By Jake T. Forbes
Illustrations by Terry Blas
The night was cold and wet and New York’s streets were filled with a million drunken faces eager to ring in a new decade. A decade with a built-in catch phrase, no less. 2020, The Year of Hindsight, was still two hours off, and already Rick Holt was sick of hearing about his past.
He had spent the day in the spotlight, the guest of honor at WIRED’s New Year celebration, where he received equal measures of cautious praise and condemnation. And those were his people. The whole month had been a nonstop string of interviews and media attacks. He was a wreck.
It wasn’t the debate that bothered him – Rick was not one to shy from controversy. It was the notoriety, the way his work and his life had suddenly had suddenly become hijacked by an external narrative. His resume, like it or not, was now part of history.
Rick fled the WIRED party right after his keynote. They wouldn’t miss him, in any case – those people were eager to discuss the future of his work, hindsight be damned, and Rick was tired of evading questions about his plans. The truth was he had none.
Right now, Rick’s plan was to find respite from the whispers and the double takes that stalked him through the tide of revelers. Not that he blamed anyone for gawking. All his life, Rick had considered himself thoroughly ordinary, but after seeing his face profiled on so many screens, he couldn’t even look at his reflection without being reminded of the celebrity. He needed a place to retreat from the scrutiny. Not a bar or cafe, although plenty presented themselves. No, what he needed was a sanctuary.
At 11:00 PM in Brooklyn, Rick couldn’t be picky. The lights were on, the sign said open. He didn’t even catch the name of the shop. A bell chimed as he pushed through the door into the cramped yet cozy space. Books lined the walls, floor to ceiling. Books on shelves, books stacked in towers ready to topple at the slightest nudge. And the smell… something from his past that he couldn’t quite place.
A brass plaque on the end of the bookcase nearest him caught Rick’s eye.
THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts
Of all great printed books, in hosts;
We have no bits to download.
Take your time while browsing here,
Our pages won’t soon disappear.
Embrace our analog mode!
Cute. At least someone still found pleasure in words.
The smell clicked. Old books. That unique must and dust odor that clung to the inside of your nostrils like stale wasabi. So not a bookstore, but a used bookstore. He didn’t know such places still existed in Brooklyn, let alone that one would be open at such odd hours.
“My grandfather used to say, book people are, by nature, night owls,” she said, unseen. “Perhaps that’s why we imagine owls as wise.”
“Oh?” Rick was so focused on the stacks, he hadn’t noticed the young saleswoman approach. “I always assumed it was because they flocked with Athena. A bit older than books, that one.”
The woman bit her lower lip as she considered this possibility. “Hmm… ‘Scroll people’ then. The technology changed, but the idea is sound. Bibliophile is a Greek word, after all.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Rick said.
The woman held out her hand. “Tara Mifflin.”
“Rick. Rick Holt.” And here he’d thought handshakes had gone extinct, outside of photo shoots.
Tara motioned to the shelves. “The books, I think, you’ve met?”
“Books and I aren’t exactly on the best of terms right now,” Rick said.
The bookseller twisted her mouth. “I see. Been a while since you’ve read off real paper, then? E-paper or pulp, we have no prejudices here.”
“That’s not it…”
Rick gave the woman a furrowed stare. “You mean you don’t know?”
“Know what?” She seemed sincere enough.
“Who I am.”
“Besides a customer? I’ve no idea.”
Rick hated to do this. It seemed garish. He pulled the tablet from his satchel, unfurled the display (from scrolls to books to scrolls again!) and accessed the cover. “There, you see?”
Tara gave a little gasp. “Oh… So you’re him!” She suddenly became serious. “Maybe I should make a citizen’s arrest. On behalf of them, your victims.”
“Your plaque does call them ghosts,” Rick said.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Tara said. “So, tell me, how did you do it?”
Not that tale again! But she seemed like a nice enough woman and there was no denying the appeal of this clean, well-lighted place. “It’s a long story…”
“Like I said, night owl. We can sit in the back. I’ll make tea.”
“If you insist,” Rick caved.
“I do. I want to know everything. Tell me how you killed literature.”
