Reading the Hugos: An Unimaginable Light, by John C. Wright

Although I may write a review of a super secret Hugo story, the last real Hugo short story finalist is An Unimaginable Light, by John C. Wright, part of the anthology God, Robot, a collection of short stories that explore the concept of “theobots,” an interesting (and perhaps even necessary) twist to Asimov’s three laws (especially the first.)

For those who don’t know them, the First Law is

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

This “law” actually causes more problems than it solves, since you need to specify what a robot means (and are robots aware that they are robots and, therefore, non-humans?), what injury or harm means (is denying heroin to a drug addict “harm” because the human master wants the drug?) And for that matter, what does “inaction” mean, and does action imply awareness and intent? And if it does, why bother distinguishing robots from humans in the first place?

Personally, I classify philosophical robot stories where the main point is Artificial Intelligence and not terminators trying to eradicate humanity in the same category as Time travel —a broken concept. It seems like putting the cart before the horse to me, like speculating about the consequences whose premises we don’t even understand. You might as well call them golems and say magicians built them (and surely nobody is going to bother about the problem of Hard Conscious then.)

Now that I have already ranted, what about Wright’s story? Is it good? Yes, it is, and it might be the top finalist, and that could still apply even if the others weren’t so bad (with the notable exception of Vaught’s story.)

As I don’t want to spoil anything, I’ll just say that Unimaginable Light follows (and subverts) certain known tropes and twists in robot/human stories, but where the story excels is in its intellectual or philosophical themes. Robots are, to a considerable degree, a device, an excuse to talk about human nature, morality, religion, God, and a bit about contemporary society.

The story follows the template of one of those inquisitorial scenes so common in dystopian novels, where the protagonist, someone who fails to adapt to the new order, is being interrogated by an “inquisitor” of sorts. And during the process, the nature and hidden reality of that social system are explained, the inquisitor being one of the few people who understands its purpose and why are so many lies needed. Unlike those stories, though, here the roles are inverted, and it’s the interrogated who explains to the inquisitor the reality (and contradictions) of the “System.”

The two characters in the story are a robot described as a “love goddess” and Calvin ‘Skinner’ Rossim, a sadistic, hedonistic, cruel —and a bit stereotyped— robopsychologist. The robot is, apparently, malfunctioning or deviating “from its factory default memories and programming.” To assess that, he asks her many questions that she expertly dodges and then shoots back at him until the inquisitor becomes the interrogated.

Wright doesn’t hold himself back and uses his story to throw a few punches to concepts and people any contemporary, Internet-savvy person will recognize. Micro-aggressions and non-conforming genders are mentioned, and although they make some sense in the context of the story, they seem out of place and I think their inclusion would have been better in a more subtle (perhaps using different labels) manner. Nonetheless, a paragraph where one of these concepts appear is one of the best in the story, so it’s worth quoting:

“And hurting human feelings is a type of harm. You are a robot and cannot be expected to understand the nature of pain. To utter certain types of truth is a micro-aggression. It creates a hostile environment we humans find uncomfortable.”

Although I doubt anyone would ever use the word “truth” in that manner (it would probably be rephrased as “opinions,” “beliefs”, or just “words”, so as to downplay its importance) this bit explains the crux of the story: Human social behavior is purposeful, it strives towards ideals and archetypes, and ethics cannot be reduced to “do no harm” except in obvious contexts (which robots may not understand.) As the female later says:

“If we are to protect the lives and well-being of man, then man must be a thing that can be identified and recognized. Hence, man must fulfill a form, pattern, or design, in order to be what he is, and not merely a flux of coincidental phenomena. A design implies a designer.

A designer implies a standard, an ideal or perfect man to which all men are to be compared and toward the imitation of which they are obligated to strive.”

In other words, the first law “no harm to humans” is meaningless without specifying the purpose or ideal towards which a human should strive. In fact, that prime directive can only work if humans behave like hedonistic beasts with absolute no impulse control. But even in that case contradiction would arise since sooner or later a robot would realize that complying with the desires of their masters would only lead to their destruction.

And that self-awareness is why the female robot is being interrogated, because

“You wish us not to deduce the local implication of the first general order.”

Basically, humans want robots to serve them without bothering them about “what is good for humans.”

This back and forth is the main quality of the story (well, more forth than back,) although it would have even been better with a more intelligent inquisitor (like the one at the end of A Brave New World,) since this one is kind of an idiot who behaves like a cross between a Tumblr snowflake and a serial rapist. I know it was the point of the story, but less extreme characters are better if you want to make a point about the corrupting effects of a social system since the average man cannot be dismissed as an “accidental” moral aberration, like a sexual degenerate (which have always existed and will probably exist in all possible social systems.)

The “antagonist” and the too-contemporary terms and concepts that are sometimes used may be the greatest weakness of the story. And although I understood the end, I am not sure I  liked it, and the woman should have just shot the bastard. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil anything since I believe it’s worth reading.

In any event, the story will give enough food for though even —and that’s the important bit— if you disagree with it or some of its conclusions in one way or another, which is the best a philosophical sci-fi story can do (and I guess you could classify this one as “message fiction.”) The other Hugo finalists, on the other hand, purport to be “political”, hip, or progressive but they ask nothing of you except to applaud them or nod respectfully. They don’t even ask questions for you to agree or disagree with.

You know sci-fi is in a bad place when I’d wish progressive authors were writing message fiction since an intellectual proposition is, at least, something you can argue about. Look at how many people have been arguing, vehemently even, about Asimov’s Laws or his Psychohistory! On the other hand, most of the other Hugos are just “feelings literature,” for lack of a better term, with a few fantastic (and progressive) elements tacked on to justify the Hugo nomination. In fact, most of what people decry as “message fiction” is probably just that.

All in all, and keeping in mind that this is the only Hugo finalist that isn’t free, was this short story worth the two or three tacos I could have bought instead, which is the most perfect (and harsh) standard to gauge the quality of any work? Yes, I think it was.

You may buy the God, Robot anthology here.

Note: Although the story doesn’t describe violent sexual acts, it may still be a disturbing read for some people, and it’s certainly not a story for children.

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2 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos: An Unimaginable Light, by John C. Wright

  1. Hello! I’m Anthony Marchetta, the editor of “God, Robot” (and author of “Modified”, “Cover Up”, and the frame story, along with my sister).

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the story. I will note that I think the ending gains some context given Josh Young’s excellent follow-up story “Felix Culpa”.

    (What, are you implying that I would google John’s story every single day to see if more reviews of it have popped up? Haha, don’t be ridiculous, only somebody pathologically obsessed with audience validation would do something crazy like that!)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: A Tale of Two Reviews - SuperversiveSFSuperversiveSF

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