four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
49-Nov-Dec-2010
By: 
Ted Chiang
user_rating: 
0

A-The Lifecycle of Software ObjectsOver the last two decades, Ted Chiang has gained a reputation in SF circles as an innovator in short fiction. His stories, many collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, have won multiple Nebula, Locus, and Hugo awards. The Lifecycle of Software Objects, an examination of the evolution of artificial intelligence, is his longest work of fiction to date.

The Story: Move over Farm Town. A tech company, Blue Gamma, has created a new series of artificial-intelligence objects--"digital organisms that live in environments like Data Earth" (roughly equivalent to the popular Second Life)--capable of taking on different avatars and learning the way human children do. When the developing "digients," as they are known, begin to act their age--a real downer for many online customers--the company hires a former zookeeper, Ana Alvarado, and an animator, Derek Brooks, to help train users' virtual pets. Eventually, the fickle finger of technology moves on to better things, leaving only a few stalwarts to watch over the digients. As the "software objects" move from childhood to adolescence, the practical and ethical differences (the darker side of human nature can't hide for long) between product and progeny become clear.
Subterranean. 144 pages. $25. ISBN: 9781596063174

io9.com 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Ted Chiang's new novella, The Life Cycle of Software Objects, will change how you think about A.I. ... It's not just the best book about artificial intelligence you'll read this year--it's one of the best science fiction books, period." Charlie Jane Anders

Locus 4 of 5 Stars
"Chiang explores not only the central question of how a genomic AI might actually develop, but the more teleological and ethical issues that arise concerning the creation of sentient beings whose entire universe is a market commodity. Conceptually, The Lifecycle of Software Objects may seem understated compared to the intellectual bottle rocket of a story like ‘Exhalation,' but it joins ‘Story of Your Life' and a handful of other tales which remind us that Chiang can write as movingly about characters as about ideas." Gary K. Wolfe

Time Out Chicago 4 of 5 Stars
"Beloved sci-fi short-story writer Chiang treats the story as if it's a novel. ... The best science fiction integrates its technology seamlessly, making way for the ideas, and Chiang is fluent in this skill." Jonathan Messinger

SF Site 3 of 5 Stars
"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. ... I never expected to say this about anything by Ted Chiang, but it would have been a better book at twice the length." Paul Kincaid

Critical Summary

Ted Chiang has made his bones in SF as a master of the short story, so a much longer work than is customary comes as a surprise. "The typical science-fiction depiction of AI is this loyal, obedient butler; you simply flip a switch, turn it on and it's ready to do your bidding. I feel like there's a huge story being glossed over," Chiang tells Boing Boing about the genesis of The Lifecycle of Software Objects. To be sure, the ethical issues that he raises and the depth of the technology (even for a novella) overshadow character development and some hasty plotting. Chiang's distinctive voice is evident here--a tech-industry insider, he's always been fluent in geek-speak and has a knack for translating heavy ideas into workable plots--and his first foray into the long form is a success. It would be his readers' good fortune if the author decided to take up novel-writing full time.