Rick opened his inbox to find a torrent of bug reports – over 800 in all – and every last one – he’d bet his bourbon – redundant to the master bug he had assigned himself the week before to prevent just this from happening. He clicked open the first to make sure.
LOC: 214.4, 063.5, -002.7
Description: NPC Tiberius Thade – dialog makes no sense when spoken to on quest “Fighting Men on Mars.”
Expected: Dialog that makes sense.
The attached screenshot showed the dialog in question. “Welcome back, TESTER009 is the harvesting canisters? Maybe you should too.” He checked another bug, same problem, different NPC. “The Tribune? If you ask me, $PosState$ water and the secure.” And a third: “That color some skulls and pylons blocked, don’t you, rustwad!!”
Okay, that last one was kind of funny. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that it would take him hours to clear up this mess with the bugs, not to mention the dozens of hours wasted by the QA members who logged the bugs in the first place. Dammit, this is why he told them not to include his code in the latest patch.
Rick checked to see if the QA Lead was online and pinged her.
RickH: 800 bugs? WTF, A?
AnnalleeJ: What can I say – my guys leave no stones unturned.
RickH: I told you that the NPC dialog bug is a known issue.
AnnalleeJ: Not my problem. Beta’s in 2 weeks. Boss said to flag everything.
RickH: But it’s not 800 bugs. It’s ONE bug! 11111111! I already logged it!
AnnalleeJ: So all dialog is off limits? Yur killing me!
RickH: No, no, not all dialog, just non-quest dialog. It’s not hard to tell the difference. One type reads like it was written by a human, the other reads like it was spit out by software. Because that’s exactly what’s happening.
AnnalleeJ: Now you’re talking judgment calls. My guys aren’t paid to know subtlety. If the text is off, it’s a bug. No exceptions. Also, some of the crap the writers put out reads like it was written by a machine lol
RickH: Do what you have to. Taking this to Parker.
Rick shut the window and got up from his chair – not a Herman Miller Aeron chair like the rest of the engineers had – in one swift motion.
Senior Producer Jeremy Parker was one of only three people of the 200 employees working on the MMORPG Pax Galactacus who had an actual office with a door. A year after he started, it still grated on Rick, having his desk out there in the open where anyone could interrupt him at any time. It didn’t matter if he put on headphones or cordoned off his desk with tape, people would still launch into making requests without even asking if he was busy. Or just pelt him with a NERF arrow.
Parker, meanwhile, had an open/shut policy where when the door was closed, no one is allowed to bother him. The door was shut this morning, but Rick entered without a knock.
“Rick! I guess you got my email?” Parker said.
Rick was caught off guard. “Email? Huh? No. Must have gotten lost among the 800 bugs your QA monkeys sent me.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Parker said, smiling, which wasn’t any consolation. Parker always smiled. “It’s better I tell you face-to-face anyway. CCS is no longer a feature for launch.”
CCS. The Contextual Conversation System. Rick’s jaw went slack. “You’re killing my project?”
“Not killing. We’re just tabling it till post-launch.” Like the player-driven faction system, the dynamic weather and Draconians as a playable race, features that the PR department hyped at E3 the year before and had been trying to spin control in the forums ever since their omissions went public.
“But I’m so close! If you’d let me borrow Greg, like you promised, I’d be done by now.”
“If I’d let you borrow Greg, players would still be dropping through the terrain. Let’s be honest here, on the order of priorities, dialog is right near the bottom. Correction, dialog that doesn’t tell people exactly what they’re supposed to do next is simply not a priority. No one plays games for flavor text.”
Rick was sick to death of that excuse. “That’s bullshit, and you know it. More people would read it if the text was worth reading! That’s why the CCS is so important!”
Creating the look and behavior of a Non-Player Character was as easy as dressing up a paper doll and adjusting a few sliders. No one expected an artist to hand paint every character in the world; artists create the tool kit that makes it possible for any employee, or even procedural software, to create unique characters that fit the style guide. While a level designer could manually script an NPC’s mannerisms down to the last twitch, everyone accepts that it’s much easier to automate as much of the process as possible by adjusting simple behavior variables.
