On August 17 of this year, @pibara launched a short story contest, The Higgs Buble Dilemma. Three stories were submitted to the contest. @pibara had asked, as a second part of the contest, that the stories be reviewed and rated by readers. Today’s blog contains a brief review for each story.
The Higgs Bubble Dilemma provides the conflict that must be resolved by the contestants. The dilemma presented by the Higgs Bubble is essentially this: should humans save themselves, or save unknown aliens? (I really don't know much about the Higgs Dilemma 😃, besides what I learned from the contest.)
Image credit: CC-By-SA CERN. CC 3.0 license.
In a way, the challenge presented by @pibara as a theme for his contest is one we all face every day. Self interest is weighed against the interest of others. Or, to put it more starkly (as @pibara does in this contest), our survival is balanced against the survival of others.
Many choices we make daily come down to this. When we degrade the environment in order to facilitate our own existence, are we not making a choice for us, over others? When we ration medical care based on the ability to pay, are we not making the same choice? Not to mention war. Every time we endorse a military action, are we not choosing our interests, our lives, over the lives of others?
As I read the three stories submitted in the contest, I first looked at the technical aspects of writing: story arc, character development, scene portrayal, narrative cohesion. I also looked at how the central conflict was addressed. It turned out that all the stories have two essential stages in resolving the conflict. First stage is the pursuit of knowledge, and the second is assuming responsibility for consequences that ensue from information acquired.
Each of these writers has the basics down pat. They all get 5.0 out of 5.0 for character development, scene creation, etc. This left me to consider the second two elements: becoming aware of the problem (knowledge), and assuming responsibility for consequences that follow awareness.
There is a long tradition in mythology of humans overreaching, of the hubris that leads to transgression into forbidden realms. Adam and Eve in the Garden, Pandora's Box, Prometheus and fire. We humans, as a species, have a hunger to know. However, knowing brings with it a burden. The way characters deal with this burden determines the trajectory of the stories.
Individual reviews of the stories are offered below in alphabetical order (by author's name). As I write the reviews, I assume readers are familiar with the characters/narratives.
@litguru: On the Eve of Decay
This author teases us a bit and that is great fun. To be or not to be, indeed. To act or not to act. With exquisite precision and humor, the author addresses the issues of knowledge and responsibility.
“I rue the day I ever helped decode their signal”, the wizard declares near the beginning of the story. He is a wizard, so believes himself to be exempt from the rules that govern others. He will not choose between this life or that life. He is not governed by the physical limitations others must observe. He will make his own reality. He will become a light essence. And so will everyone else.
Is this not a godlike choice? The wizard has not killed or agreed to be killed, but has taken upon himself the responsibility to alter the very essence of life. How many of us would want to be subject to the wizard and the power of his fire wand? It reminds me of the scientists who designed 'the bomb'. Just before the first test at Los Alamos, Enrico Fermi wondered if perhaps the explosion might ignite the atmosphere and destroy the earth in an apocalyptic inferno. And yet he pressed on.
I think Litguru does a great job here of describing the problem, creating characters and coming up with a resolution that is satisfying to no one—except the wizard.
In this story the author cleverly places the issue of knowledge front and center. The project upon which our AI character, Dave, works is called 'Sentient'. His boss is named Adam. The loss of innocence, the tasting of the fruit of knowledge, has led to the possible demise of the human race. The burden of this knowledge, which neither humans nor AI has the tools to bear, weighs heavily on Dave and his human counterparts. The chairperson of the world council expresses exactly this sentiment:
“...the weight on our shoulders is heavy and the task before us is extremely onerous. The burden may prove too sizeable to bear, but a decision, we must make.'
What can these poor humans do? They are imperfect. They have had thrust upon them knowledge that only a god can handle. And they are asked to make the decision for which only a god is equipped. Is it arrogance, ignorance, or overreaching that prompts them to destroy the human race?
In the end, the author of this piece drives the message of overreaching home. In a cruel irony, the human race has fumbled its experiment with divine responsibility. The decoded message was outdated. Humans did not need to destroy themselves because technology had advanced outside the human realm so that all beings could survive.
@samsmith1976 does an excellent job of presenting the moral question and of introducing us to Dave, who becomes our guide in this ironic philosophical exercise.
@wrestlingdesires: Saviours of the Universe
In this story, resistance to crossing the knowledge threshold is presented by the character, Mitchell. Mitchell lacks curiosity. He doesn't understand why humans should look beyond the known. Those who do cross the threshold and go beyond human understanding, cannot unknow what they have learned. Thrust upon them is responsibility for their destiny and the destiny of beings far removed from them.
This author does not use AI or wizards to delineate the existential challenge. He uses relatable characters, characters drawn from every day life. This forces us to ask, in real terms, what would we do? The free will of each person determines the outcome. Ordinary people. And they do what the author describes as 'predictable'. They save themselves.
In the end this challenge to existence turns out to have been a test of human character, conducted by a superior alien species. The alien asserts that humans failed the test, because they voted for survival. However, as a reader I ask, who actually failed the test? The humans who decided not to listen to a deciphered message from distant beings, or the 'superior' race that is actually placing itself in the role of a god?
@wrestlindesires does an excellent job of bringing the conflict down to earth. He presents the dilemma in concrete terms with which we can all relate. We are obliged to ask ourselves, "How would I vote?"
I wrote this review because one of the authors alerted me to the second part of @pibara's short story contest. It's a pleasure to endorse the idea for the contest. The science behind Higgs Bubble Dilemma seemed at first challenging, but after reading the stories, I sort of 'got' it. That's the wonderful thing about good science fiction: it entertains and instructs. Each one of these stories did that for me. I thank @pibara for giving these authors an opportunity to shine.
Thank you for reading my blog!
Credit, accent stars GIF: @agmoore