Hannu, Hannu, and More Chiang

Andrei Marks · September 2, 2013

Rajaniemi's le Flambeur Series

So Hannu Rajaniemi is now on my list of purchase-their-books-on-sight authors.

theQuantumThiefTwo weeks ago I finished The Quantum Thief, and a few nights back I finished its sequel, The Fractal Prince.

I was completely immersed in the history and cultures of the far future Jean le Flambeur series.

(Though I’m not sure I’d count the mid-millenium as far future. I’d say the current science fiction “far future” starts somewhere around 2700-2800 CE. But maybe not. Part of it might also be dependent on the level of technological development in the story. A 2200s setting where quantum technologies are regularly exploited feels much more far future than one which simply has more complicated variations of modern day technologies.)

But yes, Rajaniemi’s world-building is pretty incredible in itself, and his story-telling is the icing on the cake.

I think that what I enjoyed most about le Flambeur’s world is the striking uniqueness of the cultures: the Martians and their privacy gevulot, the cloned civilization of the Sobornost founders, the quantum society of the Zoku that’s rooted in gaming clans and guilds of years past. Such weird variations in future tech and possible societies.

theFractalPrinceWhile there’s something of a Gulliver’s Travels island-to-island style to the books, at least plot-wise, Rajaniemi nevertheless weaves the history of all these cultures together. It’s fascinating being able to slowly piece together how technologies developed and when societies clashed and where the balance of powers at the time of the book stands.

And there’s still so much more. Hints of historical events and factions that might be savored in whole books down the line. I think that he’s done as good a job at world building as Herbert in the Dune series.

As with Schroeder and The Lady of Mazes, from a few posts back, Rajaniemi is definitely adept at presenting the story through the eyes of the characters, letting the reader piece together what’s going on, technologically, rather than explaining things heavy-handedly.

Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Lifecycle-of-Software-Objects-by-Ted-Chiang This was a novella by Ted Chiang. I read it in one flash read late at night after finishing The Quantum Thief.

Basic idea: a company develops digients, I suppose a portmanteau of digital sapient creatures, as sort of souped-up ultra-tamagotchis. At least initially.

These digients are artificial constructs built to be taught and interact with people and each other.

The story arc follows a few characters who are involved in the creation and development of the first digients, and follows them and the digients through the technology’s life/business cycle of fad-success, copy-cat competition and development, downturn, pseudo-obsolescence, and maintenance by a group of hardcore hobbyists.

The moral of the story: the digients develop human-like sentience through the years of interaction with the people who raise them. Efforts to develop human-like AI quickly, without all the guidance and interaction of human handlers, are failures, because the culture and capabilities of the most developed digients would not have come about if not through the slow accretion of experience.

Not discussed in the book, but there are definitely vibrations of the spider’s web of related ideas, calling to mind “feral children” and how humans become “civilized,” capable of interacting with others, and living functionally in a society.

I admired this novella for touching on a lot of interesting issues. The economics of the digient business; where the line between toy and de facto child-rearing is with a digital being. Blurring the interface between digital and real for the digients. Human maltreatment of these beings. Different purposes to which digients are put to use. The above-mentioned conjecture on how human-like consciousness can be brought about.

I’ll probably touch on this in a later post, but I also finished Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse recently. There, artificial intelligence develops in a far different and far more hostile way. Sometimes I think it’s good to challenge the naivity of Asimov’s Three Laws, and consider the options and dangers of creating artificial intelligence.

However, I was disappointed that Chiang didn’t do any sort of “follow-up” that so often happens in sci-fi books. For instance, the epilogue that hints at how a technology plays out for society in the long term. Chiang keeps it strictly human and temporally tight, which is fine I suppose, though the sci-fi reader in me yearns for a little more divination.

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