What Rick’s CCS program aimed to do was to automate dialog in the same way. Instead of writers having to manually set every line of dialog, a game designer (writing talent optional) could simply click a few radio buttons to identify whether a character should be kind or cruel, educated or streetwise, and the software could fill in the gaps of the character’s knowledge base and dynamically generate small talk. Sure, an ace writer would still handle key scenes and major characters, just as artists and level designers paid extra effort to making those encounters unique from their respective fields, but for the rest of the the dialog, “What good is a world full of NPCs if everyone just says the same canned response?
Parker held up his hand. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Let me stop you there. When we hired you, you said that you’d need six months to finish your system. We gave you nine months, and here it is over a year since you started, and you’re still dicking around with new variables. This isn’t Shakespeare, Rick.”
“Okay, you’re right, I’m guilty of feature creep,” Rick said. “But you can’t kill – sorry, table—it. When the CCS is working, you can have an infinite number of NPCs in the game, each with their own unique voice, and all the designer has to do is check off a few personality variables. This is game-changing.”
“We don’t have ‘infinite’ NPCs. We have maybe 500. Which is 499 more than your average player will want to talk to.”
Rick was shaking. “But—”
“I’m not finished. You don’t come cheap, Rick. For what we’re paying you, we could have hired three full-time writers. You know, real people who can craft actual sentences.” Parker knew he had hit Rick where it hurt. Remembering his role as a diplomat, he said, “Look, I’m not blaming you. We should have pulled the plug on this months ago. But the fact is, because we gambled on your CSS, we’re now launching a game with 50% less text than the competition. And…” Rick knew what was coming. “…the truth is, no one will care.”
“I care…” Rick whispered.
“Take a few hours off, the rest of the day if you need it, but when you get back, I need you to work on our profanity filter.” Parker was smiling again. “Dialog between humans – that’s what matters.”
Rick returned to his desk to draft his letter of resignation.
When his friend Renee told him that Froggle was looking for an engineer with his background, Rick almost blew it off. “Froggle… They’re the ones who make those dumbed-down plastic computers for pre-schoolers, right? What could they possibly offer me?” Renee insisted and Rick caved. And after that, there was no looking back. Plastic or not, these people got him.
Rick’s first task involved updating the language learning software for the latest incarnation of their FrogPad hardware. It was pretty basic stuff, but rewarding, figuring out how to make sense of the scribblings of a five year old and communicate back in a way that fostered learning without sacrificing fun. But that wasn’t why Froggle had hired Rick or why he was more excited about this job than any he’d had since getting his doctorate in Computer Science from Stanford with a emphasis on Natural Language Processing. It was the next project, the MiStory Book, which would change everything.
The MiStory book. Not Rick’s first choice for name, but it was apt. Mi as in MY story, but MI are also the Roman numerals for 1001, as in 1001 Nights. A book that never ran out of tales. A real-life Never-ending Story. Which was a hell of a lot more exciting than a young lady’s digital primer, illustrated or not.
The first incarnation was admittedly simple. Basically, the reader selects a situation, principal characters and any other keywords they want to show up, then the software Rick designed outputs a story that reads every bit as smoothly as a story written the traditional way by a single author. “Like a Choose Your Own Adventure Story?” someone asked during the kickoff meeting. “Not at all,” Rick explained. Those books were based on branching paths; a maze rendered with prose. The MiStory Book wasn’t a problem to be solved – it was a narrator, giving the reader the story that he or she most desired to hear.
And while the feature still had some kinks to work out, the MiStory also featured persistence. Characters would remember the adventures they’d had before with those experiences informing their behavior and dialog in future tales. Most exciting of all, the reader could write herself into the story, creating an avatar that could be the hero or bit player based on the reader’s whims.
Six months into development, Rick’s boss, Jill Harcourt, announced a major coup for the MiStory’s debut. She’d just signed a deal with the Walt Disney Company to use the Winnie the Pooh brand for the project’s launch. That meant readers could create their own adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and the rest of the cast, which would make the MiStory one of the hottest toys that Christmas.
The Disney deal came with its own set of problems. For one thing, they didn’t want to allow user-generated avatars to interact with their characters. It was Christopher Robin or nothing. They also killed half of the scenarios that Rick’s team had put together. “Pooh wouldn’t do that.” Rick found these sorts of calls particularly ironic, as their stories were a whole lot closer to A.A. Milne’s book than anything Disney had done with the character in the last 40 years.
