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

The Ocean at the End of the Lane By Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This book starts off as an adult fiction. The narrator with no name after attended a funeral has an hour to kill. So instinctively, he drives down his memory lane and into a farm house with a duck pond next to his old home. The girl whom he has met during his childhood Lettie Hempstock has not made a return (it is complicated). He has met her mother Mrs. Hempstock instead. That is the prologue. In the epilogue, he chats with Lettie’s grandmother Old Mrs. Hempstock before I presume returning to his families. Who was the funeral for? What happens to the story of Callie Anders, the girl whom he first kissed, the one who was red-cheeked, fair-haired? Where exactly is Lettie? There are tons of open questions that are never answered. The most obscured of it all is the duck pond that Lettie has insisted it to be an ocean (hence the title of the book). What is in that ‘ocean’?

Majority of the book is devoted to narrator’s childhood, when he was seven; on how he first met the Hempstock family. There was something supernatural about Lettie the small girl, her mother, and her grandmother. This part of the book reads like a young adult fiction. Kind of like a horror story that ended bad. There is heroic sacrifice. And there is childhood innocence. While The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautifully written, engaging from beginning to end, I wish there was a resolution on the disappearance of Lettie. Or perhaps, the idea is not to have a resolution. Whatever happened in the narrator’s childhood stays in the past. Let not reality kills off our imagination. Was it even real? And not some boy’s imagination? The extract below may shed some light. I could only guess.

Curiously I turned in my seat and looked back: a single half-moon hung over the farmhouse, peaceful and pale and perfect.

I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.

Geisha, A Life By Mineko Iwasaki

Geisha, A Life

Geisha, A Life is an eye opener. My understanding on geisha is very limited. Mostly come from that movie Memoirs of a Geisha, which ironically is a story inspired by the author of this book. But according to Mineko Iwasaki, the author of that memoirs has twisted her story so much so that it is only right that she publishes an autobiography to set things straight. Geisha, A Life is indeed an inspiring read.

So, set the record straight we shall, on what this book is not about.

… I accumulated many more hanadai than time units worked. Every night. I don’t have the exact figures, but I believe I was earning about $500,000 a year. This was a good deal of money in 1960s Japan, more than that earned by the presidents of most companies. (It is also the reason the notion that geiko perform sexual favors for their clients is so ridiculous. With this much income, why would we?)

At the age of five, Mineko was spotted as the successor of a house (and to carry that house’s surname). By then, her father has already sent some of her elder sisters to be maiko (young dancer or “woman of dance”) and eventually to be a geiko (“woman of art” – a specific term versus geisha as “artist”). Hence, her father was reluctant to give up Mineko – the youngest child – to be a successor.

My father introduced us.

She kept looking at me but addressed my father. “You know, Mr. Tanaka, I have been looking for an atotori (“one who comes after” or successor) for a long time and I have the oddest sensation that I may have just found her.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t know what an atotori was or why she needed one. But I felt the energy in her body change.

It is said that a person who has the eyes to see can penetrate to the core of a person’s character, no matter how old that person might be.

In the end, Mineko has made the decision to leave her home (at the age of five) and live in the house that groomed her to be a maiko and later on a geiko. She has gone through intensive training on dance, music, comportment, calligraphy, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement as a child prior to her debuting as a maiko.

As someone who is foreign and intrigued about Japanese culture, the amount of discipline and practice one has to endure is astonishing. The author did not seem to have taken a day off during her childhood. Everyday was a training day. And as soon as she has debuted at the age of fifteen, she did not seem to have a break at all (except when she was hospitalized).

I felt compelled to work as much as humanly possible. It was the only way I was going to become Number One. I was in and out of the house so often that the family nicknamed me “the homing pigeon”. Each night I entertained at as many ozashiki as time would allow. I didn’t get home until one or two in the morning. My schedule was in total violation of the Child Labor Laws, but I wanted to work and didn’t care.

One day I was attending a kimono fashion show at a department store. I wasn’t dressed as a maiko, so was able to let down my guard that extra little bit. I was so exhausted that I feel sound asleep on my feet. But I didn’t close my eyes. They were wide open.

In fact, this career of her has gone on till she was 29, at the height of her career before her sudden retirement. During her career, she was the very essence Japanese beauty and tradition. She has met foreign royalties and delegates. She has met many renown artists and professionals. There were many struggles and there were tears and pain. But it has always been her passion and integrity that pulled her through the challenges. Kimonos. I had no idea that kimonos can be that elaborate until I have read this book.

This book Geisha, A Life is going to inspire. More importantly, it gives a glimpse of what geisha does that may not be what you thought it was.

Alena By Rachel Pastan

Alena - A novel

Time like this makes me treasure the fact that I write book summary, even when I feel lazy not to.

Some compare Alena to Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. If not for a book summary I have written last year, I would not be able to recall the connection. The commonality is striking (retrospectively speaking). Alena is dead yet her absence persists throughout the book, so is Rebecca. The narrators in both novels are female and are nameless. Nauquasset is a cutting edge art museum by the sea while Manderley is an estate – both dominate the respective stories. And then in Alena, there is Bernard who owns the museum and in Rebecca, Max.

Similarity between the two novels aside, looking at Alena alone, it is a book that engages me from beginning to end. It starts off with the narrator and Bernard running a little gallery in Russian Hill in present days. An extract taken from her dream last evening.

There I stood on the edge of the road, blue-black asphalt holding the heat. I could smell the tar melting, smell the pines and the brine of the sea, the restless, pungent, ever-present sea, primordial source of life and cause of so much death: floods and riptides, shipwrecks and suicides.

