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.

Hugo Awards: Best Novella (1st contender)

First in the novella category is Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Kiss Me Twice,” a futuristic police procedural, from Asimov’s. Read it here.

Detective Scott Huang is investigating the murder of Neil Patterson, a developer, found dead on the roof of one of his buildings, his body lying near a table set for tea. Huang is assisted by the police department AI, called Metta, physically located in a chassis at headquarters, but present simultaneously with all the police officers wearing communications electronics: an earbud for hearing Metta’s communications, some unspecified means that allows an officer to “subvocalize” to Metta, and glasses that are a means of seeing a persona that Metta creates. In Huang’s case, Metta presents herself as Mae West.

A second mystery is introduced during the first scene: while Huang is investigating the murder scene, Metta gives an alarm that there are intruders in the police station, two officers have been shot, and the assailants have entered Metta’s chassis room. Then communications from Metta cease: the chassis has been disconnected and taken from headquarters, the three assailants having made a successful retreat with their prize.

The two mysteries, of course, turn out to be related: the same party is responsible for both crimes.

I have to wonder if some people are better at reading mysteries than I am. Although I enjoy them, I usually end up muddled by the final third of the story, having lost track of some of the suspects and investigatory threads. In any case, I suspect that many readers, like me, are successfully carried along by other aspects of the story — suspense, of course, but also interesting characters and their personal problems.

In “Kiss Me Twice” what’s going on outside the crime investigation storyline is a conflict, in society at large and on a smaller scale within the police department, about whether AIs are “living.” This problem is a popular SF notion, but it can be a challenge to breathe life into. Take, for example, the android Data on Star Trek: Next Generation. A number of fine episodes were devoted to asking and answering questions about Data’s rights and humanity. And the episodes succeeded in being convincing in large part, I think, because Data was an android being dramatically portrayed by a human being. Of course he garnered our sympathy. On the page, it’s a lot tougher. Kowal tries to elicit the reader’s sympathy by having Huang feel resentment on Metta’s behalf if she is referred to as a machine, or insist that the AI was “kidnapped” rather than “stolen.” The effect is more to make Huang a niggler than to make Metta alive. Kowal misses her best opportunity when, at Huang’s house, Metta has a girl-to-girl conversation with his Chinese-speaking mother:

She gestured at his bathrobe. “Have guest in house. Show respect.” She looked back at Metta and smiled, “Besides, we still have much to talk about.”

Huang chuckled and headed for the bathroom. He paused in the doorway and looked back at his mother. She was having an animated conversation in Mandarin with Metta.

What are they talking about? I cannot imagine. But I would have liked to have known, because that conversation would have gone much farther in making Metta seem like a real being than any number of Mae West guises and looks of fear on her computer-generated faces.

I will mention one other weakness — an awful writerly tic of having characters chew their lips to show thought or indecision. How many times in one story? Once is enough, two should be the limit, but I lost count… I think it happens at least six times, maybe more.

There are some good things here, and the unveiling of the murderer is simply wonderful: he appears in a form you would never imagine, both funny and menacing. I wasn’t converted to the AI IS LIFE camp, but I did get a kick out of the mystery’s solution, and a satisfying conclusion is worth the price of entry.