Does anyone remember Tamagotchis? I guess they still make them, in Japan at least. They were digital pets that you had to feed and take care of, and they would grow and change, and their behavior would vary based on how well they were cared for. Yeah, that’s what this story is about. These tamagotchis are called “digients,” and they are quite a bit more sophisticated in the AI department. They can talk, though they’re apparently limited to cutesy baby talk (this seems to be Chiang’s way of comparing them to communicating apes, but I’d think AIs would learn differently – grammar really shouldn’t be such a problem).
The digients are developed as a high tech toy/AI experiment, but they tend to be, like lots of living things, unpredictable. Well-raised digients can end up just as neurotic as poorly-raised versions. The project fails, leaving a small group of dedicated fans to try to see to the creations’ futures. There are really three main tracks here- 1). developments in AI and social technologies, including their dark sides. 2). Ethical questions about how fast and freely digients should be allowed to grow. 3) and, the relationship between two digient developers turned “parents” Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks. The overall metaphor of child-raising is pretty clear, and it gets more obvious as the story goes along.
Ted Chiang isn’t the most prolific writer out there, but the handful of stories he’s written over the past couple of decades are more likely than not to win one or more major awards. I mentioned in the Swirsky review that I like his work, which tends to be thoughtful and emotionally powerful. I’m especially fond of his prose, which is clear and doesn’t shy away from exposition when necessary. I’ve read a few reviewers who seem to equate simple prose with bad prose, but I loved the straightforward style in most of this year’s novelette nominees (other reviewers not so much). Chiang’s previous stories are good examples of why this is a mistake. There can be elegance in simplicity and virtue in clarity. However, this story is a little too simple and clear. Chiang explains everything. We always know what the characters are thinking, and all the ethical issues are beaten into the ground. It all amounts to a lot more telling than showing, and a premise that gets over-stretched.
We spend a lot of time getting to what feels like the beginning of the story. I know that’s the point, as the digients reach a potential turning point in their maturity, but it takes a little too long to get there.