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Author Topic: EP441: Kumara  (Read 2063 times)
eytanz
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« on: March 30, 2014, 02:06:45 AM »

EP441: Kumara

By Seth Dickinson

Read by Alasdair Stuart

This is an original work with no prior appearances.

Please visit the sponsor for this episode - Posthuman Pathways

---

You asked me why you are alive, and this is the answer: because I was asked to do the impossible, to choose someone to die. And I loved them all, loved them as I loved Kumara, as I loved myself. I could not bear the choice.

“I need you to choose one of our crew to delete,” Kumara told me.

“I need room to think, or we’re not going to make it.”

Thirty years of diligence said no, never and I began to refuse.

Outside the ship a revenant screamed a radio scream and through the umbilical of our link I felt Kumara cry back in defiance: jamming but still overmatched, struggling against sixty million years of mindless machine hate. Throwing every spark of thought she could muster into beating the revenant’s virals, decrypting them, compiling an inoculation.

I closed my eyes and waited for her to fail, for the revenant to slip into her systems, for the antimatter torch to let go and end us all. But Kumara held herself together. Turned the attack.

Her avatar grinned up from where she knelt, shoulder bowed with effort, nails clawed down to pink flesh. “Saved us again,” she said. “Ha. And they told me I wasn’t built for this. Thirty years, and still state of the art!”

“You can make it,” I said, knowing it was a lie, that she had tapped every scrap of processing power in her hull. I was systems officer; I was the ship as much as she was. But still I begged: “Just an hour to the jump point. You’ll make it. You don’t need to ask for any more.”

Kumara had taken the image of a woman, cable-shouldered, strong. Her hands trembled and her eyes shone bright with an inhuman intellect, a very human fatigue. Her intellect was digital, her fatigue an abstract, but she wore the metaphor of flesh. Flesh speaks clearly to the human mind.

She looked up at me with those brilliant tired eyes and shook her head. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m out of processing power. They’re getting too sophisticated and I can’t keep up. You have to delete someone from heaven.”

I closed my eyes and turned away.

I was the last living crew of Kumara, you see? The others were dead: Captain Shiroma, who burned in her own armor as she stole the machine god’s dream, Matthews who cracked the revenant code, smiling Jayaraman who died first, wordless Landvatter whose ash still painted the hull.

Our raid on the machine god, our Promethean theft, had gone poorly.

But Kumara’s systems had saved them as they passed. Snared their dying minds, digitized them, and uploaded them to heaven: a simulation, a place that might keep them stable. Coddle them in a pleasant hallucination until their psyches could be retrieved.

The heaven mainframe was the only resource she hadn’t tapped. But to make it useful, room would have to be opened, load reallocated. And there was no load on heaven except the minds and worlds of the people inside.

Another revenant struck, broadcasting narrow-beam, hurling itself against Kumara’s defenses. She made a flanged sound, harsh, inhuman, and fell to her hands and knees. Her eyes blanked and the edges of her projection went rough with aliasing.

“Hurry,” she whispered. “Please. Choose one of them and do it.”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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slic
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« Reply #1 on: March 30, 2014, 02:12:47 PM »

Really quite liked it :-)

It felt a little long as the protagonist described each "heaven" (but I did really like the idea of them), and enjoyed the language and imagery enough to gloss over the couple of questions that came up.
I did not see the twist coming, somewhat because there was no visual or audio marker nor context to indicate that the speaker was anything but who he/she said it was, so I believed them (is it normal that one person might be left alive on a ship like that?)
Also I was so enamoured with the "heavens" that I completely forgot about the "item" that they stole, and then I wished there had been more story to see what happened to it/him/her/they...

But I do have one question that I'd like to post to see what other people thought.  The procedure that Kumara electronically performed on the crew seemed to me more of a cure than a lobotomy (to quote the episode).  Certainly the Captain and Landvatter seemed to be the better for what was done.  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but they seemed more at peace, more centred. 
No I can understand the personal invasion because Kumara didn't ask, and I also get that regs are regs and Kumara broke them.  But I wonder if she (assuming Kumara is female-ish) didn't help them.




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Jagash
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« Reply #2 on: March 30, 2014, 04:51:22 PM »

I love this story for many reasons, though I will freely admit that I am also the sponsor for this little episode.

