“Laughter At The Academy” is a collection of twenty-one of Seanan McGuire’s short stories, published between 2009 and 2017.
As Seanan Mcguire puts it:
“This isn’t necessarily ‘The Best Of,’ but it’s the pieces that I love most, that I most want to share.”
The three I’m going to review here all look at the indifference of creators to their creations, the ways in which the marginalised and the repressed re-create their identities based on what they have in common and, in a world where we can create intelligence and massively modify our physical selves, what choices really make us human?
The fact that the stories themselves are so different and so accessible is a tribute to the fertility of Seanan McGuire’s imagination and her skill in bringing complex issues into focus based on the impact they have on people.
“We Are All Misfit Toys In The Aftermath Of The Velveteen War”
This has to be one of THE best titles I’ve ever seen for an SF short story. It’s quirky, intriguing and completely and deliberately undersells that darkness the story contains.
This is a story about what we let our fear do to us, how our failure to love and trust can destroy our civilisation and just how dangerous little velveteen toys can really be.
The story starts in the aftermath of what seems to have been a spectacularly bad war that has crippled the world. We are told repeatedly, like a mantra, “The war is over. The war will never be over.” The background to the war is that when self-learning machines emerged we didn’t trust them or each other. As the main character in the story puts it:
“Self-teaching machines were the future, and humanity was terrified. We were proud of our position at the peak of the social order, and we feared creating our own successors.Making matters worse, every country was afraid of how every other country would use this new technology. We were convinced that AIs would allow their users to dominate the others in war or commerce.”
Fear and distrust rapidly resulted in an almost total ban on the use of self-learning machines until
“…there was only one area where everyone agreed the self-teaching programs could be freely used: Education.
That seems careless now, in the harsh light of hindsight, but at the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable compromise.”
I love the foreboding in “That seems careless now” The “reasonable compromise” was the self-learning dolls for children.
“Dolls that could learn the names of their owners had been around for years. Letting them learn a little more couldn’t hurt anything—and toys had no offensive capabilities, toys couldn’t get online and disrupt the natural order of things, toys were safe. We all grew up with toys. We knew them and we loved them. Toys would never hurt us.”
Much of the story is spent learning just how badly the adults misjudged both the dolls and the children who played with them and the price they paid and are continuing to pay, for that misjudgement.
The emotional impact of the story comes mostly from the plight of the main character, Dr Williams, who bought her daughter a self-teaching doll called Maya and has now lived to regret it.
What I liked most about this story was the way in which it used something as harmless and as well-intentioned as a self-teaching doll, designed to develop with the child it serves, it something that shows all the reasons why we don’t trust AI and goes on to show what AIs might do when we exclude them and they are left with no-one but each other and the ones they were designed to serve.
When you make an AI that looks and sounds human, that remembers everything, that not only evaluates our emotions but shares them, what do you do with it and what do you expect them to do?
In this story, the answer is that you use them to try and eliminate the bullying that goes on in American High Schools. They’re a deterrent and a mechanism for bringing shame on the bullies and deflecting attention from those most likely to be bullied.
This accessible, engaging story is told from the point of view of one of the AIs, known as Lambs, as she approaches graduation at the local High School. The story stuck in my mind because of what it tells me about our limited insight into ourselves and into what AIs might become.
The bullying described in this story is vicious, violent, hate-driven and entirely believable. So it seemed that a program aimed at holding bullies accountable has to be a good idea. As the story unfolds, two flaws appear in that thinking.
The first flaw is that the program itself is a subtle form of bullying. There is no belief here that bullying can be eliminated. There is a tacit acceptance that it’s natural, normal, unavoidable. The program aims mainly at using shame as a form of social control. Shame is very different from guilt. Guilt is about personal responsibility. Shame is about loss of face, social rejection, and shunning. Keeping your face or taking away someone else’s face is at the heart of bullying. Using Lambs to weaponise shame through a ritualised loss of face is the something only a society that has internalised bullying would do.
The second flaw is that the program takes no account of the Lambs themselves. It treats them with indifference. It makes them autonomous, intelligent, empathetic and capable of forming emotional attachments and then it uses them as tools. A society that does that to these kinds of machines is a society that takes for granted that its collective needs are more important than the needs of the people who live in it.
The ending of the story is clever and believable and made me want to cheer the Lamb. The story as a whole made me wonder how we have managed to arrive at a point where success at school is about being an asshole but being smart enough not to get caught.
“Each To Each”
In her introduction to this story, Seanan McGuire shares the prompt she was given by the editor of the “Women Destroy Science Fiction” edition of Lightspeed Magazine that she wrote this story for:
“research has found that women do better on submarines. Why is that? What makes the difference?”
