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 existence itself?
These are the fictional tools Chiang uses to explore his philosophical-ethical concerns. What does it mean to have consciousness? At what point does an entity attain the kind of intelligence that warrants our ethical obligation? We do not at present need to worry our pretty heads about our obligations to artificial intelligences, to robots that might contain such intelligences, or to virtual entities with consciousness, although those obligations are explored here and are, perhaps, worth worrying about ahead of time. We do need to be thinking about our ethical obligations to other animals, however, since science is finding more and more evidence that the differences between them and us are more subtle and graduated than we used to believe. Chiang has said that he admires Austrialian hard-SF author Greg Egan's work, "the way he is able to cut to the heart of philosophical questions while maintaining impressive scientific rigor." By using scientific rigor to posit the development of artificial intelligences in virtual environments, Chiang himself cuts to the heart of philosophical concerns about human and other animal consciousnesses. That the two human protagonists come from careers that explore the possibility of animal consciousness - zookeeping and animation - is no accident.
One striking concern of the novel is the extent to which subjects - human or non-human - become enmeshed in and trapped by the capitalist system, not only financially but also emotionally and socially. Jack Womack's Elvissey (1993) shows brilliantly how people are trapped by the corporate language in which they are forced to express their emotional lives. David Marusek's Counting Heads (2005) uses clones to show people subsumed by their commodification and struggle for individuality. Chiang is doing something similar here. Ana and Derek fight to save their digital charges from exploitation and oblivion, charges who have no existence outside of the corporation, Blue Gamma, that conceived them. However much the digients may be the products (literally) of Blue Gamma, they also remain individual personalities, just as Ana and Derek are both figurative products of the corporation fighting to retain some autonomy.
The digients are products, owned by others, as much as lab rats and pigs bred for particular research processes are products. They seem alive, even though they are without bodies: they act independently and individually, have preferences, suffer, learn, become depressed when treated poorly, and flourish in good conditions, just as lab animals do. Also like lab animals, they are easy to ignore: their functions can be suspended, turned off, either forever or for a short period of time. The digients are also like pets. They are easy to love, but they can be difficult and time-consuming and expensive to care for. They were designed for our recreation but require work and long-term commitment. We want them and then we tire of them. Yet they are bodiless, ghosts in the machines. We may recognize that Descartes was way off, seeing animals' cries as mere mechanical squeaks without any meaning, but where do the digients stand? They speak our language, so their cries are more difficult to ignore. The slow development of the novel, like the slow development of the digients themselves, allows us to take Chiang's suppositions about the consciousness of these unembodied creatures quite seriously. Their strangeness reflects back on our own troubled relationships with other animals.
Like all of Chiang's work, the tone of this short novel is cool: emotions are tamped down. We are concerned about the digients, although I don't feel much emotion for their human caretakers. This is purposeful, I think, and wise as well. Some emotional distance allows the ethical questions to be taken more seriously. Rather than bleeding for the digients, I am haunted by them, these winsome ghosts in the machine.