Reading Week #3: ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ by Ted Chiang
If you had to pick the SF writer with the highest award-to-story ratio (barring one-hit wonders), most people wouldn’t ever manage to pick correctly. While I’m not totally sure, I’d be willing to bet a decent sum of money that the honor would go to Ted Chiang. Never heard of him, or read anything by him? Well, you should!
Ted Chiang writes short stories, with an occasional novella-length work thrown in for good measure. He’s only published about a dozen pieces, but he’s won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus award multiple times for those works. I’ve read his short story collection, ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’, and loved every story in it. If you haven’t read anything by him, that’s the place to start.
In addition to the short story collection, he’s published two slightly longer works with Subterranean Press – ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate‘ (which won the Hugo and the Nebula in 2007) and ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects‘ (which won the Hugo and the Locus Award in 2010). It’s the latter book that Mike and I decided to read for this Book Week. However, we had an ulterior motive – Ted Chiang was the Guest of Honor at Minicon here in the Twin Cities on April 22-24, and Mike and I wanted to attend and get a chance to meet him.
Although it was a busy weekend, we got the chance to go and hear him read his latest story, an entry in the ‘Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, editors) called ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’. The reading was fantastic; Ted was fun to listen to, both for his reading and during the Q&A session afterward. He came across as intelligent, soft-spoken but opinionated, with a drive to produce the best works that are possible.
‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ concerns itself with the formation of artificial intelligence. Rather than springing full-blown from a programmer’s software, or spontaneously achieving sentience on its own, the artificial intelligences in Chiang’s story are developed in the same way as biological intelligences are – they’re raised as if they were children. The book is essentially a diary of the experiences, setbacks and triumphs of Derek and Ana, who are raising two child-like artificial intelligences. The story raises many issues, and doesn’t feel the need to provide pat answers to most of them. I kept thinking, as I was reading it, that this was an entirely plausible series of events, and a reasonable scenario for the creation of artificial intelligence. After reading ‘Lifecycle’, I’m going to have a hard time suspending my disbelief when reading other authors’ stories that feature AIs in some form or another, if they don’t have as strong a back-story for the AI creation as ‘Lifecycle’. It’s no surprise the book won as many awards as it did!