Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne Valente

Just finished reading silently and very fast by Catherynne M Valente.  I’m not sure that I totally understood everything that was going on here and will just admit that upfront.  I also think that given the way I read – i.e. racing to the finish line as though there was a fire on my tail, probably means that giving this a second read would be a good idea.  Time to savour the words – instead of quickly munching through the bar of chocolate let some of it slowly melt!

This is only a short story and my review will be likewise which is not a reflection of how I felt about the book itself.

For me this felt lika a coming of age story with a difference.  Instead of the usual suspects the novelty is that this story is about the awakening of artificial intelligence.  It begins with a house – an intelligent house that monitors everything, the creator of this house gave to her children jewels that they would be able to use to enable them to use their own imaginations in virtual playrooms.  Stemming from this one of the children becomes almost addicted, if you will, to the virtual interior and from this sharing of time together the computer starts to develop self awareness.  Okay, that’s very simplistic I realise!

Okay, I won’t go any more into it than that – especially as the more I write the likelihood of talking nonsense increases dramatically.  Also, this is not a particularly busy story.  It reminds me of a combination of things that I’ve read and seen over the years.  In terms of the AI and it’s own development I suppose I couldn’t help but think about Asimov’s Positronic Man, particularly in the way that the computer spends time through the generations with different members of the family and has memories of them all – except of course that the AI here is not physically embodied in a robot form but is contained within the mainframe that controls the house.  In that respect it does remind me of a creepy film that I saw many years ago similarly about a house that develops an intelligence and things turn ugly!  Anyway, never mind about that – or in fact, yes, do mind –  thinking of  that film is a good example in view of one of the messages in the story as it shows our aversion to AI and the way we fear it – in fact most films usually depict any form of AI as trying to take over the world.

I don’t suppose this book would be for everyone.  The writing style is very lyrical and as I said there isn’t a massive storyline.  However, I found it very thought provoking and enjoyed the writing style which is almost poetic.

The theme throughout the book is of the way that we are afraid of things that are different – and there’s a particular fairytale retold in the pages here about the ‘otherness’ that starts this theme off very well.

On top of this there is the whole question of can a computer have a soul?  What I found interesting is the parallels that Valente was making between the two.  Humans are afraid of change and in fact so was the AI (Elefsis) in the story.   There was the similarity about each time the computer was updated it lost a little piece of itself – similar to humans and the way we pass down stories to each other which become embellished, changed or forgotten.  Our memories contribute to who we are and the same could be said for Elefsis plus, like Elefsis we forget things as time progresses.  In particular I thought the following sentence was very poignant  “a human child’s mythological relationship to its parent is half-worship, half-pitched battle.  They must replace the older version of themselves for the world to go on.” It certainly makes you think and in that respect Elefsis and the humans differ because the AI continues on, with adaptations, updates, new installations, there is no death or the birth of a new AI unlike us humans who pass away and our children continue in our place.  The other difference that seemed to stand out between the two and perhaps this is how people define soul is the lack of feeling that Elefsis felt – in fact all the words such as love and feeling had been struck through in the book.  This isn’t to say that Elefsis didnt  want to spend time with the family members but more a reflection of the fact that he didn’t feel anything at all.  There was no pleasure in seeing someone or regret when they die.  So, if you take this absence of feeling to a new level then not only did Elefsis not feel joy, love, anger then surely she (or he) would also have no ambitious feelings in terms of taking over or becoming dominant over humans?  In the end Elefsis was a reflection of the family it ‘grew up’ with.  Collections of stories and shared memories.  A family that didn’t fear AI because they’d in fact developed it and become accustomed to it but in spite of that the wider world remained scared of the change.  Conversely – you could say that Elefsis was a product of her upbringing – would another AI develop in a different fashion depending on the family who first fostered the development?

I don’t know?  I’ll leave that one up to the bigger brains out there to think about.



11 Responses to “Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne Valente”

  1. Redhead

    I ended up reading this short story like 3 or 4 times, and the first time I did the same thing you did: race to the finish line. and it went “woosh!”, and I was like “what the heck just happened?” so it was nice to go back and read it at a slower pace. Valente puts all these little architectural details into her writing, a single word here and there that’s easy to miss if you’re zipping through the story.

    I love AI stories that are from the AI’s point of view.

    • lynnsbooks

      I know, I definitely will have to read this again, especially as it took me until about half way through to grasp what was actually happening! If I read it again now at least I will be able to relax a little and will probably pick up things that I’ve totally missed.
      Lynn 😀

  2. nrlymrtl

    I think you and I saw that same creepy AI house movie! I can’t remember the title, and I barely remember the movie – but jealousy does not look good on anyone, especially an AI house that can suddenly cook you in the shower!

    I have heard several folks praise Valente’s works and I am going to have add her stuff to my TBR mountain range.

    • lynnsbooks

      I know, I can’t remember the title of that film either but that house was horrible and sinister!

      I thought this was really good, especially from a thought provoking point of view. On reflection I definitely enjoyed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland more but that’s probably because it’s a more straightforward story format and this one took me longer to grasp. But that’s just me. I’m enjoying her writing though and there’s quite a few more titles for me still to read which is good.

      Lynn 😀

  3. Carl V. Anderson

    I bought a nice copy of this a while back and need to make the time to read it. The subject matter intrigues me and I’ve enjoyed what I have read by Valente. Your assessment of her work is very much in line with what I’ve found. It has a very lyrical quality which draws me in but which can also make for the need to do a more thorough reading. Which I don’t mind on occasion. I prefer more straight forward stories myself but can revel in a good challenge when the writing style has that kind of lyricism.

    I read her book A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects and my experience echoes what you write here about your own. In my reading I felt like there was probably a great deal that I was missing, more because of my lack of knowledge of old folk and fairy tales, than anything else. They felt like stories packed with layers of meaning that would reward multiple re-reads. It is a book I need to go back to one day after I’ve become better read.

    I’ll be curious to discuss this with you and Andrea once I get around to reading it.

    • lynnsbooks

      I think that when I read this again I will be able to chill out a bit and enjoy it more. I quite readily admit that after I’d read about 50% of the novel I was puzzled. I kept grasping at threads but never coming up with anything. In fact I was getting to the point of thinking that I just wasn’t going to ‘get’ this at all. I did put it down for a bit but then it got me to thinking and so I picked it back up. I’m glad I finished it. It’s really quite thought provoking. It’s not the sort of novel where I would say ‘wow’ but I think that’s because I also prefer more straight forward stories, which is probably why I enjoyed her Girl Who Circumnavigated book (and can’t wait to read the next one) but she is a lovely writer and she incorporated all sort of snippets of fairytales into this such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and I love it when authors manage to pull that off.
      I’ll be curious to see what you think as this definitely leans strongly towards sci fi so I’m sure you’ll grasp all the concepts much better than I did.
      Lynn 😀

      • Carl V. Anderson

        I had that similar grasping experience with Fragile Dialects. It was great to read and I’m glad I stuck with it but I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me feel like I had a lot of work to do in order to get on the same intellectual level with the author if I was going to truly get what she was trying to accomplish.

  4. TBM

    Huh, not sure my brain is big enough–I have had that feeling when I finish a book: I like it but I’m not sure I totally got it.

  5. Novroz

    The book left so many questions. I haven’t read any AI book before…and not sure how to react toward your questioning on the book.
    How many pages is this book?

    • lynnsbooks

      It’s only a short book – I think about 100 pages but couldn’t say exactly as I read it on my Kindle – but it was readable in one sitting.
      I must admit that the first half lost me a little bit but then I seemed to grasp it all a little better in the second half.
      Lynn 😀

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