The Lifecycle Of Software Objects by Ted Chiang – Tons of Potential, Tons of Missed Opportunities

Lifecycle of Software Object

This novella has tons of potential. Imagine being able to log onto a virtual world – very much like how massively multiplayer online games work these days – and interact with digital organisms (or digients). In addition, you get to train your digients and see how they grow. Like raising a digital baby in a digital world.

Wait a minute. Doesn’t this remind you of The Sim or many of the Facebook games?

Fundamentally, the concept is very similar. The difference is that you can interact with your digients using natural language, very much like how you would interact with another being. Each digient comes with a unique set of genome and different company approaches how the genome is implemented in a different way. We are talking about AI (artificial intelligence), which none of the games today offers.

A number of interesting topics are explored in The Lifecycle Of Software Objects. Are these merely fanciful pets in a game or can they become companions for the human trainers? Can mutual affection be developed? What is the purpose of the grown up digients? As workers such as personal assistants? To possess the right level of artificial intelligence to solve real life problems? As mere entertainers? To push the sexual frontier for those who are interested in non-human sex? What about having these digients to have fun without thinking too much about operating at one’s full potential?

One major breakthrough of this novella is to have these digients ‘logging into’ our world by taking over a robotic body. Instead of human entering the virtual world using an avatar, we have these virtual beings entering our world using a machine, experiencing the real world. The idea is breathtaking. As in, these digients are able to get in and out of our world as we like (note: I would much preferred to be as they like – more on it in the missed opportunity section of this book summary).

Another great concept is that digients could be mature and intelligent enough to form their own corporations and hence, being solely responsible for themselves legally speaking, freeing themselves from their trainers or owners.

While The Lifecycle Of Software Objects has tons of potential, the novella also has tons of missed opportunities.

First and foremost, the story telling is not very interesting. We have Ana Alvarado as the protagonist who passionately trains and protects her digient Jax. The focus is confusing. Had the story revolved around Jax with some quality character development, I would have bought into the idea of digients. That every digient matters. Having Jax out of nowhere giving Marco a blowjob (page 52) due to some bad influence is not quite my kind of character development. It is okay to explore same sex intimacy. Just stay with it throughout. Besides that one single mishap, Jax’s life is not very interesting or lively either.

The story seems to revolve around Ana. But she doesn’t seem to have an interesting life. Her potential love interest Derek Brooks whom also shares the very same interest in raising digients is a wimp. Though he makes a rather grand gesture of sacrifice in the end, nothing materializes from it, very much like everything in this book.

The entire journey is filled with down turns with nothing much that looks up. First comes more superior digients that make our Jax looks dated and not as smart or useful. Then comes the various threats like hackers and exploits that would have been the villains but the issues are resolved all too fast, almost unceremoniously so. Soon, the game or the platform is losing customers (note: business model is basically selling virtual pet food to keep the digients going, which is kind of meh to me). The company closes down and the platform goes open source (sort of). Then more threats from all sorts of uninspiring ideas. Platform merger. And finally, being the only platform that is not ported to the next big thing, poor Jax, he is void of his new friends whom have been migrated to the new platform.

The rest of the story is on how Ana and Derek raise funds to port this old platform, even considering to partner with a company that sells sex toys.

Lastly, it wouldn’t make a good story to keep forwarding time line by months and years. After a while, I have lost in time. Was it 10 years have passed since Jax was born towards the end of the book? I have no idea. I wouldn’t manually add months and years as I read a book. Certainly I wouldn’t read this book again.

Alas. What a wasted opportunity.

If I were the author, I would sell fantasy and futurism rather than shallow realism based on today’s world. A lot of the tech stuffs are neither interesting nor insightful. I would make AI digients a success rather than comparing some of them with children that have Down syndrome. I would make them able to enter our world as and when they like. Learn our strengths and weaknesses first hand. These digients should rewrite their legal status. They should have free will and make us reflect upon our humanity. They could be a threat. Or a peacemaker. Affection between human and digients should be convincing.

I would take more risk with the plot. Definitely a lot tighter with the time line as the story is told. Also, would it not be a real good twist towards the end if Ana was an AI who was trying to create AI only get to know more about her own existence eh? 

ISBN 978-1-59606-317-4

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