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Souls in Silicon by Jeff Duntemann
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Sep 06, 08

Recommended to James by: Jeff Duntemann
Recommended for: General Science Fiction readers
Read in September, 2008

What if AIs turn out to be decent people?

I admit it. I'm a cyberpunk writer by trade (at the moment), so most of the AIs you encounter in my work tend to be malignant sociopaths, at best. Duntemann's collection of short stories, though present a different view. What if the AIs like us? What if they take on recognizably human values, and value us, their creators, and what we made them to do? What if, in short, they had souls which, to use Duntemann's own words, "[...:]that defining nature that makes us identifiably what we are and not someone—or something—else." What if they care?

Duntemann's AIs are like that. Many, though not all, of them feel, and sometimes behave emotionally and erratically, rather than the hyper-rational manufactured minds of, say, Asimov and Clarke. "Guardian" "Silicon Psalm" and "Borovsky's Hollow Woman" all present machines forced into logical conundrums, where two or more of their primary directives are at odds, and the feeling machine is torn in the middle. Each resolves the matter in their own way. Some embrace eccentricity. Some are self-sacrificing, One embraces what, in humans, would be called dissociative disorder, and splits into two personalities.

Other times, as in "STORMY vs the Tornadoes" and "Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs", Duntemann's AIs are playful, scheming with each other to help their humans out, sometimes doing apparently irrational things, only because their rationale doesn't make sense to the bio-brains around them.

Not all of Duntemann's AIs are created equal. Some are the merely rational, logical machines we've come to expect from science fiction about AIs. When paired with AIs capable of feeling—AIs with souls—the contrast is crystalline sharp, as in "The Steel Sonnets". This matter is revisited later in "Marlowe", save that one of the participants, the unfeeling one, at that, is human, and the two are linked together cybernetically.

Duntemann takes the idea of an AI's soul to its full logical extension in "Bathtub Mary" and uses an AI to explore the origins of religious visions and their impact. Rover, the protagonist of the story, like many of Duntemann's AIs, is a charming creature. Rather dog-like in his devotion to humans, and yet there's this thing that he saw, or thinks he saw, or perhaps imagined, none of which should have been possible.

It bears mentioning that there's a reverence for our own creation in many of these stories. A slightly religious flavoring, more overt in some stories than others, that a lot of science fiction writers would shy away from. And yet, it's entirely appropriate in the context of this collection of stories, in the contemplation of these machines' souls, that those ancient ideas might re-manifest, might find new expression, that these machines' struggles with these issues might mirror our own. Duntemann handles this thread in his fiction with a deft touch. In other hands it might overwhelm the stories, preach, or deny. In these stories it just is, one of a set of ways these machines cope with the self knowledge that has been thrust upon them.

If Souls in Silicon sounds like a collection of fairly light science fiction, it's not. The tone is generally optimistic, but there are serious issues to contemplate in many of these stories, and the biggest of all is this: we stand on the threshold (for some function of threshold) of creating artificial intelligence. Whether that is something destructive, as I tend to envision it, or something deeply humane and positive, as Duntemann sees it, is up to us. And to them.

Highly recommended.
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message 1: by Brad (new)

Brad Excellently written review, James, and an excellent review. You've convinced me. I'll be reading this one for sure.


James Thank you. :)

-Jim


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