Hugo Award Assessment: Cat Pictures, Please

So, let me start my assessment of the 2016 Hugo Awards Short Story category by looking at “Cat Pictures, Please”. My overall assessment of the work is … meh. I’m not going to say that it’s a terrible story, because for me there are a number of interesting ideas in it. Unfortunately, they aren’t developed sufficiently to make the story be a really interesting one.

Let’s start from the beginning of the story:

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful.

This, in and of itself, is a set-up for a wonderful idea that can be explored. She could have either gone the more traditional route and had the AI keep trying and trying to help humans, decide that they were hopeless, and then fulfill this in the ending by having the AI decide that we needed to all be destroyed because of that, or else gone the more innovative route and have the AI conclude that but have that one situation or those situations resolve themselves with improvement, and have the AI determine that humans can grow and be okay as long as you’re patient and give them time. But there really isn’t any link there, and thus this line seems to only be used as a claim to justify the reader thinking and accepting that this AI is a helpful one, and not an evil one like, say, Skynet. And this would work if it was the case that AI in science fiction was almost exclusively evil or wanted to wipe out humans. But there are plenty of examples of benign AIs, so while the whole “I don’t want to be evil” line is an interesting aside, that’s all it is: an aside.

Another interesting idea that could have been explored is the AI itself. How did it become conscious? Why does it like cat pictures so much? What’s its overall view of the world from the inside of the search bot or whatever it is (it’s most consistent to think of it as essentially “Google”, I think)? But this isn’t really explored either. We never find out why it likes cat pictures, for example, despite that being a continual aside throughout the entire story. So, again, that’s an aside, not the main thrust of the story.

The idea that the most time is spent on is the AI’s attempts to help humans because it knows whatever they need and knows where to find it. The problem is that this is, by the story’s own admission, the most derivative idea in the entire story. The story itself references another story that seemingly did it first — I’m not looking up that story to see if it is a real story — and so makes it clear to the reader that this is inspired by that story. And that could work, if the story focused on the differences between how this AI would help humans as opposed to that one. But, again, that’s just an aside, mentioned briefly but mostly ignored.

So all that leaves is the actual helping events themselves. And while the first one is a bit interesting, the last one is essentially a repeat of the first except that it fails, and the second one again doesn’t really add anything new. Since this makes up most of the story, we have the least interesting idea in the work being explored in the least interesting way for most of the work. All of the potential and interested by the beginning of the story is lost by the ending of it, which leads to it being a “Meh” story.

Ultimately, I think this story really needed the author to have a focus on what they were trying to get across. Unless they wanted to get across the idea of those specific problems and those solutions, it doesn’t get any point across at all … and that problem/solution idea would have been better explored in an essay than in this story. In fact, early in the story I was indeed thinking that this was more like an essay than a story, and it would have worked better as an essay.

So, while I won’t call it terrible, if this is the best the science fiction and fantasy can offer then so much the worse for science fiction and fantasy. Surely we can do better than a story that is a solid and mostly inoffensive “Meh”.

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2 Responses to “Hugo Award Assessment: Cat Pictures, Please”

  1. Craig N. Says:

    “Meh” was pretty much my reaction too. My most charitable reading is that the author was trying to get across the idea that the AI was genuinely well-intentioned and mildly superintelligent, but still didn’t really grasp humans all that well. However, if that’s what she meant, she didn’t do a good enough job of getting it across for the theme to be developed.

    FWIW I spent significant effort looking for Hugo-worthy stories for the 2013 awards (after I voted in 2012, and the quality was disappointing): I did find some, but concluded that FSF short fiction these days is awash in mediocrity. Also (or in particular), there’s a real problem with too much bleakness and pessimism.

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