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on 3 October 2010
Ted Chiang doesn't write a lot, but what he does is always worth reading. You know you're in good hands. You get the feeling he's toyed with, examined and explored every avenue and implication of the idea he's chosen to work with. And not just from a purely ideational perspective: Chiang's fiction is rooted in the human world, and is as much about the impact ideas have on people as that which people have on ideas. And here, in his longest piece of fiction to date (which is still only of novella length), Chiang turns his hand to an area that walks the boundary between the technological -- the purely ideational -- and the human: that of artificial intelligence.

The story starts when Ana Alvarez is hired by software startup Blue Gamma. She's surprised to learn that it's not her recent qualifications in computing that got her the job so much as her previous experience working in a zoo. That's because Blue Gamma is creating digients -- digital entities which are in effect "born" as blank canvases, and which learn, and develop, through experience. These are not HAL-like artificial super-beings, but digital creatures closer, at first, to animals, and then to children. Only conscientious handling and education are going to make them into full-blown AIs.

From the start, there's a moral (and emotional) tension inherent in the situation. The digients are childlike, and require constant attention and nurturing in order to develop. But they are also commercial products, technological experiments that, however sensitively they're handled by Blue Gamma, have the ultimate purpose of making money for their developers. They are also in an environment as hostile as the real world, if not more: "Data Earth" (Chiang's version of Second Life), where there's the constant threat that they (or illicitly-acquired digital copies of them) might be stolen and abused by the sort of predators that children are protected from by law, but digients (not being human) aren't.

Chiang charts a course through a choppy sea of ethical dilemmas and torn loyalties in his human characters, plus threats to the digients such as the dangers of commercial exploitation, and the impending obsolescence of their software environment. The story necessarily takes leaps of several months or even a year at a time, moving the digients from one developmental stage to the next, but I didn't find this dislocating, it was just the right pace to move the story along. But, perhaps because of this idea-led pace, I never developed a real interest in the human characters, or in the digients as personalities. The ending, when it came, seemed abrupt, as there was no overall story-arc leading up to it -- no up-swelling bass line of the emotional to counterpoint, and meet with, that of the ideas.

I don't mean to say it left me cold -- there's plenty of humanity in The Lifecycle of Software Objects, and Chiang is never-failing in his quiet compassion for the situation he's treating -- just maybe not enough character, in the conventional literary sense. So, read this one for the ideas. Oh, and for the writing -- which is elegant, quiet and, like the rest of Chiang's fiction, always coolly competent. I'm still giving it five stars.
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on 10 November 2010
This was my first experience with Ted Chiang, a writer who, regardless of his great reputation, seems to have slipped under the radar due to his small output. For once my high expectations weren't disappointed. "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" is the best kind of SF - the kind that poses serious questions about the future in the context of an involving story; this work makes one think as well as entertain. That's a real accomplishment and Chiang manages to infuse a potentially very dry subject with some intense emotional moments. Chiang's prose isn't flashy, so don't expect linguistic pyrotechnics, but it does exactly what it needs to and makes a complex series of issues wonderfully clear. It's a tad disappointing that the author didn't actually make the story longer - as there's plenty of room for all elements in the story to evolve further - but I can't say I felt short changed at the ending provided.

So all in all, a great story and a particularly lovely edition from Subterranean press. Definitely recommended.
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on 17 June 2011
Ted Chiang has made quite the name for himself by doing a great deal with very little. More than 20 years he's been a part of the speculative scene, such as it is - such as it ever was - yet in that time he's never published a novel; only twelve of the short stories he's composed have seen the light of day; and just the one novelette, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, which nevertheless took home both the Hugo and the Nebula for its category in 2008. That's in addition to a treasure trove of other equally prestigious awards, lavished upon the author's previous work.

A bone fide novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is the longest thing Ted Chiang has ever put out there. Published as an exquisite trade edition by the Subterranean Press elves last Summer, it comes as little surprise that - as a physical thing as well as a deeply touching tale of companionship, sacrifice, and obligation, and so many other subjects the mind practically boggles - on both counts The Lifecycle of Software Objects is truly a beautiful book.

