the Little Red Reviewer

Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne Valente

Posted on: March 14, 2012

Silently_and_Very_Fast_by_Catherynne_M_Valente-200x281Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne Valente

Limited edition from Subterranean Press, also printed in Robots: the New AI anthology from Prime Books.

Published in 2012

where I got it: purchased new

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It’s not the questions in Cat Valente’s latest novella that are unique,  it is the way she goes about answering them. Can a machine love? can a machine feel fear or pain or curiosity?  What if it has been programmed to respond to love, to shy away from large things, to seek out new data? Is that emotion or programming?   When all that matters the result, why would a different path matter?

Designed first as the prime computer of a large family home, and only later as a personal interface, Elefsis had always been programmed to observe and learn how to best serve her operators. But how to learn?  By asking.  Her operators have recently been sheltered teenagers, and they have taught her what they can about their innocent corners of the world, including the fairy tales old earth was raised on. Elefsis mistakenly believes that all stories have happy endings.

I keep wanting to refer to Elefsis as a woman. Maybe because her first operator and current operator are female, perhaps because it brings me comfort, finding or imagining something she and I have in common.  Other readers may interpret Elefsis as a different gender, or none at all, that is lovely thing about interpretation – it can be what I want when I want it.

There are some things Neva refuses to speak of. How to upload. The truth about what happened to her older brother Ravan. Why she refuses to fully merge with Elefsis.  Elefsis would like to understand, but Neva doesn’t have the words to tell her.   It’s been many years now, but out of habit or programming, Elefsis still responds better to body language, so that is how Neva communicates with her. A “visual basic” of sorts, where clothing made of flowers means happiness, a bottomless cauldron signifies a need to be loved, and being transformed into an old woman means change the subject. A language of dance and color and flight and dream. Out of respect for Neva, Elefsis doesn’t use words such that are reserved for humans, such as feel and love; she uses instead feel and love. Words that are, yet aren’t at the same time to signify emotions she has, yet hasn’t, at the same time.

Silently and Very Fast is told from Elefsis’ point of view. We learn about her programmer mother, and the five jewels that were to become her body. How one day a child dreamed her into awakening. As we learn about her fear and confusion over the loss of memory inherent in updates and transfers, we taste only hints of love and frustration and resentment.  In the mind of an AI, does the telling take any time at all?  Is this entire story perhaps, taking place silently and very fast?

Valente’s works have always struck me as purpose  layered. I don’t mean the “onion skin” metaphor, but something more like a pile of silken fabrics, where every layer has a different texture and pattern, a different shape, and is destined to become part of a different garment; each demanding its own tactile exploration. Like Gene Wolfe, you always read Valente at least twice – first for the story, and again then for the everything else.

I hope it’s obvious by now that I adored Silently and Very Fast.    Like much that Valente writes, it is intimate and gentle while cutting sharp and deep. When I read Gene Wolfe I dream of writing. When I read Valente, I dream of writing symphonies, adrift in their counterpoint.

I’ve gotten double spoiled by this beautiful little thing.  My first ever purchase from Subterranean Press was a limited edition signed and lettered hardback of Silently and Very Fast with the type of artwork that belongs on a chapel ceiling and then again in the anthology called “Robots: The Recent AI”, which can be yours for around fifteen bucks.

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9 Responses to "Silently and Very Fast, by Catherynne Valente"

I should know by now that everything by Valente will surprise and delight me, shouldn’t I? I look forward to reading this one (the cheap version, though your edition looks amazing).

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the Subterranean edition wasn’t too expensive, about the cost of a hefty hardback. it was a nice gift to myself, i’ve never had a numbered edition of something before! But after photographing the signature, I put it back in it’s little plastic casing, and read the novella out of the reasonably priced anthology!

and yes, everything Valente writes is divine.

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[...] Valente’s Silently and Very Fast appears in this anthology, but I’ve already reviewed it here.  Here are my thoughts on a handful of the other [...]

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I’m so jealous of your signed copy! I just have it waiting on my Kindle but I’m so looking forward to reading it.

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it was a special gift to myself. You deserve a special gift to yourself too! go peruse the Subterranean catalog!

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[...] Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA; Clarkesworld) The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs, James P. Blaylock (Subterranean) “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, Kij Johnson (Asimov’s 10-11/11) “Kiss Me Twice”, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s 6/11) “The Ants of Flanders”, Robert Reed (F&SF 7-8/11) [...]

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Just finished this one. I’m having a hard time reading other authors. Valente’s too good.

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I know! Same thing happens to me! after I read her, I purposely read something that I know is going to be mediocre (and nothing wrong with mediocre!).

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