Short Story Club: “The Rising Waters”

Not so much comment out there for Benjamin Crowell’s story, that I could find; but we start with comments from the Strange Horizons forum:

BionicValkyrie: I loved this story. I’ve been reading Strange Horizons fiction off and on for a couple years, and this story prompted me to register just so I could say how much I liked it. The characters seemed very real … which now sounds kind of silly to say, given the nature of this story! I’m going to search out more stories by Crowell.

KNB: Really good story.

Liritar: This story was intense.

Then we have Rich Horton, in the July Locus:

At Strange Horizons I most enjoyed “The Rising Waters” by Benjamin Crowell. It’s about an attempt to develop an AI that can devise a cure for a plague unleashed in a war between Europe and the US. The heart of the story, though, is the relationship between the developing AI and the human who interfaces with it — or her. Maybe there’s not much new here — fairly familiar arguments about the rights of AIs — but the story is involving and the last line is wonderful.

and Lois Tilton in IROSF:

Sue’s dilemma is an artifact of the story’s premise, in which a person who is not supposed to become emotionally identified with the project puts on a VR suit with virtual breasts to feed a newly-online software program. That conflicts will arise from this is inevitable; the question is whether such humanization would be necessary at all.

Maureen Kincaid Speller:

It may be that I am just a very stern and demanding reader (and if I am, I make no apology for it), but I found this story to be very far from satisfactory. Rather like last week’s story, it seems to raise more questions than it answered, and like last week’s story, I felt this arose as much from poor story-telling as from anything intentional on the author’s part. As I’ve said before, I don’t mind having to really engage with a story in order to work out what is going on, but again, as with last week’s story, I really do object to pretty much having to dig my own foundations, and then provide most of the bricks, mortar and plaster as well, leaving the author to deal with the decorative accents, which is pretty much what reading this story felt like. I had no real sense that the author knew what was happening off the page, but had chosen for some reason to conceal things for the time being, and every sense that things happened on the page as he thought of them, hence a constant pulling up short, thinking ‘where the hell did that come from all of a sudden?’ in between feeling that although the story brushes against ideas and issues, it simultaneously skates around them. It may be that Crowell thinks that this is what his character does, and therefore the reader can only get the bits that the narrator hasn’t blocked off for herself. Or possibly, given the fact that censorship and control of the flow of information is a big issue within the story, Crowell is trying to reflect what it is like to have access to only part of the story. I would be far more sympathetic to this approach if the narrator herself was ignorant, but it’s clear she isn’t. And given her general attitude towards what is going on, you would suppose she would be more forthcoming herself.

And finally, Paul Kincaid on craft:

The narrator didn’t recognise the intruders at first. I’m not surprised, neither did I, because we’ve not met them before. There has been no mention of a gym or a treadmill or kids or grunts; I know, because I went back and checked. It would have needed the insertion of probably no more than one sentence earlier in the story to justify this scene. I spotted several places where that sentence might have been inserted without the slightest bother. Without that set-up it reads like what it very probably is: an author just putting down whatever comes into his mind next, and then not taking the elementary step of going back over the story and making sure that the whole thing cohered. That is, to my mind, just poor craft.

There is an old adage that when you don’t know how your fiction develops next, have someone burst into the room with a gun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it executed so literally and so clumsily.

A well-crafted story is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. There are times when you can break free, do something different; but when that happens you have got to be sure you know what you are doing, and you have got to convince your readers that you know as well. I don’t believe that Crowell know what he is doing on the basic level of craft.

Agree? Disagree?

18 thoughts on “Short Story Club: “The Rising Waters”

  1. I second Duncan’s comment. I didn’t post on this story mostly due to craft-lack, and the unoriginal nature of the idea. I can’t think of an aspect to this story that hasn’t been covered better elsewhere. Also, I am not very interested in VR or its implications. It’s clear that it might be an issue for some people, but I find it dull. It’s like writing stories at the dawn of the discovery of alcohol positing that OMG everyone in the world will be an alcoholic!!!1! Meh.

    Also, building your story on the foundation of a war between the EU and the US isn’t, for me, something that I can allow to pass by without comment. Since the story seems to be set too near to the present, I really need to know how we got there. That said, the processing of getting those two entities fighting and the reactions of other world powers would have been more interesting than what the story actually covers.

  2. It’s difficult to comment in any great depth on this story, as there isn’t a great deal that can be said about it. As has already been said, it’s not a terribly engaging story, there are problems with the way it’s crafted, and it doesn’t contain anything original, nor a new slant on an old idea.

    It might be because I read the collected Vernor Vinge recently, but The Rising Waters reminded me very much of the way in which more than a few of Vinge’s stories involve some kind of conflict which we never learn much about, even in those stories where the conflict is more to the foreground. ‘Bookworm, Run’, for example. It may have worked for Vinge in some of his stories, though, but it doesn’t work here, for reasons other people have already covered.

    The central plot of a computer personified as a young child and learning things has been done over and over before too, in ‘When HARLIE Was One’ by David Gerrold, to give one example. The new twist here of actually making the computer program a VR personification which is looked after by a human wearing some kind of mecha suit (with hidden artificial breasts, WTF?) comes across as being incredibly silly. At point was I convinced that this was a sensible way for things to work, and certainly there was nothing in the story to explain why things had to be this way.