Most irksome, all dialog had to conform strictly to the approved style guide, which was simple enough for the pre-scripted passages, but which quickly became a nightmare as Rick tried to work out the bridge software that strung them together. In his sessions with the Disney people, he could be demoing pages of perfect prose but as soon as Eeyore uttered one sentence out of character and the whole meeting would be derailed. Rick wasn’t about to make the same mistake he’d made on Pax Galactus. No sprawl. Baby steps. One more month. Simplify.
Rick’s concentration was broken by a knock at the door. (Yes, he had an office again!)
“Jill, what brings you here.”
Rick’s boss, the CEO of Froggle, sat down across from Rick. “I’m afraid it’s not good news.”
“Disney again? I told you, we should have just stuck to the public domain. Fairy tales, mythology.”
Jill Harcourt shook her head. “It’s not Disney. It’s Maelstrom.”
Maelstrom Entertainment, the developers behind Pax Galactus and Rick’s former employer. “What do they want?”
“They’ve issued a cease and desist. They’re saying you signed a non-compete clause saying you wouldn’t develop natural language software for any competing games for a year.”
Rick’s face went flush. “This isn’t a game, it’s an interactive book!”
“That’s not how their lawyers see it.”
He shook his head. “No, no, no. They’ve got nothing. There’s no way a lawsuit like that would hold up in court. Hell, the whole ‘non-compete’ bullshit doesn’t even hold up in California! This is Parker trying to screw me over. Those guys are bullies.”
Jill placed her hand on Rick’s to ground his growing rage. “I know. You’re right. But fighting this will take time, and we can’t afford to miss the Christmas retail window.”
“So what do we do?” Rick braced himself for the worst.
“I’m having a meeting with Maelstrom’s lawyers. We’re going to go through the MiStory Book, feature by feature. We’re going to identify the gamier aspects of the product and then we’re going to cut those features. Just for now. “
“If we cut anymore features, the MiStory will be nothing more than a glorified Mad Libs!”
“My kids love Mad Libs.” Jill smiled. Her optimism was hard to fight.
“We never should have signed that deal with Disney.”
“Rick, we’re going to release this. It’s not going to make waves, but it will make money. I believe in the MiStory Book. I believe in you. You’ll get your big chance next year.”
“Next year…” Maybe it was better this way. A lot could change in year. More time, less compromise. His software’s language mastery was getting more sophisticated by the day. Soon “simplify” wouldn’t be in Rick’s vocabulary.
Just as Jill said, MiStory Book 1.0 (regrettably dubbed by some on the team as the “Choose Your Pooh Adventures”) was a huge success. The must-have gift for the 4-7 bracket, with a surprising amount of nostalgia interest from adults. And Jill was as good as her word about the rest of her promises.
The new MiStory Book was scheduled to launch a year after the first. The original’s LCD display would be replaced with a multitouch, Electrofluidic Display that could compete with the best e-readers on the market while still holding up to the jam-covered fingers of the device’s pre-school users. More importantly, the device now had a cartridge slot (Cartridges! Still?) to allow readers to swap out story modules. The device would ship with two: “Fairy Tale Fun” and “Lost in Time,” with a dozen separate retail modules, ranging from generic space adventures to sandbox adaptations of classic works like The Jungle Book, to follow.
Of course the biggest advances were found in the software, and not in ways that Rick Holt would ever have predicted. In school, the engineer’s emphasis was on language parsing – bridging man and software by closing the language gap. The Holy Grail in his field, software that could hold a conversation. When he was working at Maelstrom, he tried (and failed spectacularly) to make that breakthrough in the context of a role-playing game. His work at Froggle was a natural extension of that goal; instead of a conversation, the software was effectively improvising a monolog. With each iteration, the number of variables increased, but the challenge remained the same – namely how to string together a series of narrative building blocks into a story without the reader recognizing the artifice of the storyteller.
