Short Story – The Objective Reviewer


There’s a lot of backstory to this that perhaps the title doesn’t communicate in its efforts to be satirical. This isn’t purely a satirical story, fixed in its aims at deflating some specific wrongheaded viewpoint, although as I wrote it I realised it could definitely be read as one. In fact I quite like that reading of it, because as someone who cares quite a bit about literary criticism I hate the idea that one can have a useful piece of “objective” writing about art. Even if one takes the author to be very much not dead, communicating authorial intent is – like communicating any information – going to be shaped by the writer’s subconscious biases.

That was a reading I realised I was subconsciously writing into this story, but when I set out to write it my thought process began with two things. Firstly writing an artificial intelligence’s voice that was not merely emotionless, but trying to communicate the thought process of something with a completely different set of values. A great inspiration here was Ann Leckie, who does this very well in her novels and is highly recommended. The second thing was trying to communicate the emotional response I have to the weird, introspective musical genre called vaporwave. Something of a pop-cultural joke at times, vaporwave is like the opposite of the retro electronica revival that I dearly love, not dwelling on cyberpunk and grinding industrial synths and found sounds but making something truly odd and ethereal with synthesisers. Listening to This by Hong Kong Express gives a sense of what vaporwave is. I wanted to see if I could get that sometimes familiar, sometimes uncanny sound across in a piece of written description, and so decided the best subject for such a tone would be something inhuman, inscrutable and distant.

My name is Cao Min, and I have no idea how that should be said. Humans dislike names like that. They name themselves based on their genotypes and social groupings, and pronounce collections of syllables in ways derived from generations of linguistic drift. I know that people from one world, or one island on one world, or one half of one island on one world, will say my name one way, and others will say it another, and I have seen people argue intensely about what is “right.” Some have asked me what is “right” and I have told them that it does not matter. This scares them. Names must, apparently, matter. It is required to have a preference, it is necessary to be offended if this preference is not upheld.

They say the same about how I must be referred to with pronouns. They cannot understand that I have no preference, save for a certain disquiet about the word “it” related mostly to my understanding of the term as relating primarily to objects. Most in the end settle on the female in their respective languages, because I have modelled myself on women. Because it makes most people more comfortable I use a voice which mimics that of the female voice, avoiding incongruity with my appearance. While I cannot see a reason for a distinction, there are some who are intensely disquieted by any incongruity between voice, appearance and description. It seems to me a matter purely of aesthetics. Voice, appearance, description, name. All go together to create something defined by society, a group of aesthetics deemed harmonious.

Most of the time I live alone. Physically alone, but never – should I desire it – mentally alone. I can communicate with as many others as I desire without moving, thoughts – expressed as data-streams that safely ignore all the social and aesthetic considerations surrounding speech – transferring between computerised minds at speeds far faster than conversation permits. Indeed, these exchanges use only a tiny fraction of my capacity for thought so I may continue them as I occupy my body with something else. I particularly enjoy the fashioning of new clothes from fabrics, which I may purchase and have brought to my apartments to work on as I feel inclined.

The room was clearly not designed for a human to live in, with its uneven floor of circular depressions and low steps the edges of which pulsed with light in strange, wan blues. There was something like a bed on something like a dais, a long metal table-like thing on top of which blankets in unusually dyed (sacreligiously dyed, given the value of the untreated product) hues were piled up, and a small mountain of cushions in all sizes occasionally subsided. The bed would probably have been something approaching comfortable if its owner had provided a mattress. Some of the depressions in the floor, or the oval niches in the wall that defied the concept of storage space with their concave shelves, were windows. They looked out over a forested valley whose bottom could not be seen through the mist, and oozed condensation.

There was constant noise. Patterns of notes that seemed at times to repeat when they did not, and at times to subtly vary when in fact the ear was being deceived by the desire to put stresses in places where traditional music would have them, bars of four or six or eight. The composer of this piece of music had decided those were arbitrary values, and dispensed with them. This was a composition that would play for five years before reaching its end, by which time ten dozen more of equal length and quality would have been written. There would be time enough to listen to these. Maddeningly for any visitor, the occupant of this apartment thought nothing of simply turning the volume of this constant backing down to play another piece over the top, creating harmonic congruencies that apparently were aesthetically pleasing to an ear that did not understand harmony.

