Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher:Subterranean Press (available free online)
Are you familiar with the Turing Test? Alan Turing posed a question in the 1950’s, pondering whether or not machines could think. To answer that question, he devised a test where a human judge would interrogate both man and machine and receive written answers to his questions. If the judge is unable to tell the man from the machine, the machine has passed the test.
The Turing test is one of the primary themes of The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Chiang’s title, in programming jargon, speaks to the typical process a piece of software goes through. When software is designed, it typically goes through alpha and beta testing, is released to the general public, goes through a series of updates, and eventually reaches a point where it is no longer sold or supported. This does not mean it dies — users may continue to run the software as long as it is useful.
This is the case with Chiang’s protagonists. Ana Alvarado, a zoologist, is hired by a company to train digients. In an artificial world, (a glamorized version of Second Life) a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence known as digients have been created to serve as virtual pets. They are sentient software beings and Ana begins to train them as they progress in human speech and self awareness. She grows fond of the pets and as their life cycle runs out, she and a coworker named Derek continue to care for a few of these pets when technology has surpassed them.
To describe the plot any further is to do this novella injustice. It is not a plot-driven story. In fact, it is not a character-driven story either. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a high-concept novella, exploring the themes of artificial intelligence and what designates a person (natural or artificial) worthy of rights. Chiang’s examination of the software objects parallel many moral dilemmas that face humanity — AI software copying (cloning), AI virtual sex (prostitution), and virtual violence (poignant to today’s blood-thirsty culture portrayed in television and video games).
I have read all but one of Ted Chiang’s short stories and this is his longest (~30k words), but also his most disappointing. Chiang’s prose and structure approaches the greatness of Gene Wolfe at times, but in this novella it falls flat. I am sure this is intentional — the short sentences and simplistic style is reminiscent of the languages of programming, toddler-speak, and the texting age. But even putting aside my stylistic quibbles, the protagonists came across as rather uninteresting. At one point, Ana gets married, to the devastation of Derek who had been pining after her, despite the fact that he himself was married. We learn next to nothing about their spouses or really anything about them outside of their relationships with their virtual pets. Removing this context leaves the characters somewhat one-dimensional, merely there to drive the story forward.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects is told in a series of vignettes. The short narratives walk us through the various stages that the digients go through. The shifts forward through time are somewhat jarring and the need to invent new software terms with each new generation made it feel at times I was reading a software manual.
Bear in mind, my negative comments are made in reaction to the extremely high bar I hold for Ted Chiang. He is one of the most talented short story authors in genre fiction today and his writing is always purposeful and cerebral. There are many what if scenarios that play out over the course of the novella that left me contemplating the nature of artificial intelligence and how humanity would react to having such technology. In answering these thoughts, Chiang has succeeded on a high level.
I would call the experience of reading The Lifecycle of Software Objects akin to reading Issac Asimov’s I, Robot stories. It is ripe with philosophy and science fiction that will appeal to the hearts of Asimov fans. For those looking for the rich prose and the elegant stories that I have grown accustomed to with Chiang, I would recommend stories such as Story of Your Life, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, or Exhalation.