We've gotten pretty blasé about artificial intelligence in recent years, haven't we? Certainly the misappropriation of the term by programmers in the video game industry and elsewhere to describe what are at heart smarter sub-routines hasn't helped, but I would argue there's more to our nonchalance than that. Perhaps one too many cautionary tales has been the final nail in the coffin of that avenue of imagination; it seems Asimov's rules only exist to be broken, after all. Or perhaps we merely fear the competition, and the notion of another intelligence, our equal or our better, is too grave a threat to our egos for us to simply square away.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is in no small part so refreshing because it offers a more optimistic perspective on where the artificial intelligence software solutions of today might likely lead. Chiang introduces us to once and former zookeeper Ana, and Derek, an animator, both of whom come to work for Blue Gamma, a start-up with designs on the market for artificial pets. Blue Gamma's business is digients: postmodern Tamagotchis of a sort. Says the headhunter who hires Ana on, "We're going to pitch them as pets you can talk to, teach to do really cool tricks. There's an unofficial slogan we use in-house: 'All the fun of monkeys, with none of the poop-throwing.'" (p.4) Hence the need for an animal trainer like Ana. She is to rear the digients as she would a shrewdness of baby apes. Derek, meanwhile, designs their expressions, and so their personalities in part.

Too soon Blue Gamma let loose the digients on the world without, and to begin with, people embrace their Marcos and their Polos. Hundreds of thousands of Lolly models and Rex derivatives are adopted by adoring owners, and Blue Gamma's fortunes seem on the rise. However, unto every rise, a fall, and indeed the start-up comes a-cropper of the rocky road before it, for the digients are only loving pseudo-pets when their pseudo-parents treat them with care, and respect. Like Tamagotchis in their time, the zeitgeist shortly moves on to the next thing, and the next next thing, leaving their digients behind as they go, in suspension or worse.

Ana and Derek each opt to keep the digients they have become so attached to, and in The Lifecycle of Software Objects Chiang poignantly chronicles the development of these forgotten AIs, as well as the people who come to care for them so - though to a lesser extent. Chiang's focus herein is primarily on the digients; thus, some readers might find themselves turned off by a perceived lack of sympathetic characters.

But rubbish on that excuse. Marco and Polo and Rex are fleshed out fabulously over the course of the decade during which Chiang follows the three: The Lifecycle of Software Objects is their journey, and their story, and I am frankly baffled that so many critics have taken issue with the seeming superfluousness of Ana and Derek as if they, and not the digients, were Chiang's protagonists. A nonsense. That this outcast couple are but a secondary concern is exactly as it should be. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is superb, and made so by the breathtakingly intimate tale of what amounts to a few forgotten toys, striving to thrive, or just to survive, in a world which has long since moved on.

If Chiang's latest is not quite his greatest, it speaks only to the tremendous strength of his all-too occasional work, and to the larger question this lovingly honed narrative leaves hanging: what next? For though there is closure of a sort, come the quiet climax, and a resonance of emotion in its wake, still one wishes The Lifecycle of Software Objects would go on a little longer. Or perhaps a lot longer; certainly there is potential aplenty to.

You know, I feel greedy just saying that. I'll take whatever Ted Chiang I can get, in truth - that there is as much to his latest as there is is a treat. However much I might like another. And another.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a desperately sad story in the main, yet uplifting for all that, such that I spent the last chapters with a leaden lump in my throat which hadn't a clue what it was about. For its part, The Lifecycle of Software Objects is about love, and loss; friendship, and responsibility; nature - and nurture - and artifice. It is heartbreaking. It is profound. It is tremendously powerful, a tour de force, and so very, very sweet.

Why, it's Ted Chiang!
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on 1 October 2013
Attractive book, competent storytelling, just not up to the high standard set by Tower of Babylon; Seventy-Two Letters; Hell is the Absence of God, etc.
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on 5 May 2016
One of those few books that changes your whole perspective on things. Fantastic read, would highly recommend it be the next book you read.
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on 9 March 2011
The last time I reviewed one of Chiang's short stories I loved it, and I loved this much longer (but still short-form - I'm not sure whether it's a "novella" or a "novelette", or whether there's a difference between the two, and I don't really care) story for much the same reasons. It is grounded somewhat more in a feasible extrapolation from current technology and pastimes than Exhalation is, and is perhaps more immediately accessible for that. Where his earlier short story "Exhalation" is broadly speaking an exploration of himself by the only character, The Lifecycle of Software Objects looks primarily at two main characters (one of them an entertainment AI the other a human) and how their relationship grows and changes over an extended time. It's even better than Exhalation, but the quality is just as high - I can't think of anyone living or dead who writes better than Chiang, and precious few who match him. It's better only because that top quality writing, evocative as well as entertaining, is sustained for so much longer.

I recommend that you buy it, because the author deserves his royalties, but it's also available online for free on the publisher's website, which is how I read it. But I have now bought it too. The book has some illustrations in it that aren't online.
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