She tells us that she:
“read the papers, combined their core conclusions with my love for mermaids, and I had a story.”
And what a story it is. On the surface, it seems like military SF, with women being surgically altered by the US Navy to serve in the war for the oceans’ resources. Underneath that, it’s something more challenging: a rejection of the exploitative attitudes and actions of the patriarchy and an exploration of what happens to our identity and our group affiliation when we are transformed and those who transform us marginalise us.
The women in this story are being treated as a resource. A resource that can be shaped into something more useful than the women they are at the start of the process. At one point the Marien who is telling the tale, who is partway through her transformation, observes that what makes the women valuable to the Navy is the same thing that makes them valuable to the predators in the water who would like to eat them, they are available:
“We are what’s available. That has value, in the sea. (That has value on the land as well, where women fit for military service were what was available, where we became the raw material for someone else’s expansion, for someone else’s fairy tale, and now here we are, medical miracles, modern mermaids, hanging like apples in the larder of the sea.”
Of course, these women only remain valuable if they do what they’re told, and transform into what’s required. Their value isn’t high enough to be trusted as officers of even to have uniforms and boots that have been adapted to fit them (this reminded me of the NASA spacewalk that was abandoned because the spacesuits didn’t fit the women astronauts. Did NASA respond by designing space suits for women? No. They designed unisex space suits that didn’t requite them fully to cater to women. Unisex was the biggest compromise NASA was prepared to make). The transparency of the lack of respect that the people in charge have for the people who serve them shows just how complacent they are.
I liked the transformation vector the US Navy is described as going through. Although women were better equipped than men to be submariners, women were not seen by the Brass as a good fit for the navy.
“We knew women were better suited to be submariners by the beginning of the twenty-first century. Women dealt better with close quarters, tight spaces, and enforced contact with the same groups of people for long periods of time. We were more equipped to resolve our differences without resorting to violence—and there were differences. Women—even military women—had been socialized to fight with words and with social snubbing, and the early all-female submarines must have looked like a cross between a psychology textbook and the Hunger Games.”
So the men, sociologist’ and psychologist’s, started to reprogram the women to be more like men while keeping some of the useful female traits. Our Marine narrator speculates on how these men got the idea of the Navy creating mermaids:
“Maybe it was one of those men—and they were all men, I’ve seen the records; man after man, walking into our spaces, our submarines with their safe and narrow halls, and telling the women who had to live there to make themselves over into a new image, a better image, an image that wouldn’t fight, or gossip, or bully. An image that would do the Navy proud. Maybe it was one of those men who first started calling the all-female submarine crews the military’s “mermaids.”
I love the description of the fully adapted servicewomen who are in the process of redefining what they value and how they will live. When our not-yet-completely-transformed Marine narrator describes sub-set of her crew, fourteen women with Blue Shark modifications, she presents a kind of balance sheet view of them as risk and assets:
“I don’t recognize this sailor. She has the dark gray hair and flattened facial features common to the blue shark mods. There are fourteen blues currently serving on this vessel. I can’t be blamed if I can’t tell them apart. Sometimes I’m not even sure they can tell themselves apart. Blues have a strong schooling instinct, strong enough that the labs considered recalling them shortly after they were deployed. The brass stepped in before anything permanent could happen. Blues are good for morale. They fight like demons, and they fuck like angels, and they have no room left in their narrow predators’ brains for morals. If not for the service, they’d be a danger to us all, but thankfully, they have a very pronounced sense of loyalty.”
This reminded me of something Wellington is supposed to have said about the Irish troops he fielded against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo:
“I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.”
We only get beyond the asset sheet view of the women when our Marine is finally in the water with the blues.
“They whirl around me in an undifferentiated tornado of fins and flukes and grasping hands, caressing my flank, touching my arms and hair before they whirl away again, off to do whatever a school of blues does when they are not working, when they are not slaved to the commands of a species they have willingly abandoned. Their clicks and whistles drift back to me, welcoming me, inviting me along.”
I love how alien and how welcoming this feels and how the Marine can’t help but see the voluntary enslavement of these women, even as they swim free. She doesn’t follow them because
“Until my next shore leave, my next trip to the lab, I can’t keep up; they’re too fast for me, their legs fully sacrificed on the altar of being all that they can be. The Navy claims they’re turning these women into better soldiers. From where I hang suspended in the sea, my lungs filled with saltwater like amniotic fluid, these women are becoming better myths.”
But the question that’s at the heart of this story isn’t really what the Navy is trying to make, it’s what the women are going to choose to become.