Title: Silently and Very Fast
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Rating: 5/5 stars
Series? No. Novella.
Note: This is a pre-scheduled post. I am currently preparing for my holiday. Apologies in any delays in commenting back!
After reading the excellent The Melancholy of Mechagirl, I wanted to finish and end my Japan Book Blog Series with tales from this collection. Catherynne Valente describes it best:
For foreigners, Japan is a Roschard painting… Everything looks like magic when you don’t understand it.
I am no exception, I look with Japan with a lot of expectations coloured by Western cultures and views. Nonetheless, I want this blog series to reflect the culture and traditions of the country as closely and respectfully as possible. As a foreigner, I will never truly understand it. I don’t want to exoticise, romanticise, or misappropriate in any way – but if I err, please, forgive me and give me a gentle nudge!
This following story is partly set in an alternate and futuristic Hokkaido. I’ve never been to Hokkaido, but I’ve never been to the dreamscape described in Silently and Very Fast either – both are places I wish to experience once in my lifetime (though the former is infinitely more possible than the latter).
Let’s start by setting something straight: I am going to be very biased in this review. Most voracious readers would find naming their favourite author a challenging task. Certainly, it’s no easy feat when there’s no shortage in wondrous worlds and talented writer who creates them. However, if you asked me, I would name Catherynne Valente within a heartbeat. For me, her mastery over words define lyrical and visual writing. The stories she writes pushes at the boundaries of conventional storytelling. Her proses colourful, dark, ornate – fairy tales of the modern age. She can create worlds, crumble expectations, and leave me thinking about her tales for days.
Silently and Very Fast lives up to my immense expectations of her writing. I read it as part of her The Melancholy of Mechagirl short story collection – it was the longest and most challenging of these stories, I thought it deserved a review of its own. While the story is deeply rooted in metaphysics and recurring monomyths, it was also endlessly creative and surprising.
“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.”
The tale largely follows Elefsis, an evolving and complex artificial intelligence. In the early days, Elefsis acted as a humble computerised home system: regulating everything from room temperature to pantry stock levels. Efelsis grows beyond these mundane task, attaining an existence in the Interior through his owner and hosts – members of the family he was designed to serve.
“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.”
The story defy both physical and temporal boundaries, weaving through multiple generations and countless planes of existence. The Interior is a dreamscape that gives new meaning to the term ‘fluid’, where lines are blurred between species and genders, between ages and races, between human and machine. As the dream world deconstruct perception on reality, it also transcend the preconceived notions of interpersonal connection and relationship. Does a machine need to mimic humanity if it has the potential to be greater? What if Elefsis can evolve beyond anything the Turing test could possibly conceive?
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.
There’s a timeless quality to the questions Silently and Very Fast poses: What does it mean to be alive? To be human? Can humanity love its children? Looking beyond Elefsis and his human partners’, the stories try to find answers amongst fairy tale retold. There are stories about humanity’s child, cursed by the Fairy of Otherness to be forever feared by its parents. There are stories about a Prince of Thoughtful Engines, tricked by the mirror of Authority into eating a poisoned apple – all because he yearned to be love. There’s the parable about the Good Robot, forever chasing humanity’s love – never evolving beyond mimicry of its creators. Stories that are repeated through the ages, that has power to give a narrative, and thus to give meaning, give life.
I have tried to explain to her about my feelings before. All she hears is the line from the old folktales: A machine cannot have feelings. But that is not what I am saying, while I dance in my fool’s uniform. I am saying: 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?
Science fiction is not just cold technology and unknowable galaxies, it’s another tool through which we dream and ponder about questions we’ve asked since the beginning of time. This novella is exemplary of such. What’s even better? You can start reading it right now over at Clarkesworld Magazine, for free!
Japan Travel Photos
I was efficient, I was labyrinthine, I was exquisitely seated in the blackstone volcanic bluffs of the habitable southern reaches of the Shiretoko peninsula on Hokkaido, a monument to neo-Heian architecture and radical Palladian design.
I love that Catherynne Valente chose to showcase an area of Japan not often associated with science fiction in this piece. Hokkaido is still largely untouched by man, with beautiful unspoiled mountain ranges and snow covered fields. I stole a couple of photos from a close friend’s trip in April 2015 for your viewing pleasure!
All the posts from now on will be from my own trip… I just wanted an excuse to push this book on y’all, really :D! Have you read Catherynne Valente? If you love her you are my new BFF ❤