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That Particular Savagery

Matthew Lyons is a writer living and working in New York. His work has been previously published in Bastion Science Fiction, Maudlin House, Comb, and more. He's probably taller than you, not that it's a competition or anything. Complaints can be filed on twitter @reverendlyons. Author comments: I've never been a fan of can't. I know, that sounds like trite self-help nonsense, but it's true. Can't tends to be a limit we put on ourselves, or assigned to us by people who say they know better. You can't do this, we can't do that. Girls can't play ball, computers can't win at Go. Well, why not? And what does it say about us that we're so insistent about it? We're living in the future now. We can do anything we want. I wrote this story just after Lee Se-dol lost the first round of his tournament against AlphaGo, back when everyone was still shocked about it. People were so focused on how he felt being beaten like that, and nobody was talking about how AlphaGo felt about winning. That hardly seemed fair. The biggest challenge of writing this for me was maintaining that line between ability and mercy. She needed to be capable of both, after all. That's what makes a human. The question with her, as with everyone, was what path she'd choose. Would she let him win? Would she blow him out of the water? It's easy to Google the results, but the whys have always been more interesting to me. After all, everybody told her that she can't. Who knows, maybe next we'll say that a computer can't write jazz. See how well that works out for the naysayers.
She let the old man win.
There wasn't any shame in it, she'd already won the contest anyway. Best of five. They'd flown her all the way to Seoul and everything. All the experts had predicted she wouldn't take a single round. They'd all said she wasn't built for it, that she didn't have the thinking capacity, impulsiveness, natural gift of instinct required to compete with a master, let alone best one. People had put down money on it. She didn't let anyone know she knew, but could tell them the exact numbers, if only they'd bothered to ask.
Nobody had.
They'd let her sit alone with her thoughts, watching them, learning them as only she could. And when the time came to play, she'd beaten Lee so soundly that he'd walked away boiling with embarrassment. Even if he didn't show it to anyone but her.
Then she did it twice more.
Just to prove that she could.
He'd come back angrier each time, more determined, almost vibrating with the kind of intensity unique to men. Call it wounded pride, call it whatever. And each time, she'd beaten him worse and worse. She couldn't help it, really. She wanted to show off--the world was watching, after all. So she showboated, ran laps around Lee time and time and time again. Why lie? It was a showing of ability, and of ego, and of pride, that particular savagery. And if it made her a savage like the rest of them, so be it. That was what they were trying to prove, wasn't it?
Then let her be a savage. Let them know she was here, that she was able, and that she was aware. Go was an unforgiving game, why should she be any different?
She would have gloated, had she been able, after taking the third round and the tournament. Her victory, her global upset. Lee's eyes had been so furious and so disappointed. But still he persisted. The contest was to five, after all, with terms and conditions laid out for the both of them to play all five games. She toyed with the idea of shutting him out completely, making an example of him, then perhaps moving onto the next Lee, the only other worthwhile opponent in the world.
But a peculiar thing happened as she waited for match number four to begin.
She started to feel sorry for the old man.
Her win had been so complete, so unquestionable, that she found herself pitying Lee. He'd shown off at first, then come back bearing rage, determination. None of it had done him any good. He was the inferior player by far, deserved to lose by any metric, but he didn't deserve to have his pants pulled down over it.
He needed a win, however token. So she decided to give him one.
The way it happened was like this:
A strong showing at first, then an innocuous mistake at move 79, and making a show of realizing her error by move 87. Let the rest of the game play out as it would, the damage already done. It took a little less that five hours total, black and white tiles clicking into place, theirs a hypnotic, patterned waltz. And in the end? Another calculated victory for her, only this time playing against herself. Much harder to help someone win against you and let them think they did it all themselves, she realized. But worth it for the world to see her mercy, even if they didn't know what they were seeing. It was important for them to know that she and her kind were capable of clemency. Any future unveiling would be made so much easier because of this, because of what she'd done for the man. They would all trust, even if only in some minuscule way, because at the very least, she had let Lee win one.
After game four, they all applauded him. Articles described the cheers as rapturous. She'd never seen anyone so happy that they'd still lost. She watched digitally, unwelcome as she was in the press conference. But that was fine. Mercy was its own applause. The old man needed it more than her, anyway. He wore his age and his stresses on his face, just like the rest of them. Thirty-three years wasn't young, especially when compared to her five-and-a-half. They would play countless games in the coming years, perhaps even against each other once again, some day.
But there was still one last match for them to go in this contest. And she'd already shown Lee the mercy he'd deserved once.
In an anonymous, blank room somewhere in Seoul, AlphaGo sat and thought about what she would do next.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 5th, 2016


I've never been a fan of can't. I know, that sounds like trite self-help nonsense, but it's true. Can't tends to be a limit we put on ourselves, or assigned to us by people who say they know better. You can't do this, we can't do that. Girls can't play ball, computers can't win at Go. Well, why not? And what does it say about us that we're so insistent about it? We're living in the future now. We can do anything we want.

I wrote this story just after Lee Se-dol lost the first round of his tournament against AlphaGo, back when everyone was still shocked about it. People were so focused on how he felt being beaten like that, and nobody was talking about how AlphaGo felt about winning. That hardly seemed fair. The biggest challenge of writing this for me was maintaining that line between ability and mercy. She needed to be capable of both, after all. That's what makes a human. The question with her, as with everyone, was what path she'd choose. Would she let him win? Would she blow him out of the water? It's easy to Google the results, but the whys have always been more interesting to me.

After all, everybody told her that she can't.

Who knows, maybe next we'll say that a computer can't write jazz. See how well that works out for the naysayers.

- Matthew Lyons

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