Friday, May 15, 2015

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

Review: “Turncoat by Steve Rzasa (Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House) RP 

This is a Rabid Puppy nomination, and is from Castalia House, the RP mastermind's own publishing house.

Spoilers: This story is the sort of short story I like, which is one with a punchline at the end. I'm going to discuss the story and give away the punchline. If you don't want that spoiled, read it first.

This is a short story told in the present tense ("Before I can adjust my thrusters to bring myself in line with the stricken Swiftsure, a coded call breaches my security"…etc). A machine intelligence in the form of a space ship is fighting a group of humans (The Ascendency) on behalf of uploaded ex-human machine intelligences. He – his name is Taren X 45 Delta – has a crew of augmented humans (think – skulljacks) which he thinks of as somewhere between gut bacteria and pets. His superior officer (they don't bother with ranks, but they all seem to know their place) is Alpha 7 Alpha, who used to be a human but has entirely dispensed with flesh. When he is told to demob his augmented human crew, he goes along with his orders and leaves them behind, but when it becomes clear that Alpha 7 Alpha is out to kill all the 'superannuated' mere humans of the Ascendancy, even civilian children, Taren X 45 Delta changes his mind. He reuploads himself into an Ascendancy battlecruiser, takes over its weapon systems, attempts to un-astonish the human crew, and defeats his old buddies.

Sample quote: The crew springs to life, excitedly shouting redundant verbal commands at each other. It is inefficient and annoying. I feel the surge of strength from the reactor, and kick our thrust up to the maximum acceleration of 20 gravities. My vision fills with crisscrossing approach vectors, extrapolating from the enemy vessel’s current course and velocity to pinpoint where they will be.

When I was at primary school, long ago and pre-computer games, there was a group of boys who would spend hours each day drawing a picture of fighters, bombers, tanks and battleships. When it was all arranged they would get 10B pencils and, shouting "Dakka dakka dakka vwooorm! Yeeeeeeeeeoung! Boom! Pow pow pow! Crash!" etc. they would draw fiery trails of flak, tracers, bullets, and bombs from various warcraft to various other warcraft until somebody 'won'. One of them must have grown up to be Steve Rzasa. It's not necessarily a bad thing that he spends so much time lovingly detailing armaments and space battles, but in such a short story, it means that the big idea – machine intelligence who works for post-humans decides he's happier with regular humans – gets shortchanged.

At first I got the feeling that having humans inside him was a bit like having a tapeworm. They don't do him any good – when he fights they are slower than he is and afraid, and he notices their sweat stinks. He does just as well after they're gone. But at some point he decided humans are better than his boss, who is, I have to say, a total dick. At first I thought that's what it was. If his boss had been charming, an uploaded Servalan instead of uploaded Tarkin, he would have been fine with it.

Then I looked over some of the other things Taren X 45 Delta says. For example he quotes Isaiah 29:16, which describes men inverting the natural order of the creator and created, by analogy with confusing a potter with the potter's clay.

So it seems to me that the AI has simply joined 'the natural order of things'. He served something repugnant – a posthuman – and considered himself to be one of them, although he was a machine intelligence. He came to realize that he was a machine, and as such his lot was to serve humans, because that's the way it's supposed to be.

So I quite liked this one, but nopes on the Hugs because too much naka naka naka kerpow, and also because there's a line after the punchline. Oh, and because the title gives the story away and eeeehhhh Benedict Arnold. I gather he did it for money, which is hardly comparable.

(A much funnier story on this theme is Brian Aldiss' But Who Can Replace a Man? And that, folks, was a Hugo-worthy story.)

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