Ted Chiang’s short fiction (and it is all short, at 150 pages, his most recent novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects is his longest work to date) is marvellous stuff. Exquisitely crafted and never dull; his collection Stories of Your Life and Others is well worth reading (looks like it’s being republished, too).
The Lifecycle of Software Objects follows the inception of and subsequent growth of a number of software-based intelligences. As such, there’s no particular plot to speak of. In fact, it’s pretty light on characterisation, too. The idea of the development of the artificial lifeforms is introduced to the reader through two main characters, Ana (who had been a zoo keeper until she was made redundant) and Derek, an animator. Both these characters take their skills to a software company which intends to construct artificial creatures (digients) which will grow and learn.
Initially the company is successful – people are attracted to the idea of raising the artificial life-forms. Over time, however, it becomes clear that the commitment required from people is not one that most wish to make and the number of active digients decreases as people suspend theirs. A very few of the characters, however, (including Ana and Derek) choose to continue theirs and continue to raise them after the company that created them goes bust.
Time passes, the digients progress through childhood, into adolescence, learning to rebel as they learn both responsibility for themselves, their actions and how they affect others. As the novella is constructed from a number of snapshots, Chiang doesn’t feel it necessary to do much more than to tell us that time has passed and that, for example, the software platform which the digients exist upon will be shut down and that they will not be able to survive as they were never programmed to live in the newer software environment that has replaced their previous home.
The effect that the raising of the digients has on the two principal human characters is mentioned, though isn’t central to the book, so it is dealt with efficiently, rather than with any great depth. The real joy in the novel comes from the digients themselves. The characters try and describe them in anthropomorphic terms or to liken them to brighter animals, but (though they have human qualities gained from the people that raise them) they are neither human, nor animal. The intelligence that they have is while in many ways familiar, slightly alien. One of the digients, Jax, for example in an exchange with Ana wishes her to spend more time with him. His words (and even the motivation behind them) are such that you could easily ascribe them to a human child:
“She has the mascots sufficiently well-trained that they wait for her permission before they start playing the games. ‘All right everyone, go ahead,’ she says, and the digients all rush over to their favourites. ‘I’ll see you all later.’
‘No,’ says Jax. he stops and walks back to her avatar. ‘Don’t want play.’
‘What? Sure you do.’
No playing. Want job.’
Ana laughs. ‘What? Why do you want to get a job?
She realizes that Jax isn’t happy when he says this; his mood is glum. More seriously, she asks him, ‘What do you need money for?’
‘Don’t need. Give you.’
‘Why do you need to give me money?’
‘You need,’ he says, matter-of-factly.
‘Did I say I need money? When?’
‘Last week ask why you play with the other digients instead me. You said people pay you to play with them. If have money, can pay you. Then you play with me more.’
‘Oh Jax.’ She’s momentarily lost at a loss for words. ‘That’s very sweet of you.’
Despite this, as I say, there are touches and aspects of the digients that remind you that they aren’t children. Indeed, Ana frequently complains that people see her decision to look after animals and her career with the software based life as a substitute for a real family; she considers that they are not one and the same. Her care for the digients (or previously, animals) isn’t demonstrating any deficiency in her life.
Something else, which I think demonstrates the great skill that Chiang possesses, is his ability to include Zeitgeisty references to any number of types of social media (whilst not being daft enough to any particular one) and not produce embarrassing or clunky prose.
Though there is a human story in this novella, the real joy in this is following the idea that, for an artificial intelligence to truly work, it must be grown, and nurtured rather than programmed. I’m pretty sure that I’ve read novels where this is the case, but I can’t think of one where it was this central. At the start of the book, as when a child is born, the digients have some ideas of some of the constraints that there will be for the growth of the intelligence from their programming (perhaps analogous to, say, your social situation which may be a predictor of how you can expect aspects of your life to be) but beyond this, they really had very little idea about what they were going to create.
One other thing that is worth commenting on is the artwork in the book. Wonderfully illustrated throughout, in two colours, it does feel like a real labour of love.
Small, but perfectly formed – try and snap it up before it becomes unavailable.