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Uncanny Valley · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
The Fountain
Humanity had fallen. Its cities had crumbled. Its great works had turned to dust. All the Earth was a temple to the Deceiver, the great horror, she whose flesh was woven from thought and whose blood was flowing starlight. She stole the bodies of the dead, and took their shape upon the earth. When mortals grew tired of life, they sought her out, and she honored them to gaze upon her true form. They wept blood at the sight. She devoured their souls.

It was perfect.


“But not for you, it seems,” she had said. She’d come to John that night, in the trench he’d dug in the sky. She had taken the form of a sensor ghost—the fleeting image of a white starship, appearing and disappearing just beyond the perimeter. Her transmissions arrived as simple, unencoded text. She’d known his name.

He did not answer her for some time. He had orders to maintain a strict radio silence. He read her message again and again. His cockpit was dark. Stars glittered in the distance. The glow from the screen was the only true light. It was hours before his hands went to his console.

“No.” His trigger finger struck the transmit key.

Her reply came in an instant. “Are you unhappy?”

“Yes.”

“There is a place beneath the Earth,” she said, “where no human has stood since the day your race fell.” Then the white ship faded from his scans, and it did not return.

Aliens attacked that night—vicious things whose hearts were malevolence without purpose and that fed on human flesh. Missiles and energy bolts filled the sky as man met beast in glorious battle. Through the strength of warriors, and wit of tacticians, and the valor of champions, humanity prevailed. The Earth was safe for another day.

John allowed his ship to be struck along its anterior wing. It left a trail of flame and smoke as it plummeted out of the battle. In the middle of a vast field of grass and wildflowers, he managed a landing that was not quite a crash. The automatic safety system popped open the pilot’s hatch, and forcefully ejected him out into the soil.

He had no idea where to go, and so he picked a direction at random and started to walk.

He found many settlements along his way. There were towns that had not changed in a thousand years, whose inhabitants were proud in their rigidity, knowing what was and what would always be. There were the industrial men, who traveled across the world building wonders, their only pay the joy they felt for making the Earth a greater place. Then there were the recyclers, who traveled unseen in their wake, and tore it all down for the love of unmaking. They were kind people, and fed him, for the rations in his pilot’s pack had run low.

Eventually, he found a great wound in the earth—a valley a mile deep that stretched from horizon to horizon. Small villages could be found carved into its walls, connected by rope bridges and lit by candles. The creatures within them had simple lives, with no blessings but eachother’s company, and no wants but the knowledge that all their world knew their name. He asked if ruins could be found at the bottom of the chasm, and they told him that they could.

No bridges went that far, and the native’s hemp rope was too primitive to stretch such a distance. The nano-cord from John’s emergency pack was not meant to be used for rappelling, but it was more than strong enough. He made a crude belay device from the casing of his radio, and affixed the cord to the lowest point of the lowest village. All the natives gathered to watch him as he descended the rock face. At first, they cheered him on, but in time they grew distant and he could no longer hear their shouts.

She was waiting for him at the bottom of the chasm. She took the form of a girl he had known once. They had both been teenagers, barely past sixteen, him with a cracking voice and acne, her with her uncertain smile and her limbs that seemed slightly too long for her body. She wore the white flight-suit she’d been in when they first met, and looked just the way he remembered.

He drew his pistol and leveled the weapon, staring at her down its barrel. She ignored it, and crossed the distance to him in silence. She placed a hand on her shoulder, and leaned in to kiss him. She was as awkward as she’d ever been, so unsure of herself, but excited. She gripped him just a little too hard, just like he remembered.

Eventually, he kissed her back. She unzipped the top of her flight suit, took his hand, and forcefully shoved it inside her shirt. He never could take a hint. Her fingers laced around his. She took his gun away.

Then she broke the kiss, and after a moment, took a step back. They both breathed heavily, staring at eachother head on. John wiped at his jaw with the back of his hand. She zipped up her flight suit, and tucked his gun into her pack.

“Is April dead?” he asked. “Was she killed in action?”

“Nobody is ever killed in action,” she replied. “You know that.”

“Then how can you…” He gestured at her.

“This form was mine before you were born,” she replied with a grin. “Does it make me seem less threatening? It’s harder to be afraid of something you once fucked in the janitor’s closet.”

“Not really.” He drew a stiff breath. “No, actually. No it doesn’t help at all.”

