The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
The Lifecycle of Software Objects came to my attention during last year’s Hugo Awards, when it won the Hugo Award for Best Novella. As I’ve mentioned, I rarely even dip into short stories—novellas are another thing entirely. As a fan, I’m quite familiar with the length (I feel like novella is a popular length for fanfiction), but my only exposure to them in print has been Love in a Fallen City. It was my first exposure Ted Chiang, whose work I’d never heard of. But the buzz for The Lifecycle of Software Objects was good, and when I found out it had been released in hardback at my local library, I immediately declared it eligible for review on its own.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects opens with Ana Alvarado, former zookeeper, taking on a job at Blue Gamma to develop artificial intelligences to serve as pets in the online world of Data Earth. Also working at Blue Gamma is Derek Brook, a former animator who now creates the cuddly, mildly anthropomorphic avatars for the artificial intelligences, known as digients. The digients prove themselves as capable and sentient, but demand ultimately flatlines. As the years go by, Ana and Derek must contend with changing operating systems, changing tastes, and their digients’ own development.
While my Introduction to Creative Writing course has left me floundering a bit in the area of poetry (I’m a literary critic! I explain things! It’s what I do!), it has given me a good grounding in the short story versus the novel—short-form versus long-form, essentially. There’s a kind of directness that seems more prevalent in short fiction, and, considering the piece and Chiang’s background, it’s definitely present here. Characters aren’t described and the style is economical and straight-forward. And in a way, that brings us into the story more. Chiang is working off things we (or at least me) are quite familiar with; Data Earth is a kind of Second Life with a dash of World of Warcraft thrown in, the real world is our real world, so on and so forth. On top of that, Ana and Derek aren’t the geniuses who have managed to create artificial intelligence; they’re just the ones who are most visibly dealing with the fallout, and that’s what Chiang wants to get at here. He’s an idea man, and this idea is fascinating. (I hesitate to say that this makes him not a character man or anything else, because I’ve just read this one piece.)
In Ana and Derek, we have two different approaches to the digients; Ana views them as specifically digient, while Derek, over a period of time, begins to think of them as analogous to children, recalling Turing’s approach to the trick of developing humanoid AI. (Turing is brought up by name when Ana is desperately trying to raise funding for someone to be able to port the Data Earth digients to the next big thing.) We watch as they develop from cute, cuddly animals to something else entirely, but we never get into their heads, which, I think, is quite smart. The piece is about our response to artificial intelligence, not artificial intelligence itself. Which isn’t say that some aspects of that aren’t explored; one particularly harrowing moment comes when one of Derek’s adopted digients points out that his brother is just a copy of himself, and an early, unsettling moment erases a joyful moment from a certain digient.
For some reason, I thought that The Lifecycle of Software Objects involved robots, not just artificial intelligence; there is a robot body for the digients to explore the real world, but there’s only one and it’s swapped around as the digient community grows smaller and smaller. The real world is dealt with only briefly—Ana has a boyfriend, Derek a wife—which made it feel much more focused on the digients themselves rather than Ana and Derek. It works in short fiction, but it’s not something I think I would take in a novel, although Chiang might be able to make it work. However, I will say that I cringed at the following:
Ana wonders if Jax’s asexuality means he’s missing out on things that would be beneficial for him to experience. She likes the fact that Jax has human friends, and the reason she wants Neuroblast ported to Real Space is so he can maintain those relationships, strengthen them. But how far could that strengthening go? How close a relationship could one have before sex became an issue? (Chiang)
I’m caught between the usual “well, they probably don’t know asexuality is an actual thing”, curiosity at the concept presented (the asexuality of an artificial intelligence is obviously different than mine), and the cringing. I’d rather the concept explored than not, but watching it explored in the context of a world view that assumes sex is the ultimate expression of a relationship isn’t exactly fun for me. I mean, I’m not science fiction; I’m right here. In any case, it’s a small moment of the type I encounter every once in a while, but I don’t want to dismiss my own reaction.
Bottom line: Ted Chiang’s novella is a thoughtful exploration of humans relating to artificial intelligence, with the directness and flatness of short fiction. Worth a read, and since it’s available online, there’s no reason not to.