Silently and Very Fast feels, in many ways, like an offspring from the same tree as Ted Chiang's Lifecycle of Software Objects, but with an awareness of that Oedipal monomyth, developed from R.U.R. through Terminator, into The Matrix and the (appalling, unAsimovian) film I, Robot which has so permeated our cultural understanding of A.I. There isn't a plot to the novella as such, because what we instead have is a character portrait, of Elefsis, an autobiography in fact. Told through a combination of mythology - "Tell me a story about yourself, Elefsis" - and recollection, gradually this novella builds up a portrait of who Elefsis is, how she became who she is, how she thinks and feels. That picture is a powerful and effective one in part because it is told in a circumlocutory manner, without focussing in hard and fast on Elefsis whilst never ever losing sight of her; it's also powerful and effective because, quite consciously, Valente uses imagery in Silently and Very Fast that is directly drawn from Grimm, and therefore our own cultural memories. The way this story is told, therefore, draws on a lot of cultural assumptions, but in such a way as to build up a matrix of reality; Elefsis isn't a character in a monolithic way, any more than Neva, the other main figure in the novella, is, but rather as a matrix of facets and elements, drawn together by the concept of "I".
One of the most winning elements of Silently and Very Fast is the writing style. Valente isn't afraid of big words, of complex ideas, or of lyricism; and indeed, all of these play a role in creating the developing (maturing?) character of Elefsis, as well as in building up our own vocabulary of story and of this story. The direct and clear imagery layers over subtler imagery, and there are layers and layers of meaning in much of what Valente says; there is also simple clarity and beautiful style, and factual statements. The simple joy taken in language, at times, is in its own way telling of the character of Elefsis, whilst the powerful and evocative imagery of the novel, drawing from so many cultural roots, is deployed very effectively in the service of story and idea. Because this is a deeply idea-driven novella, in the way the best science fiction is; beautiful writing, and effective characterisation, and thoughtfulness, would add up to a pretty little piece of art without what Valente presumably started with here. And that is the idea, and to quote Stephen Baxter, "ideas [are] the whole point"; certainly, the idea - or rather ideas - at the heart of this novella are powerful, and without them as a structure and core, I'm not sure it would work as well; but, because of their slow development and the way they're revealed and explored over the course of the story, and the nature of that revelation is rather important to our response, I won't spoil them for you.
Catherynne M. Valente has been an author with whose work I have, in the past, had a slightly mixed relationship. Once again, however, as with Prester John, Silently and Very Fast has very much brought me on board, with interest; and, given that it is available for free through Clarkesworld (that takes you direct to Part One), there is no reason for you not to try out this wonderful novella, and experience Valente's brilliant, complex writing first hand.