There are two (!) awesome reviews of Silently and Very Fast in Locus this month, a thing which makes me squee–I had no idea when I finished the novella if it was worth a damn at all, so it’s nice to see such heavy hitters as these saying it’s good.
A couple of months ago, I discussed stories where SF is disguised as fantasy, and ”Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M. Valente, which reads like lyrical mythological fantasy for long stretches, fits that bill well. Exotic and beautiful, it uses evocative fantasy motifs to examine some of science fiction’s most fundamental questions: What does it mean to be human? Where’s the line between human consciousness and artificial consciousness, and how can you tell when it’s been crossed? If it’s crossed, from insentience into sentience, does that mean that the machine now has a ”soul?” The story makes for a fascinating contrast with this year’s Hugo-winning novella, ”The Lifecycle of Software Objects” by Ted Chiang, which examined a similar concept, the incremental growth of artificial intelligence into true consciousness as a result of human nurturing and close involvement with human families, but the two stories couldn’t be more different in mood and approach.
Silently and Very Fast is a new novella from Catherynne M. Valente. Valente made her reputation with her remarkable diptych of cunningly linked tales more or less on the model of The Thousand Nights and a Night, The Orphan’s Tales, so it is not a surprise to find this new story suffused with images from fairy tales from many cultures. But perhaps it is a surprise to find that it’s SF, an extended examination of AI from the perspective of perhaps the first AI, a ”person” named Elefsis, designed as a house controller by a brilliant computer scientist, but transformed into something more by the scientist’s daughter, who lets Elefsis link with her mind, and who entwines her life with the AI in very intimate ways. Elefsis tells this story, in a mysterious situation many generations in the future, while ”living” in a virtual environment with the great-granddaughter of her creator. A mixture of fairy tales and history expound the back story — Elefsis’s creation and evolution — while also beautifully elaborating the AI’s character, and the characters of the various people who have hosted the AI, until eventually we learn the reality of their current situation. It’s quite a lovely, thoughtful, moving piece.
There’s still copies to be had of the limited edition (signed and numbered) hardback, which is just gorgeous, and the final installment will go up at Clarkesworld next month, (Part 2 is here) followed by a complete ebook.
I’m just so pleased to see it discussed. I mean, I was planning this project, not knowing, really, what shape it would take, back in my kitchen in Cleveland in like…2006? So it’s lived in my head a good long while.