A few weeks previously, I read a book by Kate Wilhelm, describing her experiences with the Clarion Writer's Workshop, and one of the alumni mentioned was Ted Chiang. I was curious why Ted Chiang was mentioned, and found out that while far from prolific, he is somewhat of a writer's writer in the science fiction community. The handful of short stories and novellas he has written have won a disproportionate amount of Nebula and Hugo awards. Curious as to what the excitement was about, I checked out a copy of his 2010 novella, "The Lifecycle of Software Objects".
"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" is set in the unspecified near future, and deals with the development of artificial intelligence. Chiang's angle on this topic is that instead of artificial intelligence being the result of a corporate or government attempt at producing problem solving AI's, the AI's in question are developed for entertainment. Much like the Tamagotchi and its successors, the AI creations, called "digients", are raised to interact with their owners in MMORPG-like environments.
Using this simple premise, Chiang manages to build a believable and thought-provoking story in a little over a hundred pages. His treatment of both the psychological growth of the digients, and the way the larger society treats them, is described succinctly but well. Especially in his description of how small internet communities help foster the growth of the digient society, he seems to come closer to the truth than a more fantastic science fiction story would.
If I have one complaint about the book, it is that on one of the key issues of AI, that of sentience, the question is never really asked. While the development of AI's behaving as if they are sentient is described, the philosophical issue of whether they actually can feel is either ignored or taken for granted. Although perhaps that means I am missing the point.
The other issue with the book is that, as described, I came into it with some expectations about Chiang as a writer. And indeed, on many levels his reputation is deserved. His prose and development of character and plot are technically very proficient, and it is obvious that he has put a lot of thought into his ideas. But I will say that the expectations worked a little bit against the book, because while it is clear that he is very good, it is not obvious from this short book whether he is truly great.
Postscript, from much later:
Almost five years ago, which was three years after I wrote this, someone asked me, via message: "How exactly would you address the question of sentience in the story anyway?". It was a message I didn't know how to answer. One answer, of course, is that I wouldn't address it, because my favored writing topics are much simpler. To me, sentience is both a black box and a qualitative thing: we can write at length about the recognition of sentience, and how sentient beings interact with each other, but that says so little about what sentience itself is. Five years later, that is the only answer I can come up with.