It is a rather unusual way to describe the sea. Throughout her dream, the contrast between life and death cannot be more obvious. In fact, this very first chapter sets the tone for the entire book. This very extract sums up where the entire book is heading!

As a reader, immediately I am hooked onto the narrator’s character as she traces her past starting as an assistant curator. How she traveled to Venice with a boss she disliked and in Venice, she met Bernard. There, she was offered a job as the chef curator in Nauquasset replacing Alena who has gone missing for two years, presumed dead.

I wanted to understand him – to understand Bernard. I felt connected to him by a bright thread, yet we could not have been more different. He was rick and I was poor. He knew everyone and everything, and I knew no one and nothing. What was I doing with him here in a restaurant in Padua? Why had he asked me? Was it pity? Whimsy? A game? What did he see when he looked at me? What did I look like? He could have chosen anyone. He’d had Alena. And now he had me.

Her relationship with Bernard is complex. At first, it smells romance, or a kind of strong adoration from the narrator’s perspective. Alena appears to have played big role in Bernard’s life. But what is it? Throughout the book, the narrator relentlessly trying to find out who Alena was from the people around her – even though almost everyone thinks that she is inadequate, as compares to Alena. How long until my bodily presence had half the substance her absence did? – lamented the narrator.

Storytelling aside, I enjoy reading Rachel Pastan’s writing style. Here is how she describes Nauquasset (which means ‘crown of the sea’ in Wampanoag) the first time – not a distorted version from the narrator’s dream at the beginning of the book but as it is.

The deep azure expanse was flecked and crested with white, and long streaks of gauzy pink cloud floated across the blazing sun, which just touched the rim of the water. A golden road stretched straight across the deepening blue, the near end apparently just below the bluff we were approaching, so that it seemed as though, if we hurried, we could take a quick stroll across the glittering surface toward the sun before it dropped out of sight. My heart bloomed in my chest, beating hard against the lattice of bone, as it had bloomed in the hot Uffizi as we stood before Botticelli’s Venus on her shell. And there, spread like a mantle across the shoulder of the bluff, the long silvered shape of the museum rose out of the sea of grass like the breaching back of a whale. Nauquasset.

The writer must have done much research on fine art. All the objects are described so beautifully as though I am seeing the art from the eyes of a curator. There is never a dull moment be it as she describing even the most mundane items like below or unfolding the mystery of who Alena was and what has happened to her.

I held the pan up. “Hungry?” I didn’t expect him to accept, but he did. I got out a second plate, beige with a brick-red border. The one already on the table was yellow with a design of poppies. both of them were ugly, though the yellow one seemed to be trying not to be, while the other didn’t seem to care. Which was worse?

While I may not fully recall what kind of person the narrator of Rebecca is, the narrator of this book turns out to be a smart woman with sharp eyes for details, someone who exhibits loyalty and with a kind heart. This book does not end where the book begins. So there is a part of me still wondering what has happened as the story ends.

The Silver Linings Playbook By Matthew Quick – An Engaging Read

An original story with unexpected plot

Let us begin with a quote from the book as it beautifully summarizes the theme of The Silver Linings Playbook.

“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly […]. And literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for people to endure nobly.”

In my mind, the author does just that: telling us a story through Pat who believes that his life is a movie produced by God. With vigorous exercise and good behavior, God will eventually grant him a happy ending. One that reunites him with his wife Nikki. The story begins with Pat discharging from the mental institution – which he calls “bad place” – and slowly integrating back to his old life: his emotionally unstable father, his ever-loving mother, always-supportive brother, and best friend. No one tells him how long he has been away. He has no recollection on why he was locked up in the “bad place” and what has happens to his marriage. All he knows is that between Nikki and him, they are on “apart time”. His goal in life is to see through the end of “apart time” so that he can see his wife again.

Except, life is not as simple. There are good reasons why his mother has put away all his wedding photos, no one around him wants to mention Nikki, and Pat is having a hard time catching up what he has missed during his stay in the “bad place”.

It hurts to look at the clouds, but it also helps, like most things that cause pain. So I need to run, and as my lungs burn and my back rebels with that stabbing knife feeling and my leg muscles harden and the half inch of loose skin around my waist jiggles, I feel as though my penance for the day is being done and that maybe God will be pleased enough to lend me some help, which I think is why He has been showing me interesting clouds for the past week.

In the mist of all these confusion and necessary adaptation, Pat has met Tiffany who is recently widowed and is also mentally unstable. Since the story is narrated from Pat’s perspective, very little is known about the intention of Tiffany. She appears to be mysterious, yet another flawed character. The extract below shows an aspect of her character.

When [Tiffany] turns to face me, I think she is simply going to say good night, but she says, “Look, I haven’t dated since college, so I don’t know how this works.”

“How what works?”

“I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me. Don’t bullshit me, Pat. I live in the addition around back, which is completely separate from the house, so there’s no chance of my parents walking in on us. I hate the fact that you wore a football jersey to dinner, but you can fuck me as long as we turn the lights out first. Okay?”

I’m too shocked to speak, and for a long time we just stand there.

“Or not,” Tiffany adds just before she starts crying.

The Silver Linings Playbook is engaging in a few ways. First, I have always enjoyed reading books characterized with flawed characters. Second, the emotion these characters are going through is complex. It is like taking a roller coaster ride reading this book. Third, the plot is unpredictable. It is hard to guess where the author is heading although there is a particular path I may wish the book would resolve. As a bonus, this book is so well planned that it may be worthwhile to read again and everything seems to make sense – from clouds watching to Tiffany’s abrupt entry to the story.

Back to the main theme of the story, The Silver Linings Playbook is certainly not a PG feel-good read. It is a heartwarming read reminding us the importance of stay positive and look for the silver linings in life.