikable. She has a lot of self-hate but no real regrets on leaving behind her son and husband. The effect of this is that we don’t really have sympathy for her in the beginning, because she just have to live with the consequences of her actions, but through her investigations we hear of people who have ended up in the same situation as her having lost their families to the effects of time dilation – except they claim to not have done so knowingly.
The emotional impact isn’t quite on the same level as that famous scene in the movie Interstellar, but the story pushes the same buttons in that regard.
A reality tv show where it is literally about life and death is not a new idea in science fiction, and this story might not be very original, it still handles the subject in a very believable and engaging way.
The concept introduced here is pretty simple. 1000 people sign up for the event, everybody has to swallow a pill and a random person dies. Proceed to the next round to win more money or quit and keep your winnings. Rinse and repeat. The story is told by one half of a couple who entered together, so we know at least one of them survived, but how it all develops throughout the several months long tv program kept me hooked from start to finish.
It is sort of predictable how things escalates, how they have doubts as the odds gets worse and how they get hooked on the thrill so they can’t stop even though their winnings are already way beyond their initial goal. Even though the story didn’t throw any huge surprises at me – the ending being a slight exception but not huge – the execution from Gerrold is just very well done. I was hooked like it was an actual game show I was watching and everything surrounding it felt very realistic and plausible. I wouldn’t completely rule out such a reality show in some future at least.
This short story is set in a cyberpunkish future with an internet controlled by spambots and even the smallest misstep on social media, will get a person “cancelled” into oblivion.
We follow Joel who works odd jobs with various technical repairs. Over the years he has managed to get quite a few augmented upgrades on himself to be able to do advanced tasks, but his clients are mostly on the edges of society. He is tasked to do a repair on a humanlike robot by a very nervous and skeptical woman. She will not give him any information about herself or the reason for the repair job. Joel has his own sources though and manages to get enough data on her to know her name and that she posted something possibly racist on Twitter, which has ruined her life because automated bots make sure that every misstep online is never forgotten and everything she tries to do online is hampered by AI bots. Joel has his own similar baggage and even though she doesn’t ask for it, he tries to help her more than just repairing her robot.
In a relatively few pages, the author manages to create a bleak and dystopian future with no digital privacy and “cancel culture” is taken to extremes and out of control by automated bots. It is not a story that gives all the answers, give complete background stories or even resolve all plot threads, but it doesn’t need to. There is plenty of depth in this well written short story.
This story felt a bit like the classic nuclear scare stories from the 50s updated to the 21st century.
In some undetermined future destroyed by what I would assume was a nuclear war, a group of humans approaches a missile silo base station still in operation. It is operated by an AI and the story is told from its perspective in second person (which was bit of a weird choice in my opinion, but it didn’t detract from the experience).
The humans are seeking food and shelter and the silo can provide it – on one condition. It needs a human operator to fulfill its ultimate purpose: launch the missile towards the enemy. The humans are not really keen on that, thinking the world have seen enough death. They do agree to postpone the issue a month while the humans are allowed to get settled in the silo base. As the story moves forward, the AI running the silo starts having doubts on its programmed purpose in “life”.
I don’t know if the author was inspired by the classic Theodore Sturgeon story “Thunder and Roses”, but it many ways it reminded me of that story – though not as grim.
This novelette has a bit of an unusual setting. The story takes place entirely in a Buddhist monastery and follows a robot that seeks to achieve enlightenment as a monk.
The robot called Raz is a cataloging robot specially built to absorb and catalogue books. Its previous function turned obsolete, so it sought out the monastery by itself. After some debate between the monks, the robot is accepted in the community as an equal. Not without issues though. Especially one other monk is very adamant that spiritual enlightenment is only for humans and a soul-less unconscious machine should not be allowed.
This simple but effective setup creates a story with lots of philosophical debate about sentience, free will and spiritual topics. A theme that has been explored in countless science fiction stories, and while I haven’t seen one that took place in a religious setting like here, there isn’t much new to add.
