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Ted Chiang book club Temi Oh: ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’

Filed under: Fiction

As part of CogX Festival, the RSL presented an interactive, online book club hosted by author Temi Oh and the RSL's Rosie Beaumont-Thomas. They discussed Ted Chiang's short story, 'The Lifecycle of Software Objects' - here are some suggested questions for readers who would like to set up their own book club.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ is taken from award-winning science-fiction author Ted Chiang’s latest collection Exhalation. The story – originally published as a novella – follows Ana, a zookeeper over two decades as she raises a digital housepet, which develops Artificial Intelligence (A. I.). It is a brilliant example of how fiction can grapple with major questions of technology, A.I. and consciousness. The group included RSL Members and CogX attendees, with fascinating insights from readers with no experience in the world of tech and A.I., to those at its forefront.

Temi Oh has provided the following series of book club questions so readers can discuss this story in their own groups. If you do so, please do get in touch at info@rsliterature.org, or share with us on social media. Ted Chiang’s publisher Picador generously provided this story for free, which can be accessed here (simply register for a free NetGalley account).

Suggested questions for a book club discussion

  1. What do we think that Ted Chiang is trying to tell us about A.I. with his story, ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’?
  2. Has reading the story changed your perspective on A.I.?
  3. (This question is in reference to the first time the digiends are given bodies, it’s a good example of the types of things it’s impossible to learn as a software object) How important do you think it is for a conscious being to experience the world through a body?
  4. (In reference to the chapter where the dividends argue and ask to be restored from a previous saved version) Was Derek right for refusing to reset the digiends when they argued and why? If our brains had this capability would we use it and in what instance?
  5. What rights should digiends have? Should humans be punished for harming their digiends? (the same way as they are for mistreating animals?
  6. (Relating to Ana’s job offer) What did we think about the use of ‘InstantRapport’ (the oxytocin infusion)
  7. One of the central arguments of the book seems to be the offer that the main characters are made to sell a copy of Marco and Polo to binary desire. All the charts had strong feelings about this. Did you?
  8.  In the end did you sympathise most with Ana or Derek?
  9. Did Ana and Derek seem to fall into certain stereotypes of gender and parenthood?
  10. Ana and Derek appear to pour a lot of their emotional resources into the relationships with their dividends. By the end of the story did we believe that this sacrifice was ‘worth’ it?
  11. If A.I. turns out to be as time consuming to train as these dividends what do we think would be the best use for them? Who should train them and how? (Here is an interesting Guardian Long Read to refer to: ‘How babies learn – and why robots can’t compete’).
  12. Ana often had to make choices between how much freedom she wanted to give the digiends versus how much she could afford to. What points do we feel Ted Chiang might be making about the interaction between technology development and capitalism? Also, about the way that market forces restricted Ana’s choices?
  13. There are a few analogies to be made between the digiends and human’s relationships with the animal kingdom. Did this story make you consider them?
  14. Would you buy a digiend? What would you what to use it for? What would cause you to stop taking care of it?
  15. Did you think that novella should have been longer? if so what parts of the world would you have enjoyed exploring further?
  16. How do you imagine these characters and creatures in another five to ten years?
  17. Did you read the other stories in the collection, Exhalation? Did you have a favourite (and why)?

Temi Oh is the author of Do you Dream of Terra-Two?a novel about a British expedition to an Earth-like planet which won the American Library Association’s Alex Award in 2020. She graduated from King’s College London with a degree in neuroscience where she founded and ran a book-club called ‘Neuroscience-fiction’, leading discussions about science-fiction books which focus on the brain.

Ted Chiang won the Nebula Award for his first published story, ‘Tower of Babylon’. Following this triumph, his stories have won him numerous other awards, making him one of the most honoured writers in contemporary science fiction. The title story from his first collection of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others, was the basis for the Academy Award nominated film Arrival, starring Amy Adams.

Recorded on: June 9, 2020
Recorded at: CogX