Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente
Published by Wyrm Publishing
Published on: February 5 2012
Genres: Science Fiction
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Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future. Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great grandmother-a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote. But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever . . .
Here’s the thing . . . this is a fantastically clever and beautifully written story. Valente tackles the subject of “what does it mean to be alive?” and if she left it at that, this would have easily been a 4.5 or even a 5.0 star read.
But she didn’t.
What I liked:
She created an almost magical world called the Interior which is really a place inside a software program where anything can exist, where entire worlds can be created on a whim, where everything is utterly fluid and changeable: gender, species, age, etc.
In this world we meet Neva, the Host, for lack of a better term, and Elefsis, a homegrown piece/entity/whatever of artificial intelligence who is merged (as in wired in) with her.
Elefsis developed out of an game-playing extension of a house-running software program that the programmer created for her five children, presumably b/c its:
. . . algorithms had always been free to combine and recombine in order to find their own, more interesting and nonlinear solutions to the complexities of my functions and responsibilities.
This program only evolved from a single child’s virtual playground, and the parallel of statistics and probabilities between humans evolving b/c circumstances aligned perfectly to allow for it and A.I. developing for the same reasons only begins there, which raises all kinds of questions, first and foremost: if you believe in evolution and a computer program evolved like we did, doesn’t that very evolution give it a right to exist?
Valente moves as fluidly as her Interior back forth through time and Elefsis’ own evolution. She speaks in metaphor and hyperbole, and she does it well:
When Ceno woke in the morning and booted up her space, she frowned at the half-finished Neptunian landscape she had been working on. Ceno was eleven years old. She knew very well that Neptune was a hostile blue ball of freezing gas and storms like whipping cream hissing across methane oceans. What she wanted was the Neptune she had imagined before Saru had told her the truth and ruined it. Half-underwater, half-ruined, floating in perpetual starlight and the multi-colored rainbowlight of twenty-three moons. But she found it so hard to remember what she had dreamed of before Saru had stomped all over it. So the whipped cream storm spun in the sky, but blue mists wrapped the black columns of her ruins, and her ocean went on forever, permitting only a few shards of land. When Ceno made Neptunians, she instructed them all not to be silly or childish, but very serious, and some of them she put in the ocean and made them half-otter or half-orca or half-walrus. Some of them she put on the land, and most of these were half-snow bear or half-blue flamingo. She liked things that were half one thing and half another. Today, Ceno had planned to invent sea nymphs, only these would breathe methane and have a long history concerning a war with the walruses, who liked to eat nymph. But the nymphs were not blameless, no, they used walrus tusks for the navigational equipment on their great floating cities, and that could not be borne.
There are also extremely—extremely—taboo elements to this tale that I want nothing to do with. It was awkward and more than a little bit uncomfortable to read, and it was also frustratingly superfluous. It had no bearing on the subject matter, unless it was to prove that humans are revolting creatures and thus further emphasize a machine’s right to autonomy.
I was also unhappy with the way it ended.
As I said earlier the Interior is entirely adaptable. Neva and Elefsis are interchangeable in their perceptions of each other (b/c brain link), so sudden swaps in POV are not only possible, but likely. Elefsis is sometimes demonstrative of his/her/its feelings by his/her/its bizarre understanding of what arbitrary things mean to humans, like covering him/her/itself with orange flowers b/c:
Oranges mean life and happiness to humans because they require Vitamin C to function.
Neva mirrors those actions b/c she understands what’s being communicated, and ultimately they are irreversibly intertwined.
So when Valente deliberately makes who is the human and who is the machine indecipherable, presumably, b/c if you can’t tell, then how can you claim that one is alive and one isn’t, it is both unnecessary and a open ending (which I hate).
But that’s me. Like I said, this truly was a gorgeously written and thought-provoking story. If you don’t mind the idea of an entity being passed down from mother to son, son to daughter through the generations, all generations “mating” with it and frequently (sometimes as animals), then go for it. *does not judge*
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This is an exquisite AI story, the confession of a robot formed through relationships with a family of introspective, thoughtful, emotional, complex and very human characters. The robot isn’t your typical automaton, imposing the ruthless logic of mechanical production upon the world. Nor is this story the typical AI story, in which one sees through the eyes of humans as they attempt to “figure out” how AI’s work and what they will do. Instead, this is the hearthfelt confessions of a very alien robot, spoken in its idiosyncratic collection of human and machine voices. The robot knows that we are too human to fully understand its thoughts and feelings, yet it reaches across the gap using every literary tool that it can find: goddess-myth, fairy-tale, family history, personal reminiscence, direct address, puns, philosophical speculation, &c. This makes for difficult reading, but that’s the point. The robot is not easy to understand. What makes the poem breathtaking is when, for moments, we catch glimpses what the world looks like through the ocular input of this strange, sorrowful, gentle and love-filled monster; we may never forget that the robot is alien, but we can love it anyway. I can’t imagine a better AI story.
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I enjoyed it quite a bit, like the poster above as an AI story I can’t think of one I enjoyed more. But there are not many I have actually enjoyed so that may account for it. I get your reservations though.
All generations mating with it…eh, ewww?
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