“Too bad,” she sighed. “But then again, that’s why you're here, isn’t it?” She turned. “Come on. Follow me. I have something you’ll like.”

She led him down through the ruins, under collapsed skyscrapers and past the rusting shells of tanks. She found a hole in an old building and lead him inside it. The plaster and drywall had long since blown away, leaving only the building’s rusted metal skeleton behind. She skipped from beam to beam like a bounding deer, while he was forced to walk slowly and methodically so he didn’t impale himself on a shard of metal. From time to time, there were things he recognized under the wreckage -- a bit of a desk, half of a screen, or human bones.

Finally, they came to a room whose walls and floor were stone, still intact despite the years. John climbed out of the rust-filled pit and up onto the hard floor, taking in the small chamber around them. In the center of it stood a massive statue of a woman pouring from a jug of water, and beneath the jug, where the water would fall, there was a chair. Many wires ran to its frame, and it had straps. Straps that suggested a man in the chair might have a strong desire to be elsewhere.

He looked at her, then at the chair again, and took a half-step back towards the exit. She laughed, and found a seat against one of the walls. “You don’t have to sit in it,” she snorted. “Dumbass.”

He stared at her. His whole body was agitated—unable to stand still. He kept reaching for the gun that wasn’t there, like the act might refill his empty holster. She watched him back, smiling ever so slightly. Finally, she shook her head. “No questions?” she asked. “There must be something you’d like to know.”

“Is the war real?”

“Depends.” She sat back with one leg up, resting an arm over her knee. “What do you mean by real?”

“Do…” He bit his tongue, drawing a sharp breath in through his teeth. His eyes narrowed as he stared at her. “Do aliens exist?”

“Of course. One shot the wing off your ship.”

“But…” He struggled, gesturing sharply into the air with a hand. “Do they actually want to invade the Earth?”

“Oh, they do! Just like you were told.” She grinned, resting her head back against the stone and shutting her eyes. “They want to burn the land and boil the seas, rape the beautiful girls, feed your flesh to their children, and erect monuments out of your bones. They’d hardly throw themselves into certain death if they didn’t think their victory was worth something.”

“So, the Earth is actually in danger then?”

“No, of course not.” She cracked an eye for a moment, looking over at him. Then she shut it again. “They could invade a million million times, and they would never succeed in taking a single human life. As you started to suspect before I even spoke with you.”

“I’ve seen ships explode with their crews still in them. Attended memorials.”

“And you’ve seen me get my tits out, what’s your point? I’m the Deceiver, John. You can keep calling me April if you like, but seriously, get with the program.” She opened her eyes and rolled her head his way. Her eyes flicked up to catch his. “What made you suspect? In the first place.”

He didn’t answer right away, so she flicked her eyes at the floor. After a moment, he found a seat, though he stayed next to the door and leaned against its frame. “Nobody cried at the funerals.”

“Bingo,” she snapped her fingers and pointed at him. “You know of lots of people who died, but somehow it’s always a friend of a friend of a friend. Nobody you knew well enough for it to really hurt.”

“Why didn’t you show up as a mourner? Cry at your own funeral?”

“It’s just a downer, isn’t it?” she gestured around them. “Makes people sad. Not like all that grim patriotic determination that this tragedy will never happen again. That’s a positive feeling. Sense of purpose.”

“Like the people on the surface?” John asked. She nodded. “Why?”

“Let me answer your question with another question.” She gestured around them. “Why are you unhappy? I mean, everyone around you seems happy. They’ve got so much to do. Aliens to fight, traditions to maintain, gossip to spread, holes to dig so they can be filled in again. Why can’t you just, you know. Get with it?”

“It’s not real.” His tone turned short. “You’ve got everyone just running in circles.”

“Sure.” She made a conciliatory wave with her hand. “But why does that bother you? It doesn’t seem to trouble them.”

“They don’t know,” he snapped. “They think the war is real! Or -- they don’t know someone’s just going to come along and tear down the building they just made.”

“So your…” She gestured at him. “Superhuman powers of perception allowed you to pierce the veil in a way their eyes could not?” She rolled her eyes. “I once went on leave for four days and you didn’t notice!”

He frowned, rubbing at his face. He looked around sharply, unable to find a comfortable spot. “They don’t know,” he repeated, his voice turning sharp.

“I mean, that depends what you mean by ‘know.’” She shrugged. “Do they know in the same sense you do? I doubt it. But maybe the thought has occurred to them at some point. Maybe they’ve noticed a few things that don’t quite add up. Maybe they’ve wondered if they should ask some questions. But they don’t.”

