Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Detailed reviews:

1. Tower of Babylon ★★★★★ (5/5)

2. Understand ★★★★☆ (4/5)

3. Division by Zero ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

4. Story of Your Life ★★★★☆ (4/5)

5. Seventy-Two Letters ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

6. The Evolution of Human Science ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

7. Hell is the Absence of God ★★★★☆ (4/5)

8. Liking What You See: A Documentary ★★★★★ (5/5) IMG_1016_sRGB

9. What’s Expected of Us ★★★★☆ (4/5)

10. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate ★★★★☆ (4/5)

11. Exhalation ★★★★★ (5/5)

12. The Lifecycle of Software Objects ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

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The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

If they look like cartoons, no one will take them seriously. Conversely, if they look too much like real animals, their facial expressions and ability to speak become disconcerting

A novella by Ted Chiang from the anthology “Stories of Your Life and Others”  the story follows two characters Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks as they raise AI “pets” from their digital presence to a more human-like existence. Perhaps the central message of the story, as noted by the author too, is that artificial intelligence industry needs to include the process of nurturing in order to bring robotic products more in line with human beings. Akin to raising a child, robots require similar affections and surroundings if we are to increase AI productivity in the world.

Synopsis

The story begins with Ana, an unemployed zookeeper, hired by a software company to train their virtual pets. Derek works as an animator for the same corporation and both develop an affinity with their select digients. After the company goes into liquidation, they adopt the virtual pets who live in two worlds: the virtual online space and in real world in physical robotic bodies. As the software industry undergoes rapid changes, many online worlds created for the pets to inhabit start becoming obsolete. Many more companies crop up with various purposes to use these virtual pets as either sex objects or household appliances.

Digients will be given use of bodies at a facility outside of Osaka and taken on a field trip into the real world, while the owners watch via cameras

Virtual Landscape

 For a mind to even approach its full potential, it needs cultivation by other minds. That cultivation is what he’s trying to provide for Marco and Polo.

These digients are remarkably child-like but the human world has willingly not attributed them with any humanness, they have anthropomorphic animal avatars to seem more welcoming to human nature. Ana is lovingly attached to Jax and so is Derek with his two pets Marco and Polo, which is why they decline many offers from others to make up copies of them to be used for sexual gratification or rendering the pets capable to perform household chores. Through all these years, they have encouraged their pets to learn and create in their virtual world, enabling them with recognition of their ability to cognize for themselves. They are able to substantiate on their multi-world existence and provide warm companionship to their owners.

The digients inhabit simple bodies, so their voyage to maturity is free from the riptides and sudden squalls driven by an organic body’s hormones, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t experience moods or that their personalities never change; their minds are continuously edging into new regions of the phase space

But since the evolutionary nature of robotics must lead to necessary questions such as that of their existence as a person, their ability to make decisions for themselves and so on, complications arise in a world which must cater to AI and its consumers alike. Technology self-perpetuates its own obsolescence so much so that it becomes difficult to keep up with its ever-changing trends. Ana and Derek find it difficult to sponsor another virtual world in which their pets can live in. Since virtual spaces are shared, any decision taken to keep them working must be beneficial to everyone involved.

Jax is losing most of his social life in the virtual world, and he can’t find one in the real one: his robot body is categorized as an unpiloted free-roaming vehicle, so he’s restricted from public spaces unless Ana or Kyle is there to accompany him. Confined to their apartment, he becomes bored and restless.

Style

The story is conceptually dense but at times the sentences offer either too little or too technical information. But the mastery of Ted Chiang’s prose style was not lost as he evokes our empathies for the child-like and trusting virtual pets. Derek’s romantic but discreet fondness for Ana threads throughout the novella, giving it a more human aspect and in extension rendering their pets as children who are in need of constant care and supervision.

Derek had feared that the digients might be distressed to learn the boundaries of their physicality, but instead they just find it funny.

Criticism

 Whilst I enjoyed the story as a whole, I was critical of some points in regards to the nature of human interaction and relationship with AI objects. In an increasingly computerised world, we need less reliance on technology as means to symbiotic and reciprocal functioning of society. Since we are only human, our inherent emotions and sympathies are designed to be limited in nature; one can’t love or care for an entire human race in tangible terms, even though our thoughts manifest in larger proportions than our physical bodies.

