Reading the Hugos (2019) STET

STET, by Sarah Gailey, is a short story finalist that plays with the layout and formatting possibilities of a website to explain a story through footnotes and comments. It’s basically a very short (a single paragraph) text written in standard, soulless academese but the text is expanded thanks to a copious amount of footnotes which, at the same time, have comments, back and forth, between the original writer and the editor of the piece. In fact, the title of the short story, STET, is the annotation written by writers or proofreaders when commenting alterations made by an editor, and it means “let it stand” (in other words, ignore that comment/I don’t agree with your correction.) It’s through these notes that the real story unfolds and you get a good glimpse of what is going on behind the apparently emotionless text.

As I said, the text itself is quite short, and I’m going to post it here (and there’s a reason I don’t want to link to it right now):

Section 5.4 — Autonomous Conscience and Automotive Casualty

While Sheenan’s Theory of Autonomous Conscience was readily adopted by both scholars and engineers in the early days of Artificial Intelligence programming in passenger and commercial vehicles, contemporary analysis reinterprets Sheenan’s perspective to reveal a nuanced understanding of sentience and consciousness. Meanwhile, Foote’s On Machinist Identity Policy Ethics produces an analysis of data pertaining to autonomous vehicular manslaughter and AI assessments of the value of various life forms based on programmer input only in the tertiary. Per Foote’s assessment of over eighteen years of collected data, autonomous vehicle identity analyses are based primarily on a collected cultural understanding of identity and secondarily on information gathered from scientific database, to which the AI form unforeseeable connections during the training process. For the full table of Foote’s data, see Appendix D.

Now that you have read it, you can jump straight to the first note and read them from there, navigating using the ↩ symbols. Don’t scroll up; only down. I’ve never cared about spoilers in these posts I make about the Hugos, but this time I will wait for you to read the story first; it’s not too long and I believe it’s worth it.

All right, the reason I linked directly to the notes and not to the start of the story, which you may have discovered if you scrolled up to the top of the page, is that the short story spoils itself thanks to a trigger warning. The story is about the death of the fictional writer’s daughter, the one writing the academic paper, but the first line you read before that is “CONTENT NOTE: This story contains references to the death of a child.”

Not only does that give the whole thing away —that’s not the worst part— but it also ruins the entire purpose of using a postmodern formatting style to tell an interactive story. That content warning is pretty much screaming “THIS IS FICTION” as an outside message written inside a text that has been crafted to appear as real as possible, a text that, without the inclusion of a title of the author’s name, could pass as almost real. It literally says “this STORY.” It’s absolutely baffling to me why anybody would ruin that to warn about… what, that the death of a child is referenced? Not described or shown, just referenced?

The moment I read that warning and the fictional title of the article, “Autonomous Conscience and Automotive Casualty” I already knew almost all I needed to know about the story: a child was run over by an autonomous car and the author of this text was his parent/mother, and the text will be about how the autonomous intelligence judges or analyzes such risks or events (hence the “autonomous conscience” coupled with casualty). And, of course, that’s exactly what happens.

Don’t interpret this like bashing; I believe the story, if unorthodox, is interesting and well done. And if I were only reviewing its “objective” elements —so to speak— this is where this post would end, but I also have to write my more personal and subjective impressions.

This is my recommendation: read this story once, think a bit about it (but not too much,) appreciate its purpose and intention, then move on, because this is one of those stories that the more you think about it, the stranger it becomes. In fact, at the risk of revealing myself as a sociopath: I chuckled. Yep, the second time I read how the daughter died, I chuckled despite myself.

There’s a reason I haven’t mentioned how exactly that critical event occurs in the story, and that’s because that’s the kind of thing that can be experienced and felt at an emotional level, but if described, it sounds a tad ridiculous (not impossible, but certainly ridiculous.) It’s basically a trolley problem applied to autonomous cars, and I’m skeptical about the trolley problem itself and I doubt it would ever happen in real life, but anyway,  this is the gist of the story: the girl (daughter) died because she stumbled and fell into the street (she was looking at the sky because she wanted a telescope or something,) and the autonomous car had to decide whether to run over her… or over an endangered woodpecker—the algorithm chose the latter. Not a unique wolf, a famous YouTuber with more social credits than you, or an Iberian Lynx, but an annoying bird that apparently was taking a stroll. And remember, this is after reading the trigger warning, which had prepared me for ponderous content or strong graphical depictions, not, you know, a woodpecker.

I tend to read visually, so in my mind’s eye I saw the entire scene like this: the stupid bird is on the ground (for no reason at all,) frozen in the middle of the street, head turned and eyes all O-O and fixed on the oncoming car, the girl is looking up and “whoops” falls—and the car swerves to kill the small human because it’s not endangered like the bird. This is unintentionally comical, and the fact that the scene is described as having happened on a “street” (not a road) makes it worse, and I couldn’t help but think the entire thing was perfect South Park material*. Hell, I couldn’t help but imagine the same woodpecker flying low (or a bunch or endangered rats skittering around) across the city, laughing like Woody Woodpecker, and causing hundreds of accidents as every single car in its path goes haywire. Good for black comedy, sure, but not for serious drama played straight.

It’s even worse than that because in my mind the woodpecker from the story was so small the car could have just run over it without any risk of injuring it, but it still chose to kill the human because the car isn’t aware of its ride height.

So now that you know I have no heart and that I will burn in Hell, that’s why I said you should read the story once and not think too much about it, because the moment you do so, you will start asking questions or picturing the crime scene, and then you may end up chuckling at the image of a woodpecker walking down the street.

But, really, the story is all right and the premise interesting, even if a bit contrived.

Here’s a link to the short story.




7 thoughts on “Reading the Hugos (2019) STET

  1. RL

    Sociopath, heck with that kind of thinking.
    There’s some kind of uncanny valley effect that you get when something tries to wrench unearned sympathy out of you. It’s like the emotional equivalent of a strange hand up your skirt. It immediately turns you off. Especially when you know it’s not real. It’s why thirty years ago people groaned when TV commercials would beg for charity while flashing pictures of sad helpless waifs. You knew you couldn’t trust that stuff, and you resented being cynically manipulated by it.

    THIS is way worse than that, though. We’re at the point where they don’t even want to give you a sympathetic victim. “Anna” comes across like she’s spoiling for a fight the whole time. What she’s doing in the first place, essentially throwing a tantrum in public, is embarrassing and shameful when real grieving people do it. See Cindy Sheehan and David Hogg for real life examples of bossy victims people hated. It consistently backfires. An author who thinks to use a character like that to try and effect a sense of poignancy is horribly misguided. Clueless about human nature!

    I’d probably be right there laughing with you at the woodpecker crossing the street and Future STEM Genius Girl wandering like a putz into traffic (here it rings true!!) but all of it just makes me angry anymore.


  2. Huh…that was actually a good story.

    Although if I had paused to think about the logistics of cars vs. woodpeckers, I probably would’ve laughed, too. (Was a twitchy coyote involved in this somehow? Wait, no…woodpecker, not roadrunner.) And the trigger warning was ridiculous. At first I thought maybe it was a parody.

    Leaving aside the ridiculosity of cars vs. woodpeckers, this is a very cleverly constructed story; plus I can see technology putting society into this kind of bind sooner rather than later. Unlike a couple of the previously reviewed stories, I don’t begrudge this one its nomination.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Xaver Basora


        Correct. Reading that story I thought this came from a tweet at realpeerreview.
        But no it’s not
        Sigh. It does lack that classical reference to black anality.



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