THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS BY TED CHIANG is itself a lovely object, a slim volume with a linen-textured cloth cover and heavy paper dust jacket. The cover and inside illustrations are done in grays with touches of maroon, and the pages are of high-quality paper clearly printed. If one somehow wanted to quibble about getting value for money with such a short novel, surely the careful and aesthetically pleasing production would mute such complaints. But people who are familiar with Ted Chiang's brilliant novellas would be expecting a novel-length work to be worth the price. And it is.
Chiang has not written a great deal of sf, but what he has written, mostly novellas, is haunting, beautiful, rigorous, and difficult to pin down. In 2002, a collection of eight of his stories was published, Stories of Your Life and Others. As far as I know, his only other published stories are "What's Expected of Us" (2005), a one-pager from Nature; "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" (2007), a novelette; "Exhalation" (2009), an actual short story, which the editors of The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010) celebrated by including in their volume; and this book, which could be labeled a novella, too, I suppose, although it is probably his longest work to date. Considering this modest output, the number of awards he has received is impressive: four Nebulas, three Hugos, two Locus Awards, the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer (in 1992), a Sturgeon Award, a Sidewise Award, and a British Science Fiction Award. I may have missed one or two. He makes his living as a technical writer in the computer industry and describes himself as an "occasional writer."
Lifecycle traces the development of digients, "digital organisms that live in [virtual] environments," artificial intelligences that develop the way human intelligences do. The front flap of the book quotes Alan Turing: "Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best [for creating artificial intelligence]. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child." The novel's premise is that a corporation would try the second approach, and it follows two people hired by the company to develop these intelligences, a zookeeper named Ana Alvarado and an animator named Derek Brooks. The book alternates their viewpoints as they nurture the maturing digients while the corporation's fortunes rise and fall. That's really all there is to it, but it is enough for Chiang to explore many ethical issues with sophistication and sensitivity. Each of the ten chapters (their numbers elegantly indicated by a series of dots, grey and maroon) explores a stage in the digients' development, accompanied by a map tracing their progress from one step to another (chapter one - from sensorimotor skills to speech, chapter 10- from altruism to obligation). Internal illustrations begin with a fetal-stage robot, complete with umbilicus, and end with an adult robot leading a human woman. We become involved in the fates of the two caretakers: will Ana and Derek get together? Should they? And we are concerned about the futures of the child-like virtual entities: will they be properly nurtured, allowed to grow and learn and form meaningful relationships, protected from threats to their emotional well-being and to their ...read more