The Thrill Begins and What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash

By Tom Sweterlitsch

By the time this post for the Thrill Begins has reached the Internet, I’ll have published my second novel, The Gone World.  I feel privileged and grateful that I’ve been able to publish two novels, especially when I daydream about writing and publishing maybe five, ten or fifteen years from now and wonder whether the idea of “human writer” will still even exist. 

I was an undergrad when I was first confronted with the idea of ‘The Death of the Author,’ the provocative idea formulated by Roland Barthes to separate interpretive authority from the biography and intentions of the writer.  Although the idea was over thirty years old by the time I encountered it, Barthes’ idea felt challenging, a disruption to common sense, and seemed to fly in the face of everything I was learning about craft and intention in my creative writing workshops.  Only later, when I was a little older, did I begin to understand what Barthes’ essay is about—not that there isn’t a writer, a human being who dreams up and then writes a story, perfecting the telling through craft, but that writers are essentially like mediums, pulling different strands of culture, language, history and point of view, weaving them into a ‘text.’  It doesn’t matter who the writer was or what the writer intended, because the text itself, down to the very language used, contained all the information needed to read and interpret it; and, most importantly, the reader brought his or her own knowledge and experience to the text, creating a relationship between the reader and the writing that doesn’t really need to include the writer at all.    

But I’m much more worried about the approaching time when no human touch will be needed at all in writing.  I was recently reminded by a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about holographic stage performers, that in Japan there is a popular pop star named Hatsune Miko, a bubbly, hip teenaged girl who doesn’t actually exist—she is a computer generated being singing computer generated songs who fills stadiums with passionate, human fans.  I don’t know how popular Hatsune Miko really is, whether or not she’s a novelty act like the California Raisins or taken seriously, or if her fans are cheering her with a wink and a nudge or not, but it’s easy to start wondering why you would need human beings for art at all.  It’s easy to imagine a robotic arm attached to a camera, clutching a paintbrush in its flexible and sensitive claw or hook.  A client would be able to ask for an anniversary portrait of his wife, for instance, and in a matter of moments the computer could scan the subject and create an uncanny likeness in oil paint.  Settings and various control knobs would set the style (Rembrandt? Whistler?), or the level of abstraction or ‘emotional interpretation.’  No testy, irritable painter genius needed in the studio at all.

A company called Botnik Studios recently went viral for creating a “new” chapter of the Harry Potter saga using an Artificial Intelligence technique called “predictive text,” where a computer program guesses what a writer wants to type—not unlike when my iPhone auto-corrected “spacejet,” to “Space Goat” in a text I sent to my sister.  Botnik’s Harry Potter, called “Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash,” was so bizarrely surreal, so perfectly DADA, so uncanny in its wrongness, so exquisitely incorrect, that reading the chapter was both profoundly funny and profoundly uncomfortable.  I was reminded of Godard’s Alphaville, where the Detective counters the Machine by speaking in Desnos-inspired Surrealist poetry—except real life might be the other way around, where the machines speak fluently in surrealism to out-think our hopeless, bound-to-logic, moist-brains.  Easy to laugh at Botnik’s Harry Potter now, but it’s also easy to imagine that with just a few tweaks of code an Artificial Intelligence will be able to write commercial fiction that not only passes for human, but actually perfectly gives human readers what they’ve always wanted out of a bestseller, no matter who the reader is.         

One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies is when Schwarzenegger’s Quaid has visited the company Rekall Incorporated to receive an implanted memory of an exciting vacation he actually can’t afford to take in real life.  The Rekall technician asks him various questions about the trip he would have liked to have taken, the trip he will remember taking.  He imagines how exciting it would be to be drawn into a spy adventure, to meet an alluring woman.  The technician asks him probing questions, telling Quaid to be truthful, that the more truthful he is, the better the memory—Tell me about the woman, is she athletic?  “Sleazy?” the technician asks.  What color hair does she have, what color eyes? 

Why couldn’t this be the case with novels in a few years?  Why shouldn’t it be?  I imagine walking up to a grocery store kiosk, or logging onto a website or an app, and taking a short quiz.  Genre, subgenre—I think I would choose a classic English mystery, in the style of Agatha Christie.  Maybe you’d prefer Daniel Steele?  Or Stephen King?—those are trademarked styles, paid upgrades.  But there are over a thousand free styles to choose from.  Maybe a slider bar sets the level of difficulty, wordplay, literary allusions.  You can tap into ‘Advanced settings’ to pick the love interest’s hair color, and style.  What is the level of violence?  Does your detective shoot the murderer discreetly with a small handgun, or does your detective indiscreetly shoot the murderer at close range with a bazooka?  Press the button and your personalized reading experience is generated within a few seconds, and—since I still prefer the heft and scent of paper books—in just a few minutes more the kiosk will print out and bind my new book, complete with intriguing cover art, in a handy mass paperback size, perfect for an upcoming flight or train ride.  Book clubs can have fun comparing notes.          

What will writers do in the future?  There will still be studious writers daydreaming about stories and characters and boundary-pushing language experiments that have, unfortunately, already been dreamt up by computers.  Since I’m still imagining that I’d like to hold a physical book in my hands, there will be a need for people to make sure the kiosks are in working order, that the printer trays are full, that the ink cartridges aren’t running empty.  I could imagine that the writers of the future might at least be able to help fine-tune the narratives that the Writer Kiosks produce, but there will be low-paid computer programmers for those jobs.

A few weeks ago I was invited to take part in a poetry reading.  It was held in a barebones theater, with folding chairs and exposed brick walls.  The room was cold, the keg of beer was in a cooler, and the readers stood on a wooden platform.  Rather than read from my science fiction novels I decided at the last moment to share a few of the very strange religious poems I used to write—I’m not sure how those poems went over, but afterward I talked with the other readers, chatted with some old friends I hadn’t seen in quite some time, and made some new friends.  I drove home that night invigorated by the idea that even despite the turmoil and frustrations of our political climate and the disconnected interconnectedness of social media, there are still groups of people who gather because of a shared passion for literature.  We’ll still need that human connection, right?  That person-to-person communication?  Maybe.  But it’s also possible that virtual experiences will fulfill any human longings we ever care to have.

It feels like the door is closing, it feels like the Singularity might be near.  The Thrill Begins is aimed at an audience of beginning writers, and these posts are often meant to give advice about writing, about publishing—I’m the worst advice giver, I have no opinions, I have no hard-won knowledge, I’m just as lost as anyone else.  I honestly can’t tell you how to get more Twitter followers, or how to get someone to buy your book, or how to write a solid through line or character or query letter.  But I suppose that if I have any hope for the future of writing, at a time when perfected writing by algorithms seems on the cusp of possibility, it lies in that very inability to really know anything for sure, that striving and striving and failing to write perfectly, those questions and second-guesses, that messiness, those loose-ends, those mistakes.  Maybe we’re not looking for perfection when we’re writing and sharing and reading, but that we’re more interested in discovering all the marvelous, myriad ways that we’re capable of being imperfect. 

Tom Sweterlitsch is the author of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and The Gone World.  He lives in Pittsburgh.

To learn more about The Gone World, click on the cover below:

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