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.