Souls in Silicon
Reviewed by Alana Joli Abbott
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:10 (#339) in October 2010.]
When I’m looking for fiction, I gravitate toward fantasy and science fiction that deals with the nature of the soul, particularly in the relationship between men and God. Whether those men are humans, a fantasy race, or, in the case of Duntemann’s excellent short story collection, artificial intelligences, is less relevant than the nature of what they discover about themselves, and their faith, in the course of recognizing their humanity. Souls in Silicon deals with the nature of what makes someone a person, and what relates them to their faith, from the very first story. In “The Steel Sonnets,” two robots make contact with a culture that thinks mythically, and the relationship between them grows into an understanding that leads one of them to question the nature of his own dedicated higher power. “Silicon Psalm” shows the difficulty of a medical AI keeping a child alive, and suffering, when the child seeks the release of death. In “Bathtub Mary,” an explorer AI reveals a “miracle” to the humans remaining on earth, encouraging them to travel to outer space. Duntemann has great insight into what it means to be ensoulled and how humans might react to AI were it to become so.
Published through the small press Copperwood and available via Lulu.com, Souls in Silicon is, I’m afraid, doomed to be under read, despite containing a 1981 Hugo finalist (“Guardian”) and two terrifically funny short stories: “Stormy vs. the Tornadoes” and “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs.” Since it’s hard to find in print, why should you pick it up? Along with the themes, the storytelling is first rate. It’s easy to get lost in the world that Duntemann paints, and the two comedic stories read aloud beautifully. But as is true in many short story collections, the style varies: some of the stories feel like a friend could be relating them to you, while others are more cerebral. In each, Duntemann thoroughly gets into the heads of his characters, showing the world from behind their eyes, whether the perspective is human or otherworldly or innocent.
Luckily, the collection is available in digital format — and a collection about artificial intelligence seems ideal for reading electronically. The stories are definitely worth going out of your way to read — especially if, like me, you enjoy pondering those questions about the nature of the spirit. Duntemann handles both ethics and philosophy deftly, tells his stories masterfully, and deserves to be far better known than he is.