I'm fascinated by the fact that the crewmembers, who sacrificed their lives for the mission, also unwillingly sacrifice part of their identities in the process. It's the idea that they become stronger by excising their humanity which really fascinates (and terrifies) me.
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davidthygod
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« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2014, 11:00:06 AM »

In essence, this is another Allegory of the Cave or Life in the Matrix type story, though I really liked the lobotomy twist.   There really were so many philosophical topics touched on here, like the trouble with sentient artificial intelligence, what defines and constitutes humanity, how to choose who gets to die for the greater good, and ethical questions around Kumara's punishment to name a few. 

Kumara 2.0 will likely just have some programming that deletes the life that frees up the most space and allows for the most improved processing power, and I am ok with that.



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« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2014, 11:19:55 AM »

I enjoyed this one quite a bit. So far it's one of the three that will get my vote when he Best of 2-14 poll comes around.

I'm fascinated by the fact that the crewmembers, who sacrificed their lives for the mission, also unwillingly sacrifice part of their identities in the process.

Tangentially, this made me think, if we ever did come to the point where the soul/individual consciousness/spark/whatever you want to call it can be transferred or digitized, can you imagine the legal implications or extended ramifications of a company being able to extend your life and determine that extension's circumstances in such a way that you would not be able to influence it in any way… It's dizzying to ponder.
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« Reply #5 on: March 31, 2014, 12:02:49 PM »

"Oh how I cried"

I liked the world building, the characters, the surprise. What I liked best: The captains heaven and A hand full of moments as the "trimming" was happening. Each made me wince but the eyes turning down... The moment I heard that I was fortunate I was in a parking lot, because I teared up. I sobbed like a lost child. That HURT.  And the end result.. was it worth it? That impossible improbable VERY human and very inhuman choice. Beautiful.
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« Reply #6 on: April 01, 2014, 07:38:13 AM »

I found the twist -- that Kumara was the one who actually did this, that there was no "systems officer" -- a bit of a cop-out. I understand when she says that no human could've done all this in an hour, but the fact that it was the ship... That's where the story lost me. I would rather it have been an android/robotic crewmember (a la Data on TNG) who was forced to make these decisions.
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albionmoonlight
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« Reply #7 on: April 02, 2014, 02:02:07 PM »

I thought that the twist saved the story to some degree.  When I thought that it was a human making the decision, I could not shake the idea that he really needed to choose the Captain.  She had effectively said to choose her.  And maybe I am also making too much of the old romantic notion that "the Captain goes down with the ship."  In fact, I thought that I would come here and post that as much as I liked aspects of the story, that the decision not to choose the Captain was a significant flaw.

But, once I learned that it was Kumara making the choice, then it all fell into place for me.  And then all of the ramifications of what it means to be human and what makes us human and who gets to make that decision . . . they all were made clear and I saw the story in a completely new way.

And I was happy not to know too much about what was stolen or why we stole it.  I thought that it worked better in this story as a great unknown.
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skeletondragon
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« Reply #8 on: April 03, 2014, 09:23:21 AM »

I liked most of the story but was bothered by the anthropomorphic representation of the ship and her pleading with the systems officer (it seemed like a waste of processing power!), so the twist for me worked very well.  It made me wonder - would an artificial intelligence, capable of modifying its own thought processes, be more likely than a human being to consider this kind of personality alteration preferable to death?
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« Reply #9 on: April 03, 2014, 09:31:12 AM »

I liked it!  I'm not totally sure I understood everything, particularly about the Machine God.  Was that like a Space Odyssey kind of space monolith and they were trying to salvage information from it or something?  I have a feeling for what happened, but not a real grasp of it.

But that vagueness of understanding didn't change that I quite liked the story because the journey through the heavens was great, the decision was great.  The parts that I didn't understand at first came to light as things were revealed.

I thought that the twist saved the story to some degree.  When I thought that it was a human making the decision, I could not shake the idea that he really needed to choose the Captain.  She had effectively said to choose her.  And maybe I am also making too much of the old romantic notion that "the Captain goes down with the ship."  In fact, I thought that I would come here and post that as much as I liked aspects of the story, that the decision not to choose the Captain was a significant flaw.

