By Ted Chiang
I've really enjoyed all of Ted Chiang's short stories that I've read. They've featured wonderful writing and well-thought out ideas and structures.
But I was not as much of a fan of this novel. The novel is set in the near future, where software and hardware have matured the idea of Tamagotchi to a much fuller extent: people can have virtual pets, who have their own personality and intelligence. They initially exist in the equivalent of MMORPG's, but later on can be downloaded to robot hardware, so also exist in the real world.
His prose is crisp as usual and clearly, Chiang knows his stuff about the software development process, which is referenced throughout the book. However, my main issues are that:
- The setting is not that far-off. AI creatures in video games now, while not as advanced as what Chiang has in the book, do exhibit behaviors that people interpret now as personalities. There are pretty sophisticated robots being developed. As a result, this reads pretty realisitically, almost like a magazine article covering people, who are into a particular niche, like MMORPG's. Which isn't bad by itself, but combined with the following points:
- Surface exploration of the conflicts. Chiang's asks a good (albeit not-new) question: if we've developed AI that has consciousness and is self-aware and sentient, what rights does it have and how do we interact with it for its best interest? But he just doesn't go deep enough into the two areas he does cover: should we educate the virtual beings? Is it ethical to give virtual sexual desires to satisfy human sexual needs? To go into this, Chiang really needed to plumb and elucidate the human psyche more: why do people have pets, what's the result of education of a bot, what goes into people's sexuality? And he doesn't touch this at all. As a result, the issues seem quite superficial. Particularly, the sex one comes across as: Is it okay to use the bots as sex toys?
- Character development - There really is none. Which is much needed. The story itself references that the main characters care about something niche (virtual pets), so insight into their personality would help the reader to understand the niche.