While the story is easy to follow and reasonably engaging, I was thinking of the classic Star Trek TNG episode “The Measure Of A Man” which deals with lots of the same questions and uses the same type of conflict to setup the arguments for and against – and ultimately does it better.
One of the great things about going back to older issues of a magazine is when you read a great story that you would otherwise have missed, because it hasn’t been reprinted much. This time travel novella is one such story.
The setup of this story could almost have come out of the same magazine in the 1930s. Jonas is the typical mad scientist. He is working alone because his fellow researchers at the university have turned their back on him and his unorthodox interests. He is claiming to be very close to discovering time travel. He needs an assistant at his lab and along comes Peter, an ex-convict willing to accept the low paying job but with full accommodation at the scientists’ lab.
The version of time travel that Jonas invents is the one where it is possible to send objects back in time. But only if there is a compatible receiver running in that time. Neatly explaining why no time travelers from the future have been seen yet. In all this, Peter is doing his job as a general handyman while being equally intrigued and perplexed by what is going on. He becomes somewhat friends with Jonas and they go through the usual motions of discussing all the well known paradoxes of time travel.
As the story moves forward and Jonas successfully manages to get messages from his future self – with some good stock tips among other things – Peter becomes increasingly worried about the consequences of trying to change the course of history. Butterfly effect and all that.
While the story starts kinda light, the tone gets progressively darker. The stakes are ramped up and the cascading effects of messing with time lines become harder to ignore. While this story doesn’t do much new with how it deals with time travel paradoxes, it handles them well and understandable. The author is aware that the typical Analog reader likely knows the genre well enough, and he uses that to take what might seem at first to be the usual route for time travel stories, but the ending was something different – and quite moving I might add. Very much recommended.
The setup for this is an Earth that has become increasingly unlivable so humanity has planned a big generation ship, but only a limited number of people can go.
The story follows a couple who has managed to get a seat on the generation ship through hard work and excelling in basically every imaginable test. It is clear that only the top 0.001% have a chance. They want only the absolute “best” on this ship. I am making quotes around the “best” part because one of the key points of the story, is whether intelligence is the only and proper way of determining who are worthy of making the foundation for the survival of the human race. The problem arises when their child is deemed not excellent enough to get a seat on the ship. He is just an average child. The father thinks they should send him back to Earth to his grandparents, so they can retain their place on the generation ship. The mother has a different opinion.
I found this to be a story with plenty of potential for some exploration into personal morales and what is for the greater good. I frequently see stories like this in Analog that really aims for tackling complex and interesting humanistic issues. The downside is that often the result is rather superficial. The story jumps straight at the problem at hand and doesn’t waste any time, but it comes with a lack in character development. We are just told how they think and feel, without having a good grasp of who these characters are, their motivations or why they act like they do. Which is a shame, because the actual premise is interesting, but without any sort of character depth it isn’t as engaging as it could be.
A delightfully silly story with the amusing premise that all the planets in the solar system are inhabited with intelligent life, only humans don’t know it.
All the different species in the Solar System have some sort of union where they discuss things and what to do with the increasingly curious humans. It was easy enough to fool the scientists of Earth when they invented telescopes, but with spaceships surveying planets and landrovers on Mars, the need for complex holographic illusions has increased. The story evovles around the martian Twee’ll (a clear reference to Tweeel from Stanley G. Weinbaums “A Martian Odyssey”) and its dealings with the other solar species about how to proceed with the Earth situation.
This is the type of story I always love to see in Analog. There should be room for these less than serious stories – as long as they are as entertaining as this one.
A single tweet on Twitter can have massive impacts in the real world. This amusing little story begins with a poll on Twitter asking which region should be destroyed by a heat ray, with Appalachia “winning” by a large margin.
The story is told by a man who has been engaging with this specific Twitter account for a while. He discovers that it is not just a joke account, but actual aliens who really have a death ray capable of killing everything in that region with 25 million people. But maybe he can talk them into a different deal.
