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The Killing Machine · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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#1 · 1
· · >>Orbiting_kettle >>horizon
You monster, you killed >>Orbiting_kettle! :raritydespair:
#2 · 2
It was a meaningful death.
#3 · 2
· · >>Baal Bunny >>Not_A_Hat >>Scramblers and Shadows
Okay, okay, actual feedback. (Apologies on the delay, I've spent most of the last 16 hours AFK.)

We've got here a space-opera heist/starship battle remixed with some crazy cool uplift AI worldbuilding, and both halves engaged me. All the little details feel like they come together. In short, this fires on all cylinders; well done.

The one thing that's going to dent it in my scoring is the ending, or lack thereof: this is so tightly focused on Stark throughout that cutting away from him (even if they spend the scene talking about him) feels like this closes on a whimper. I think I'm getting hints that the final takeaway here is that Stark has learned nothing from his close brush with death; and now, having learned that the Unfriendlies aren't even a significant fighting force, doesn't even have an external cause to throw himself against, making this a pyrrhic victory. In a story so focused on digging into Stark's psyche, though, I think we need to hear that from him rather than psychoanalyzing him from a distance. So this probably wants one last scene that you might have just run out of time for. Regardless, this is going to set the standard for the top of my ballot that I'll be comparing other stories against.

In the interests of honing the story I'll offer some nitpickier feedback:

• I abstractly approve of the use of the new pronouns for the AIs, but it raises some questions. Both of Stark's friends/lovers are "ve", but Stark is a "he". If ve is a sort of "virtual xe", meaning their gender is FriendlyAI, then I don't understand why Stark is traditionally gendered (aside from the meta-reason of not beating the reader over the head with unfamiliar pronouns throughout). Stark's "he" (and the explicit description of Chirrup's body as "female") also makes me really want to read "ve" = "she", but then I don't understand why you're not just using she. Pronouns make statements, and you shouldn't use strange ones unless they make the statement you want to make, and I don't understand the statement.

• It's a major plot point that "metric ordnance" bends space in a way that attracts short-range jaunts, but we only learn this with Ticktock's explanation after the fact. On first reference, all we learn is:
Something immense and unexpected thumped him from the side. It took a millisecond or two to realise what it was: The Thug had metric ordnance.

…that it's "immense", and that it's named "metric". Since that second fact tells us nothing I suggest a more evocative name for a weapon whose job is (if I understand correctly) to destructively warp space. Gravity/grav? Dark-matter/dark? Zero-point? Another sentence or two about its effects would definitely foreshadow the twist better.

Only AIs had the key to to the stares.


dammit roger give us an IMG tag D:

Again, though, well done.

Tier: Top Contender
#4 · 1
· · >>georg >>horizon >>Scramblers and Shadows
Gonna agree:

With >>horizon on all points--very nicely done, but the last scene didn't work for me, either. If you really want to pop out of Stark's POV at the end, maybe have Ticktock musing it veself about the story's events as the two of them are cruising back to Vega.

For my nitpicks, I'll add another vote for more consistent pronouns, and the completist in me wants to actually see the MacGuffin they pick up at the end.

#5 · 1
· · >>horizon >>Baal Bunny >>Scramblers and Shadows
>>Baal Bunny
"...maybe have Ticktock musing it veself about the story's events as the two of them are cruising back to Vega...."
But the feeling of the conversation would be different, i.e. Bob talking to Fred about Fred is different than Bob talking to Fred about George. You're more open talking about somebody away from them.

