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The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

Over the decades there have been some genuinely pleasing stories about how people in general, and parents in particular, will relate to different versions of intelligent lifeforms. Some deal with “real” beings as in the seminal Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes in which a laboratory mouse goes through uplift surgery. Here, authors use simple allegories to discuss the problems parents face when dealing with the reality of children with physical and/or mental disabilities. The remainder are stories of computers achieving sentience. These characterise the software beings as rebellious teens who, upon discovering where the parents keep the keys to the gun cabinet, defend their existence and lifestyle choices against threatening locals with their own version of the Columbine High School massacre.

Thus, when reading The Lifecycles of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean Press, 2010), there’s a certain tendency to mentally tick off the boxes as he mentions or refers to the standard plot ideas. I suppose we all do that when we are familiar with the genre expectations. Or, put the other way round, we notice when someone breaks the rules. Imagine a romance in which the tall, good-looking man is a mild-mannered bank teller and, in the hail of bullets that is a bank robbery gone wrong in Chapter 2, he is the lone survivor. Taumatised and withdrawn, he succumbs to agoraphobia and has to be courted through e-mail. This would crimp the usual plot lines.

So I am relieved to be able to report that Ted Chiang manages to push the envelope without bending it out of shape. Even though we have a story about parenting skills for difficult children, we are gently taken into territory less often explored. For those of us who have not experienced the years of bringing up a child, what we see of the process can either confirm our worst expectations or, less often, make us faintly jealous. When the child is disabled, we wonder at the patience and self-sacrifice of these adults who give up careers and devote themselves to what may seem the thankless task of both physical nursing and practical training.

Internal illustration by Christian Pearce

Having software objects as the “children” misses out the worst of the early physical problems although, when they are allowed into robotic bodies, we do have some of the clumsy damage to property you expect of slightly uncoordinated children. Yet, throughout the early part of the book, we remain in well-travelled country. The challenge comes when the software objects become more self-aware. What keeps parents going in this situation is the hope there will be a gradual improvement in the children’s performance over the years. Frustratingly, there are many false dawns which prove a plateau unresolved. But the idea these children will somehow “make it” to a higher level is what supplies the continuing motivation. It goes beyond duty and a sense of responsibility. Perhaps it is not even mere love. It is more likely a general sense that, with proper care and guidance, these children can grow into beings able to take care of themselves and survive in the outside world. As mere humans, we cannot always be there. We will become incompetent ourselves and die. We therefore hope to avoid the more usual fate for these children — that they will simply be dumped into uncaring institutions when we are gone.

One of the dilemmas in real children is how to respond to them as they physically mature. Are they sexual beings? Should parents adjust the social circles in which they move? Of course, there are laws designed to protect the vulnerable from exploitation by those in positions of power and authority. But within whatever legal limits are set, should they be allowed to form emotional attachments to people outside the family? This challenges the protectiveness of parents. They have invested all this time and effort. There’s jealously mixed in with embarrassment at the prospect of their children being affectionate with others. This can verge into selfishness, denying children opportunities deemed unsuitable. Some parents presume to make judgements in their children’s best interests. Ted Chiang nicely captures and probes these difficulties in a simple and elegant story of relationships and love.

It is encouraging to see Chiang prepared to write at slightly greater length — this is up to a novella at the top end of the scale. Sometimes the ideas he explores justify taking up a few more pages. But I think this may be close to his comfort limit. Some thinking writers construct epic vehicles in which to explore the territory of their imagination. Others prefer construct a miniature model on a coffee table and get a good overview by standing up. For now, let’s be thankful Chiang keeps writing. As a final thought, this is yet another well designed book from Subterranean. It is nicely illustrated with elegant jacket art from Christian Pierce.

For a review of another novelette by Ted Chiang, see The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Award, the 2011 Hugo Awards and 2011 Locus Award nominations for Best Novella. It won the Hugo.

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