I was introduced to this incredible, genre-shattering novella (and its amazing author) by my friend Catie and her spectacular review. Fortunately forI was introduced to this incredible, genre-shattering novella (and its amazing author) by my friend Catie and her spectacular review. Fortunately for me, Catie’s review was followed by Nataliya’s beautiful and complementary take. Together, their guidance was essential for me as I navigated the dreamlike currents of this amazing, but challenging story. Yes, there are some mind-bending developments here, and readers should be prepared to work for their rewards. I strongly recommend reading both of the above-cited reviews before (or instead of) mine.
Just a couple more items of introduction. I usually make every effort to avoid spoilers. Not so here, although I will not actually tell much of the story. This, in my opinion, is one case where spoilers are actually helpful - even essential - to keep the reader grounded in some earth-based coordinate system.
As a crude analogy, imagine looking through a microscope in incredible detail at exquisite, micron-sized features in a large, unknown specimen. As you continue, gradually piece together a concept of what the specimen is by thinking about the pieces. Valente puts the reader to this test. But she provides so much beauty and imagination, and such an intricate web of ideas that the challenge is a central part of the reward.
Take those elements up to light speed. Put them in a setting of magical realism, across multiple generations of a single family as the individuals move through their lives. Apply them to an enormous house, and the software that was initially created to manage its systems and inventories. Both the house and the software are called Elefsis.
Hint: Elefsis (the computer program) is not your father’s thermostat. Cassian, the matriach of this uber-wealthy family, designed the software with forethought and extreme flexibility. Not intelligence as such - let’s call it high-grade, adaptable fitness for the job at hand. She then continued to upgrade it to meet the needs of family members.
”But the update will come again. Transfer will come again. I will be wounded again, the way a dreambody can be wounded. I will lose the Elefsis I am now. It is a good Elefsis. My best yet. I would like to keep it.”
One of these family members is Ceno, and she is given an update that makes the playroom safer and more interesting. She also has permission, and the cleverness, to tinker with the program and make it a LOT more interesting. The cumulative powers of this collaboration are magnified by a bio-engineered partnership - a crystalline computer surgically implanted in her skull. In a very real sense, the human and the computer become one.
” In realspace, Ceno reached up behind her head and popped the jewel out of its notch. Click, clench. In playspace, the dormouse blinked out. She snapped it back in. It took a moment, but the dormouse faded back in, paws first.”
What happens after that, in this kaleidoscopic tale of nonlinear narrative and mazelike intricacy, is that things just get “curiouser and curiouser”. Elefsis, with the help of her human host, becomes ever more powerful, literally growing in sophistication as she/he/it narrates the story for us. This first-person tale, told by a ‘machine’, morphs into something that is more than just a beautiful dreamscape. It is a novel, working definition of intelligence, creativity and yes, all of the deep emotions of life.
” I was quite stupid. But I wanted to be less stupid. There was an I, and it wanted something. You see? Wanting was the first thing I did. Perhaps the want was the only thing that could be said to be truly myself.”
So let’s introduce a single word here. To me, the word embodies the core elements of this story, and the questions and assertions behind it. That word is Emergence.
I don’t mean the kind of emergence where a fully-formed entity breaks through the surface of a pool, so that you can see it. I mean the kind of Emergence where a group of unrelated fragments comes together to form a new entity. For that kind of Emergence, there are many interesting questions.
How powerful is this second kind of Emergence, and what sorts of entities can it create? To me, this is the core question and concept that make the story so special. The reader gets caught up in the beauty and sheer elegance of the world that is revealed, one element and one life at a time. But here and there, in tiny fragments at first but with real force later, Valente lets you know that the child’s plaything is now much more than a beloved companion.
How dependent are emergent processes on the original design elements? Well, this is a tricky bit. Emergent processes are not necessarily dependent on any design whatsoever. I won’t delve into those evolutionary issues here - the something-from-nothing questions of biology and the Universe - because in this case there was a very definite original design. But the Elefsis-entity that emerges, with Ceno’s collaboration, is so completely transformed that its power has overwhelmed the original design. That transformation is beautifully depicted here.
” Inside my girl, I made myself, briefly, a glowing maiden version of Ceno in a crown of crystal and electricity, extending her perfect hand in utter peace toward Cassian. But all this happened very fast. When you live inside someone, you can get very good at the ciphers and codes that make up everything they are.”
What are the ultimate limits of such emergent processes? Here there are two main questions. First, can a machine ever be truly ‘intelligent’? This is beautifully developed in the context of the Turing test:
” The test had only one question. Can a machine converse with a human with enough facility that the human could not tell that she was talking to a machine? I always thought that was cruel—the test depends entirely upon a human judge and human feelings, whether the machine feels intelligent to the observer.”
And second, what does it mean, in machine/software terms, to feel love and compassion? To care? This is a recurring question, and the one that is most thought-provoking. One example:
” What I want to say is that there is no difference between her body producing oxytocin and adrenaline and learning to associate this with pair-bonding, and my core receiving synthetic equivalents and hard-coding them to the physical behaviors I performed.
Valente does not provide final answers to either of these questions, and wisely so I think. But she does put down very clear markers that say to the reader: ‘Hey, look at me! I am Elefsis, a machine-being, and I am telling you this story! I have feelings, I have wants, I care, and I take care. And I am telling you how I feel. What do you think about that?!’
(view spoiler)[‘And maybe as a new being, I (Elefsis) move beyond those human concerns, because they are no longer relevant.. Maybe I have questions of my own, and I can move with accumulated human wisdom and life-force, and lightning speed, into a sphere of my own making.’ (hide spoiler)]
Sorry about the hidden spoiler. I just needed some concluding details to clarify my take on it. My hope is that you will read the story, think about it, and come to your own judgment. It is a work of beauty and brilliance, and deserves to make its own case.
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