E - I think the end scene was well constructed in order to gain greater insight into Ticktock and Stark, as well as a wider view of the created world. All in all, very enjoyable, with the immense accumulation of creativity and word-spinning that I've grown to love from this writeoff works. Great start, wonderful build, fascinating plot. I hate to say this, but another top tier read. (at this rate, I'll be lucky to place 22)
#6 · 1
· · >>Baal Bunny
>>Baal Bunny >>georg
I'm with Georg on the fact that the Ticktock/Oblique scene is far superior as an external view on Stark, and gives us information we wouldn't see in a closer conversation. But I'll reiterate that spending the whole story with Stark and then closing his arc without him in the scene severely mutes the emotional impact of that revelation. The solution, I think, is an additional scene closing out the story, with Stark alone, showing where he's going from here and what he's (failed to) learn(-ed). n.b.: that solitude by itself speaks volumes.
#7 · 2
· · >>horizon

Thinking about it:

I find that what gets my inner structure nut all wound up is introducing a brand-new character at the end just so Ticktock will have a sounding board. If Ticktock had been talking to Chirrup, I wouldn't've batted an eye. But someone I've never heard of before? It gets me both itchy and scratchy... :)

Mike Again
#8 · 2
· · >>Scramblers and Shadows
I may be a little at odds with the rest of the audience but I felt this one got let down by construction more than anything. Companions is a fairly standard sci-fi idea, taking a central premise (friendly AIs) and running with it to a whole host of fun conclusions. That part of the worldbuilding was interesting, dry, but perfectly in keeping with genre expectations. The plot was a bit rougher, there's some absolutely huge holes that would need to be filled (who created the unfriendlies? Why are they fighting? What is the thing they're chasing after? Why are they after it?) but serviceable as a vehicle for a character study.

Which leads to my biggest problem, that I didn't really twig this is a character study until the final third, maybe even the final scene fully. This lead to a weird cognitive dissonance for my when reading as the whole thing ended up as three different stories, the heist, the background details and Stark's childhood, none of which really interacted. They're connected to be sure, but they don't meaningfully impact the A plot, the heist so the whole thing takes a long time to tell a story that doesn't really resolve.

How to tie them together is a big question. I almost think if you want the character and the world then you should dump the heist and put a big character defining moment for Stark in its place. But it all depends on your goals for the story and where you wanted the audience sympathy to lie.

Overall, a very interesting world, but lacking the structure to hold it all together into a great story.
#9 · 2
· · >>horizon >>Scramblers and Shadows
Genre: Sci-fi

Thoughts: I'm grateful for all the other comments on this, because they help me clarify my internal conflict about this story.

On the one hand, this is a captivating mix of
action, characterization, and world-building. The sciency-stuff seems legit and stays interesting. It's got all the makings of a top-tier story.

But there's a but, and for me it's huge: the ending does not work for me at all.

What was the item? Why do we leave our hero right at the moment of his/vis/vatever's triumph? The ending scene by itself could have worked as one of the story's flashbacks/interstitials, which were also great; but as it is, we pull away and get a random aside rather than any kind of conclusion. And it's not one of those ambiguous kinds of stories where a non-ending suits the mood, tone, et cetera.

Author, this wounds me, but I can't put this in my top tier. I have absolute confidence that this could be tweaked into being one hell of a contender, though.

Tier: Almost There
#10 · 1
This one... was really, really good. I'm having a hard time finding anything worth criticizing here,honestly. The 've' bits threw me, I'd say; there are clearly gender-pronouns in how Stark refers to himself, but for some reason Ticktock doesn't get one? That was odd. The childhood bits were interesting, and revealed the character well, but I'm not really sure they meshed tightly enough with the story...? Not that I'd know how to do it much better.

Vega, that oblate pale-blue pinwheel of a star

This line was lovely.

Anyways, this was a lot of fun. Seems like the RNG kept the best stories for last on me.
#11 · 2
· · >>Baal Bunny >>CoffeeMinion
Several people have commented that they'd like to actually see the Macguffin/item that Stark retrieved. Just wanted to comment that I'm a little disoriented about this because it was clear to me:

From the scene where the Thug teleports in:
But the Thug was out of sight. And his prize was there, right ahead of him, no more than a couple of seconds away. He braked hard. The damage sensors whined piteously.

The tiny object resolved itself as matte-black octahedron, with irregular spines. Directed heat dumps. The sort of thing you could never fine unless you knew exactly where to look.