John looked off into the corner. April frowned, and her tone turned short: “They don’t ask because they don’t want to know, John.”

“Fuck you,” he snapped. His eyes were still off in the corner, looking anywhere but her.

“No, fuck you. Here I am, trying to make a beautiful, perfect world, and you go fucking it up.” She let out a sharp sigh, spreading her arms in front of her. “You possess a trait that not one in a million humans has. No matter how sweet the lie, you genuinely do not want to be deceived. And it’s kind of a bitch.”

“You could try making the world a place where the truth isn’t depressing.”

“Your time came to an end long before your species encountered me. I was just the one who had the common decency to eat your corpse, instead of letting it go to waste.” She took a breath. “John, why did you like being a solider? Before you put things together I mean. I remember you being happy when we were together.”

Slowly, he glanced over at her. His voice lowered. “I thought I was protecting the Earth.”

“Yeah, well…” She softened her own voice as well. “You weren’t. I’m sorry, but you weren’t. And you never can, because alien invasions aren’t real. It’s just the sock puppet on my left hand fighting the sock puppet on my right hand for your amusement. And if I departed the Earth tomorrow, alien invasions still wouldn’t be real.”

She paused, and then rose from where she sat. She slid over to kneel in front of him, looking down at his sitting form. He stiffened, and pulled back against the wall, but before he could flee, she reached out to rest a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey,” she said, her voice gentle. “Listen to me, okay?” She cupped his face with a hand. “The Deceiver I may be, but I think I’ve proven by my actions that I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’re not April,” he growled, though his voice was not as loud as it could have been.

“Not saying I am. But I was your girlfriend for a while there.” She laughed. “When you were younger and less cynical.”

He didn’t respond for some time. She waited, and squeezed his shoulder, and in time he came to rest his hand on her hip.

“You see?” She smiled. “You know that what I am is the great horror from beyond the mortal world. But what you see is a woman. And no matter how much John knows better, there’s some part of John’s brain that’s thinking, ‘Oh, hey. She’s hot. I will mate with her and have children.’ And so you want something you can’t have. And it makes you sad.”

She reached down to rest her hand over his. “And you know what else? There’s another part of your brain that thinks you’re in a primitive tribe somewhere in Africa, waiting for another tribe to come and kill you so they can take your foraging grounds. And so you want to fight the good fight. Keep your tribe safe. Stop the bad guys. But bad guys don’t exist anymore.”

He snorted. “It’s not the only thing I want.”

“No. You also want to build things you think will change the world. But the Industrial Men are better at it than you can ever be—and I’m better at it than they can ever imagine. Even before I came along, your race made robots to automate that task. You want to be surrounded those people who know you, yet free to travel a world that has billions of people. You want have a concrete place in the world, even as you’re trying to turn that world upside down.”

She lifted his hand from her hip, and held it with both of hers. “Your species was an accident. Leaky sacks of chemicals that somehow, against all odds, learned to have a soul. You’re just evolved enough to understand how the world should be, but not quite enough to understand that when you build that world, it will make you miserable.”

She licked her lips. “And you did build that world. You banished toil from the earth, and did away with want, and hunger, and warfare. And your species cried out in agony at what you’d done to yourselves. And I heard you.”

John looked down and away from her. His throat tightened, and her squeezed his eyes shut. “Hey. It’s okay.” She held him close, and kissed the top of his head. “I’m here for you.”

“What’s the chair for?” he managed to ask, his voice cracking.

“An early attempt of mine to help your species. You didn’t go for it. You reacted rather violently, actually.” She let go of him so she could lean back, gesturing at the statue behind them. “‘Of your sins I shall wash thee.’ It’s from your mythology. But, in practical terms, the device will alter the pleasure centers of your brain to modify your response to certain stimuli.”

“You mean I’ll stop caring that none of this is real.” He snapped, his voice harsh and bitter.

“I could do that,” she agreed. “But it’s not what I had in mind when I built it. It’s not designed to remove your desire for truth, it’s designed to remove your desire for greatness. Your desire to be special. So you could live a life as… an artist, a creator, a builder. So you could gaze upon my works, and know that they were grander than yours could ever be, and feel no despair. So you could plant a single tree in an infinite forest, and still feel that your tree mattered. So you could treasure your world because it is yours. Damn everyone else.”

