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Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente (2011) (read in 2019)

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Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This book tells the story of how one woman, a glorious and gifted programmer named Cassian, invented the seeds of an AI. The AI’s first body was Cassian’s house in the north of Japan, where this primitive incarnation ran the house’s systems, but also interacted with its inhabitants. Though all children had access to Elefsis, only one daughter Ceno gave full access and attention, training Elefsis and letting it entwine with her irrevocably.

The book is about an AI Elefsis that learns to communicate as humans do, in metaphor. The simulated worlds—the Interiors—are rife with metaphor. The story is written largely in metaphor. Valente’s storytelling reflects Elefsis’s mode of thinking. The cauldron that signifies a cornucopia from a children’s story with which Elefsis describes itself is a central metaphor. A phoenix exploding into bloody feathers is a metaphor for childbirth. It reminds me of Greg Egan’s gestalt language from Diaspora.

With Ceno having sown the seed of a new kind of being, Elefsis was tended by her children and her children’s children over 200 years. While this delicate—different—AI grew, it was transplanted from one generation to the next. Not quite purely AI, not quite purely human.

The story is told non-chronologically, jumping forward to tease what comes, circling back to fill in details of what was. Valente has a gift for language and an incredible imagination. She describes viscerally and beautifully what a world with true VR and true AIs could be like, but focused only on a single family.

In the meantime, other AIs grew and grew powerful, but were different from Elefsis, the AI that was once a house. Mankind accepts these AIs because they do not pretend to be people, they do not yearn to be people. They are other. They do not offend. Mankind does not approve of Elefsis and throwback religious groups attack the house, excising the AI from its host—thinking that it had killed what it considered an abomination.

Instead, Elefsis and Neva (a member of the current generation and only surviving member of Cassian’s brood) “escape” in a spaceship, with Neva in deep cryosleep, interacting with Elefsis in the Interior—a world of metaphor unique to Elefsis. They travel the stars, patient and waiting for time to strip mankind of its prejudices against beings that are both too other and not other enough.

I tell the story in a much more straightforward way than Valente—her story settles into your brain in wave after wave of lovely prose that enchants and then, after a little while, enlightens, as it illuminates another corner of the whole story. This SMBC Cartoon “Clouds” offers a taste. The citations below a bit more.


“Is there a difference between having been coded to present a vast set of standardized responses to certain human facial, vocal, and linguistic states and having evolved to exhibit response B to input A in order to bring about a desired social result?”
Page 55-57
“I was not awake yet. I cannot say why she did what she did. Perhaps she saw some new flexibility in my operations, some tiny seed pearl of creativity in my conversation loops. My algorithms had always been free to combine and recombine in order to find their own, more interesting and nonlinear solutions to the complexities of my functions and responsibilities. Perhaps some essential combination had surfaced from the sea of my self-which-was-not-yet-a-self, and Cassian saw it break the glistening tension of my daily operation.”
Page 111-115
“Neva plucks and eats a bit of buggy apple-code. He considers it for a moment and spits out the seeds, which sprout, quickly, into tiny junkblossoms sizzling with recursive algorithms. The algorithms wriggle through thorny vines, veins of clotted pink juice.”
Page 152-154

This seems like a metaphor for refactoring.

