Reading the Hugos (2020) As the Last I May Know

I thought yesterday’s story was the final nominee, but I was wrong, there’s another short story, As the Last I May Know by S. L. Huang, and it has to be a sign of the times that the story I almost forgot to review is… good?

Of all the six short stories, this is the only one that feels like a proper Science Fiction piece, even if on the lower end of the scale. And it’s not a coincidence that it’s a Science Fiction and not Fantasy story because the latter has been utterly defanged, gutted, and replaced by cheap political allegories, magical realism, and subverted fairy tales. Occasionally, very occasionally, something that bothers to resembler proper science fiction manages to slip through the cracks and get nominated for an Award named after Hugo Gernsback, who totally looks like someone who would enjoy progressive takes on fairy tales and magic realism.

This is, however, one of those philosophical science fiction stories (the only ones that are allowed to be nominated, it seems) but it manages to be new, so that’s a plus. It’s fundamentally a short story version of this:

Fisher was known for a unique idea towards nuclear deterrence. In a March 1981 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, while discussing the importance on reaching a “wise decision”, especially in terms of nuclear arms, he suggested implanting the nuclear launch codes in a volunteer. If the President of the United States wanted to activate nuclear weapons, he would be required to kill the volunteer to retrieve the codes.

“My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.”

Now, I think that’s an awful idea, but it’s good food for thought, which is more than can be said of the other stories. 

Here, though, the codes are not in an adult volunteer, but a child around which an entire, almost religious organization has been built. The child, a girl, is chosen specifically for this purpose to serve as a determent and is sent to live with the President (who thinks the entire thing is barbaric and that he should just be able to press the button if needed.) 

Now you probably can guess where the story is going. Yes, the country is at war (they are being invaded,) and the “sere” missiles (a fantastic or futuristic version of nuclear weapons) may be the only thing that could save them.

As I said, I believe the idea of the inserted capsule inside a potential child sacrifice (or adult or whatever) is dumb as it’s not symmetric: the rival nations are not bound by such moralistic scruples, so, basically, nuclear balance is broken. And that’s assuming the nation with the sacrifice-determent actually doesn’t find a way around the limitation or, quite simply, makes the procedure “clean” (drug the victim, perform surgery, etc.) to make it less repugnant.

Eventually, this convoluted procedure will only make the nuclear response slower and, therefore, too late to be useful. And enemy nations know that. In other words, what this story is presenting is not so much Mutually-Assured-Destruction with a twist but nuclear-backed nations bullying a, in practice, nuclear-free nation. Really (and I’m sure this is a conclusion that would horrify the author,) if the invaders got bombed, even after knowing about all the self-imposed determents the invaded have put in place to force them to be pacifists, they’d get what they deserve.

Still, it’s an OK story, and it’s well-written, even if, as usually happens with child protagonists, the girl doesn’t feel like a pre-teen. However, as far as Hugo finalists go, this is an improvement. It’s not a bad story to end this series, and I believe it should win this year’s award.

One thought on “Reading the Hugos (2020) As the Last I May Know

  1. Unclever Hans

    “As I said, I believe the idea of the inserted capsule inside a potential child sacrifice (or adult or whatever) is dumb as it’s not symmetric: the rival nations are not bound by such moralistic scruples, so, basically, nuclear balance is broken.”

    It gets even dumber. Why bother keeping the child alive if the enemy’s nukes are going to vaporize her anyway? And if the nukes don’t detonate close enough to vaporize her, then they could halfway melt her body such that first responders would want to euthanize her, anyway.


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