Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publication Date: October, 2011
Publisher: WSFA Press
Blurb: Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future.
Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great-grandmother -- a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote.
But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever...
I feel so completely in awe of this book right now. I’m just so grateful that I got to experience it in my lifetime. I know that sounds like so much reviewer hyperbole but it’s not. This reviewer’s fangirling is 100% free of exaggeration. I am still so swept up in all of the intense emotions that this book cultivated in me. I know this high is fleeting and I want to pass it on to all of you while I still have it. Catherynne M. Valente deserves all the small attention that I can nudge in her direction.
Like so much of my favorite “genre fiction” these days, this one defies genre boundaries. It is part science fiction, part fairy tale, part philosophy, part coming of age story, and part intimate memoir. It is all the vast inner workings of a mind both young and old, naïve and wise.
Elefsis is an artificial intelligence, existing within the “Interior” – a sophisticated virtual space that grows and changes with Elefsis’ evolution, and with the passing of each of several generations of one human family, to whom Elefsis is inextricably bound. This is a very personal story, told through the filter of images, metaphor, and parable that were Elefsis’ first means of communication.
“I’ve…I’ve been telling it stories,” Ceno admitted. “Fairy tales, mostly. I thought it should learn about narrative, because most of the frames available to us run on some kind of narrative drive, and besides, everything has a narrative, really, and if you can’t understand a story and relate to it, figure out how you fit inside it, you’re not really alive at all.”
Elefsis initially translates its responses into images and metaphor, but slowly it learns to speak, to emulate human behaviors, to reproduce human feelings. Is this artificial? Are its “feelings” real and valid or are they only so much mimicry? Isn’t that how we all learn to act, to be, by mimicking the behaviors of our elders or parents until we find our own?
What’s interesting here is that Catherynne M. Valente never definitively answers this question. She leads us down both paths: Elefsis is alive; Elefsis is artificial. In the end, we are left with even more questions. Why does the ability to “feel” as we define it, somehow equal humanity? Why does the ability to appear human somehow equal existence, intelligence? What if AI were something wholly different, something brand new? Would it be any less valid, any less real?
“I do not want to be human. I want to be myself. They think I’m a lion, that I will chase them. I will not deny that 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.”
All of these questions are flawlessly woven together with stunningly visual experiences in the Interior, Elefsis’ sorrowful recollections, and the fairytales that it’s been given, and that it’s told.
I’ve read other stories that examine what it means to be alive through the idea of artificial intelligence, but none so deeply personal as this one. I can’t recommend this slight but profound novella enough. This is the kind of story that I could read a dozen times and still glean new ideas from on the thirteenth reading.
Perfect Musical Pairing
Kate Bush – Snowflake