I'm torn as to whether this should be three stars or four, not that anyone cares. Very, very solid high-concept exploration of the Turing Test, emergent artificial intelligence, etc. Unlike a lot of high concept stuff I've read, Chiang's prose isn't insane or overheated. I find that sometimes speculative writers try to compensate for the dryness of the ideas with a lot of flash-bombs and hand-waving, as if writing pages of descriptions of weasels! tusks! zero-g acrobatics! LED lights as make-up! house on wheels! can sex up ideas which should, by all rights, be interesting enough to stand on their own. So it's cool that Chiang has enough respect for his ideas not to tart them up with a bunch of frank sf silliness.
But, well, the story is a little dry. The narrative perspective is positively atmospheric, viewing the characters only insofar as they relate to the digients, which are the titular software objects. (Look, I know making this criticism after complaining about the alternative is a total bitch-move.) It's definitely more essayish in tone, but in way that would only be possible in narrative form, and one that consistently set up expectations/readings/interpretations for me and then knocked them down in short order. Pretty freaking well done. Also, Chiang has a very sly, quiet sense of humor, one that might get missed if you're not paying attention. (The people creating an alien culture through the digients are especially funny, and the line drawings, such as one depicting a digient/human bj - who said high concept sf had to be sexless? - had me smiling at a number of points.)Mike's probably right
that this will be heavily anthologized though - and it should be - so I'm going with three stars for the format alone. I read this as an almost lovingly fetishistic hardback paper edition, with beautiful paper, generous layout, and thoughtful art. I know it seems weird to knock down a star for the high quality of the edition, but $25 is a whole lot of bananas for a short story/novella, no matter how well done it is. If you are a Chiang enthusiast, it would probably be worth it. I can't count myself a Chiang enthusiast just yet - I think this is the first thing I've read by him - but if this is indicative of his other writings, I could certainly see myself going that way. Good stuff.