I am reading my way through FAST FORWARD 2, Lou Anders's anthology that is creating a lot of on-line buzz. Two of the major stories are built around the same SF concept -- and yet they could not be more different.
Both Ian McDonald's "An Eligible Boy" and Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum's "True Names" are about computer-generated sentient entities -- "sims." McDonald's Ram Tarun Das and the characters in "True Names" (Nadia, Alonzo, Paquette, et. al) know they are sims (which differentiates them from earlier stories like Walter Jon Williams's "Daddy's World"), and both sets of characters exploit their programming to try to obtain what they want. But there the similarities end.
The world of "An Eligible Boy," McDonald's future India, contains humans. The sim is, during the course of the story, directly created by humans, interacts with humans, and influences story outcomes for humans. There are actual physical locations in the story as well as simulated ones. The human characters are rich and touching and misled and, ultimately, full of genuine pathos.
There are no humans in "True Names." There are no real locations, either, other than a comet, an asteroid, and the black-hole-Sagittarius-gas-cloud complex at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. The actions and interactions of the sims are meticulously analogous to actual computer programs -- at least, I think they are, being no techie myself. But these same analogies put the action at a distance from human readers, as in this brief passage:
"Well, on that cheery note," said the sock puppet...."I for one am due for parity check and rebalancing at the bath house. What say we adjourn for now?"
The entire story is told like this, with all actions able to be read in both human terms ("bathhouse") and programming terms ("parity check and rebalancing"). And what a complex story it is! Identities nesting inside identities nesting inside identities... but although I was dazzled, I was not moved. The McDonald story moved me.
Is this difference perhaps inherent in the Doctorow/Rosenbaum story set up? Must sims be inherently less able to reach readers emotionally than can human characters? After all, both are equally imaginary. McDonald's protagonist Jasbir no more "really" exists than do Nadia or Paquette. All of fiction is imaginary. Or is it perhaps that Doctorow/Rosenbaum take such care to relate all actions to computer operations that the technical jargon dilutes the story? I don't know. I don't even know if others reacted to "True Names" as I did.
So tell me, already.