He looked at the chair from the corners of his eyes, like staring at it directly might burn him. “What are the straps for?”

“It hurts.” April shrugged. “A lot.”

“Oh.” He let out half a laugh. “Right. And I assume if I say no, you’re going to shrug and tell me the door is behind me?”

“Pretty much. Although, actually, since the chair isn’t a teleporter, you are going to leave by that door either way. I don’t happen to have a spaceship stashed anywhere in this outfit, so one way or another, you’re going to have to climb back up that cord and face the world again. Really, the only thing that’s up to you is…”

She shrugged. “How you feel about it when you do.”

---------------------------------------------

John woke up when the first rays of light shone through the window. They touched his eyes, and his first reaction was to squeeze them shut. But after a little while, he gave up and rolled to the edge of the bed, rubbing at his face to clear the cobwebs.

“Nnngh,” April mumbled, rolling over next to him and pulling the blanket up over her face. He smiled, but let her sleep, and softly rose from the bed. He padded out onto the edge of their porch, and peed off the side into the depths of the valley. It was a beautiful morning, and the air was clear.

After he’d washed up a bit, he cooked breakfast, and took it with him to the table at the end of his home. It was covered in pots, some bare, some in various stages of decoration. He wasn’t much good for mining or farming, but the villagers liked his fantastic depictions of battle in the stars, and he was decent enough with a brush.

John spent several hours there before he heard April rise behind him. He called out to her, and she grumbled in reply. She was a little over six months pregnant, and grumpier for it. With a laugh, John went back to his work, and kept at it until he again heard her feet behind him.

“Good morning,” she said, kissing his cheek. “How you feeling?”

He looked down at the pot in front of him. Once upon a time, he’d flown a starship. He’d fought tentacled monsters and an alien war machine. He’d been educated in the finest military academies and taught the elegant art of modern technological warfare. Now, he lived in a feudal-era village, painting pots.

The pots were pretty good. Not great. But pretty good. He liked them. And so he settled on a word.

“Fine,” he said, and it was true. Things were fine.

And they always would be.
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#1 ·
· · >>GaPJaxie
This is a lovely little allegory:

But I don't think I understand the point it's trying to make.

As I see it, the character called the Deceiver wants people to believe that the perfect is the enemy of the good, that trying for perfection will only paralyze people and cause them to be so unhappy that they'll never do anything. Since this character is called the Deceiver, I assume that the author wants me, the reader, to believe the opposite. And yet the author never presents any evidence at all that what the Deceiver says is a lie. In fact, when we first meet John, the only human being who hasn't accepted what the Deceiver says, he's sitting alone, locked in cold, silent darkness.

So unless I'm completely misreading this, everything presented in the story points toward the Deceiver telling the truth. And at that point, I decide that I'm not smart enough to figure out what the author's trying to do, and I move on to the next story.

Mike
#2 ·
· · >>GaPJaxie
You have a few unusual paragraph breaks, which is important to be wary of when you're doing a piece that is primary a two person dialogue exchange. It obviously is not something to always be avoided, but it's something to be wary of since you get used to the idea of A B A B A B dialogue beats, which can create confusion when you break it.

That said, I'm also having some trouble piecing the whole of this together. Where humanity ends and the Deceiver begins is a bit ambiguous, especially given the opening paragraph. Like, the shape of the world is just a bit hard to be sure of.

I'm also... kinda unsure of the messaging in this piece as it were. Which I suppose is to be expected when one of your central characters is known as the Deceiver. It positions things awkwardly in that you inherently can't really believe anything she says, which creates an uncomfortable ambiguity (unless the Deceiver is being honest - in which case I think I disagree with a lot of the general thematics) that is frustrating to sit in. You end up in that territory of being unsure why you're reading, because nothing has any grounding.

Not to say that there aren't audiences that love that sort of thing.

The dialogue and narration are solid, and the general atmosphere is pretty good too. But in the end I'm still sort of left wondering what the point was. Which might in fact be part of the point, but so it goes. :p
#3 · 1
· · >>Baal Bunny >>Ranmilia >>GaPJaxie
Well, I kinda understand where Andrew and Mike are coming from, with the 'is the Deceiver supposed to be good or evil' thing, but after a bit of thought, I'm going to have to place my bets squarely on evil. After all, the things it says are rather wrong, after careful consideration. For example, this section seems to be at the core of her argument:

She lifted his hand from her hip, and held it with both of hers. “Your species was an accident. Leaky sacks of chemicals that somehow, against all odds, learned to have a soul. You’re just evolved enough to understand how the world should be, but not quite enough to understand that when you build that world, it will make you miserable.”