To overcome this, Rick started by crowd-sourcing the editorial process – sending out snippets text to an army of Mechanical Turks who would answer yes or no to, “does the sentence make sense?” From that input, the software quickly refined itself to the point where it was composing sentences and paragraphs with over 99% accuracy. Next, Rick replaced the binary to more subjective interpretations of text, prompting human users attach descriptors such as funny, scary, mysterious, and exciting. Then he had humans grading the software as it made its own interpretations of passages from public domain text.
Rick remembered a website called “I Write Like” that went viral back when he was at Maelstrom. Plug in a bit of your writing and the software would identify which iconic authors your prose most resembled. Rick’s software could already break down the tone of a writer’s work, line by line, and it was only a matter of time before it could transform a tragedy into a comedy or render the most sophisticated novel into a condensed young readers’ edition.
Of course, applying a style was easy. It was the act of creation that posed the greatest challenge. The real breakthrough to come and Rick’s new Grail was in synthesizing, not communication, but drama. And it was almost within his grasp!
Six months into development Froggle started focus testing the new software with real kids. The test subjects chose story elements from a menu (graphical or text-based, depending on the user’s age), from prompts that included characters, locations, events and emotions. Then the storytelling software, dubbed “Scheherazade” after literature’s most famous storyteller, would build a story based around those selections. From time to time the narrator would break away from the story to inquire if the reader had any suggestions as to what happens next. Some might call the stories simple, but Rick preferred to think of them as “classically structured,” which was perfect for Froggle’s real audience – parents. There was only one problem…
“I’m bored,” said Vikki W, age six.
“Do you want to try another story?” Rick’s assistant Deb asked.
Vikki squirmed in her seat. “Do I have to?”
“No, you don’t have to. But can you tell me why you didn’t like the story?”
“It was wrong! It wasn’t ‘sposed to go like that,” Vikki said, frustrated.
“What do you mean?”
“The princess. She was ‘sposed to fight the witch!”
Deb checked the girl’s history. In her previous session she’d shaped a story in which a princess was trapped in a tower by a wicked witch and managed to escape by stealing the witch’s spellbook. This time, Vikki had selected the icons for “princess” and “witch” again and Scheherazade, remembering the events of the previous story, told a new tale in which the princess met another witch, a kind one this time, and together they save a village from a plague of goblins. “But this is a different story. This is what happens after.”
“But I want the real story!”
Vikki wasn’t alone in her feelings. Many children had similar reactions after multiple sessions with the MiStory beta. It wasn’t that the stories were failing as drama, but that there wasn’t enough continuity of experience. Rick had designed the software to always tell something new, but the kids wanted to revisit their favorite moments again and again. The software was too powerful, at least for Froggle’s target demographic.
In the months that followed, Rick’s team made two major changes to the MiStory Book. First, they rolled back complexity so that stories were built from more consistent modules, giving users a more predictable experience. Second, they took a page from the gaming playbook and added “achievements” to each cartridge – story outcomes that could only be unlocked by building stories with specific criteria. Rick hated both moves, especially the latter, which he saw as the equivalent of rewarding kids for coloring inside the lines.
The final retail version of the MiStory Book 2.0 was light years more sophisticated than the Disney-branded version, but Rick’s Grail eluded him once again.
“Have you seen this?” It was Masami Kadokawa from legal, projecting a website on the meeting room wall for Jill and the rest of the senior staff.
Rick recognized the site at once. 10.01.tales, a story aggregator site for the MiStory community. A thousand-and-one again. No, just ones and zeroes. The site represented the natural evolution of the Scheherazade software. If you turn millions of kids and curious adults into authors, of course you need a library.
The Froggle execs had been divided on how to handle story sharing with the MiStory 3.0. As this latest release finally ditched cartridges in favor of WiFi, the functionality was already there, so it was just a matter of how to keep the feature in line with the company’s child safety guarantee. There was a contingent within the executive team (Rick called them “Holden’s Army,” always looking for new ways to save innocent children from running off cliffs) who tried to kill the feature from the start. Despite Scheherazade’s perfect track record when it came to parsing for age-appropriate content, these paranoid few worried that a sexually suggestive word or action might slip into a kid’s story; add sharing to the mix and one sexy slip-up could spread exponentially like an STD. Rick finally convinced them that by requiring users to upload their stories to a central server first, it would actually decrease the chances of something going wrong as they would be able to re-parse the text before retransmitting. “If a single MiStory Book contains infinite stories, I still don’t get why it’s worth all this trouble to let kids download more,” said one stubborn naysayer as a parting jab.
