I wasn’t much into sci-fi until I met my other half. He has introduced me to a few of his favorite authors and I have grown to appreciate the genre much more over the last few years. Neither of us had read any Ted Chiang, whose name always pops up in sci fi discussions, so together we read his collection of excellent short stories, Stories Of Your Life And Others, which I highly recommend.
At 150 pages, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest of Chiang’s short stories. It follows two main characters who work for a software company which produces artificially-intelligent companions called digients. The digient’s intelligence grows naturally (that is, via experience) and the book follows the maturation of this particular brand of digient over the course of about a decade. A decade is a long time in technology, so ten years sees the development and introduction of new AI technologies, the influence of innovative and/or wealthy tech subcultures, and ethical dilemmas that could hardly have been predicted.
I had a hard time getting behind the story for the first fifth of the book–although I have a passing familiarity with online gaming and virtual worlds (and, to Chiang’s credit, a passing familiarity with those things is all you need to understand the story) the initial set-up of the novel I found pretty difficult to relate to (I asked my husband: “Why did they need to hire someone to figure out what food to feed a virtual pet? Didn’t they you know, design the pet?”)
Luckily, it’s a well-written short story, and I was able to suspend my disbelief within a few pages. Chiang is excellent at humanizing his plots, which makes this an easy and interesting read even for those of us not particularly intrigued by the prospect of artificial intelligence and virtual worlds. For example, the two main characters are, naturally, quite attached to the digients they own and care for and Chiang uses this relatable affection to explore what it means to have a relationship with an AI and what “intelligence” can mean. Later in the story, the protagonists look for a permanent home for their almost-obsolete digients, a task that’s increasingly difficult for others sympathize with (“Why are you so preoccupied with this virtual pet?”), let alone fund. The issues they have to deal with due to their affection for their AI creatures are thought-provoking and realistic.
Rating: 4/5 stars. While still a very good and thoughtful book, I didn’t find this story as compelling as some of his other short stories. I think this might be mainly because the central conflict is pretty quiet–Chiang spans ten years in 150 pages and there’s no real climax per se, no central conflict–hence the title. I think I also simply have a harder time caring about virtual creatures, even though by the end of the book I did find myself wondering about their fates.
That said, this is a very smart book. There were several points in the last half of the book where I thought, “Whoa, this sounds totally plausible…” and Chiang does a superb job of raising questions for which we have no answers (yet?) and making those questions and discussions accessible to the lay-reader. Also, the illustrations are fun. You don’t need to be a sci-fi enthusiast to enjoy this book, but if you are a sci-fi enthusaist, you should definitely pick this one up.