    It didn’t exactly help matters that things like operators ‘texting’ into the system were used, or that all censorship was done manually by human censors. Really? They’re advanced enough that they can make a computer program act like a human in a VR interface, and they’ve built a mecha-suit-type-thing for the operator to wear, yet they’re incapable of making an automated censorship program? REALLY? Details like that just didn’t ring true for me at all.

    I wasn’t impressed by the ending either. Too pat. And trite. The implication seemed to be that now both sides had their respective cures, the war would be over. No mention of all the dead or anything. Again, it didn’t ring true.

    Ultimately, it’s been done before. And it’s been done better.

  3. Actually (re: Evan) the story is apparently supposed to take place in 2192 or so, which to my mind is comically far in the future. The technology described seems more appropriate for, I don’t know, 2030 or so. Even the political situation is really a pessimist’s 2030.

    The AI-smartens-up-then-escapes story has gotten so familiar as to be quite unless there’s a real interesting spin on it. The brief head-fakes in this story toward the AI seeing the flaws in its simulation and the solipsism response seem like the seeds of something more interesting, but nothing is done with them.

  4. I’m not going to overly defend this story — it’s fairly slight, what it does has been done before. I liked it, yes, but it’s no masterpiece. In a sense it’s a story that doesn’t need the massed critical mind of the Short Story Club to encounter it …

  5. I’m pretty much going to echo what others have said – an old idea not very well executed. I’m less struck by the similarities to all the other AI-experiment-masters-its-creators stories out there than by the ones to Asimov’s “The Ugly Little Boy,” which is an even less kind comparison to make. I really didn’t feel Sue’s connection to Debbie (and I feel manipulated by Debbie’s being a girl as opposed to the previous three attempts), and I felt that Debbie’s personhood was assumed rather than established. It’s also much too neat a story – Debbie just happens to be smart enough and well-adjusted enough to cope with the realization that she’s an AI, and moral enough to try to fix the world, all without any meaningful input from Sue. Or are we supposed to think that Sue is the catalyst for all this? There’s certainly very little support for that in the story.

    Still, the main reason I’m posting is to say that as disappointing as I found this story in its own right, it’s even more disappointing in comparison to Crowell’s previous SH publication, Running, a very fine and thoughtful story.

  6. Abigail, thank you for the heads-up on ‘Running’; a much more interesting story all round.

    The more I think about ‘The Rising Waters’, the more intensely frustrated I am by it. It is a very manipulative story, I think, relying heavily on the reader to either insert what’s missing or else not to question some of the less successfully thought-through elements of what is there.

    My best guess is that we are supposed to see Sue as a troubled middle-aged woman, detached from her own family for various reasons, without any family of her own, who is belatedly morally uneasy about the treatment being meted out to the AI, and who reaches some sort of balance, acceptance, whatever because she has this ‘relationship’ with Debbie the AI.

    Having said that, there are some deeply-buried assumptions about what middle-aged women might or might not want which trouble me, and despite the names of Buddha and Socrates being bandied around I don’t think we’re getting up close and personal with the philosophical issues, or getting any sense that Sue is truly engaging with or rejecting them. It is a fiction of convenience.

  7. In addition to the problems with the story articulated above, all of which I pretty much agree with, I’m also annoyed by a couple of other little things.

    The story assumes that AI with Turing machines is just impossible, and quantum processing is meanwhile going to magically turn up AIs that can solve NP complete problems and know right from wrong. There’s no good reason to believe this, and it’s frankly just a bit boring to bring it up when it’s not even investigated at all in the story.
    At least when Neal Stephenson does this he’s thought about it (way too much… and he’s still wrong).

    I also found that the personality of Sue was much more like a mainstream American Mary Sue than a Thai Buddhist. Assimilation etc, sure, but actually, even “Mary Sue” is a bit misleading when she didn’t particularly even come across as female.

    I agree with Maureen’s last comments directly above – it’s throwing some half-baked ideas about AI at a story and not really trying very hard, whether in its engagement with the philosophical or cog-sci aspects, let alone the story-craft of world-building, characterisation, narrative logic and so on.

    It’s just Lawnmower Man, innit, which was frankly a tired sf idea in 1992.

  8. Abigail, thank you for the heads-up on ‘Running’; a much more interesting story all round.

    We could always switch over and discuss that instead … :-)

  9. It’s tempting, Niall, but I’m already moving on to reading for next weekend.

    Having said that, I have a nagging thought that I keep not quite addressing (seems to be catching), but Peter’s comment about Sue as a kind of mainstream Mary Sue, and indeed not being even particularly female, brings it up again.

    The two most recent stories have been first-person female narrators, written by men. Neither has struck me as a successful portrayal; I minded less last week, given that it wasn’t so much about Andrea’s sex or gender as about her utterly monstrous ego, and I felt the story could as easily be read with a male narrator.