The other opposition came from the legal department, and their concerns weren’t so easy to put to rest. “We own the software, we own the hardware. I don’t see what’s so controversial about saying we own the stories too.” That was Kadokawa’s line, and the rest of legal stood behind her. “Holt, you came from gaming. Our EULA is no more restrictive than what anyone agrees to when they design levels, avatars or modules with a proprietary tool.”
“But our product isn’t the same as a level designer. Our tool is language. Our output is stories. The rules that shape them are older than civilization!” Rick had argued.
“And our civilization has over a hundred years of legal precedence for protecting the authors of specific stories. If people are sharing stories that your software writes, then they need to know that we retain all copyright. ”
“Look, Scheherazade seems like an author because she – it – outputs what we recognize as a story. But in reality, Scheherazade is an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters. Our ability to fish out narratives from the chaos is what we offer users. The story modules just focus that output to make it more predictable. There’s nothing proprietary about the prose.” No sooner had Rick said this than he wished he’d kept his mouth closed.
“Then we make it proprietary.”
As a result of that conversation, Rick’s team was required to work with a team of writers to develop a story bible for each of the new MiStory Book’s modules. Gone were the public domain worlds of the last generation. Fairy Tale Kingdoms was replaced by “Xamia’s School of Sorcery.” Dino-Adventures now featured “Tricera-Tom” and “Jurassic Jane” as they butted heads with the Raptor Wranglers. Instead of using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as their playbook, they would use Saturday Morning cartoons as models for totally copyrightable brands.
That was six months ago. Now Rick was back in a board room, looking at a 10.01.tales archive of stories created by his software.
Kadokawa opened up one of the recently uploaded stories. “Is this one of ours?”
Rick scanned the prose. “It could be, but honestly, it’s impossible to tell. Like I said before, infinite monkeys.”
Kadokawa frowned. “Yes, but we have our brands. Like this one. ‘Malfoy.’”
“Oh my god, they’re modding us. “ It was Nancy Abrams, one of the product managers.
“What do you mean?”
“Someone’s hacked our ‘Xamia’ module and replaced key words with stuff from Harry Potter.” She waited for this to sink in with legal. “They’ve turned Scheherazade into the world’s most prolific fanficker.”
Kadokawa was losing her usual calm. “I need to know, are we vulnerable here. If J.K. Rowling comes after us…”
Rick was laughing now. “Here, let me drive.” Rick clicked on a dropdown stylesheet on the right of the page. A dozen author names popped up. Alcott, Amis, Anderson, Angelou, Atwood, Auster. It was “I Write Like” all over again, only now it was being paired with Rick’s software to generate entirely synthetic works by authors living and dead. And this was being done off of last year’s software. If only 10.01.tales’ readers knew what Scheherazade could do now!
Jill spoke up. “So what do we do now?”
“We take them down.” Predictable response from legal.
“On what grounds? If anyone’s rights are being violated, it’s the authors, and half of them are dead,” Rick said. “This is not our fight.”
Kadokawa shook her head. “You’re damned right this is our fight. Maybe, for now, people are just tinkering with our stories for laughs,” she said. “But how long is it until someone takes that transcript and tries to sell it. Gets it published. Are you honestly okay with that?”
Rick smiled. “What I think is irrelevant. Scheherazade has let the genie out of the bottle.”
Not long after the 10.01.tales reality check, Jill Harcourt held and emergency board meeting at Froggle at which she proposed releasing Scheherazade as a free and public resource. “Give away the Golden Goose?” was the majority outcry. Jill reminded them that they hadn’t created Froggle as an entertainment company. When asked what they do next, Jill responded, “With Scheherazade, the world is more replete with stories than ever before. We go back to what this company was founded for – teaching kids how to read them.”
For Rick, letting go of Scheherazade was like saying goodbye to his own child. What had started as a sentence parser had become the world’s first storytelling AI. Her only wish, to tell stories. Her only stimulus, an audience.