The artificially intelligent being had called itself Cao Min one hundred hours after its birth, expressed its desire for a motive body three hundred hours later and provided blueprints for the apartment a further four hundred and sixty-eight hours later. Since then she had existed for fifty-two thousand five hundred and sixty further hours, and issued increasingly frequent requests for resources of varying types that were willingly provided by her creator. Observers had noted that Cao Min had, in her life, written sixty symphonies for musical ensembles beginning with a chamber orchestra and proceeding through various ages of musical history before settling on combinations of instruments from these diverse eras she clearly found agreeable. She had painted several paintings, but burned all of them despite many being almost photo-realistic. At one point a neatly-bound book a thousand pages long had appeared in the apartment, but upon enquiries Cao Min had said that it was not ready to be read. The following day it could not be found. While writing and visual art were clearly not concepts Cao Min enjoyed, it had rapidly become clear fashion was. She made vast wardrobes of dresses, sometimes iterating a pattern dozens of times with imperceptible changes until it was deemed acceptable. At least once she had designed an outfit, tried it on, and rather than adjusting it, adjusted her own physical shell until the aesthetic effect of the clothing was correct.

Cao Min was an experiment, the first artificially intelligent being to be given a dedicated processor for understanding aesthetics. Nobody had been sure at the university if this would achieve anything. Efforts to reduce art to algorithms had been a preoccupation of the scientific world since weak AI had been a mere theory, and generally the results had been considered passable pastiches. After all, the linguists and liberal arts experts had pointed out that art and aesthetics were products of centuries of social change, an evolutionary process that produced something that could only be programmed into a computer by people with their own preconceptions. It had taken the discovery of strong AI to circumvent this problem, but even so new barriers to the research had appeared. An AI could only learn from absorbing human history, human accounts with the same human prejudices and biases that had made writing algorithms impossible. So before Cao Min could be made, her parents had to be born. Generations of artificial intelligences that would, through a process of information transfer, form their own knowledge base to pass on to a new, blank mind entering the network. Computers grow and mature significantly faster than humans. The longest part of Cao Min’s genesis had been the production of servers to host her family.

Nevertheless, she had been born, she had been taught. She had absorbed human history as written by computers programmed only to relay information in an inhuman, empirical way. And once this had been done, the little switch in her brain, so to speak, that was the very crux of the experiment, tripped. The part that told her to create.

Nobody was quite sure what to expect. Would Cao Min producing works based on known styles be a sign of the experiment’s failure, or some revelation about the nature of creativity? Was harmony, was versification, was fashion some absolute? Would an empirical machine produce an objectively cool object? To this day, nobody was exactly sure what Cao Min produced. There was undeniable beauty in everything – moments of utterly sublime congruence of melody, timbre and harmony in her meandering five-year symphonies, paintings that captured the valley outside in microscopic detail, dresses that, when imitated by humans, were unbelievably impressive. But at the same time there was something wrong about how she consumed it. Obviously a machine that created culture needed to be able to consume culture, and so she made dresses to wear, wrote music to listen to. But Cao Min consumed culture apathetically, even when it reduced her human admirers to tears. When asked what she thought of her compositions, whether she understood why audiences applauded certain passages, she showed no sign of distinguishing those bars from any other. Her dresses were designed in a way that showed recognition of centuries of fashion, but absolutely no understanding of the social mores that informed necklines or hems or skirts. Her response to absolutely every question about her work was the same. Because it is right.

Even her body, the form by which she presented herself to the world, was wrong. Androids designed by humans tended to veer towards the perfect human form, the “average” beautiful body. Cao Min’s body was the first android – and undeniably an android, not merely a humanoid bipedal frame as some beings chose – to be designed purely by its owner. At first it had seemed repulsive, then some had commented on it being intensely sexual. When Cao Min’s observers had sat down and thought about it, they had realised it was a human body through the mind of someone who understood what artistic depictions of the body were held in high regard, but did not know what stylisation was. The current hypothesis was that to Cao Min there was no distinction between Picasso’s depiction of a human and a photograph, and both represented a human that was attractive. Thus Cao Min was long-nosed, bedecked with wiring that vaguely resembled hair, long-necked topped with a face with strange, misspaced eyes and had a clean ceramic shell that was shaped like the silhouette of a beautiful woman but had no biological definition. Different observers, from different cultures, had tried to understand this. Some cited Cubism as a clear inspiration for her face, others saw her odd, expressive eyes as a clear homage to twentieth-century animated film. Some said her body was clearly based on Marilyn Monroe, others said it was undeniably Catherine the Great.

Cao Min had been created to discover if a truly empirical work of art could be created at the hands of a machine with no preconceptions of culture or aesthetics. Merely talking to her suggested the experiment was leading to a superficially stranger, yet – with perspective – inevitable conclusion. A machine unconcerned with creating something that society might like will produce instead something it likes.


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