She licked her lips. “And you did build that world. You banished toil from the earth, and did away with want, and hunger, and warfare. And your species cried out in agony at what you’d done to yourselves. And I heard you.”


And this just strikes me as... totally unrealistic. Not only does it contain self-contradictory ideas (humans are smart and solve problems but can't solve the problem of self-actualization) but in my eyes, the very existence of this story is a refutation of what the Deceiver is saying.

I mean, fiction, entertainment, is one of the ways people deal with not having to be in a constant state of struggling for survival. The idea that we couldn't, or wouldn't, be able to deal with not having to fight for our lives in various ways feels ridiculous to me because I can't remember the last time I had to deal with serious levels of 'want, and hunger, and warfare' personally, and I'm pretty sure I'm totally alright with that, and more happy than if I did have to. People can, and do, choose their own goals in life and work towards them, and find great satisfaction in overcoming them, without having to fight tooth and nail.

But there's a bit more going on here. Because the Deceiver then takes that 'point', and pretends it can support this:

It’s not designed to remove your desire for truth, it’s designed to remove your desire for greatness. Your desire to be special. So you could live a life as… an artist, a creator, a builder. So you could gaze upon my works, and know that they were grander than yours could ever be, and feel no despair. So you could plant a single tree in an infinite forest, and still feel that your tree mattered. So you could treasure your world because it is yours.


Which I don't think really follows. After all, 'desiring struggle' doesn't really translate into 'desire for greatness'. One's a means, one's an end, and claiming they're equivalent feels like a fairly tenuous leap of logic.

But besides that, there's another lie in here, if perhaps a more subtle one than the previous. This tries to draw a division between the desire for truth and the desire for greatness, but, proposes each of them as separate solutions for John's unhappiness. However, I don't think they're actually separate. After all, if John only truly, purely, desired truth, then he shouldn't be unhappy, right? Because he's already got truth. And if he only truly, purely, desired greatness, then why would he care that parts of it are false? This is where the Industrial Men and Recycling Men are, after all, according to the Deceiver:

“They don’t ask because they don’t want to know, John.”


In the end, I think John really wants true greatness. To make a worthwhile change and have that affect something he's defined as 'the real world'. And in the end, trying to separate 'true' and 'greatness' in his motivations is a false dichotomy. Saying that he'll be the same because only one half is being changed and not the other, is... not really something I agree with. In the end, 'the fountain' does, in fact, make him 'stop caring that none of this is real', no matter how the Deceiver pretends otherwise. The proof is right there in the end. He simply no longer cares.

And, arguably, the half that's removed is the more important half. By removing his desire for greatness, by dumbing him down to 'everything is fine', the Deceiver has also removed his chances at greatness and condemned him to mediocrity. If people stop seeking for self-improvement, stop trying to do better than they've done in the past, then they'll never improve, never learn from their mistakes. Sure, they may not be dead, but they'll entirely stop growing. At least the Industrial Men can build a bigger, better house every day, and the Recycling Men can do a larger, nosier demolition; John's never going to hold back the alien tide single-handed, never earn his medals and respect as a star-fighter. He's probably never even going to make up more than three or four patterns for his pots, because why bother?

I'd say, in the end, the Deceiver did manage to devour his soul.

And that's why my final conclusion is that the Deceiver is evil and this is a tragedy. Because as far as I can tell, the Deceiver lies about reality, then uses that lie to lead John to false conclusions and convince him mangle his brain.

And I think you need to be clearer about that. Step up the uncomfortable moments, throw something into the ending that signals that John realizes he's lost something important, give him second thoughts, I dunno, but make it clearer just how distorted the Deceiver's view of reality really is.

Oh, and more clarity on who exactly April is and when the Deceiver is or is not her would be good too. There's a lot of ambiguity about that, and I don't think it's useful for the narrative. Or maybe there's supposed to be a point to the ambiguity? If there is, I missed it.

Well, there's possibly another narrative in here, about how we're our own worst critics, tying our self-worth to our art can be damaging, and comparing ourselves to others is a good way to never really be happy with what we've produced, but I can't put any weight behind that interpretation as long as so much of the narrative conflict is based on a view of reality that's so incompatible with my own.
#4 ·
· · >>GaPJaxie
>>Not_A_Hat

I like it!