But, once I learned that it was Kumara making the choice, then it all fell into place for me.  And then all of the ramifications of what it means to be human and what makes us human and who gets to make that decision . . . they all were made clear and I saw the story in a completely new way.

That was a similar reaction to me.  The captain knows she's dead. She's said she would choose to die.  And he doesn't kill her because she loves the ship?  Wha...?  But, yeah, the reveal that the narrator was the ship made that make sense.  And that also made it all the more interesting when she met the captain again afterward and the captain looks at her like "I'm not sure what I saw in you" because the spark that made her choose her entire path in life has been excised.


The procedure that Kumara electronically performed on the crew seemed to me more of a cure than a lobotomy (to quote the episode).  Certainly the Captain and Landvatter seemed to be the better for what was done.  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but they seemed more at peace, more centred. 

Actually, to me, that made the analogy of a lobotomy more apt, at least if we consider the original understanding of lobotomies when they were routinely performed.  They were performed on patients who were exhibiting what others saw as behaviorial problems (some were schizophrenic and really had problems, others may have merely not fit into societal expectations).  The intended outcome of the procedure was to make them calmer people who can still function.  As far as a cursory Google search tells me, the results were extremely variable in practice, but calming and removing emotional bursts was the intended effect, but at the time it was seen as a cure for the underlying mental illness.

That meshes pretty well with Kumara's intent and with the effect that comes from it. The Heavens are not a problem because of what they are, but because they drive the Heaven's owner to strive for something.  After the operation, they no longer have the will to strive.  They're fine with how things are.  Sure, you could see it as a cure if you see unhappiness and discontent as a disease.  But I daresay unhappiness is a part of all of our existence, or at least the vast majority.  But unhappiness is not always a negative thing.  If I am unhappy, I can use that as an energy source to strive for better things--to work to improve the social order, to produce better art to share with the world, to explore, to discover, to accomplish something. If I'm always happy, then why not just... let things happen how they will happen.  If everyone did that, not much would happen, we'd probably all just starve to death because no one is making the food.  

Cure?  Perhaps.  But not without side effects.  If unquestioning and eternal happiness is what you want, then a lobotomy (or certain kinds of drugs) might be just the thing for that.

I found the twist -- that Kumara was the one who actually did this, that there was no "systems officer" -- a bit of a cop-out. I understand when she says that no human could've done all this in an hour, but the fact that it was the ship... That's where the story lost me. I would rather it have been an android/robotic crewmember (a la Data on TNG) who was forced to make these decisions.

I don't understand. Why would it be better to have an android/robotic crewmember?  Either way it would be an artificial intelligence trying to cope with a crippling decision.  I don't see the difference.
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« Reply #10 on: April 04, 2014, 10:33:56 AM »

I found the twist -- that Kumara was the one who actually did this, that there was no "systems officer" -- a bit of a cop-out. I understand when she says that no human could've done all this in an hour, but the fact that it was the ship... That's where the story lost me. I would rather it have been an android/robotic crewmember (a la Data on TNG) who was forced to make these decisions.

I don't understand. Why would it be better to have an android/robotic crewmember?  Either way it would be an artificial intelligence trying to cope with a crippling decision.  I don't see the difference.


Because then you have an outside force acting upon the ship itself, instead of the ship making the decision. Intelligent ship stories are a really hard sell for me; every space opera story I write, the ship doesn't have an AI.
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« Reply #11 on: April 04, 2014, 11:04:39 AM »

I found the twist -- that Kumara was the one who actually did this, that there was no "systems officer" -- a bit of a cop-out. I understand when she says that no human could've done all this in an hour, but the fact that it was the ship... That's where the story lost me. I would rather it have been an android/robotic crewmember (a la Data on TNG) who was forced to make these decisions.

I don't understand. Why would it be better to have an android/robotic crewmember?  Either way it would be an artificial intelligence trying to cope with a crippling decision.  I don't see the difference.


Because then you have an outside force acting upon the ship itself, instead of the ship making the decision. Intelligent ship stories are a really hard sell for me; every space opera story I write, the ship doesn't have an AI.