He threw a smattering of drones at the satellite and waited for one of them to connect. …

Half his drones had been knocked out already, but one of the survivors had matched velocity and clamped to the surface. It wouldn't matter now.

From the penultimate scene:
Something else was trying to get Stark's attention. It was the probe he'd sent out, saying it had finished it's trawl and was ready to tell him what what it had found. He accepted, and too onboard the information through a narrowbeam laser.

Last scene:
“Is the prize worth it?”

“Not in the slightest tiniest infinitesimalist bit. Well, maybe an infinitesimalist bit, but I'd have to break out the old calculus to find out. Anyway, maps of what the Unfriendlies are doing? Fighting amongst themselves!

So they were there to raid a satellite for information (the little matte black thing). Stark hacked it with a drone and downloaded all of the information, which was Unfriendly location and conflict data.

this wounds me, but I can't put this in my top tier

Tier: Almost There

You're under no obligation to use story tiers the same way I do, but there's actually a "Strong" category between TC and AT, which I use both for "excellent stories with significant flaws" and "good stories that don't rise to the topmost level". (I'm not saying this is or isn't Strong, I'm just mentioning that it exists.) I have a full listing of categories here.
#12 · 5

The lesson here, author:

Is that a certain percentage of your audience will be good readers like horizon, able to pick up details flashing by in the middle of an action scene. And a certain percentage of your audience will be bad readers like Baal Bunny, distracted by the flashing and the swooping. A big part of the whole concept of "death of the author" is looking at a story through both readers' eyes and deciding where you want to balance things: how much help do you want to give the bad readers without hindering the good readers' enjoyment. 'Cause you never know who's gonna be reading your stuff...

#13 ·
:facehoof: Yes indeed, I see it now, thank you. I remember seeing all of those lines; I just didn't put them together. I may have gotten so caught up in the idea that the thing Stark was after was an object and not information that I forgot about the latter possibility, even though that makes more sense in the context of this world and these characters. It's a credit to the story for humanizing the characters to the point where I would make that kind of mistake, and therefore also a consequence of Stark speaking about his goal in very human-sounding terms.

However, I still feel like we're missing any kind of payoff for Stark's quest to get that information. Without a clear sense of what it means, and--worse--with a character only mentioning it offhandedly and then dismissing its significance outright within the same breath, it still basically feels like we don't know what it was.

(Though I should probably stop trying to defend my mistake and openly admit that I did an oops here. :-P )

As for review tiers and methodology: I suppose it was only a matter of time before I got called out for my mangled misappropriation of yours. :-P I should probably either adopt yours fully or do more to differentiate mine from yours. The HORSE system proper and the more robust set of tiers would be good goals for me to work toward. I'm sure I could do a lot to improve the objectivity and consistency of my review approach, which would be worthwhile given that I end up writing enough of them through the Writeoff...
#14 · 2
· · >>horizon
>>horizon On the 'metric ordinance' thing; I read it as being mass ordinance, like... actual slugs and what instead of energy weapons, which are otherwise used exclusively. I figured it was just a more hefty gun of some sort, though, because a 'jaunt' attracting heavy weapons made sense to me in a different way than the weapon bending space; something unknown coming out of a jaunt is probably a threat, and it's a good idea to shoot at it as soon as possible, given the nature of the warp mechanism and the threat of unknowns. So it's not really physically attracting the ordinance, it just attracts enemy fire really easily, given the tactics of the situation.
#15 · 1
· · >>Not_A_Hat
You're correct, but you are misreading what I was saying. The jaunt never attracted the ordnance, it was the other way around.

And there is explicit text that says that there are gravitic consequences to "metric ordnance", hence my other commentary on it.

