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submission to sf-list [message #118814] Tue, 24 September 2013 14:36
Message-ID: <933@topaz.ARPA>
Date: Mon, 11-Mar-85 10:24:39 EST
Article-I.D.: topaz.933
Posted: Mon Mar 11 10:24:39 1985
Date-Received: Tue, 12-Mar-85 09:52:13 EST
Sender: daemon@topaz.ARPA
Organization: Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, N.J.
Lines: 157

From: Tamir Weiner  

              V A L E N T I N A  ===>  (somewhat new) book review

A few months ago I spotted an interesting entry on the local BBS here
concerning some stories originally appearing in ANALOG Science Fiction
and Science Fact under these titles:

                   Valentina - May 1984
                   The Crystal Ball - August 1984
                   The Light in the Looking Glass - September 1984

The BBS description of the stories intrigued me so I had my wife look
for them on a recent visit to the States.  To my surprise and pleasure
they now exist together in a single paperback book:

                  "Valentina: Soul In Sapphire"
                   by  Joseph H. Delaney  and  Marc Stiegler
                   Printed by Baen Books (distributor Simon &
                   Shuster) first printing October 1984.

Almost as soon as it arrived I picked it up and polished it off in just
two sittings.  I usually don't inhale books that quickly but this one
caught my interest. It read as fast as any great SF I've read by
Heinlein or Asimov.  The Net has gotten me fascinated
by the subject of telecommunications and computer networks, and I've
learned quite a bit since my recent exposure to the Net.  Only wish
work permitted me more time to "hack" around, but I'm glad for the
time I do have.  The world has in fact become that tiny electronic
village which the visionaries of only 20 years ago wrote!

    ** m i n i  -  r e v i e w      (non-spoiler) **

So what is Valentina about?  As you can surmise, about computers,
networks, and related topics.  But it's much more than that.  The
central plot line revolves around the self-aware program which one
Celeste Hacket, hacker extraordinare has created, and which she
names "Valentina".  It is about Valentina's personality development
more than her birth, and about her fight for survival in a not so
friendly world.  But this book is more than just a computer update
of the Frankenstein story, and more than just a hackers wet-dream.
This is a story of personality, and people.  Of artificial intelligence
and the nature of sentience.  What makes a person a person? And when
is a program really intelligent?  Does a sentient program have any
rights as do sentient humans? Or is it just so much code to be purged
when it gets in someone's way.  What the author's have done is use
a background of computers and networks to explore some issues and
raise some questions in a novel that is very entertaining, and
provoking without being philosophical, or pushing an ideology.
I'll say from the outset that it has some technical flaws and noticeable
omissions: the background of a world-wide network is glossed over and
could have been developed more.  From the AI standpoint the author's
stretch one's "willing suspension of disbelief" which all SF novels
require, perhaps too much when Valentina leaps from self-awareness to
real human understanding, expression, communication in just a few
pages.  But I think one can forgive this technological blasphemy and
poetic license of the authors because the point here is not the how's and
why's of Artificial Intelligence, but rather what comes after.... the
definition of sentience, of self-awareness, of rights to existence,
and the relationship between aware computer programs (rather than aware
"hardware" an interesting distinction) and their human creators, and
competitors perhaps in a world which can be hostile to well meaning
programmers and their creations.  So what if the book has flaws! Ever
read a book which didn't?  It is fast paced, has memorable characters
-- even if they sometimes are a bit stereotypical.
In a nutshell, this book deals with a variety of ideas in
a story which is delightful, and entertaining.
If you like networking, and computer programming, it's a good read.

 *** Detailed discussion of "Valentina"   MILD SPOILER  ***

In response to what started as some criticisms of Valentina I've added
these comments which look more in depth at some of the questions raised
by the story....

Valentina was called non-innovative, perhaps, but that is no great fault.
Witness the current discussion of STAR WARS, or BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS.
Both have been called great ripoffs.  If stories are less than original,
the it is a question of how they are written, not is it the first on
the block to deal with a topic.  The treatment of AI in Valentina is not
original, but I believe the point of the story is not technological
innovation, but exploring the personality aspects of AI and issues may
be raised by self-aware programs that migrate over world networks.

Valentina's birth and development are a bit spotty.  In the space of just
a few pages she goes from the beginnings of self-awareness to human
expression, and then later to understanding and communication.  She uses
complex terms like love, hate, and worry freely and in the right context.
This is a tough nut.  Current discussions in AI center around how far
indeed we are from this point of real understanding and communication
with programs.  But I think the authors here wanted to start out with
a very "logical" computer-like being, and then they ask us to make a
"leap of faith" in accepting at some point Valentina's use of human
language to express herself.  It was abrupt as leaps of faith go, but
essential to the pace of the book.  I'm don't see this a flaw, more like
poetic license to carry the points to be developed later, instead of
being bogged down in issues of how an AI program can really get to be
self-aware, and deal with human communication and understanding.
The Worldnet of the book is not completely thought out.  This is a
comment which I heard, and agree.  Worldnet was a bit scant,
and you're left hungry for more information on how and why worldnet
developed, functions, etc.  Here again I feel the authors choose to
gloss this part of the story for they were more interested in pursuing
the concepts of intelligence, human nature, and sentient beings,
and the interactions between humans, and another
sentient intelligence, rather than forecasting where networks are
in detail or where networking is going.

An interesting point of Valentina is that she is a program only,
and not a particular machine.  In fact the idea is freely explored
that programs will become migratory over networks, and different
installations, instead of being run on a particular machine.  This
already is in the works today, and is a fascinating aspect of networking
in and of itself.  The old questions posed by stories (movies) like
clothed in transistors, may become laughable as hardware is seen only
as a vehicle for the execution of sophisticated intelligent and self
learning modules which can converse and reason with people.

There is a flaw of realism in the book on the optimistic portrayal of
US, USSR relations in just a decade from now.  Seems like 1994 and a
world wide network is just not going to happen.  Not at the rate we are
going politically, even though technically it's not far fetched.

Surprise was raised by some at Celeste's attitude. As the author of
Valentina one might expect her to turn it in to MIT for the laurels she'd
get and lo and behold, of course the people there would be enlightened
enough to give Valentina it's own machine to run on.  But on closer
examination, this is not such a reasonable expectation.  I can more
easily accept an evolving program spontaneously becoming self-aware,
than I can believe that any University will graciously give resources
and funding and recognition to a radical, revolutionary idea.  Witness
the research being done into computer viruses.  I believe it was USC
that required research into this area to stop because it considered the
concept of migrating code too dangerous.... so they bury their academic
heads in the sand, rather than confront the issue.  They would kill
Valentina faster than any malicious hacker ever would.  In fact this
is one of the books points.  The hackers which threaten Valentina do
so only out of the fault of not relating to her as a sentient creature
but as so much bothersome code of another hacker, just purge the damn
thing....  But after they are convinced of her sentience, they in fact
become her greatest allies!  This is a remarkable statement, and
one of the most hopeful points of the books.

I thought Valentina was a fine work, and even one that has some
important questions to raise, outside of its fine entertainment value,
as an SF story.  I've been told that there are other stories which
successfully exploit this motif as well.  Anyone else out there know
of similar stories with new twists and insights on such issues???

 "The meat is rotten, but the booze is holding out."
Computer Translation of "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"

Acknowledge-To: Tamir Weiner 
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