This might be a novella, but it is one of the longest works by Ted Chiang. THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS is a complex, yet simple sort of book. It’s a study of empathy, relationship, and artificial intelligence. Chaing is one of those writers who can execute an idea within a sentence or in a page and this novella is no different, over the course of 150 pages, he unpacks what it would be like to bond with AIs generated from code.
Our entry points are Ana and Derek, the former who used to work with zoo animals, while the latter is a 3D animator. These two people become involved with the company Blue Gamma, which in turn creates the digients, vaguely humanoid creatures based on animals who begin as infants and slowly learn over time, similar to humans. Ana is hired by Blue Gamma to help train the digients. It is all themed around Alan Turning’s second theory of creating AI through the use of senses and teaching the traditional way, no design or intelligence imprinted on them.
It is an interesting scenario and even though the story was published in 2010, it is no less relevant today, since it deals with not only all the topics I listed above but also the themes of temporality and community. Software updates often, which then makes previous versions obsolete after only a few years, and for digients who have to exist for years as living digital organisms, this is a unique obstacle to overcome. This kind of rapid change and the fragility of stability is enhanced by the careful and melancholic writing of Chiang. There is something about his style that evokes a sense of both loss and nostalgia all at once.
This is a beautiful short story, another favorite of mine from Chiang, which was lovingly laid out by the folks over at Subterranean Press who chose to include illustrations, like the one below, throughout the novella. These matched the overall tone of the story quite well too. Do not miss out on this one!