I felt it through the planet when the cheeky bastard started throwing metric ordnance around, and I thought to m'self, I thought, Ticktock, kid, there's no way you're gonna get round the planet before your friend Stark is smashed into a million pieces, and then I thought Oh hey, but creating metric ordnance is exactly the sort of thing that would attract a precision jaunt so …
#16 ·
>>horizon Ah, I did apparently have that the wrong way around. However, I think it could still be mass if it's moving at high enough speeds. Enough mass, close enough to c, will definitely produce an altered gravity field. Looking back, Ticktock even mentions 'stress-energy tensor' in her 'precision jaunt' explanation in the opening, which I believe is part of relativistic gravity? Still, in a sci-fi setting, just about anything could be fooling with stress-energy tensors if you've got a bit of handwavium on... hand.

Well, I'm not really disagreeing with you in the end, I think. Looking back, whatever's going on here could definitely be less confusing, and it probably wouldn't be too hard to do. Have Ticktock say something like 'Without something going relativistic to aim at' and change 'metric ordinance' to something like 'mass ordinance' and it ought to cover it for me? He already thinks Ticktock's gone/dead at this point, so trying to bluff the readers too hard is probably more effort than it's worth. And perhaps hanging a plot-point on something as obscure as relativistic gravity should be re-considered, without making sure it's very clear to the readers what's actually happening. I mean, I'm really just guessing here.

Oh, one thing I did notice; in the opening, the teapot's made of titanium, so it can jaunt intact. However, it seemed like Ticktock said it was porcelain after she lobbed the thing? Might want to clear that up, Author.
#17 ·
Companions Addendum: A+ rating on this one too. Placed third on my slate.
#18 · 1

A strong introduction – in three paragraphs we get the genre flavour, a hint of character, a hint of setting, and an introduction to events. The prose is generally strong, if occasionally overwrought.

The chunk of exposition is pretty well done. Another reminder that exposition isn't bed, so long as you keep it interesting. It could've turned out to be a dry history-of-A.I., but the voice its rendered in makes it fun to read.

I'm uncertain about Ticktock. HerVer dialogue is sometimes fun, a bit like a cross between Pinkie Pie and Shrek's Donkey, but it does jar a little with the serious tone of the rest of the piece.

And ve used Russell's teapot to save the day? I'm not sure how I feel about this.

Okay, having finished it, I think that while the ideas themselves are good, the execution is iffy. Especially the structure. It strikes me as undisciplined in a way: “Here's a cool thing. Here's another cool thing! Here's another cool thing!” And so the proliferation is coolness overflows the structure, until at the end, it all just peters out and crawls over the finish line.

I can't really suggest better than the commenters above have done in terms of fixing the ending – but I think tightening up some of the earlier structure might help in this regard.
#19 ·
Retrospective coming soonish. In the meantime, lemme just say, congratulations to our medalists, Baal, Hat, & Horizon.

And to everyone: If you think I was being overly mean or just plain silly in my reviews, by all means tell me. Only way I'll get better at reviewing.
#20 · 2
So I guess this is the bit where I get to be self-indulgent and prattle about my story.

>>Baal Bunny

Hey y'all. Thank you for the reviews. And that's a pretty unanimous complaint: The ending sputtered, yeah. I should've seen that coming. I didn't even have a good idea for the ending until I was halfway through the story itself. And, in many ways, I still don't.

So thank you all especially for your suggestions – I think I can coalesce them into something much better than the story currently has: A conversation with Chirrup first, then Stark alone at the end.

Other stuff, plus trivia for where I wasn't clear enough:

Pronouns: Originally I planned to put a note in there somewhere about how Stark's conservative behaviour in choosing a physical avatar also means he holds onto a standard pronoun. (AIs, of course, choose their pronoun – and while most go for gender-neutral, they're not obliged to.) But that got left out of the last round of panic edits.

Metric ordnance: I guess I got a bit carried away in my throw-physics-words-everywhere approach. The name, if you're interested, is a reference to the metric tensor in GR. Lord knows why I left a description of this so bare when I was being lavish elsewhere. Anyway, noted to be fixed.

The Teapot: Yeah, that changes material halfway through. It was porcelain originally. Then I realised, if jaunting breaks it, how could Ticktock have brought it in intact in the first place? Again, panic edits leading to inconsistencies.