I on the other hand eat up ship AI stories like candies.  To each their own.  Smiley
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« Reply #12 on: April 05, 2014, 07:55:23 AM »

I loved this story. Easily my favorite of 2014 so far and even including the latter part of 2013 as well. As Alasdair said, the language and the imagery were absolutely beautiful. The idea of post-human people with digitized immortality "dying" and going to heaven is fascinating. I mean, once you're post-human, and your mind is basically a data cluster on a hard drive, you become essentially immortal. When your physical body dies, your mind is simply transferred to another system until you choose to be downloaded again into a body. So what need would you have for an afterlife?

And that's what's so beautiful about this story. This society of post-humans understands the need for a break. They understand the need for death in order to maintain value in life. So, when your physical body dies, rather then just continuing on in a different location, you are actually removed from your situation, cut off from it, and given a time to rest in a fantasy world of your own creation, where you can recuperate from your previous life before you start anew. Fantastic.

And this is where Kumara's great crime really comes to light. Each of the crewmember's heaven's was a struggle, a malcontentedness that kept them searching, but it was a struggle of their own creation. I mean, this is heaven to them, therefor this is what makes them happy. And Kumara took that away from them. Albeit to save their lives, but was it worth it? Is it worth surviving a terrible accident if you're left on life support for the rest of your life? That's what Kumara did to them; she took away what made them happy. Sure, they were content, but in that they weren't happy, and they would never really know why. When Captain Shiroma came to visit Kumara at the end, and "shook her head, as if to say, why?", at first I thought she was asking Kumara why. Why would Kumara have done this to her, taken this from her? But she wasn't. She was asking herself why. Why had she once found this ship and this life so appealing? And she will never know the answer to that because Kumara stole that from her.

The twist ending I could take or leave with this one. I agree with others that the additional information about the nature of our narrator shed some light on a few questionable motives earlier in the story. But in the end, the reasons for their situation and the results are secondary to me behind the exploration of this digital personal heaven and the results of destroying aspects of what make us human in order to save us. Sure, the crew is still alive, but are they really alive anymore? Are they even themselves anymore?

Great story.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #13 on: April 05, 2014, 01:32:56 PM »

I have to admit I had little patience with this story. I kept waiting for the narrator to own up and kill someone. It's not like he had much of a choice.

The problem here (IMHO) is that setup is there only to support the idea of the resolution, the re-fashioning of the stored. And *as a setup*, it sucks, because it's not a decision you can putz around over. You simply don't have the time. It would have been more honest if the ship, Kumara, had simply owned up to her identity in the first place.
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« Reply #14 on: April 05, 2014, 08:54:11 PM »

Oh man. I loved this one. I loved this story so hard in ways that I can only barely attempt to survive. I loved the quandary Kumara found itself in. I loved the idea of her solution. I loved the unreliable narrator, and how much sense it made at the end - of course an AI, incapable of visceral emotion, wouldn't know how to make this sort of decision and would end up relying on a clever-but-horrible solution. I loved the people we were presented with, however sketchy and surreal that presentation. I loved it all.

The idea that a human mind can't be truly held in stasis was also really interesting. Of course, it also makes a kind of sense. So, it turns out that in this universe, "mind" isn't a noun - it's a verb. And if a verb stops verbing, it stops being anything at all. It dies. A human mind can't be flipped on and off without damaging it because it's not an object or a machine, it's the byproduct of the operations of that organic machine, and if it stops doing, it stops being. Splendid!

Of course, that makes you wonder just what Kumara is. She's a true AI. She doesn't need a body or a heaven mainframe. She is a thing and can be turned on and off... what essential human characteristics does she lack that makes this possible? How is it that her mind is a noun and ours is a verb, and what does that mean about her, and us, and the giant planet-sized AIs? Are they trying to find a way to become what we are? To transcend what either of us is? Is that the secret they'll kill to protect, or something else?

Above all, though I loved the world the author presented us with. Damnit, I want this to be the setting of the posthuman sci-fi roleplaying game. Brave post-humans fighting the enormous and malevolent planet-sized AIs while contending with their own internal politics (I presume) and grappling with what it means to be human in an age of AIs and transferable consciousness.

