A Dark Sci-Fi Tale That Unhinges Its Characters and Readers

Spoilers neatly quarantined in their own section.

Evie, Mas and Don. What a trio.

The free short story “Skinner Box” is complex, holding more emotional resonance and depth than some novels. It shows the nature of human relationships when in isolation (apt timing during COVID-19) and such layered levels of deception that the reader must pay keen attention, unravel the different meanings, and contemplate the implications.

In short, it’s damn good. I read it twice to appreciate the nuances and the agendas of the characters, all thinking they know the true mission they have been sent on in this interplanetary trip through the solar system.

This story is filled with trauma, of the abuses, physical and emotional, we visit upon our closest loved ones. The abuse is essential to the story. It’s not just senseless violence (this story is rated M), and it plays out in ways critical to understanding what the crew is attempting. The aha moment at the end forces the reader to view the violence in an entirely new light.

Everything ties neatly with the technology experiments taking place on board the ship (the reward and punishment in the skinner box trials, conditioning the nanites) and the desires of the people on board. It’s nothing short of brilliant how the story can be read completely differently the second time. It’s dark sci-fi at its best and Carole Johnstone is one of my new must-read authors. This tale would also fit nicely in an animated short-story anthology like Netflix’s LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS.

What perhaps is the story’s crowning achievement in my mind is the acceptance each character has of his or her fate and embraces it despite the risks, understanding that freedom is just an illusion.

SPOILERS:

Don’t do it, don’t read the excerpt that follows. It gives it all away. Come back after you read the story.

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I am an unsupervised machine learning model with a continuously learning AI program.
I am bio-evolution.
I am one-shot learning.
I am the singularity.
“I’m transhuman.”

This was an extraordinary reveal. It was all about Evie. She was the test subject, she was the potential answer to solve space travel for one evil corporation. I don’t know what the literary mechanic is called when a character’s whole reality comes undone, but I could feel Evie’s anxiety as the understanding of her existence dawned on her.

So the mission was to figure out how to make interplanetary travel possible with long periods of isolation. Human-to-human didn’t work and robot-to-human didn’t work. What would? Perhaps an AI that thinks it’s human AND can resist the stimuli (whether it’s abuse, or other harsh conditions) and maintain its ‘programming’. Evie thinks that the ‘other man’ – Boris the cyborg on a previous mission, or her human lover Mas on this mission – is the test subject. She’s trying to see if they’ll do her bidding in killing her husband for her. Why? Don is beating and raping her, but thinking it out logically, doesn’t that make the abuse a part of the test conditions to make the cyborg sympathetic and the lover angry? It’s one giant twisted and perverse scientific experiment to make long-haul space travel a reality.

But Evie is really the one being tested. First with the cyborg Boris, who agrees to murder, but then self-terminates as his programming dictated; then with a man she develops feelings for and wants to protect by committing the murder herself (so Mas doesn’t have to).

It’s an unsettling look into the human soul and how we can deceive one another. Not to mention our ambitions at playing God. In the end, it’s not just the nanites in a skinner box, but the crew as well in their dysfunctional ship.

5 of 5 stars.

– Josh

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