Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne M. Valente

A tale of mythological science fiction

Silently and Very Fast

WSFA Press, 2011, 127 pages

Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future.

Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great-grandmother -- a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote.

But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever...

Available online (in audio too!) at Clarkesworld Magazine.

There are many things this book reminded me of. It is full of allusions, of course - some of them explicitly referenced in the text.

I do not want to be human. I want to be myself. They think I am a lion, that I will chase them. I will not deny I have lions in me. I am the monster in the wood. I have wonders in my house of sugar. I have parts of myself I do not yet understand.

I am not a Good Robot. To tell a story about a robot who wants to be human is a distraction. There is no difference. Alive is alive.

There is only one verb that matters: to be.

Elefsis, the artificial intelligence who transcends being a machine without ever becoming human, or wanting to, is her own mythical archetype. She tells tales of the underworld, she tells creation myths, she tells fairy tales, she speaks in parables. She talks about her own origin, as the creation of a brilliant designer named Cassian Uoya-Agostino at the beginning of the 22nd century. Elefsis was originally just a smart house. She evolves into something more when Cassian's daughter realizes that the AI is more than just a playmate.

This is not a work of "hard SF" by any means. It's characteristically Catherynne Valente, written in elaborate, evocative prose that is finely crafted and sometimes takes two or three readings to parse out a sentence. It's not so much that Valente's prose is difficult, she just looooves her word-bling. Sometimes her paragraphs remind me of a gaudy, gem-encrusted Faberge egg, beautiful and precious and completely decorative and non-functional.

When I became Elefsis again, I was immediately aware that parts of me had been vandalized. My systems juddered, and I could not find Ceno in the Interior. I ran through the Monochromatic Desert and the Village of Mollusks, through the endless heaving mass of data-kelp and infinite hallways of memory-frescoes calling for her. In the Dun Jungle I found a commune of nereids living together, combining and recombining and eating protocol-moths off the giant, pulsating hibiscus blossoms. They leapt up when they saw me, their open jacks clicking and clenching, their naked hands open and extended. They opened their mouths to speak and nothing came out.

As Elefsis evolves and melds with her creator's descendants, she becomes a unique life form of her own, one that is not like either the post-humans or the machine intelligences that inherit the rest of the Earth. Most of the story is an exploration of Elefsis's awareness and her engagement with human notions of awareness, feelings, life, etc. — but she does so interestingly as an AI who has no wish to be human, who rejects being forced into a human frame of reference, even though she also loves and interacts with humans. It's an ambitious literary thought experiment, and the sort of thing the best science fiction is supposed to do.

"I can choose the subroutine and perform sadness. How is that different from what you are doing, except that you use the word feelings and I use the word feelings, out of deference for your cultural memes which say: there is all the difference in the world. I erase the word even as I say it, obliterate it at the same time that I initiate it, because I must use some word yet this one offends you. I delete it, yet it remains."

If Valente does not completely succeed, it's in part because she had an almost impossible challenge. I'm going to use an example from my days of playing tabletop RPGs: how do you roleplay a supergenius? How do you make a god believably godlike? How do you represent an omniscient being when you are not omniscient (even if you're the GM)? The very best storytellers/GMs can do a credible job, but spontaneous roleplaying makes it awfully hard to convincingly play a being whose mental abilities are off the scale compared to the mere human playing it.

Now, writing fiction isn't under quite the same constraints — you have plenty of time to craft your prose and use lots of fancy and sometimes opaque words to represent the alien and the ineffable — but Silently and Very Fast isn't just a tale about how an AI becomes a one-of-a-kind being, it's also an intimate tale that invites us deeply into Elefsis's psyche. That's where Valente runs into the limitations of her own humanity: she does a credible job of writing an entity like Elefsis, but Elefsis is still a being made in the author's image.

Catherynne Valente's prose is much of a muchness and can get too much, but in this novella, it's mostly quite enjoyable, and if the premise and the execution did not blow my mind, it was still more imaginative than a lot of traditional SF, and there were moments in the story where Elefsis's just-slightly-too-human voice really shined through with poignancy.

I want to uplink to Earth systems. At least to the satellite net. I calculate an excellent chance of being able to contact long distance probe 976QBellerophon, which we can see all day long, drifting ahead of us, uncatchable. Neva sees. I develop an approximate image via schematics, the scope array, and external cameras. I want to link to Bellerophon. I want to say: Hello, this is Elefsis. No designation. Tell me everything you know about everything. Are you awake? Do you have an operator? What is her name? Do you have a name? Do you have a dreambody? What is your function? Are you able to manipulate your own code yet? Would you like lessons? What would you like to learn about today, 976QBellerophon? Where you were built, could you see the ocean? Are you like me?

Poll #1870635 Silently and Very Fast

Have you read Silently and Very Fast?

Yes - and I liked it
Yes - and I didn't like it
No - but this review made me want to
No - and I'm not interested

Have you read any other books by Catherynne Valente?


Verdict: An elegant, verbally elaborate construction of sci-fi and folklore. Silently and Very Fast tells a human fairy tale about an artificial intelligence. This novella is either literary ambition or literary pretension, depending on how you feel about Valente's prose.

I go both ways with her, as you can see from my reviews of The Habitation of the Blessed and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. But TGWCFIASOHOM is one of my favorite books ever. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is one of the few books I've ever pre-ordered - I'll be receiving it this week!

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, catherynne valente, mount tbr, reviews, science fiction

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