My point being that we can think of goodness for the entire humankind but our material, emotional and physical resources restrict us one way or another, and this is only natural. Add to this complex equation affection for AI and we may further limit ourselves from human bonds which is the very essence of human life. Proliferation of social media and easily accessible technology has already crippled our empathies, and the last thing human beings need is to extend our already depleting goodness to a bulk of codes.

Concluding Thoughts

 For the first time, Ted Chiang makes a point which I do not entirely acquiesce to; that of extending emotional relationship to an AI and balancing one’s own desires and needs to that of some heap of computer code. This is analogous to my belief of space travel, that humans must venture forth to discover vast beauties of our universe, to discover the grandeur of our Creator through His resplendent creations, but to settle or make a new home on a planet other than Earth is simply selfish and arrogant – two traits humans can do without in our present circumstances.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

★★★★★ (5/5)

You mean you’ll put down your rock and I’ll put down my sword and we’ll try to kill each other like civilized people, is that it?

A thoroughly entertaining read! William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride” is a great fantastical story of romance and adventure. Written as an abridgement to the fictional S. Morgenstern’s “Classic” (which does not exist), Goldman claims to have included only the good bits of the story in his work. The narrative tale is often punctured by Goldman as he excuses himself to explain why he cut out some excruciating details from Morgenstern’s story which he deems unnecessary.

It was all part of growing up. You got these little quick passions, you blinked, and they were gone. You forgave faults, found perfection, fell madly; then the next day the sun came up and it was over

This is a fairy tale strung with action, romance, adventure and revenge. The most beautiful woman in the world Buttercup is to be wed to a Soon-To-Be-King Prince Humperdinck of the fictional land of Florin. But she loves another man, Westley who had long been lost at sea (read dead). Princess Buttercup is kidnapped by a trio of outlaws, each notorious for the skill they possess. Their ring leader is a Sicilian criminal genius Vizzini, chief schemer of all their felonies; Inigo Montaya is a Spanish fencing master who seeks to avenge his father’s death and Fezzik is a Turkish wrestler, a giant of a man with tremendous strength but no brains at all. Together they traverse the Cliffs of Insanity, evading the Prince’s fleet at their tail. But before that, they must get rid of a mysterious man clad in a black mask who has been following them.

Nothing angered the hunchback as quickly as catching Fezzik thinking. Since he barely imagined someone like Fezzik capable of thought, he never asked what was on his mind, because he couldn’t have cared less. If he had found out Fezzik was making rhymes, he would have laughed and then found new ways to make Fezzik suffer.

The story unravels to disclose Inigo and Fezzik’s past, as to how they came to Florin and settled in their unscrupulous lives. Buttercup is rescued by her Prince but not without a blast from the past as her former lover re-enters her life. Back in Florin, Prince Humperdinck’s dark secrets are revealed and Buttercup has to make calculating choices. The writer already assures the reader of a happy ending but with a cynical note of life always being unfair, which complements the somewhat ambiguous ending to the story.

This was in the middle of Greenland, and, as everybody knows, Greenland then as now was the loneliest place on the Earth. In Greenland, there is one person for every twenty square miles of real estate. Probably the circus was pretty stupid taking a booking there, but that wasn’t the point.

A streak of humor runs throughout the book as characters undertake perilous journeys, indulge in duels to death, are poisoned, tortured, brought back to life, must escape one ordeal only to land in another, navigate the seas and land to help with the girls’ escape and so on. We have giants and dangerous territories, ridiculously large rodents, venomous snakes, miracles of death and of course a tangle of romantic passion to tie in all this together.

My preference would be to last eternity with you beside me on a cloud, but hell would also be a lark if Westley was with me

Over all, this was a fantastic read. I was immersed in its childlike imagination which is a much sought after treasure in adulthood. Published in the 70’s, this fairy-tale seems to be made up of all the elements which render it timeless. It’s simple and fun. Highly recommended!


