2015 Hugo Awards Best Short Story: Reviewing Turncoat

“Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House)

An AI/ship continually faced with orders to kill all humans decides in battle that it cannot kill a hospital ship full of children and leaps from its crippled space hammer to the hospital ship (which is conveniently fully loaded with weapons) and saves the day.

This story reads like Victorian tourism guides. “After ascending 347 steps pause to view of the 11 remaining monastery’s of the region. The first was built in 1232 and measures 2,000 ft by 4,000 ft with an elevation of 15000 ft and each one containing 3 tons of rock quarried 2.4 miles to the north.” A literal map could be built of the location and a story could be written based on those details but those details are not the story unless the story involves someone with autism or OCD. Again, this goes back to the idea that strange things can be accomplished with really good writing.

That said, perhaps an AI/ship is someone with autism. If the measurements were being given as part of the ship’s personality it would have made more sense if that personality did not fluctuate between large view philosopher and detail obsessed computer. If the fluctuation was intentional then the transitions were poorly handled. In any case the writing was not sufficiently convincing to pull off any complexity that I might ascribe to the author out of hope that the plot really was just the one listed in the first paragraph above.

It doesn’t help that I am currently reading Ancillary Justice which is doing some really amazing things with AI/emotion/life dichotomies.

This story was readable. I have read some very old style English books that drone on with details that had greater meaning when they were written. It would have been more fun if I’d thought the numbers provided all had masonic meaning but the author gave no hints to that effect so again I’m not going to credit him with my random imaginings that are really just a desire for this story to have been better.

I don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone. There are a lot of better works where AI is faced with morality. Ian M Banks’ books spring to mind. Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Stanislaw Lem’s Golem XIV. M J Locke’s Up Against It. Moriarty’s Spin State. Hell, even the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Goodreads has a list. My “Want to Read” list on Goodreads just got longer. Plus I found this neat article.

Why does it matter than I can easily think of six better AI stories without even referencing Philip K Dick, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Arthur C Clark, or Dan Simmons? Because this is for a Hugo and “Turncoat” does not deserve to stand with those authors, the ones who have won.

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