So... well... I loved it. I want more. Well done!
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« Reply #15 on: April 06, 2014, 01:32:01 PM »

I loved this one too.  I understood the dilemma that the ship was in, and found the solution to be amazing and terrible.  I was disappointed to find that there wasn't a Systems Officer - it had been been so emphasized that the ship couldn't touch the Heaven mainframe, that it seemed a Deux et Machina to find that it could, and that it had.

I would have been more satisfied to find that the ship had needed to hack into the mainframe and bypass the Systems Officer.

But, overall, I loved it.
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« Reply #16 on: April 09, 2014, 08:35:46 PM »

Kumara was a well crafted story lending itself to reflection. The construction of the AI/Kumara character with its depth of human feeling (in a decidedly post-human environment?) was masterful. One could sense the interplay of emotions as the climactic decision was weighed. Cloaking itself in the persona of Systems Officer was something quite like what a child would do to explain a naughty deed. In that sense, this is something of a coming of age tale.

Upon reflection, I came to see how the AI/Kumara may have grafted into its programing the same characteristics it says it passed on to the nascent "machine god" entity. The drive to be somewhere else (à la the captain) sent the ship to observe the growth of the growing machine god entity. The prolonged "navel gazing" (à la our two heretofore frustrated yet now hopelessly entwined crew members) justifying its own course of action. And finally, the stubborn refusal (à la the fighting weapons officer) to give up its new self adjusted mission. I could not help but wonder if the contact with the machine god intelligence raised/moved/adjusted the self awareness of the AI/Kumara. To violate what might be seen as programming in the same vein as Asimov's Laws of Robotics when breeching the sanctity of the "heaven mainframe," could have been due to an outside influence. Might it be possible that the AI/Kumara's search/journey to see the growing machine god entity was a search/journey of both self-realization and need for community?
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« Reply #17 on: April 11, 2014, 01:01:25 AM »

I'm another for the "loved it" crowd.  A couple of things to add that I don't think anyone has mentioned yet.

This appears to be--among other things--a very conscious reworking of the classic Tom Godwin story The Cold Equations. At the crucial moment of Kumara, the narrator declares "And it came to me that there was another way. A solution to the cold equation; a way we could all live. Reflecting on that moment, I think I even considered it a mercy." (Emphasis mine)

I recommend that people read The Cold Equations to fully understand Kumara,  because I think that the thesis of Kumara stands out in stark relief to The Cold Equations.  The Cold Equations envisions a merciless universe that is largely beyond the control of human beings.  Kumara is--ironically, given the identity of the narrator--a humanist response.  Kumara seems to say that human choice, human morality, human emotions, do matter.  The posthuman protagonist fails to pick a person to die even when "cold equation" says that she must.  And it is this failure that appears to be responsible for imparting human characteristics on the super-super-intelligent being that she addresses throughout the story.  In short, The Cold Equations says that human feeling doesn't matter to the universe.  Kumara says it does.
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« Reply #18 on: April 11, 2014, 09:12:35 AM »

I disagree that Kumara's is an adequate "solution" to the cold equation. I think her ultimate sin was that she robbed her captain and crew of their free will, and did so contrary to their fairly clear decisions that she not. Perhaps she delivered something wonderful to the new intelligence, and she obviously saved lives; lives that can't really say that they are worse off for the saving. But the reason they can't say that is because they no longer have the will to say it. Had she let one die, that crew member would have died fully intact. Instead, she forever altered all four, turning them into something different. If the definition of human autonomy is the right to be who we are, then Kumara violated a right perhaps more fundamental than life. And the question has to remain: Can we even say that the crew members actually survived?
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PotatoKnight
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« Reply #19 on: April 11, 2014, 05:34:16 PM »

I should clarify that I don't think that Kumara the story is saying that the choice made by Kumara the character was the "correct" choice--I don't think there ultimately is a correct choice either in the situation of this story or the situation of The Cold Equations (except, of course, in The Cold Equations throwing in jail whatever murderous person decided that a "Keep Out" sign is sufficient warning for "DO NOT COME IN HERE OR YOU WILL BE SHOT INTO SPACE YES SERIOUSLY THE VACUUUM OF SPACE"). I think the story is saying that there IS a choice and that choice matters--matters in a way that is very human. The Cold Equations denies that a choice even exists.
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