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The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

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 Taumatised and withdrawn, he succumbs to agoraphobia and has to be courted through e-mail.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.

The Revolution Business by Charles Stross

In theory, writing should be the easiest activity in the world. It is, after all, nothing more than speech captured on paper. Since everyone seems able to speak at nineteen to the dozen, dashing off the odd short story before lunch and a novel or so on your summer hols should be no problem. Except that, if you ask the few who can string more than two sentences together to make a coherent paragraph, there’s a lot of craft to learn before the paper version is worth reading. One of the key problems to resolve is the issue of narrative structure. Starting on page one, the author has to offer a coherent exposition of events, sufficiently interesting and credible to lead the readers through to a satisfactory ending.

One approach is like building a tower or digging a tunnel. Once the author sets off up the tower or down the tunnel, we are all obliged to follow, limited in what we can see because of the structure through which we pass. If you’re like Ted Chiang, you write something like the Tower of Babylon which, incidentally, won the Nebula in 1990. This should be the ultimate linear story of a man who climbs up the titular Tower, except the only discovery is that, like Ouroboros, what goes up, must come down. In non-linear stories, the events as described are not necessarily chronological or immediately related to each other. They exist like pieces in an unmade jigsaw until the author assembles them in some hopefully pleasing manner. The most common example is a multiple point-of-view structure that introduces a cast of characters that may not meet until the end or may not meet at all but influence each other indirectly. In the vast majority of all plots, we get to see an increasing convergence between all the narrative strands as the plot develops and more characters do meet.

Under normal circumstances, the author is modest and limits the cast of characters. This keeps the storytelling manageable. All of which brings me to The Revolution Business by Charles Stross. This is the fifth volume in what has been projected as a cycle of six although, unless everyone with nukes uses them in a MAD way, there could be a new series involving expansion into, or interaction with, different worlds as they are discovered. Stross has been attempting something only rarely seen. He has been building an upside-down pyramid, i.e. he placed the apex stone on the ground and then began to fan upwards and outwards without the structure falling over. It has four faces, one for each world and, as new characters are introduced and situations develop, the volume above the apex stone has been expanding. Frankly, I thought the whole thing too ambitious. It would have been an easy ride to take if the lead character, Miriam, had been the sole point-of-view. But Stross has been running multiple characters in each of the worlds (albeit the fourth world has merely been visited so far and appears enigmatically empty).

I thought the monumental effort was threatening to fall over in the fourth book, The Merchants’ War, but Stross seems to have more discipline in this latest episode and I feel more confident that the sum of the parts will prove an interesting whole when we can all look back and see how we ended up. The plotting here is more taut and, it must be said, all the better for being less ambitious. Much of the activity surrounding a subset of the lead characters is kept in outline. We see only as much as we need to see to get us where we need to go. It’s all building up towards an interesting high-stakes game in the final episode.

As one final thought, I was amused to see Paul Krugman’s endorsement on the front of the jacket. I find Krugman’s twice weekly columns in the NYT a fascinating read. My estimation of the man has been enhanced by his willingness to publicly endorse science fiction. Too few big-name intellectuals are prepared to admit opening the boards of an explictly SF book. As a world-renowned economist, I wonder what he makes of Mack Reynolds and Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo. Reynolds was a one-man army when it came to speculation about economics and, although it’s all a little wooden by modern-day standards, the ideas remain interesting. Spondulix is just good fun and should be read by all — it’s probably slightly better in the short version rather than the full novel. Di Filippo is one of the very best short story writers around.

For a review of a collection by Charles Stross, see Wireless. The concluding volume of this series is The Trade of Queens. Also see The Apocalypse Codex, Neptune Brood, Rule 34 and The Fuller Memorandum.

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