One of the best books I read in 2007 was Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life: and Others, a collection of science fiction tales. I came across the book in the library and I’d never heard of Chiang but decided to check it out. The stories in this collection just blew me away. “Stories of Your Life” is hard to describe, but involves aliens, linguistics, physics, and parenting to tell a surprising tale about foreknowledge and free will. Other stories include a fascinating twist on the Tower of Babel tale, one about calliagnosia (the inability to perceive beauty), and one about angels as natural disasters.
I liked it so much that afterward I looked him up to see what else he’d written — and didn’t find much: some short stories and a novelette, but not much that I could actually get my hands on easily. When I discovered that Stories of Your Life and Others (first published in 2002) was finally republished in paperback this year, I bought a copy right away.
But I was even more thrilled to learn this fall that Chiang has a new novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, published by Subterranean Press. The title and the dustjacket copy almost make it sound like a dry non-fiction treatise, but in fact it’s a deftly-executed story about artificial intelligence that makes Spielberg’s A.I. look like a neon-colored fairy tale. (Okay, so maybe that doesn’t take too much. But Lifecycle is truly, really good.)
Lifecycle is fairly short — only about 150 pages — but Chiang covers a lot of ground. The story is about “digients” (short for “digital entities”), artificial intelligences that have been created within a digital world (akin to Second Life). Ana, formerly a zookeeper, has been hired to help train the digients who have been given anthropomorphic animal avatars to make them seem cuter and hopefully more marketable. While the details of the A.I. are not spelled out, the idea is that they do have actual intelligence and develop personalities and wills of their own over time, though they’re treated as children. Sometimes their capabilities are compared to dyslexics or others with specific developmental differences than average humans, but certainly more than just robots.
Chiang moves through time quickly — his method is to give small, intimate snapshots, and then move several months or a year later. In this way we get to see the development of the digients (as well as those of competing companies); we watch them grow up and learn new skills and gain an understanding of their world; ultimately, we face the crisis when the Data Earth virtual platform is about to be shut down. What happens to the digients when their universe will cease to exist, or becomes obsolete?
The story is told mostly from the point of view of Ana, the trainer, and Derek, a designer who fashioned the avatars. Both of them eventually “adopt” some of the digients when their parent company goes under, and struggle to find solutions to keep their digients functioning and growing. There are a lot of parallels to raising children, teaching responsibility and knowing when someone is old enough to make their own decisions even when you disagree with them. Chiang portrays the stories of both the humans and the digients realistically, making short leaps that seem feasible and not far-fetched. With their shared interest in digients, Ana and Derek seem a good fit for each other, but the relationship is complicated and this is not a Hollywood movie. It feels organic and real, and although it is a constant thread throughout the book, it also never becomes so much of a focus that it distracts from the digients. In fact, it supports it nicely and humanizes the plot.
I also really loved the artwork throughout the book. The cover illustration and the baby robot at the top of this post were done by Christian Pierce. He used a digital watercolor technique to depict human stages of development with a robot. What I liked about it was that his growing robot faces situations inspired by the digients in the book, but it isn’t a literal depiction, either. The digients in the book don’t look like this, but the illustrations, sparsely scattered throughout the book, serve as a sort of shorthand to help you think about artificial intelligence that grows and matures.
There are also some maps at the beginning of each chapter by Jacob McMurray. Each one depicts what looks like a portion of a city street map, with a dotted route marked on it. However, the locations marked on each map are developmental stages, and the scale at the bottom is measured in months instead of miles. As you read the book, each chapter is introduced with one of these maps indicating that the digients are gaining skills like Sensorimotor Skills and Speech, or Autonomy and Personal Development. I really love the subtlety of the appearance, with very few markings and the grey-and-red palette.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a tremendous book and a fantastic way to finish off a year of good reading for me. (Of course, I’ve still got a week—maybe I’ll discover one more!) If you’re at all curious about the possibilities and implications of artificial intelligence, or if you’d just like to see a beautifully-designed, thoughtfully-written science fiction tale, I highly recommend it.
Wired: A masterful tale about artificial intelligence, obsolescence, parenting and responsibilities; excellent illustrations and design.
Tired: It took me longer than usual to read the last few pages because I didn’t want it to end.
Disclosure: Subterranean Press provided a review copy of the book.