A Gift

FetalBotPearce-small.jpgA new Ted Chiang story always feels like a gift from the universe. Even better, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is available both as a fancy book/art object and as a free online version!

The title describes the story rather precisely: it’s by far Chiang’s longest story, clocking in at roughly 30 000 words, and it follows the development, trendy phase, and long decline of a new virtual lifeform called a digient.

The two main characters are Ana and Derek, and we learn a lot about their personal lives at the same time as they are wrestling with the various technical and philosophical issues surrounding virtual life. The story moves ahead time-wise in large jumps, most often a year at a time – Ana and Derek never find anyone else who cares as much about digients as they do, but they never seem to be able to get together either.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is heavy on the exposition (and it’s written in an unusual and detached tone – see more below), but Chiang’s prose is as smooth as ever. When I was reading about the ins and outs of software development, a subject with which Chiang is clearly familiar, or about fast-moving trends in virtual worlds and gamespaces of the next few decades, I was always hooked. And while the field of artificial intelligence is a well-trodden one in written science fiction, I could never quite guess where Chiang was going with the storyline.

FetalBotPearce.jpgThe key bit of speculation here: intelligence, at least a useful version thereof, can only be gained through experience, and experience, expressed in software terms, is not a compressible algorithm. In other words, for the digients to show any smarts at all, they have to be raised, essentially like little human kids. Some fascinating variations arise from this tenet (it also led to the gorgeous cover image at right – Christian Pearce, the artist who illustrated the Subterranean Press edition, has posted some of the art on his blog).

I wrote about Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life, in an earlier Gutter piece. I would still recommend it as one of the best collections ever published. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a little different than some of Chiang’s famous earlier work, in that it doesn’t end on a shattering epiphany. I was okay with that! Why? Well…

This concluding section of this article is subtitled Sleep Deprivation Has Altered My Brain. Imagine that in scary font on an old B-movie poster if you will. Last month, I took a look at a recent Xanth book and promised to look at a recent Stephen King book as a companion piece to my revisit with old friend Piers Anthony.

But sleep deprivation does funny things to the the human brain. For reasons directly related to my wife and I having a baby about five months ago, I’ve had first-hand experience with alterations in my mental functionality that are distinctly weird. For example, I was so tired one night but I kept waking up because of a patterned pillow slip that spooked the hell out of me. I had to change to a pillow case with a solid/neutral colour the next night. Recently, I picked out a wedding card, addressed it to the appropriate friends and affixed the correct postage, and completely forgot to write anything on the inside!

Reading taste has been affected too. This has faded a bit, but for a while I could not read anything with too much conflict. Earlier this year, I loved the Harry Dresden series because of all
the close scrapes and tense showdowns, but I gave up on the audiobook of the third entry in the series, at least for a while. Too intense for me. Why can’t everyone just get along?? And so on. Similarly, I was planning to read Stephen King’s Under the Dome for
this month, but I couldn’t do it. King likes to use bullying/sleazy authority figures, either religious (most notoriously)
or secular, and I simply couldn’t handle it.

To bring this digression back to Chiang: “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is written in a detached tone that was perfectly suited to my fragile brain of the moment. In fact, the point of view is off-kilter, just a little but distinctly so, and I was expecting a revelation of some kind about the nature of the narrator. No such luck.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great story, and it’s enjoyable even for those readers without young children!

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