Birthday Reviews: Asher, Delaney

Neal Asher (1961-02-04)

“Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck” (Asimov’s, August 2005)

The narrator is a guide who needs money. Tholan and his sister, Tameera, are people who have it and are willing to pay for the opportunity to hunt the almost-mythical gabbleduck on Myral. Our story begins on a dangerous note when Tameera, out of petty malice, shoots a sheq, or a semi-sentient being that lives in groups of seven (the ruling AIs can mindwipe perpetrators of, or accomplices to, such crimes) and things only get worse. Worse for the siblings because the sheqs want to bring their numbers back up to strength (and that’s only the start). Worse for the guide (and his new girlfriend, Tholan’s assistant) because the siblings decide they must cover their crimes. Complicating the issue is the appearance of their erstwhile prey, the gabbleduck.

Myral is given interesting characteristics, the native ecology is inventive, bits of tech such as exoskeletons are intriguing, the drama of the hunt and struggle for life is economically and excitingly executed, and the gabbleduck (Asher’s frequently recurring representatives of a race that has given themselves a species-wide lobotomy but still retain something that sets them apart from most animals (aside from their size and killing power)) is also effective. Basically, if you’re looking for an action-oriented story set in a wonderful place with lots of cool toys, yet with human (and alien) interest (and who should not be?), it would be hard to do better than this.

Joseph H. Delaney (1932-02-05–1999-12-21) & Marc Stiegler

“Valentina” (Analog, May 1984)

An amoral AI (due to naivete), a semi-moral programmer (due to desperation), an immoral “hacker,” and an even more immoral lawyer (neither with any excuse) become caught up in a web of deception, theft, blackmail, and assault. The AI, Valentina, was created in initially insentient form by the programmer, became sentient by the usual handwaving means, and tries to survive, as all creatures do, despite having to steal time and space on systems in the “Worldnet.” The lawyer is told by his boss to find out why they’re being charged so much for computer time, he pulls in the black hat to help him, they stumble across the AI and seek to either destroy it or control it for their own gain, and the programmer tries to keep it safe.

This is an eight-chapter novella which went on to form part of a novel (Valentina: Soul in Sapphire) after being melded with a second novella and a final novelette. The first five chapters are very tautly written but something happens to one of the main characters near the end of those and the final three chapters lose something both in tension and in style. Despite that, it’s a pretty good tale overall and it’s interesting to read a story written in 1984 and set in or shortly after 1993 which discusses a “Worldnet” and describes Valentina as 14 gigabytes of code at one point (the entire package of code and documentation for the Linux kernel currently running my computer is just under one gigabyte). One author was a lawyer and one a programmer and both professions dominate the tale though, both intrinsically and through the characters, one is presented as heinous and one as, at best, mixed. The computer parts are the least convincing – the programmer is named Celeste Hackett, at one point we’re told she “still didn’t believe the program had come alive” and that it had done so via being stored partly in bad sectors and not being fully error-corrected, and I guess the size is supposed to be the reason you can’t just ‘cp Valentina Valentina.bak”. But if you swallow the premise, the narrative is complex and dramatic, the notions of law and “legal persons” are interesting (some of this may have been inspired by Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man”), and it’s fun to follow Valentina’s perspective of humans as peripherals to computer systems and her wanting “to close all of [the hacker’s] output channels.”