Monday, December 15, 2008

The Real and the Silmulated

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.


José Iriarte said...

I haven't read either story, but the line you quoted left a bad taste in my mouth. Shades of C-3PO saying "Thank the maker!" I'm not convinced, though, that a story featuring sims and no humans couldn't be effective and moving. What makes that line not work for me is not the separation from humanity, but what feels to me like a very artificial way to bridge that gap. Having self-aware simulated beings mimic humans that way . . . doesn't seem true to character. That dialogue sounded more like what I'd expect from a nineteenth century Brit living in India.

I'm sure there are compelling reasons for the choice, or that I'm missing tons of context. But why should sims be inherently less able to reach readers emotionally than, say, a dog? And yet I had no difficulty connecting emotionally to Call of the Wild.

TheOFloinn said...

Coincidentally, I recently read a comment that self-aware software would be unable to evidence the existence and nature of the hardware they ran on -- unless that information had been input from outside. A form of revelation, as it were. This would have interesting implications.

Also interesting: so much of the human soul is inextricably tied to the human body - to sensation, perception, memory, imagination (and at the other end to emotion and motion) - that a simulation, being without a physical body, would have a very different kind of soul,(*) possessing intellection without imagination, and volition without emotion.

(*) Note: Since Descartes, the term "soul" is fraught with dualistic foo-foo; but soul is only that which something possesses while alive which it does not possess while dead. If that is brain waves, then brain waves are soul.

Mark said...

It sounds like it's the cute jargon that's being an artificial barrier to feeling pathos for the characters. Tony Daniels' Metaplanetary has AI/program characters that are just as vital as the human/transhuman characters. Eliminate the organic characters and the others would still be as well defined and engaging.

qiihoskeh said...

Based on the quote, it sounds to me like "True Names" could use a parody check.

tycho said...

I listened to the Rosenbaum and Doctorow story many months ago when they read it on Cory's podcast. I really enjoyed it, but I think I agree with your comments: it wasn't moving, but it was fascinating, and I found that the use of the contemporary technical jargon to explain the technical workings of something that's so much more technically advanced than our current use of the terms. Like thinking about rockets thrust in terms of horse power. I guess I couldn't help but relish in juxtaposition.