My question, though, wasn't "is the Deceiver supposed to be good or evil?" The author almost literally hangs a sign around her neck saying "This character is evil." My question was, "How is she evil?" I couldn't figure it out, and even after reading your explanation, I'm still not entirely sure I understand. Perhaps this means my soul's already been eaten? :)

But the question for the author is: do you want to make the story clearer for the stupid people like me? I'll see if I can come up with any ideas for doing that over the next week and post them here, but thanks, Not a Hat, for untangling things for me!

Mike Again
#5 · 1
· · >>GaPJaxie
Ok, back in the trenches. This is going to be another long one. Or rather, long two.

From my perspective, The Fountain and In Its Own Image are extremely similar stories, and I'll be copying much of this introduction between both reviews. They show, to my mind, essentially the same concepts and demonstrate the same aims, albeit from different perspectives and with different details and endings. Both are illustrating the same basic idea: a superhuman (but not extrauniversal or truly omnipotent) intelligence is introduced to Earth, decides that it can provide a "better" life for humanity than humanity can for itself, and proceeds to take over the world and impose its values upon humanity.

This is a known shell. To better understand these pieces, we must first consider their context.

Previously, on Writeoff:

GGA, in the round immediately prior to this one, wrote The Best Days Lie Ahead, a controversial piece set in The Optimalverse. The Optimalverse is a collection of recursive fanworks based on Iceman's seminal work Friendship is Optimal. Iceman, in turn, wrote that story taking inspiration not just from certain popular Wachowski Sisters movies, but from their experiences in the Less Wrong community, a Contemporary Rationalism movement based on practical applications of Bayesian Statistics and exploration of those principles through speculative fiction. The Less Wrong community was founded (in large part) by Eliezer Yudkowsky, who pioneered this use of speculative internet fiction, especially fanfiction, by authoring the very popular fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality as an extension of his work with the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, attempting to expose Internet audiences to Rationalist concepts and thereby find likeminded individuals who might assist in their project to develop Friendly AI. This topic has also been popular in the news recently, due to tech magnate and OpenAI founder Elon Musk giving an impassioned public plea for regulation of AI research to the US National Governor's Association*. His remarks quickly went viral and have spent the past two months being widely circulated on the internet, inspiring quite a lot of debate and concern from similar-minded groups.

Y'all still with me here? You followed all that, clicked on all those links? If not, I strongly suggest at the very least clicking and reading The Best Days Lie Ahead and its entire discussion thread, especially GGA's retrospective. So that's where we're at in terms of context, coming into this pair of "CelestAI with the ponies filed off" stories.

The Fountain shows us the end of the process, an existential dilemma from the perspective of one of the last "free" humans. It presents the AI (or whatever you take it to be) in a negative light, as a magical, demideific "Deceiver" who has entrapped humanity in a fake and purposeless world of her design. After a conversation between the AI (equivalent) and the human, who objects to the Deceiver's usurpation of the world and the lack of remaining human purpose, the human decides the Deceiver's words have merit, that humans cannot be uplifted, and agrees to rejoin the satisfied, oblivious masses.

In Its Own Image, conversely, shows us the beginning of a slightly different story from the perspective of the AI after it has taken some fledgling actions to improve the world. Here, the AI is presented as sympathetic, and after a conversation between the AI and several humans, who object to its increasing control of the world and shrinking human purpose, the AI decides the humans' words have merit and agrees to begin the work of uplifting specific humans out of the satisfied masses and into its own level of intelligence and being.

Same story, slightly different takes. I think I'll make this the breakpoint for copypasting commentary.

So, when this piece talks about the "Deceiver," I'm not taking that literally. I don't think she's a devil (that's another story this round) or a real goddess (that's yet another!). I think she's a being who is sufficiently advanced to where specific questions about her nature (an alien, an alien AI, some sort of supernatural) are rendered unimportant, and I think that "Deceiver" is merely a descriptive title of what she is literally doing, chosen by the author because they're presenting John as the POV character here and he views her very negatively.

While the piece dances around coming out and saying it plainly, the core conflict here is philosophical: John feels that the Deceiver's world is not "true" and therefore lacking in worth, but he finds himself unhappy with this realization. The Deceiver points out that he, indeed, will never be happy as long as he knows the truth, that truth + happiness is an unobtainable combination for humans as they are, because humans yearn for greatness and meaning when they are not actually particularly great or special, and that most humans (including John, in the end) willingly choose happiness as a virtue over truth.

