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The Algorithms for Love, by Ken Liu - Strange Horizons, 12 July 2004

The Algorithms for Love, by Ken Liu

Elena, the narrator of Ken Liuís The Algorithms for Love, creates dolls. Not your ordinary dolls, but complex, realistic ones that are programmed to respond to speech and stimuli around them. Her dolls have made her and the company she works for vastly successful. Yet when we meet her, she has been committed to a mental hospital.

Liuís excellent piece of near-future science fiction explores the theme of consciousness and intelligence with a light, certain touch and the clear style of a talented storyteller. The theme of when intelligence begins is not a new one, but it has rarely been done so well. As Elenaís dolls become more sophisticated, she is increasingly unable to distinguish their reactions from the reactions of the people about her. Key to the story are the complex algorithms that Elena uses to make her dolls convincing and the algorithms she increasingly observes in herself and her fellow people. In these, and Elenaís heart-breaking loss, lie the elements that create the emotional and intellectual impact of the story.

The story is superbly constructed and wonderfully written. Liu confidently interweaves the relationship between Elena and her husband, Brad, the coupleís holiday visit to Salem after everything has gone wrong, and the dollsí growing sophistication.

It may be tempting to argue that Liu plays rather loosely with the science in a few places. For example, at one point, Elena as the narrator says, ďI'd coded everything in her, after all, and I knew exactly how her neural nets changed with each interactionĒ. In reality, after just a few interactions, it would no longer be possible for Elena to do that. However, to argue with the science in that way would be to misunderstand the story. It is enough to know that Elena believes this, as her mental facilities crumble and as her colleagues go through their entirely predictable routines. Indeed, the predictability of human responses to everyday situations, despite our vastly complex brain, lends enormous weight to Elenaís fears.

This is a disturbing, effective story, which takes a good speculative premise and develops it ruthlessly. It is also an intensely human story that leaves us feeling moved and shaken at the end.

Liuís work has previously appeared, or is about to appear, in a variety of anthologies, including Writers of the Future and Polyphony 4. On the strength of this, his first Strange Horizons story, I would expect to see a lot more of Ken Liu in the not too-distant future.

- Patrick Samphire, 23 July 2004.


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