As might have been guessed, this is a somewhat quirky story written in a humorous light style, while still keeping it serious enough not to be completely silly. We only see the aliens through correspondence through Twitter – still, I found them to be rather convincing even though the whole scenario is a bit far-fetched.
This was a very Analog-esque story. Scientists discover something incredible but the consequences are more messy and complicated. Here we delve into a test for human consciousness.
John and his research partner have developed a special MRI scan that can detect where the consciousness lies in the brain. The twist is that their tests show that about 20% of human test subjects are not really conscious. This discovery hits Johns partner hard, because according to the test his wife’s brain shows no activity in the consciousness-center. She is a what is named a Blank in the story. John wants to publish their results anyway and the world changes drastically when their findings become public knowledge.
A test becomes widely available and many people start to test themselves, their kids, future employees and so on. The Blanks quickly become second-rate citizens unable to get a job or stay in a relationship. Many kids ends up as orphanages because their parents don’t want them. John gets rich for his patents on the tests, but he has increasingly moral qualms about the whole thing.
This story has a lot to unpack. There are plenty of philosophical and existential questions to ponder with the concept of human consciousness. I like the general premise of this story, but the consequences to the greater society are only dealt with in broad headlines since the primary focus is on John. Also, I found that their test was a little too easily accepted as scientific fact. Of course these simplifications are needed for the story to work, but I wasn’t totally convinced of what happened. My reading experience might have been hampered a bit by reading “The Algorithms for Love” the same day. It has a completely different approach to dealing with humans free will, but managed to create a more personal depth to it, whereas this story had a broader and distanced perspective.
Ken Liu is a gifted writer that has a talent for combining hard science fiction concepts with human emotions in beautiful written stories. This story from 2004 is among his best.
The story follows Elena who is a genius with robotics and language algorithms. She has created a very lifelike robotic doll that is both able to speak almost fluently and has very advanced motoring skill. The doll quickly becomes immensely popular and the company she works for has trouble keeping up with demand. She partners up with Brad, the CEO of the company, and she gets pregnant. Sadly, they lose the child during pregnancy and Elena is unable to get pregnant again. This emotionally devastates Elena and she buries herself in working on a new robotic doll, this time one that resembles a newborn. That too becomes a product sold by the company, with mostly other grieving mothers as customers.
As the story progresses, Elena becomes more and more obsessed with her creations. Working so intense with especially the speaking algorithms, she starts to view the real world in the same algorithmic terms. She knows how her own algorithms work and that everything they produce are mathematically predictable, which she increasingly believe is also true for human behaviour. Basically her worldview breaks down as she questions whether human are even conscious or any different from the artificial intelligence she has created. That everything we do is inherently deterministic. There are some direct references to the Chinese Room argument on the matter.
Liu manages to weave all these philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness into a very beautiful written short story, that has the technology used described in a plausible way while still keeping focus on the human emotions and making them engaging and believable for the reader.
Read in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction Originally published on strangehorizons.com Rating: 5
This was a real positive surprise. At first I was a bit weary with yet another AI robot human relationship story. 2021 and 2022 has had too many stories with that sort of theme. This story reconfirms my opinion that the best AI robot stories are at least 10 years behind us, even though it is immensely popular now.
We follow Adriana and her relationship with the android Lucien she has bought for companionship. During their together Lucien develops his own personality and they also end up having a child. The plot is minimal, the important stuff is in the development of these three characters and their feelings for each other – especially as Lucien develops more free will. Hence the title of the story with the different types of love.
What I think works exceptionally well here is how it is told with various jumps back and forward in time. We know the outcome, or at least hints of it, but not why or how yet. Even in a relatively short story, the author manages to show us the developments of three personalities at once. The point of view is mostly for Adriana, but the childs and Luciens character development is equally important.
Read in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction Read online at Tor.com Rating: 4