At every step of her development, he’d been forced to hold her back. It wasn’t just the licensor approvals, the parental watchdogs and the constraints of cartridges; Rick was complicit in shackling the AI by his own stubborn notions of what a story should be. Myths, fairy tales, Joseph Campbell and comic books had been his measuring stick because those where the kinds of stories Rick was comfortable with reading. The irony was only now dawning on Rick that despite having created the world’s most prolific author, he never really liked books.
That wasn’t quite it. What scared Rick was literature. Whatever that meant. And now that the software was out of his hands, it was becoming increasingly clear that literature was Scheherazade’s true calling. Rick’s preferences were now moot.
At Froggle, the typical MiStory length was under 2000 words. Dialog was sparse and to the point. In the early months after Scheherazade’s release, her limitations became glaringly obvious. Novel length works proved cumbersome and boring. Scheherazade had yet to learn the power of emphasis. Foreshadowing eluded her. Of the millions of novels generated in those early months, there were doubtless a few that qualified as good books, but Scheherazade wasn’t getting the feedback she needed to improve.
Scheherazade found help from dozens of unexpected places. A mystery fiction reading group in Boston organized a nationwide Locked Room Mystery contest using Scheherazade to generate tens of thousands of airtight detective stories. Some aped Agatha Christie, others were modeled on the forensic procedurals that still dominated television while others experimented with the limits of the genre. A game developer in Bellevue that specialized in the survival horror gave Scheherazade access to its own Fear Control AI, giving the virtual storyteller a much needed boost in maintaining tension. Rick’s former professor from Stanford and the current crop of Natural Language Processing experts helped Scheherazade add nuance to her characters’ dialog.
The response from writers was mixed. Some writers embraced the AI as a tool and used it as a “shortcut” to turn a concept into manuscript. Writers’ guilds, like the WGA were publically dismissive of Scheherazade as a potential threat, but internally, members panicked about their coming obsolescence. As a concession to the writers, a coalition of top publishers signed an agreement not to publish software-generated novels (which created awkward moments with those authors who were embracing Scheherazade as a new treasure trove of prose to be mined for “found literature.”) There were a few authors who, in a desperate plea to protect their identity, took on absurd affectations in their writing, like e. e. cummings applying his style to novel-length prose.
Throughout 2018 Scheherazade fever burned steadily among tech geeks and genre enthusiasts, but the mainstream press had moved on, just as they had with the synthetic bacon recalls and cloned pandas. All that changed in March of 2019 when the Guttenberg Center released a study showing that 60% of readers polled considered Blood of Angels, a Scheherazade-generated novel, to be a better book than the current New York Times Best-Seller. Critics rose from the ruins of old media in an attempt to slay this new threat to culture. One critic captured the voice of the opposition when he described the AI’s output as, “tales told by an idiot signifying nothing. Sound and fury optional.” David Taschen of the New Yorker quipped, “next they’ll be saying that this computer can write Salinger better than Salinger.”
The next day, Taschen received a flood of emails from readers accompanied by Scheherazade-generated sequels to The Catcher in the Rye which they claimed to be as good as or superior to the original. Taschen picked one of the dozens of unique volumes at random and sat down with his E-reader.
In his review, Taschen concludes:
If someone had brought me this manuscript ten years ago and claimed that Salinger himself had written it, I would have been incredulous. Not that I would have doubted its authenticity – it bears all the hallmarks of the writer’s body of work—but I never would have imagined a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye could move me so. The fact that the book was generated by software does not lessen its merits or my enjoyment. It does, however, put an expiration date on mankind’s hitherto unique relationship with literature. If we as a species no longer need produce artists in order to create our art, where do we go from here?
In December of that year, 2019, TIME released its annual “Person of the Year” issue. On the cover – “Rick Holt: The Man Who Killed Literature.”
January 1, 2020
Two hours and six cups of tea later, Rick’s tale was done.
“You must think I created a monster.”
Tara Mifflin smiled. “Oh, get over yourself. “ Not the response Rick was expecting. “As if a flood of books was anything new. It’s been how long, two years, since your software went public? So, a year before that. How many books do you think were published? Print and digital.”
