the Little Red Reviewer

Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected, by Steven Popkes

Posted on: October 27, 2012

Sudden, Broken and Unexpected (novella) by Steven Popkes

December issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction

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Can music be broken down into ones and zeroes, bits and micro-bits? Can music be written by an AI?

possibly.  sort of.  maybe?

Which leads to questions of how would one program and AI to pass a musical Turing Test, where the music written by the AI is indistinguishable from the creative musical abilities of a human? Is such a thing possible? and if it were, how would the music loving public react?

In Steven Popkes latest short story, Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected,  he takes the above and slowly turns it inside out, in the process creating a highly impactful story.

The story opens with musician Jake Mulcahey taking a job to revise and rewrite some  fairly generic pop music.  In his youth, Jake had gone on the road with his band as they chased the fame of their sole hit single. Jake is still haunted by his bad decisions, the fact that he is the reason the band broke up.  Since then, he’s put out a few studio albums, and stays mostly behind the scenes in the music industry.

Besides, who would want to see an oldster like Jake on stage playing guitar, when instead they could pay to see a holographic Divaloid?  Even better, Divaloids can be downloaded into your own home. They aren’t people, they are licensing and programming. There isn’t anything a Divaloid can’t or won’t do to please a fan.  That’ll start to get creepy once that thought sinks into your brain, and it’s supposed to.

When Jake learns his newest client is none other than Dot, a famous Divaloid, and even worse, Dot’s programmer is his ex-girlfriend Rosie, Jake wants nothing more than to run for the hills.   But he needs the money.

At first  Jake is pretty hostile to Dot, but they form a bond through their musical discussions, and it’s not long before Jake is treating her like she’s an actual person, not just a million trillion ones and zeroes who can be reprogrammed at a moment’s notice.  The money’s good, but more importantly, Jake sees a chance to make the right decisions, to think about someone other than himself.

This isn’t just a story of “man meets robot, robot helps man become a better person”. It’s far, far more complex than that.  Dot is programmed so well that she is capable of pushing her own boundaries, and defying her own programming when needed to do so.  Jake believes in her, she wants to impress him, she’s flattered that he treats her like a human being.

But on the other hand, Dot is programmed to keep her listeners happy. She’s programmed to give her audience what they crave. Is she only manipulating Jake, to get him to do what she wants him to do?  No matter what Dot says or does, how far beyond her programming is she really capable or interested in going?   Is she evolving, or is Jake?

I don’t know if she’s manipulating him. I don’t know if he cares. I’m not sure if I care.  What I do know that Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected is simply amazing. Popkes writes with a deft subtly and sharpness that allows his characters (even the virtual ones) to climb right off the page and sear themselves into my mind. I read this novella about a week ago, and my brain is still playing with it.

I’d don’t describe myself as into robotics or much interested in artificial intelligence.  However, when I read authors like Popkes or Ted Chiang, it makes me want to be that person who describes themself as into robots and AI programming.   Because it’s not about the robots or the AIs – it’s about the humans who are learning to interact with something that is an alien of sorts.

I have some musical training, so I got all the musical jokes and references. But even if you don’t know a clarinet from Middle C, even if the phrase uncanny valley means nothing to you, I highly suggest finding a copy of this story and reading it. Currently available in the December issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, I’d be very surprised if Sudden, Broken and Unexpected doesn’t show up reprinted in an anthology or two next year, and hopefully shortlisted for some awards.

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9 Responses to "Sudden, Broken, and Unexpected, by Steven Popkes"

I’ve not read much by Asimov but I do like what I’ve picked up so far. I think he mades Sci-fi seem more accessible to me and not quite as daunting as I expect it to be. I like the sound of this one – and can I say, on a very superficial note – I love that cover!
Lynn :D

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they do put amazing cover on all these scifi magazines, don’t they?

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I’ve been subscribing to Asimov’s all year and am soooo far behind in actually reading the dang thing! One of these days I need to pull up the pile and just tuck into short stories for a whole week.

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[...] for a good book cover, check out the book cover below which I spotted on a review over at the Little Red Reviewer – this is a gorgeous cover!  Call over to Dark Cargo and join the discussion about what [...]

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Thank you, I so agree. This story was phenomenal.

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I hope it’s up for some awards next year.

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[...] Miku resulted in the story Sudden, Broken and Unexpected, which has done quite well. (Review here.) It’s a feature of my writing that I’m always obsessed with whatever I’m writing about [...]

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I just finished the story a few minutes ago and I really enjoyed it. I play the guitar and I’m a computer science student so this story uniquely appealed to me. However, I agree with you, Steven Popkes, has created an amazing story, one that could be appreciated by any reader. Like most interesting science fiction, fully understanding the science (and in this case some technical aspects of music) is not required. The story, at its heart, is about redemption, love and that forever interesting question – “what does it mean to be human?”

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wasn’t it wonderful? The “what does it mean to be human” question never gets old for me. I never considered myself into AI stories, but it turns out I really am into them, because I’m fascinated by our relationships with people who aren’t quite human, and that’s also part of the What does it mean to be human question.

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