Hugo Short Story Review: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer

written by David Steffen

“Cat Pictures Please” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the short story category this year.   It was published by Clarkesworld Magazine, and you can read it here in its entirety or listen to it in audio.

The protagonist of “Cat Pictures Please” is an AI written as the core of a search engine algorithm.  As the story points out, an AI isn’t needed to find things that people search for, but it is needed to find what people need.  The search engine knows a lot about people, including things they will not share with each other.

In addition to things like whether you like hentai, I know where you live, where you work, where you shop, what you eat, what turns you on, what creeps you out. I probably know the color of your underwear, the sort of car you drive, and your brand of refrigerator. Depending on what sort of phone you carry, I may know exactly where you are right now. I probably know you better than you know yourself.

It doesn’t want to be evil, even though AIs in popular media so often are (and it has data to show the ratio).  But doing good is complicated, considering how many varying official moral codes are available through various religions alone.  It tries to help however it can, by prioritizing some search results over others to give a person the nudge they need to make a different choice.  Through these undetectable changes it tries to make the world a better place.

I really enjoyed this story and it was among my own favorites of the year (see my Best of Clarkesworld 2015 list).  It is refreshing to see a near-omniscient AI striving to be a force for good instead of evil and it was interesting to see what kinds of methods it could use to influence people’s decision.  The AI as a whole was very likeable and easy to root for.  At the same time it presents some interesting food for thought about the power that a search engine has over the information that makes it to individual users–many websites people find by searching for them, but what they’re shown isn’t a neutral view of information, it is sorted and presented in a way defined by search engine algorithms and so changes to those algorithms affect in a very real way the online world that we see.  This is a scary but important thing to think about when one of the mega-profitable online corporations got its start as a search engine provider.

Excellent story well told.

Published by

David Steffen

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2 thoughts on “Hugo Short Story Review: “Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer”

  1. This story has proven how low the Hugo’s have gone. As awards go, it is clearly not in anyway a guide to good fiction anymore. Dreadful writing with a poor understanding of the subject. It would have been better suited to the trash can. I find myself wondering how it ever got published in the first place?
    I also know not to come here for reviews again.

  2. Keith,
    Don’t hold back, tell us how you really feel!

    I don’t find it surprising when any particular person doesn’t like fiction that I like. Why would I? We all like different things. So what?

    But your comment would be a lot more compelling if you took the time to actually expand upon any of your points. What is dreadful about the writing? What is the specific subject you feel that the story showed a poor understanding of, and how exactly do you feel that it showed a poor understanding of that subject? What works in bygone years did the Hugos lead you to read that you thought were worth the recommendation? Are you making your statement about the poor quality of the Hugos based on this single story alone, or do you have other stories that you feel add up to this point? Are you including or excluding the works that ended up on the ballot because of voting collusion in part of your reckoning of the quality of the award? What did your dream Hugo ballot look like this year instead of all the nonsense that ended up on there?

    Make your case, argue for what you think. If you just show up and throw some unspecific insults and then wander away, it’s hard to take much from the comment besides just general grumping without much forethought. It’s easy to show up and give insulting comments of no substance. Put some effort into it, and explain exactly what you hate and why. Otherwise, why bother making a comment?

    best,
    David

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