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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Subterranean Magazine, Fall 2010

Subterranean Fall 2010

The lead story for this issue of Subterranean Online is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a novella by Ted Chiang. A startup company is creating virtual life forms called digients. Actually, digients already exist but Blue Gamma is creating a particularly advanced type based on an engine called Neuroblast. (From here on out when I talk about digients, these are the ones I mean, though there are other kinds in the story.) They are meant to be sold to customers who spend time in virtual worlds, which it appears most people do in this future. Blue Gamma’s digients have to be raised and trained before they are ready to be companions to humans. They are based on animal models, at least at first, so the startup hires Ana Alvarado, a former zookeeper who got IT training to change careers, to help. As they evolve the digients develop primitive speech and become more humanlike. Ana’s friend Derek is an animator who creates avatars for the digients.

The core story is about Ana, Derek, and the digients they raise. Ana’s is named Jax. Derek has two, Marco and Polo. Of course, the story’s about a lot of other things, too.

The fortunes of the digients as a “race” rise and fall with the fortunes of the company that made them, Blue Gamma. The virtual world they exist in, Data Earth, is dependent on a corporate parent too.

I see these digients more as fantastical creatures in sfnal clothing than as true sfnal extrapolations, because of the distance AI has to travel before it arrives anywhere near this destination. (And it solves some other issues in the story too, if you think of the digients as fantastical rather than sfnal.) Chiang makes it clear to the reader (whether they are true extrapolations or not) that they are not analogues of human children. Ana and Derek realize this. The digients are similar enough to children to arouse the desire in people to take care of them. But they are their own form of life, and very few humans are dedicated enough to stick with them as they evolve and become a more complicated and less cute.

The digients’ speech is a kind of pidgin, not-quite kid talk (again I think this is carefully done by Chiang, they have to be just human enough, but not too much), and evolves along with them. It never becomes full speech, but it gets closer  to that as they get older. One plot thread in the story is that digients may eventually be able to become independent by registering as corporations with legal rights. The evolution in their language helps the reader, and Derek and Ana as well, believe that the digients might someday be capable of self-determination.

That also is what this novella is about. What are these creatures, these digients? What will it mean when we create something like this? Will they be slaves? Will they be free? What happens if the majority of society doesn’t care, because its moved on or is too busy with the flavor of the week?

The not-human-ness of the digients reminded me of a talk Chiang gave at Boréal last year, about how the human brain is not like a computer. His essential point was that the brain-computer analogy is made up rather than true, that historically the brain has always been compared to whatever the most advanced technology of the time was. I think he’s making a similar point here: if we do manage to create artificial life, it won’t be as similar to human life as some fictions would have us believe. It won’t be that simple.

He’s walking a fine line though, as far as story crafting goes. I did care about Ana’s thoughts and feelings about these issues as I read. I didn’t care so much about the digients themselves though. Chiang managed to convince me the digients weren’t human, and that made them harder to care about. They’re intentionally not fleshed out as people, because they’re not people. They’re secondary beings, their existence never decouples significantly from their human caretakers’, at least from the reader’s point of view.

It’s a problem that reflects the challenges Ana and Derek face. They can’t get anyone else to care about their digients the way they do. The digients are not children. Society has no obligation to them. Yet they’re not independent, so they can’t take care of themselves.

The thing is, I really liked this piece, and found it hard to put down. So, what is it that makes this story good? Chiang made me care about the human characters. Ana and Derek love their digients. They are as emotionally tied to them as they would be to human children. They are also tied to each other, more so as the digients’ world gets smaller and the community of human caretakers dwindles. They are trying to manage complicated lives that involve other people who don’t care about digients and will never understand.

Ana and Derek are idealists. This story is about what happens to idealists, at least in part. The things they sacrifice for their ideals, and for each other. It’s about these strange beings, Marco, Polo, and Jax, who will probably go on to become corporations someday, move on, become independent. Maybe I did end up caring about them in the end. I found myself thinking, just now, I hope so.

“The Unorthodox Dr. Draper” by William Browning Spencer is the issue’s second-longest piece. Dr. Draper is a therapist. For an example of his unorthodoxy, exhibit A: he has his patient Rachel Phelps tailed by a private detective, and it’s not the first time he’s done it. He believes he can help patients more if he knows about their private lives from a point of view other than their own.

My main question about this story and Draper is, am I supposed to like this guy? I don’t think I do like him. His unorthodox methods are supposedly for the benefit of his patients. For example, he has slept with female patients, but only those he thought it would actually help. Am I supposed to like him, or just supposed to believe that he believes what he is doing is ethical? His unreliability as a narrator is interesting, but not interesting enough. I did manage to read the whole story on a second attempt but let’s just say it shouldn’t take two tries. It also takes quite a long time for the fantastic element in this piece to show itself. Too long for my comfort, in a genre magazine. I never like it when I read a story and think the author is trying to get away with something—publishing his or her mainstream story in a genre mag. This story felt too much like one of those to me. I don’t think this is actually one of those, I just think it’s too similar to one of those. Readers who find Dr. Draper more interesting than I did might enjoy this story quite a lot, properly forewarned.

“Weekdays: A Lucifer Jones Story” by Mike Resnick is a story about Sirens, yes—that kind. Sort of. Lucifer Jones, AKA the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones, claims to be a preacher. Lucifer is on the Greek cargo ship Acropolis traveling from Hawaii to “the next civilized island.”  As the ship passes by a small island, Lucifer and the rest of the crew see beautiful naked women on the shore. Lucifer decides to take his chances and swim over.