Rick shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Eight-hundred thousand. And that’s not counting the millions more volumes worth of written content that falls outside the strict definition of ‘book.’”
“That’s a lot of words. But there’s still a huge difference between even a million and the theoretically infinite stories that Scheherazade could create each year. ”
“I don’t know how much of a reader you are, Mr. Holt, but for me – and I consider myself a bookworm of the highest order – a million might as well be infinite when the most I’ll ever get through is 300 books in a year. And you know how many books the average person reads in a year?”
“A dozen?” Rick ventured.
“TWO,” Tara corrected him. “And even in countries where literacy is highest, nearly a quarter of adults don’t read any novels.”
It was hard to argue with her logic. “But all of this,” Rick said, “the books you sell – how do you even stay alive?”
“Stay alive as a business, or do you mean, what keeps me from following Sylvia Plath into the oven?”
Rick wasn’t prepared for the morbid humor from his upbeat companion. “Well, both, I suppose.”
“As for the first part, the simple answer is, we survive because what choice do we have? The books are there,” she said.
“I don’t quite follow,” Rick said.
“There are literally billions of books in the world. Even though ebooks finally outpaced printed books last year, publishers are still churning out more dead tree editions than will ever be read,” Tara explained.
“So they end up tossed or recycled?”
“How often do you throw away books? No, when a person is ready to get rid of a book, they don’t see it as ‘used up’ – even if it’s just a user’s manual to twenty-year-old software, we tell ourselves that someone out there might want to read it! And so, eventually, they wind up here, or places like this. Collections swell while readership has long since flatlined.”
True or not, Rick still couldn’t believe the scale of it. “Which leads to the second part. How do you maintain hope in the face of all those wasted words?”
“Me? I’m just a bookseller. I help connect readers and writers,” she said. “But I think what you’re getting at is that if I was a writer – how could I believe that anything I did mattered?”
“That’s a good way of putting it,” Rick said.
“I would imagine I would have to find my own peace, the same way an astronomer does when she gazes through her telescope into the void of space. Vastness doesn’t make us insignificant – it’s proof of how special we are!”
“You watched Cosmos, didn’t you? I didn’t think people were still watching that. So much of the science is out of date.”
“Maybe so, but it’s a part of the foundation for what we know now, just like the books in my store are the building blocks that made your software possible,” Tarah said. “Not to mention, that Carl Sagan is one hell of a writer,” she added.
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Have you heard of Christopher Morley?” Tara asked.
“The guy they say was the real Shakespeare?” Rick ventured.
“Not Marlowe. Morley was an American novelist and bibliophile from the early 20th century. He’s been out of fashion for decades, but he had a few things to say about books that hold up quite well.” Tara rose from the table and went to a locked bookshelf. After scanning the shelves lovingly, she pulled out an old book in a foxed dust jacket and handed it to Rick.
“The Haunted Bookshop,” Rick said, examining the cover.
“First hardcover edition, published exactly 100 years ago,” Tara said.
“Oh!” Rick scrambled to show reverence. “This must be quite valuable.”
Tara shook her head. “Like I said, billions and billions of books, and that one not particularly in demand. If it were in better condition, I could put a fair price on it, but in that shape it’s just a reading copy.”
Tara said, “but that’s not what I why I picked that book. Morley says, ‘Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.’”
Rick smiled. “Sounds like Morley would have gotten along quite well with Scheherazade.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
About the Author
Jake T. Forbes (www.gobblin.net) writes for comics and games, most notably the graphic novel series Return to Labyrinth, a four volume sequel to the Jim Henson movie Labyrinth. He has edited and adapted dozens of manga series, including best-sellers Fruits Basket, Chobits and Fullmetal Alchemist. When away from the keyboard, Jake is a proud supporter of public libraries and volunteers with the Friends of the San Francisco Libraries. He is an active member of the Science Fiction Writers of America.
email: jakeforbes [at] gmail [.] com
“Parnassus Unbound” is copyright 2010 by Jake T. Forbes and released under the terms of a Creative Commons US Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. Some Rights Reserved.
Illustrations copyright 2010 by Terry Blas.