  • There have only been eleven perfect complexions in all of India since accurate accounting began
  • This was after taxes. But everything is after taxes. Taxes were here even before stew
  • All the colors of the world were muted in her gown. Buttercup wanted to shield her eyes from the brilliance.
  • The woman who emerged was a trifle thinner, a great deal wiser, an ocean sadder
  • Don’t expect too much from life, Buttercup told herself as she rode along. Learn to be satisfied with what you have
  • Domingo was battling legend, and it was destroying him.
  • It had everything, including the marvelous Cliffs at one end, beyond which was the wonderful thousand-foot drop, always something to bear in mind when one was planning tactic
  • The logic being that since milk was so good for bones, who would know more about broken bones than a milkman?
  • Vizzini the Sicilian, am, speaking with pure candor and modesty, the slickest, sleekest, sliest and wiliest fellow who has yet come down the pike
  • He was always complimenting himself through her and today we know that hyping something too much does more harm than good, as any defeated political candidate will tell you when he pays his television bills
  • “It’s not important, believe me; the past has a way of being past.”
  • the only real problem then would be convincing your grandchildren that such a thing had actually happened and was not just another family fable
  • Edith doesn’t need the plug, seeing, like I said, as she’s no longer with us
  • “But my mind is like fine wine; it travels badly. I go from thought to thought but not with logic, and I forget things, and help me, Fezzik, what am I to do?”
  • Being tickled; I’ve come all the way back from the dead to ask you to stop

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

★★★★☆ (4/5)

“A paradoxical sense of a world that might want to embrace you lovingly—unless instead it wants to smother you.”

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night

What a curious little book this was. My second read from The Dorothy Project (first being “Vertigo” by Joanna Walsh), “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” by Barbara Comyns fascinated me with its intriguing and poetic title, add to that the cover which was full of promise for the peculiar. On neither account was I disappointed.

The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. They squarked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.

Old Ives below said, “It’s a bad thing for the sun to shine on a flood, it draws the dampness back to the sky.

The story starts off with an account of a biblical flood which ravages the house of the Willoweed family. Whimsical details of the deluge open up windows to the characters and their way of life.

She looked like a dreadful old black bird, enormous and horrifying, all weighed down by jet and black plumes and smelling, not of camphor, but chlorodyne.

Grandmother Willoweed is a tyrant despite her pitiable hearing conditions, her son Ebin Willoweed is widowed and under constant duress from his mother. His children Emma, Dennis and Hattie are motherless, with boundless innocent potential and much like their father, are being financially sheltered by their wealthy grandmother.

Dennis often wondered why his father, who seemed to set such store by bravery, was always so cowed by his mother. He thought perhaps it was chivalry

The household also lodges two maids, Eunice and Nora to help with the chores and Old Ives, the gardener, who is as stubborn as the Grandmother as both aim to outlive each other. All family members and servants bear the brunt of the old woman’s callousness which does not subside despite ageing. Together they form the Willoweed household in Warwickshire where the pastoral backdrop plays an important role in transforming their collective as well as individual lives.

The Two Calamities and Their Ends

Besides the shouting there were other most disturbing sounds like some great malevolent animal snorting and grunting, and there was a stench of evilness and sweating, angry bodies

From the very beginning, the novel is permeated with a sense of impending doom. This doom manifests itself twice in the story, altering the course of lives which are inextricably attached to the village. First, the flood inundates half the village, drowning the livestock of many. Its aftermath results in widespread financial dismay. The second misfortune strikes with inadvertent ergot poisoning of rye bread that leads to madness, despair and finally a painful death. The flood claimed many animal lives, and it seems like nature intends to balance out their ratio to humans by taking away many more human lives. Human lives are juxtaposed to animal lives, both man and beast appear to be one in their instincts.

The flood acts as a prelude to the delirium which appears to lay waste to an entire village. This decimation eventually leads to fulfilment of wishes of the Willoweed family members who survive the catastrophe. The power struggles inherent in any family dynamic are finally met with a conclusive end.

