When I reviewed Cathrynne Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed for Salon Futura I made mention of the fact that Cat was experimenting with writing science fiction. That isn’t necessarily an easy thing for someone whose expertise is primarily in mythology. However, Cat has persevered, and with the novella she had in Clarkesworld recently I think she has cracked it.
Silently and Very Fast is a story about an AI called Elefsis. One of the enduring problems of AI research is how you can train a software system to think like a human; how you can get it to pass the Turing Test. Cat approaches this by taking an advanced house management AI and getting it to play with the children of the house. She uses fairy tales — something she knows very well — to help it understand the human world, and I think it works brilliantly.
Of course there are issues along the way, and this particular passage delighted me:
I still think of myself as a house. Ravan tried to fix this problem of self-image, as he called it. To teach me to phrase my communication in terms of a human body. To say: let us hold hands instead of let us hold kitchens. To say put our heads together and not put our parlors together.
But it is not as simple as replacing words anymore. Ravan is gone. My hearth is broken.
And if that gets you thinking that the human world isn’t always a safe one for a young AI, you’d be dead right.
Anyway, the story was published in three parts at Clarkesworld, which is free but a bit of a pain to read. It is also available as a limited edition small press book from WSFA, but that’s rather expensive. Fortunately Neil has now made it available as a stand-alone ebook, and of course it is available in the store. It’s just £1.99 (about $3). You know you want it, right?