    But this week’s story … it seems to me that it’s very important to the author that the narrator is female rather than male, despite it presumably being possible to put a male VR body onto a female engineer for the important breast-feeding sequence. As I’ve obliquely noted a couple of times, I think there is something more than that going on, but it’s pegged on a flawed or very partial understanding of what a woman in this position will think or do, and how she will respond, and that makes me deeply uneasy. When I went to read ‘Running’, I was particularly struck by how well Crowell portrayed Joe’s dilemmas, his humanity and compassion, and those of Kemal as well.

    I’m not interested in generally rehashing whether women can successfully write men and vice versa, but specifically this story, and I do wonder what kind of story ‘The Rising Waters’ might have been with a narrator like Joe.

    I want all writers to experiment and try out different voices, different viewpoints, but when it goes this badly wrong I do catch myself wondering ‘what was X thinking?’

  10. OK, my thoughts in a bit more detail. I’m with everyone else, really; as Nick said, Ultimately, it’s been done before. And it’s been done better.. As Abigail hints, one reason I picked it was that I did like “Running” (though I wasn’t completely sure about the ending), and thought that even if the content was familiar (as Rich’s review suggested), the characterisation might be nuanced enough to be worth talking about. Unfortunately, not so much. I mean, when Maureen says —

    I think there is something more than that going on, but it’s pegged on a flawed or very partial understanding of what a woman in this position will think or do, and how she will respond, and that makes me deeply uneasy.

    I actually disagree. Rather than believing the parallel between Sue’s and Debbie’s isolation set up a sense of Sue being “fulfilled” by caring for Debbie, the sense I took was that we were meant to question that fulfillment: to what extent is it “real”, to what extent is it the sort of isolation-driven solipsism that derails the earlier AIs, and the Sue is constantly afraid of seeing in Debbie?

    Equally — or, perhaps, in consequence — I didn’t read the ending as schmaltz, or trite; I thought it had an unnerving quality to it, the conflation of elder/younger relationships, the sense that Debbie fixed the world essentially on a whim, and of being uncertain as to what she may want to do next (as the narrator says, what would be the real-world equivalent of Charlie’s arm?) …

    But I can’t make any particularly forceful arguments for either of these readings, because there’s little in the text to hang them on. Too many details not tied down, too many details out of place (I agree that the timeline just doesn’t seem appropriate). I think the one part of the story I did enjoy was Sue explaining the world to Debbie; contrived as the situation was, Sue’s explanation felt simple enough to work, and agile enough to be concealing some additional complexity.

  11. Niall: I didn’t read the ending as schmaltz, or trite; I thought it had an unnerving quality to it

    I found that the line in the story where Debbie calls Sue and says “I’m okay. I figured out that when there’s no input, I can just, you know, be.” removed, for me, any chance of reading the ending as unnerving. That line in all its zen tranquility, plus the bit about how Debbie thinks her own sensory inputs are just as real as Sue’s (and thus would have no interest in interfering in Sue’s — our — world), seems to be there precisely to remove any sense of menace from the way things stand at the end of the story.

    Rich: In a sense it’s a story that doesn’t need the massed critical mind of the Short Story Club to encounter it …

    Dismissive as my own response was, this does seem to me a problematic idea. While there’s certainly an audience for mediocre stories, I’m not sure we should be quite so “live and let live” about mediocrity, especially when it appears in professional markets. One of the reasons that I read relatively little short fiction is that it seems that the only way of filtering out the mediocre works is to buy the “best of the year” volumes (and to my tastes, mediocrity slips into those as well). I likewise doubt that Niall was trying to select such a high proportion of mediocre stories for the Club as we’ve encountered so far; it’s just that again, it is hard for even a knowledgeable reader who is enmeshed in the SF community to filter to avoid them, based on what signals are available (reviews, other discussions, name recognition of author and market, etc.). To have a genre that accepting of mediocrity, or at least that unable to establish filters for it, does not seem to me a good thing. And so I’d suggest that while this story may not need the massed critical mind of the Club to encounter it, the genre and the readers that comprise it may find it valuable.

  12. seems to be there precisely to remove any sense of menace from the way things stand at the end of the story.

    It probably is, but I didn’t take it with the sort of certainty that requires; I took it very much as contingent, and the ending suggested that Debbie isn’t actually content to “just be”, that she desires some level of interaction with our world.

    I likewise doubt that Niall was trying to select such a high proportion of mediocre stories for the Club as we’ve encountered so far

    Indeed. although I did deliberately include several stories by newer writers, and it is perhaps unfortunate that we’ve had two of those in a row. But as you suggest, the problem with mediocrity is that it wears you down, which shapes who is commenting on the fiction that is published. Look at how much shorter the comment thread is this week. I’m just hoping people haven’t given up for good…

  13. Given up? Certainly not… It does seem, though, that we’ve got a pretty uninteresting consensus on this particular piece, though.

    Next Sunday shall roll around sooner or later, and then we shall rise again!

  14. Though it doesn’t do to overuse the word ‘though,’ though, as much as the though-ness of the sentiment seems to require it, though.

  15. I liked this one a bit more than most commentators, it seems. Nothing outstanding but competent enough, and I liked how the setting slowly built up from the story. Not exciting enough to inspire real energy towards defending it, however.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s