Beauty and Death as Parallels

Her audience was rather limited because for many years she had not left her own house and garden…She had an objection to walking or passing over ground that did not belong to her

Comyns puts beauty and death on the same pedestal. Each character is worthy of our sympathy despite their shiftiness and apparent deceit. The Grandmother takes sinister delight in others’ misfortunes but she is granted a reprieve through her deafness which detach her from her immediate surroundings. She exercises extreme control on all family members who await her death patiently, but she is relieved of her awfulness after her death.

“Poor Grandmother,” said Hattie, “I hope she is comfortable in that beautiful box. It doesn’t seem large enough to me. Do you think they have folded her up, Emma?”

Similarly, Ebin’s carelessness is charged with death of his son after which he resumes responsibility for his daughters. He seeks to be rehired as a newspaper columnist which proves to be a life-changing decision.

Similarly, the village undergoes much transformation after half a dozen funerals. Humans prone to revealing their animalistic instincts in terrible situations shed their façade. Of course not everyone becomes good and holy but many are able to display their empathy to those struck with profound grief.

Quite often people would die when the flowers already chosen for them were not in season. Then he made a temporary wreath for them, and months later they received the real one.

Since the writer holds no distinction between beauty and death, cessation of life is dealt with only enough pathos as is required to give impetus to the story. She does not brood over the nature of death which gives the story its movement forward in spite of having no concrete plot.

Effortless Style

He began to dress in a sailor’s fashion. The villagers forgot he had never been to sea, and in time he came to be regarded by all as a retired sailor, until he became known as Old Captain Willoweed

The marvelousness of the book is heavily owed to the simplistic prose Comyns employs in dealing with a town wrecked by misfortune. Minimalist sentences are brought in harmony with the jarring narrative twists that bring about a naturalistic tone of this dark pastoral story.

The stones had been worn away in several places by generations of butchers sharpening their knives on them

Since there are no heroes or villains, no protagonists or antagonists, the story takes shape and form through its mesmerising prose style which is wholly unpretentious. There are instances of morbid humor and moments of tenderness which tease the reader without revealing too much of the intentions behind this story.

As she was lifted from the ground the bloodstained body of the squashed cat was revealed. “That woman has killed my cat,” the old woman declared, as she examined the pitiful little body; and she noted with interest that one eye had been squashed right out of its head, while the other remained almost normal.

All in all, “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” is a wonderful novel in which death, decay and disgust are primed with beauty and wonder. Barbara Comyns strikes a perfect balance between the horrid and the pleasant. Tragedies ensue but life moves on to better pastures. Much like a nightmarish daydream, the novel possesses a remarkable elusiveness in spite of all the loss and tragedy. Within the ending resides a heartfelt promise of endurance and survival which persists through any cataclysmic event.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

I have always chosen Agatha Christie’s books solely for their entertainment value. When the overt philosophy and profundity of other books becomes overwhelming, one can rely on the likes of Christie to provide one with an adrenaline rush befitting an escape of the mind. But “The Man in the Brown Suit” seemed to be nothing but a dull exercise. Murder, mystery, intrigue, adventure, romance and thrill all are fused into this story.

I yearned for adventure, for love, for romance, and I seemed condemned to an existence of drab utility

This is no Poirot or Marple detective story. Our protagonist the unlikely Miss Anne Beddingfeld who had long been confined to a life of bachelorhood under her ageing father’s control. His death provides her with respite and an escape to London where she inadvertently becomes witness to an odd death at the Underground Station. She ventures deep into the case, linking a Russian dancer’s death to that of an appearance of a doctor, an infamous ‘Colonel’ and an MP.

He didn’t seem in the least surprised to see Harry walk in, dripping wet, holding an equally dripping female by the hand. Men are very wonderful.

Her desire for adventure and to unveil the mystery shrouding a roll of film she discovers, leads her aboard a ship, traveling from England to South Africa. Anne begins connecting the dots between diamonds and a revolution brewing in Johannesburg. She becomes involved in a passionate love affair, escapes attempts made at her life and cleverly corners the chief perpetrator of all the crimes.

Diary is useful for recording the idiosyncrasies of other people – but not one’s own.

The ending of the story I felt was a tad bit anti-climactic. Only recommended for those who seek diversion from their reading shelf.