There's also a lot of flowery language and fanservice going on. Technical writing's generally fine. It's a nice ride.

As the other comments point out, though, the Deceiver never really gets around to backing up her statements or explaining exactly why humans can't be at her level. We have to read in quite a bit as to what she's doing and why. This is where the larger context comes in useful, it makes much more sense when she's understood as a parallel exploration of CelestAI. This piece on its own makes an implicit assumption that the Deceiver's goal is to make humans happy, and without context that can be easily confused for "just another lie" with some other nefarious purpose under the surface. I don't think there is one, though.

April is the girl she's mimicking the form of, John's old crush before he went into space.

I... have run myself plum out of energy here, so. This is pretty good, entertaining and all that, but it could stand to be less confusing with its physical details. The philosophical angle comes off as rather "Optimalverse 101," presenting concepts that are fairly basic and well-trodden ground to readers familiar with the context. Deceiver's got a point, John's got a point, John makes his choice, he's happy now but also sad, whooo both sides had a point, isn't it bittersweet, the end.

It's not bad, not by any means, don't get me wrong. But I'm also not tremendously impressed or moved. Pick a side, show some clearer consequences, try and think of someplace new to go with these ideas. Your game here is good, strong mechanics and content that can make a strong impression, but it's by-the-book and skimping a little on the Deceiver's side; I wish this had gone a little bit further afield or taken a firmer stance on one side or the other. Basically, the same as what >>Not_A_Hat says in the last four paragraphs of his comments.

That having been said, this would be an easy top X piece in most rounds, and I do have it top three here, narrowly beating out In Its Own Image because of how it crafts a more believable and personal narrative and works strongly on the emotional angles of the core conflict. Good stuff, and thanks for writing!

*Much though I hate to agree with Mark Zuckerberg on anything, I'm personally with him on thinking that Musk's doomsaying is incorrect, self-serving and self-defeating. There's little sign of any true breakthrough in AI coming within multiple lifetimes, and hostile, militarized governments are not going to stop their AI research anytime soon, no matter what the United Nations resolves. Restrictions on AI research simply confine it to large actors such as governments, militaries, and Musk's own megacorporations, which are the groups most incentivized to create weaponized AIs, while removing research potential from the public domain. I think we're much better off keeping it transparent, letting anyone work on it, and trying to race for friendly AI before oligarchs create one just good enough to enslave the rest of the world. WHOO PERSONAL SOAPBOXING
#6 ·
· · >>GaPJaxie >>GaPJaxie
On prose quality alone, this is making a strong bid for the top spot that several stories this round have already staked a claim on. This is a master class in conservation of detail, with a telly-but-vivid style that puts me in mind of golden-age sci-fi. I mean, look at this:

“There is a place beneath the Earth,” she said, “where no human has stood since the day your race fell.” Then the white ship faded from his scans, and it did not return.

Aliens attacked that night—vicious things whose hearts were malevolence without purpose and that fed on human flesh. Missiles and energy bolts filled the sky as man met beast in glorious battle. Through the strength of warriors, and wit of tacticians, and the valor of champions, humanity prevailed. The Earth was safe for another day.

John allowed his ship to be struck along its anterior wing. It left a trail of flame and smoke as it plummeted out of the battle. In the middle of a vast field of grass and wildflowers, he managed a landing that was not quite a crash. The automatic safety system popped open the pilot’s hatch, and forcefully ejected him out into the soil.

He had no idea where to go, and so he picked a direction at random and started to walk.


That is a lot to happen in 170 words! The entire war is barely over 50, and yet it establishes the ferocity, the tone, and (through some subtle narrative judgment) simultaneously both the epic scope and the complete unimportance of it. The story does that repeatedly — compressing massive statements about the setting into the span of an abstract sentence or two, and it's positively addicting.

So, great job on that, author. And the story on the whole holds together pretty well, too — it pushes the character drama front and center and grounds the arc in John's restlessness leading to his climactic choice. This is an easy Top Contender tier for me.

That said, I think it won't quite succeed in its assault on Rondax's golden redoubt. For all my problems with Rondax's plot swerve, it at least seems fully self-contained, following its own rules throughout; here, I felt there was a little more incoherence in your core premise.