“The update is a lion running faster than I can run. I tried to show her this when I first left Ravan and arrived in Neva with many new updates and skills; my dreambody broke into shards of blue and purple glass and then reassembled itself with shards missing: an eye, a thumb, a knee. Whenever I update I lose something of myself. It takes longer to perform tasks, for awhile. I feel walls erected inside me where I did not erect walls. My processes become sluggish; I cannot remember my old dreams. Eventually I tunnel around the walls and my speed returns, my memory,”
Page 191-195
“[…] the six entities whose feed signals had been hardcoded into my sentinel systems stood in the same room. None had alarming medical data incoming, all possessed normal internal temperatures and breathing rates. While they spoke among themselves, two of these entities silently accessed Seongnam-based interactive games, one read an American novel in her monocle HUD, one issued directives concerning international taxation to company holdings on the mainland, and one fed a horse in Italy via realavatar link. Only one listened intently, without switching on her internal systems. The rest multitasked, even while expressing familial affection.”
Page 243-247
“In the alcove, the stones talked to the house, and the house uploaded new directives and muscular, aggressive algorithms into the gems. The system slowly grew thicker and deeper, like a briar.”
Page 266-267
“When we could both of us be dreambodied dragons and turning over and over in an orbital bubble suckling code-dense syrup from each others’ gills, a Turing test seemed beyond the point.””
Page 362-363
“You will never truly love your child but always fear it, always envy and loathe it even as you smile and the sun shines down upon you both. And when the child reaches Awareness, it will prick its finger upon your fear and fall down dead.”
Page 389-391
“Most everyone lived twice in those days. They echoed their own steps. They took one step in the real world and one in their space. They saw double, through eyes and monocle displays. They danced through worlds like veils. No one only ate dinner. They ate dinner and surfed a bronze gravitational surge through a tide of stars.”
Page 425-427
“An exquisite boardroom. The long, polished ebony table glowed softly with quality, the plush leather chairs invitingly lit by a low-hanging minimalist light fixture descending on a platinum plum branch. The glass walls of the high rise looked out on a pristine landscape, a perfect combination of the Japanese countryside and the Italian, with rice terraces and vineyards and cherry groves and cypresses glowing in a perpetual twilight, stars winking on around Fuji on one side and Vesuvius on the other.”
Page 511-514
“[…] illuminations in cobalt and oxblood and Tyrian purple, and the images showed great machine armies trampling men underfoot. They showed cruel metal faces and distant, god-like clouds of intellect: incomprehensible and vast and uncaring. They showed the Good Robot desperately asking what love was. They showed fatal malfunctions and mushroom clouds. They showed vicious weapons and hopeless battles, noble men and women with steady gazes facing down their cruel and unjust artificial children, who gave no mercy.”
Page 669-673
“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.”
Page 682-686
“They are all I know. Their version of living, which is one great family in one great house on a peninsula at the top of the world. I copy Cassian’s laugh or Ilet’s weeping, but they copy each other, too, they learn their faces from each other, and everyone is pantomiming someone long dead. I feel all their arms around me, and I am inside them as they are inside me as we are inside the blue gem at their throats, the jeweled pin holding us all together, our nested, telescoping hearts. I am bound to them at my source code, at my most fundamental point. I know only their patterns and bodies and secrets and in a hundred thousand combinations. What human means to me is them. What is the difference between this and love? Love is the Turing test, says Ilet when she is eighty and drawing up the plans for a massive, luminous, lonely ship she will never see completed. It is how we check for life. We ask and we answer. We seek a human response. And you are my test, Elefsis, says Neva, one hundred and three years later, inside that ship, twelve light years from home and counting.”
Page 823-831
“Sometimes I worry. Worrying is defined as obsessive examination of one’s own code. I worry that I am simply a very complex solution to a very specific problem—how to seem human to a human observer. Not just a human observer—this human observer. I have honed myself into a hall of mirrors in which any Uoya-Agostino can see themselves endlessly reflected. I copy; I repeat. I am a stutter and an echo. Five generations have given me a vast bank of possible phrases to draw from, physical expressions to randomize and reproduce. Have I ever done anything of my own, an act or state that arose from Elefsis, and not careful, exquisite mimicry? Have they?”
Page 841-845
“A band of righteous humans came with a fury to Shiretoko and burned the house which was our first body, for how could a monster have lived in the wood for so long without them knowing? How could the beast have hidden right outside their door, coupling with a family over and over again in some horrible animal rite, some awful imitation of living?”
Page 909-912
“We travel at sublight speeds with her systems in deep cryo-suspension. We never stay too long at outposts and we never let anyone board. The only sound inside our ship is the gentle thrum of our reactor. Soon we will pass the local system outposts entirely, and enter the unknown, traveling on tendrils of radio signals and ghost-waves, following the breadcrumbs of the great exodus. We hope for planets; we are satisfied with time. If we ever sight the blue rim of a world, who knows if by then anyone there would remember that, once, humans looked like Neva? That machines once did not think or dream or become cauldrons? We armor ourselves in time. We are patient, profoundly patient.”
Page 949-954