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The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Ted Chiang
Subterranean Press, 144 pages

The Lifecycle of Software Objects
Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang was born in Port Jefferson, New York. He graduated from Brown University in Providence Rhode Island with a degree in Computer Science. The same year, he attended Clarion. He moved to Seattle to work as a technical writer in the computer industry. With his first 8 stories, he has won the Campbell New Writer Award in 1992, a Nebula Award for "Tower of Babylon" (1990), a second Nebula and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for "Story of Your Life" (1998), a Sidewise Award for "Seventy-Two Letters" (2000), and the Locus Award for "Hell Is the Absence of God" (2001). He lives in Bellevue, Washington.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate
SF Site Review: Stories Of Your Life and Others
SF Site Interview: Ted Chiang

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

All fiction is about time. Time is the element in which change occurs, events happen, the past is revisited and the future is shaped. Yet time presents a fundamental problem for writers.

For Aristotle, there were three unities that drama should obey, one of which was the unity of time: the events in a drama should occur within the span of a single day. Indeed a surprising number of plays and novels still conform to that unity, think for example of Ulysses by James Joyce or, more recently, The Infinities by John Banville. And such a narrow compass does have distinct advantages, allowing us to hold the entire transpiring story within our grasp without too many mysterious ellipses or extraneous incidents. But, in real life, events do not unfold so conveniently, rather they require days, months, years, or even lifetimes to progress from beginning to end. In the pursuit of realism, or at least verisimilitude, therefore, how do you enclose the whole mystery of passing time within the relatively limited confines of a story or play?

There are, essentially, two strategies. You can cherry-pick key moments along the timeline, describe those moments in detail and allow the reader to imagine what might fill in the gaps. At its most extreme, this means offering just the beginning and end of the process. This strategy allows full novelistic depth for those points along the line, but at the expense of any full representation of, and hence awareness of, the time scales involved.

Alternatively, you can present a synopsis of the entire period. This gives a clear impression of the time scales involved, the various forces that come into play shaping and directing the flow of history. But it necessarily skims across the surface, refusing the depth that allows us to share the individual experience of the historical momentum.

This dilemma becomes more pronounced, of course, the longer the period that has to be encompassed by the story. And this dilemma lies at the heart of the new novella from Ted Chiang, the longest and perhaps the weakest fiction he has published to date. He proposes that Artificial Intelligence is not something to be created fully formed, but needs to be raised as a child is raised. To that end, he must necessarily follow the education of his "digients" over decades, and all within just 140 pages. His solution is a mixture of the two strategies, though as so often happens in such circumstances, highlighting the worst elements of both.

We begin with Ana Alvarado, an unemployed zookeeper taken on by a cutting edge software company to train up their latest developments: software objects who are meant to function as virtual pets. Meanwhile, Derek Brooks, an animator, is working for the same company designing the new creatures. Already there is something superficial about the characters: we see them from the outside but are given no real sense of anything below the surface. Normally that would be no problem, we expect to dig below the surface over the course of a story, but in this case we never really penetrate any deeper than we do in this initial chapter. Over the years, for example, we are told that Derek's wife leaves him and he develops an unrequited crush on Ana, yet any sense of the emotional cost of this is, at best, muted. Indeed the only emotional engagement we really witness is with the digients.

After introducing the two characters, Chiang outlines what happens over the following years: the digients are launched, there is initial success then the market changes and the company goes into liquidation, but Ana and Derek are so attached to their charges that they adopt them, then we follow their struggles to continue their education. The number of digient owners decreases, technology changes so the virtual landscape the digients occupy becomes obsolete, and there are software companies that want to clone the digients for purposes that are mostly pornographic. Meanwhile the digients themselves are growing from childish wonder to adolescent rebellion. The synopsis in the novella is not much longer or more detailed than I have just provided.

From this timeline, Chiang hangs vignettes of Ana and Derek at roughly yearly intervals. These are meant to provide more depth, though all too often they simply flesh out in a little more detail what we have already learned, or else set up the next stage of the synopsis. In fact, these in-depth interludes themselves have a synoptic feel to them, as if Chiang is simply sketching out the elements where a longer novel would fill in colour and shade and perspective. In the past, I have felt that Ted Chiang had no need to write a full length novel since the work he was producing suited the short story so perfectly. Now, for the first time, I feel that what he has written needs the extra space a novel would have provided. What we get, instead, is skimpy in comparison to the story he is trying to tell.

All that aside, this is Ted Chiang we are talking about, a writer seemingly incapable of writing a dull or ineffective sentence, so there is much to relish here. The digients themselves, child-like but distinctly not children, are fascinating creations, the point when their digital personalities are translated into a robot-like device that allows them to discover the substantiality of the real world is precise, a gem, absolutely true. And the sweep of the near future, the rise and fall of software companies, the inevitable obsolescence of programs, the development and dereliction of shared digital landscapes, is completely convincing. And yet for all its delights, this is a work in which the frustrations are foremost. When it ends, with the digients just about to discover sex and hence, by implication, leaving adolescence for adulthood (even though they are still talking a form of broken English that seems out of place in their maturity) we want more, not because the story stops short of its resolution or because we have become to attached to these creations that we want to spend longer in their company, but because we don't feel there has been enough to justify where we have got to and the emotions we have been meant to invest in the work. I never expected to say this about anything by Ted Chiang, but it would have been a better book at twice the length.

Copyright © 2010 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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