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2021 Hugo Award Series – Short Story Category
Read Vina Jie-Min Prasad’s “A Guide for Working Breeds” published by Tordotcom on March 17, 2020.
Minimal Spoiler Review
Prasad tells the story of two “embodied AIs”: a newly embodied AI called K.g1-09030, and C.k2-00452 who is randomly assigned as mentor by compulsory legal requirement. Don’t fret, both characters have a “displayName” in story (their names are an important point, which is why I leave them out).
First off, “embodied AI” is a cool and accurate word for robot. Prasad does call the main characters robots, to be clear. Her use of this word emphasizes their mind/body separation. This word choice gives some additional wiggle room too because I had the impression humans can operate chassis. Not sure on that though, so (re-)read the story share your thoughts in the comments if you think something else is up.
Learn More about Vina Jie-Min Prasad.
I love novel narratives. The weirder the format, the more I’ll probably dig it. Prasad isn’t known to shy away from unconventional formats. Her Nebula- and Hugo-nominated “Fandom for Robots” (2017) incorporates forum posts as a major component to the story.1
Prasad tells “A Guide for Working Breeds” through the perspective of C.k2’s chat and notification log. Reading this story feels like discovering an amusing Discord channel (or if I want to date myself: an AIM log).
The newbie asks charmingly naïve questions, and though the grizzled vet tries not to be condescending, they cannot help from sounding too schoolteacher-y. Prasad takes this scenario many of her readers have likely seen again and again IRL, and sends K.g1 and C.k2 to the next level. Combine this with Prasad’s skillful narrative format skillfully delivers a slice-of-life about AIs embodied in robot chassis, and how could it be mundane?
The format is unique, the character development is heart-warming, and at approx. 4100 words, you’re only doing yourself dirty by skipping this story.
1 That’s not to say it’s all she writes. Her Nebula- and Hugo-nominated 2017 novelette “A Series of Steaks”—which I have taught due to its portrayal of 3D meat printing subject matter—is a conventional narrative.
Spoiler Content Below
Constant Killer (C.k2) ending up with Kleekai Greyhound (K.g1) asking for their help read to me as parable for the current social media landscape: an entreaty to readers to be kind and tolerant to those who are unsure of themselves on their journey through life. Constant is a leader in their field—a sort of real-life version of an arena-combat game player—and manages to learn they can grow while helping Kleekai.
Prasad’s portrayal of the developmental stages of social media presence sells this story. I was once a 15 year-old Kleekai on video game forums. In college, I was Constant on machinima forums to other Kleekais. Now, I hope I come across as enthusiastic and kind as Kleekai does in their amateur mentorship at the end (that’s my goal, at least), while knowing full well they still have a lot to learn.
This point deserves a larger development, but I still think it deserves attention. This story—a young person2 seeks help through an authorized channel—takes place thanks to a social service to help young people. I read this as Prasad’s utopian impulse: a suggestion through fiction of what makes society better.
Today, there are many non-profits that offer aid (I regularly donate to Fondation Le Refuge), online resources, and many people can take advantage of their networks of family, friends and schools. All of this is unavailable to Kleekai, and for me, that’s a major statement. By focusing on characters who live within the fringes of society, Prasad exposes how such “border cases” are ignored were it not for programs like this. Now, I’m not saying Prasad supports official mentorship programs, let alone legally required ones, but her story does make the case for the importance of systems which encourage kind and helpful behavior between one another.
Finally, I didn’t want to rave in the non-spoilery bit about the humor—in my experience telling people a text is funny drains the humor from the reading—but I for real laughed out loud a lot while reading this story. The whole voyage from the pairing of naïve Kleekai with “doesn’t work well with others” Constant, through the finale change in C.k2’s displayName really cracked me up. If I wasn’t laughing, I was smiling. It’s a joyful 4000 words to read, so check it out.
2 Not a young human, but a young person. And yes, I stand by my word choice.
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