The Lifecycle of Software Objects, by Ted Chiang
I read this online at Subterranean, where it originally appeared.
I found it really hard to rate this story on Goodreads. Not that I don’t think it’s an utterly incredible story – I do. But I found the very end a bit disappointing, so not for the first time I found myself longing for half-stars. And I have absolutely no idea how I missed reading it last year; I must just have completely missed the name Ted Chiang. I’ve finally got around to it now because it’s on the Novella ballot for the Hugos – against two of my all-time favourite stories, “Troika” (Alastair Reynolds) and “The Lady who plucked Red Flowers from beneath the Queen’s Window” (Rachel Swirsky).
It’s told in alternating sections from the point of view of Ana, a zookeeper retrained in software, and Derek, who’s always found a living in animation. They both end up working for a company that is creating digients – sort of like digital pets, designed to run on a platform that is as far away from Second Life as Second Life is from chatrooms, but is that sort of idea. Digients are designed as well as bred, trained as well as written, groomed as well as engineered. But much more than being a story that follows the development of a new form of digital life, Chiang also chronicles the development of Ana and Derek and their society as well, because this story takes place over years. The timeline is one of the aspects that I found less convincing, because it didn’t really seem like Ana and Derek aged. Yes, they learned, but the story must take place over at least ten years, and I didn’t think there was a big enough difference in tone or attitude for characters who experienced that period of time.
Overall, though, this is a wonderful wonderful story, and it definitely deserves its place on the Hugos ballot.