To avid Resnick readers, Lucifer Jones will need no introduction. Resnick published Lucifer Jones in 1992, and the Winter 2009 issue of Subterranean Magazine contains another Lucifer Jones story. Subterranean also published a book of a few of them, Hazards: The Chronicles of Lucifer Jones 1934-1938 (2009). I gather there are other books of Lucifer Jones tales as well.

The women are the weekdays of the title: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Lucifer lusts after them all. They live with Caruso, a man with a very long beard who has built them a mansion on the island. Lucifer immediately starts trying to think of how to get rid of him so he can have his way with the tempting weekdays, who seem to be on board with the idea. They make it clear that if Lucifer rids them of Caruso, they’ll make all his dreams come true. Things don’t usually go as expected for the Honorable Reverend Doctor, so you can’t guess what happens next.

The story has its moments, such as when January the snake wakes Lucifer from a lascivious dream with a sweet “Hiss!”, but I wanted to like it better than I did. For me, Lucifer’s antics were a bit too much. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood? I just couldn’t get into the swing of it, there were too many “I thunks,” “ain’t nos,” and “I figgereds” for me. If you like Lucifer and the story’s exaggerated tone, you’ll have a laugh.

I found “Fossils” by Al Sarantonio disturbing on several levels. A group of professors and students from a paleontology department are hiking down into a dark valley. The viewpoint character, Vanessa, is having visions. The expedition’s leader is Roberts, an aggressive rising star in the department who hopes the expedition will prove her theory that another race of humans evolved with the dinosaurs and was wiped out by them. This male-dominant race, she posits, is a relic of the evolutionary past, and the new humanity is destined to be led by women.

Roberts manipulates (literally, ahem) Vanessa from the beginning to gain access to her visions, which helped find the site to which the team is traveling. By the time the hike happens, Vanessa is aware of Roberts true motives and despises her. Roberts has another plaything with them that she hits and yells at, Anne. At the same time, she’s sleeping with the alpha male of the expedition, anthropologist Meyer. The whole team is in her thrall. The tone of the story is dark and well-controlled. There’s an adverb or three I wish the editor had removed. The portrayal of Roberts is over the top evil controlling alpha woman. This one left a bad taste in my mouth. I guess it was meant to.

In “The Search for Tom Purdue (excerpt)” by Howard Waldrop, Mark O(vidius) Klass eats three identical donuts made by a Ring King machine and remembers his boyhood trip to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I didn’t fancy the little bit of frame story this vivid memory is wrapped in,  (it’s a bit of a downer), but the World of Tomorrow trip is a glorious, vivid piece of vintage Waldrop living past. Klass wonders at the glorious, distant future 1960 as he travels through it with his parents, chewing a piece of his father’s Black Jack gum (even though his favorite is Fleers Banana Dubl-Bubl). Fireworks, nylon replacing silk, people watching themselves watch themselves in the RCA building (television), Electro the Mechanical Man. This kid’s awe and wonder and joy shine right through. It’s especially fun to read this piece if you’ve heard Waldrop read before. I heard the whole thing in his measured, expressive drawl. Feel free to ignore the downer frame piece and just enjoy the lucid dream of 1939/1960. Even time I read some Waldrop, I think I should read more.

December 20, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

4 Comments

  1. This is a good and thoughtful review. But I have to take issue with this:

    “I see these digients more as fantastical creatures in sfnal clothing than as true sfnal extrapolations, because of the distance AI has to travel before it arrives anywhere near this destination.”

    The entire point of Ted Chiang’s story is that AI *must* travel that learning distance to arrive *anywhere*, that a disembodied, purely rational AI as usually found in SF is impossible. Remember Ana’s meeting with the executives of what-the-name-of-it company that was working on such an impossible AI?

    I’m totally with Ted on this. It’s time to break the wrong SF preconceptions about AI. And I agree with him that brain is not like computer. But I don’t see how this leads to:

    “I think he’s making a similar point here: if we do manage to create artificial life, it won’t be as similar to human life as some fictions would have us believe.”

    If anything, the fundamental differences between brain and computer would mean that AI, when we manage to create it, will be unlike *computers*, not unlike us. Because it must be similar to brain.

    Ted’s story is full of deep, excellent ideas. But only problem with it is that it’s emotionally bland.

    Comment by Leonid Korogodski | December 20, 2010

  2. “I see these digients more as fantastical creatures in sfnal clothing than as true sfnal extrapolations, because of the distance AI has to travel before it arrives anywhere near this destination.”

    Hmm. I may have misunderstood this. I thought it was about the digients developing through learning, by baby steps–which, according to Ted, is the only way an AI could develop. But if you meant simply the general state of our AI research, then I have to agree on this.

    Comment by Leonid Korogodski | December 20, 2010

    • Yes, that’s what I meant, the general state of AI research.

      Regarding your point that AI would not be like computers, I agree. I’m not sure it would end up being like us, though. I think AI in sf is usually too human-like rather than too computer-like. Perhaps when writers create AIs they should be thinking “alien” instead of “human” or “computer”. Then they’d get a more realistic and interesting result.

      -Alex

      Comment by Alex Donald | December 20, 2010

      • Good point. Makes me think of the “thalientic” Winds in Karl Schroeder’s Ventus. Still, I think AI would be closer to us than to computers. At the very least, it can’t be 100% digital. The advantages of the digital format are: (1) exact reproducibility, (2) predictability, as the ease of troubleshooting. These same qualities are counter-indicated for true artificial life.

        Comment by Leonid Korogodski | December 21, 2010


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