I haven’t read nearly enough Ted Chiang. If I sensed it before, I know it for certain now. The Lifecyle of Software Objects (2010) has converted me. This novella, beautifully packaged by Subterranean Press and with superb art by Jacob McMurray, is part AI thought experiment, part love story, and an entirely wonderful read.
Ana, a former zookeeper re-training as a software tester, takes a job with a company called Blue Gamma. Ana’s experience with animals combined with her computer training uniquely situate her to help develop a new line of “digients,” AI pets designed to learn and evolve as online companions in the virtual multiverse. Her co-worker, Derek Brooks, is in charge of the digient animations. Together, these two are in on the ground floor of the phenomenon when the digients are released into the virtual world. Ana develops a rapport with a robot digient named Jax, while Derek bonds with the Blue Gamma company mascots, Marco and Polo. The relationships between these humans and their ever-changing digients survive the rise and fall of the craze, as early joys and successes lead to later challenges and surprises. What starts as an interesting marketing idea becomes, for Ana and Derek, something much more serious and important.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects is precisely and beautifully written, both engaging as story and intellectually satisfying as an AI thought experiment. Chiang spins out his ideas smoothly, extrapolating smartly from modern internet and marketing realities, then continues to ask the next question, and the next. The result is a vibrant, convincing future, populated with likeable characters — both human and digient — and fascinating conceptual speculation. It’s an engrossing intellectual ride, but also emotionally heartfelt. This is the real deal; highly recommended.