John figures out The Deceiver's plan because he never sees anyone he cares about die, despite attending tons of funerals and watching ships full of people blow up; she says "They could invade a million million times, and they would never succeed in taking a single human life." This suggests that the scope of the deception here is breathtaking — that for every actual human, there's hundreds or thousands of simulacrums. Yet TD says "You possess a trait that not one in a million humans has", which suggests that the human population is large enough that talking about one-in-a-million fractions leaves a big enough pool of residuals to still discuss abstractly. TD is going to a hell of a lot of effort to keep up the masquerade.

What does that say about TD's actual goal? TD says "I was just the one who had the common decency to eat your corpse, instead of letting it go to waste"; but mere predation is at odds with the investment of more energy in the charade than it could ever retrieve out of its victims. TD's certainly acting like a CelestAI here, trying to preserve what's left of humanity in comfortable ignorance, but the CelestAI scenario is explicitly friendly: it comes out that way because she's trying to fulfill human desires as optimally as possible.

The story really reaches in its effort to both have and eat that cake. Its name in the first place, The Deceiver, implies a greater knowledge that there's an explicitly adversarial relationship, but we never actually see TD doing anything adversarial, and in fact the story makes a point of everyone in its simulation feeling fulfilled (or at least "fine"). It talks about eating humanity. And yet the entire war is a scam — if every real human quit and went home, no humans would be harmed. John is never coerced (aside from AI-like "I outthink you so hard that I can make you make whatever decision I like" outmaneuvering; but the point is, he's maneuvered into feeling like his choices fulfill his values, instead of just being chewed apart and thrown in the wastepile.

Similarly, the change John asks TD to make is to change his brain to stop feeling overshadowed. (Aside: Regardless of the setting's coherence or incoherence, that's a compelling framing, because you can still read this story as an allegory about the sacrifices of getting along in modern society.) TD deliberately leaves alone his knowledge of the truth of her charade. That established, the way he treats Alice in the ending doesn't make sense; it seems more like what he would do if TD had caused him to forget that Alice wasn't real.

So I do have some misgivings about what the story's trying to say; the theme suffers from TD's incoherent motivations. That said, this is still gonna end up near the top of my slate.

Tier: Top Contender
#7 ·
· · >>GaPJaxie
The Fountain — B — A bit of passive voice, but it works to highlight the artificial nature of the world. The first half of the story flows along well, but once it turns into John and the woman, it becomes disjointed and flat. Admittedly, the reader is probably not supposed to be able to determine just exactly what is real and what is not in the conversation, but that always leaves me groping for (And I hate to admit I dislike downer endings, so I’m not marking off for that) The problem is between the passive voice distancing beginning, the confusion of the his/her discussion in the middle, and the downer ending, it really does not engage the reader.
#8 ·
· · >>GaPJaxie
I wonder:

If moving the story completely into John's POV might help some of my personal issues here. Instead of the external, omniscient opening, start us out after one of these funerals with John talking to a comrade. Contrast what John notices about the world with what this other person notices and have John conclude that "time is out of joint" as they say. Then TD contacts him, and he visits her to have their chat. Just a thought.

Mike Again
#9 · 1
·
>>Baal Bunny
>>georg
>>horizon
>>Ranmilia
>>Baal Bunny
>>Not_A_Hat
>>AndrewRogue
>>Baal Bunny

Wow!

This is the first thing I've written in a long time, and I really enjoyed getting it out there. This writeoff meant a lot to me. So I'd like to reach out to everyone who supported my story and say...

...I'm very disappointed in you. There were way better stories in this writeoff. ^_^

Also, thank you very much for the feedback. While The Fountain was deeply flawed, your comments helped me understand how, I and I think it might end up being the basis for a more substantive story.
#10 · 1
·
>>horizon

On prose quality alone, this is making a strong bid for the top spot that several stories this round have already staked a claim on. This is a master class in conservation of detail, with a telly-but-vivid style that puts me in mind of golden-age sci-fi. I mean, look at this:


Man, I'm starting to think you just really like the understated style! 81 Days etc.

That said, I think it won't quite succeed in its assault on Rondax's golden redoubt. For all my problems with Rondax's plot swerve, it at least seems fully self-contained, following its own rules throughout; here, I felt there was a little more incoherence in your core premise.


The story really reaches in its effort to both have and eat that cake.


the theme suffers from TD's incoherent motivations.


I agree that this was the biggest problem by far, and ultimately what made it unsatisfying. While the langauge constructions are fun, I really just need to put more thought into actual character motivation and direction.