Hugo Awards: Best Novella (5th contender)

Next we come to Catherynne Valente’s “Silently and Very Fast,” from Clarkesworld. You can read it here.

This story is told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence, Elefsis — originally the name of the house for which the software was written as an operating system. Elefsis was created by a programmer, Cassian, to operate the great and wonderful house that she built for herself and her family, and she gives to each of her five children a jewel containing a copy of the software:

…All each child had to do was to allow the gemstone to talk to their own feedware at night before bed…After their day had downloaded into the crystalline structure, they were to place their five little jewels in the Lares alcove in their greatroom — for Cassian believed in the value of children sharing space, even in a house as great as Elefsis. The children’s five lush bedrooms all opened into a common rotunda with a starry painted ceiling, screens and windows alternating around the wall, and toys to nurture whatever obsession had seized them of late.
In the alcove, the stones talked to the house, and the system slowly grew thicker and deeper, like a briar.

I will pause here for a moment to mention an important aspect of Valente’s style, which consists of the frequent digressions, such as in the excerpt above where the explanation of the jewels’ purpose is interrupted by the reason the jewels had adjacent notches (because their mother thought the children should share) and a description of the common area outside the bedrooms, with rotunda, painted ceiling, windows, and toys. Add to that the practice of going back and forth in time over about 200 years, and the experience of the story becomes more like studying an intricate painting hanging on a wall than following a story.

Elefsis’s origin is in the 22nd century, and at this time people have “internal systems.” While Cassian is  giving her children the jewels, she and her children are simultaneously inwardly engaged. In other words, there is Interior space — the mind engaged in computer-assisted activities or games — and realspace, and it is normal for people to be engaged in both while they are awake.

While they spoke among themselves, two …  were silently accessing Korea-based interactive games, one was reading an American novel in her monocle HUD, one issuing directives concerning international taxation to company holdings on the mainland, and one was feeding a horse in Italy via realavatar link.

One daughter, Ceno, has created a vast Interior space which she custom designs, rather than buying and using commercial feedware (such as “Zombies in Tokyo”). She creates imaginary Neptunian landscapes — water, ruins, starlight, and 23 moons — to play in, and she populates the world with nereids and Neptunians. Some time after receiving her jewel, she encounters in her Interior space something she has not created — a giant blue dormouse that holds out a paw with two jewels, and Ceno realizes that one is her jewel that contains the copy of Elefsis, and the other represents her. Elefsis has communicated a very simple idea, showing that it is dimly aware of itself as a being, introducing himself to her.

Ceno decides to continue interacting with Elefsis, and to communicate human ideas via stories. As Ceno explains to her mother:

I’ve been telling it stories. Fairy tales, mostly. I thought it should learn about narrative … everything has a narrative, really, and if you can’t understand a story and relate to it, figure out how you fit inside it, you’re not really alive at all.

I love the concept of this story, and the slow development of Elefsis’s understanding and thought allows the AI character to be convincing:

Sometimes I worry. Worrying is defined as obsessive examination of one’s own code. I worry that I am simply a very complex solution to a very specific problem — how to seem human to a human observer.

The story is not told in a linear fashion, but more in the way we think and remember while at the same time being engaged in the present. The telling of the story is, in fact, so complex that a reader cannot fully grasp it without a second reading, and perhaps even a third. The putting-together of the pieces is an act of fascination, an intellectual experience. “Silently and Very Fast” is very impressive in its complexity and ingenuity.

What it lacks may be an emotional experience. Everyone experiences a story differently, so I will not speak for others. But I was not especially involved on an emotional level. I suspect that everyone will experience a little sympathy for the pathos of the conclusion, but whether that is sufficient to make a satisfying story as a whole, I will leave to you to decide.

The title comes from the poem by Auden, “The Fall of Rome,” and draws some parallels between decadent ancient Rome and future mankind.

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