by Ted Chiang
(Subterranean Press, July 2010)
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
Ted Chiang is like the Alice Munro of speculative fiction; his short stories and novellas often start out slow or unexciting, or take a few paragraphs or pages to really get into. But it’s almost always the case with Chiang’s work (and Munro’s) that by the end of the piece, if the reader allows for an investment of time and intellectual effort, one comes away with a sense of astonishment at how complete, how dense, how intricately put-together and rewarding a fiction one has just read.
Chiang’s new novella, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” is no different. The first line won’t hook you—it sounds mundane, staid, simple. A few paragraphs later, you’ll be interested. A few pages later, you’ll have realized that you’re reading a seminal work of contemporary science-fiction, something precious and important and possibly destined for under-appreciation. This is an ambitious, moving work of scientific speculation and humanistic storytelling that makes it clear that Chiang, who has already written some of the most remarkable short stories and novellas of the past decade (“Tower of Babylon,” “Exhalation,” “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate“), is one of the finest speculative fiction writers of his generation, and a talent to keep an eye out for.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” follows two characters, Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks, employees of a software company called Blue Gamma, as they help develop and publicly release the company’s newest concept—virtual ‘pets’ called “digients,” who learn and develop unique personalities through emergent learning and interactive experience with their owners (online in a virtual world-space called “Data Earth,” and sometimes in the real world using separately sold robotic peripherals). The novella focuses on Ana and Derek’s relationship with each other as well as with the digients they help design, train, raise, and later adopt, mainly focusing on three of them: Max, Marco, and Polo, though there are several other peripheral digient characters as well. Like any good science-fiction story, Chiang illustrates the impact of his speculative concepts on human lives and interactions, as well as on the larger frameworks of society and culture.
The scope of the novella is wide-reaching; it covers about ten years in the lives of these characters, and charts in comprehensive detail the “life cycle” of digients, as a concept and a commercial product, in the broader world. As a result, there is enough material here for a scientific thesis speculating on the fate of true AIs if they were ever developed. Indeed, the novella often takes on such a tone in its expository sequences. However, Chiang always manages to keep the writing from becoming sterile by pulling from narrative to scenic time in just the right ratios, allowing the reader to genuinely care about both the human and digient characters while also becoming invested in the fate of the digient phenomenon as a whole. Chiang’s prose is crystalline in its lucidity; even more so than in his other work, he keeps his language here plain, clear and emotionally distant. As a result, the story earns its emotional payoff entirely through its characters, and that payoff is considerable. I found myself surprised by how earnestly I was rooting for the happiness and well-being of both the humans and the digients in the story.
Ana, Derek, and the digients all evolve and grow over the ten years, through the ups and downs of their careers and social lives, making reading the novella an unexpectedly moving experience. The connection between the humans and the digients is a touching, believable one, and benefits greatly from being seen developing over such a long span of time. Chiang also characterizes each of the digients with such precision and grace that they all become real, unique individuals, and not generic archetypes. The conclusion is neither pat nor too open-ended, leaving potential for plenty of reflection on the reader’s part while leaving the characters’ relationships at a satisfying juncture.
The ideas in the novellas (AIs and their effect on humans) are hardly original, but Chiang’s approach makes it feel new and startlingly entrenched in today. The world depicted in the novella is more futuristic, but it feels real and contemporary, the factual and clear tone making it seem almost as if the story were a nonfiction narrative about two employees involved in a technological phenomenon. The technology of this future is reminiscent of any number of technologies in our present, from virtual pets and entities like Sims, to Second World, massively multiplayer RPGs and online social networking. Chiang also touches on various fascinating themes like virtual evolution and its link to the evolution of human culture, the effects of technology on sex and relationships, and the ethics behind creating artificial digital ‘life’. As I’ve mentioned before, the ideas explored in this novella are weighty and numerous enough to fill a multi-novel epic, which makes Chiang’s succinctness all the more admirable.
The novella is a genuinely thought-provoking literary treatise on the reasons humans create simulacrums of themselves, be it in digital avatars, AIs, or fictional characters in art forms across all media, and the ramifications of doing so. Why do we care about the characters in this novella; and why do these characters care about the digients (and once again, why do we)? The novella doesn’t aim to provide an answer, as such (though the reader can find many embedded in the ruminations of the narrative), but more a gentle, compassionate acceptance of the human tendency to see ourselves in everything we create; whether it be from dull clay or insubstantial computer code. It is, essentially, about taking responsibility for our own creations and inclinations.
I would strongly recommend “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” to any fan of speculative fiction. While I’d like to recommend it to any fan of literature, period, I can see the tech-heavy narrative and austere writing style preventing it from pulling in a wide readership. This is truly a shame, because this is a powerfully moving, intelligent, and relevant read, and deserves any praise it gets in the months and years to come. We just might have a classic on our hands.
Please note: For this review, I have read the online edition of the novella, published at Subterranean Press Magazine (Fall 2010 issue), and not the Deluxe edition hardcover published by Subterranean Press in July 2010.