Because all of life is stories.
I know Catherynne Valente from her young reader series The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. How’s that for a title? I loved it for it’s strong and poetic grasp of language and its understanding of the power of story. And then I found this novella. Silently and Very Fast weighs in at about 160 pages, and is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula for best novella, and won the Locus award for the same, deservedly so.
Silently and Very Fast is a philosophical science fiction story about an artificial intelligence living inside the dreamworlds of several successive generations of a family. The chapters alternate from present time, the AI’s past life, and fables and fairytales that Elefsis (the AI) tells in order to make a point as its grasp of language grows. It’s smart, it’s entertaining, and it pays homage to everything from Terminator to The Bicentennial Man.
As the story moves along we are told by Elefsis the history of how it came to be, and the family that created it. Beginning life as a smart computer program that ran a house for its creator, it evolved over time from house automation to an AI embedded in jewels attached to necklaces and rings of the creators children. As time went on it grew in intelligence and the ability to communicate, until it became something different, something that was its own. Something that yearned for more. Passed down through the generations via biomechanical surgery, Elefsis builds in every new host a dream world. Between the pieces it takes with it from one host to the next, and the parts created by the hosts themselves, Elefsis has an entire world at its disposable, changeable by just a thought.
Over the course of the story we are also treated to various fables, like The Parable of the Good Robot or The King of Having a Body. Each one serves to either reinforce a point made in previous chapters or set up a plot point in later pages. Normally, I would say these were an unpleasant distraction from the story, but after seeing what they mean to the story they become welcome breaks from the main tale, a small piece of the puzzle that is the map that is the territory. Every bit of story takes place in the dreaming, the Interior as it is called. We are left with maddeningly little information about the outside world and what time period it is and what real life is really like, though I hesitate to use the phrase “real life” in terms of Elefsis, as its logic and explanations make its life seem very real. That little amount of information gives us a small look into how maddening it must get for a creature with the thinking capacity of an advanced artificial intelligence in a world without links to the information the Internet supplies.
Elefsis is not allowed to uplink with any outside machines or data. He is in a nearly limitless world inside the heads of his hosts, but still it wants something more. Something free. The lack of information we are given forms another question in the reader’s mind throughout the novella. Is Elefsis the only one of his kind? Neva, his current companion, talks about what people might think of him. She talks about how people made books and movies and made themselves afraid of robots. Is Elefsis a prisoner? Is Neva a refugee or warden or friend or lover? These are all questions that we get answers to slowly, but at a pace that demands the next page be turned.
And can we talk about the imagery? Much of the communication, especially the nonverbal communication, is visceral and real in the Interior. Feelings and emotions and states of mind are readily worn as clothes or bodies on Elefsis and Neva and all of the previous members of the family. When Neva hides something she becomes a creature made of closed doors and welded hinges. When they are happy they cover themselves in colorful feathers. They are wolves and bears and cauldrons and dormice made of sapphires. Valente has a power of words and description and a command of what she wants to tell and how that is comparable to a surgeon with a scalpel or a master painter with a fine brush. This is one of those stories where every once in awhile you’ll stop just to appreciate a well-crafted sentence.
Silently and Very Fast takes two very disparate genres and blends them together to create something that old masters like Asimov and Heinlein would be proud of. It continues the fine tradition of philosophical science fiction and adds a touch of beauty to it that is rare to find in fiction today, or even from Golden Age era fiction. It’s short, but doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s maddening, but wonderful. It captures language and imagery in such a way that I haven’t seen from a writer since the first time I read The Name of the Wind. It’s worth the price of entry, which is really quite low if you get it as an ebook, the only way it’s available in print right now. If you have time, and are looking for something with pieces of Isaac Asimov and Neil Gaiman in it, Silently and Very Fast is a good place to start looking.