This piece was shortlisted for the people’s choice award in AUTOMATED: The 2017 Honi Soit Writing Competition. To vote, head to our Facebook page.
‘And at last, our final speaker for the evening. Though you may know him best for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘The Phoenix’, his latest essay ‘Cry Havoc’ is a poignant call-to-arms for those of us committed to preserving the spirit of literature. Ladies and Gentlemen, he needs no further introduction. Please make welcome, Charles Bachman!’
Bachman, a tallish blond man, strode out onto the stage, warmly enfolding the host in an embrace. Applause coursed through his ears, the stage-lights rendering anyone past the first row of the auditorium a silhouette. He was steered towards a podium, centre-stage, beside a blown-up poster of his latest book. Slowly, the clapping sputtered out, and he began to speak.
‘My, my Brooklyn, it is lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.’
Another ripple of applause, punctuated by a few cheers. Perhaps a thousand people had flooded into the auditorium for this, the New York Writers’ Festival’s closing act.
‘Hemingway once said that to write is to sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Usually that would be concerning, but in Ernest’s case I’m quietly confident he was ingesting enough liquids to keep up’.
Laughter from the crowd. They were his.
‘Of course, Hemingway wasn’t advocating for self-mutilation. No, he was explaining that the craft of writing is painful. It requires sacrifice, dedication, for the author to stitch a piece of themselves into each and every page. Or at least it used to.’
A small murmur in the audience and a few nods. This was what they had come to hear. Feeding off their energy, Charles moved out from the pulpit towards the front of the timber stage, a sea of images displayed upon the projector-screen behind him.
‘2007. Amazon releases the Kindle E-reader. The ability to store thousands of books on one hand-held device, what’s not to love? It sells out overnight. The market scrambles to react.
2010. Apple releases its iPad. Reading from a device is on the up-swing.
2011. The New York Times estimates that more than 50% of global book sales are digital. This tale is familiar to us by now. After all, most of us here lived through it.’
Bachman paused. There was no need to rush. He knew the words by heart by now. With wire-rimmed spectacles and a craggy face he looked the part of an academic, but out here he was a firebrand, a revolutionary steering the masses.
‘A story you might be less familiar with’ he continued, ‘is that of Alex Ortez, a programmer out of Michigan State. Around the beginning of the 20s Ortez notices that a lot of the literature on the online market place is derivative. Children’s storybooks, poetry collections, rough novellas. Easily replicated stuff. Ortez has an idea. In 2024, he launches a program called LoveBot. I know, I know, a silly name, but a clever device. Its function is simple. LoveBot scans all the erotica on the internet, as much as it can find, gobbles it all up. From that, it teaches itself how to write ‘love stories’, what my grandparents would have called smut. And then it writes. Simple as that. Hundreds of pages a minute. Thousands a day.’
Bachman took a long sip of water. He was close enough now to make out a few faces in the dark.
‘By 2026 almost 25% of Kindle royalties went straight to Ortez’s bank account. By 2030 he’s sold the program to some publishing company and retired as an exceedingly wealthy man. But the real tragedy is what comes next.’
With that Bachman turned on his heel and returned to the podium, flicking through a series of photographs as he went.
‘2034. Andrew Levine’s bestselling “Aurelia Summer” series is revealed to be the product of a deep-learning processor operated by HarperCollins.’
‘2036. Evangeline Lagrange is pressured to refuse the Man Booker Prize after it is made known “Wallpaper Currents” was constructed almost entirely by a similar device. Think about that for a moment. A work produced by a series of neural networks was able to win one of the most prestigious literary awards on the planet.’
‘Which brings us to today. 2040. When, just last week an anonymous source for the Washington Post estimates that more than 70% of the literature on the market today is the product of autonomous publishing.’
The crowd was livid. For the most part they were intellectuals, hardly the sort to cheer or chant, but the mass of heads nodding their silent assent was all the validation Charles needed.
‘What would Plato or Shakespeare say to a world in which the fruits of human creativity were outsourced to an automaton? Where we consume and consume and never think to create because a machine does even that for us now? What would Hemingway say to a world where not one drop of blood is shed to make a story, not one tear wept?’
His voice was rising now, the baritone words lofting up to the eaves of the theatre.
‘I for one do not want to live in such a world. If you are like me, my friends, if you too believe that art ought to be reserved for us creatures of flesh and blood, we have a long war ahead of us. And the only way to arm yourself for that war is with my latest book, “Cry Havoc”, where I unpack exactly how to discern true literature from the troves of robotic drivel out there. And today the first twenty lucky customers will get a copy autographed by yours truly….’
Many hours later Charles returned to his hotel room, conscience marred and vision blurred. After a few moments struggling with the lock he entered, kicked off his shoes and began to undress. Upon his bed, there rested a glossy black parcel and a courier receipt. For a long moment Charles stared at it before, in a flurry of motion, throwing it across the room. An avalanche of white pages burst out and onto the floor. He looked down at the black packaging, still in his hand:
‘To: Charles Bachman
From: HarperCollins Automation Division
“Cry Wolf”: How Machines Killed Literature.
From the Bestselling Author of Cry Havoc”’
Srishti placed down the manuscript, spun her office chair around and surveyed the London skyline. ‘Nom De Plume’. She did not know where to begin. Was this even possible? What did it mean for her?
Placing a finger to the intercom she reached her secretary.
‘Stephanie, which of our units produced this “Nom De Plume” story?’
‘Give me a moment ma’am, I’ll check.’
Whilst she waited she considered once more the manuscript she had just read. It was good. Real. You could be forgiven for thinking it had been penned by a person. Perhaps too much emphasis on dialogue, some of the plot points a bit heavy-handed but hey, it was a short story. Charles Bachman was a cardboard cut-out protagonist and the piece didn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test, but something else had sparked her concern. It was the post-post-modern style. The self-awareness. It was the meta-references, not just to literature, but to its own inception as a text in the bowel of some computer. Even more than that, it was a critique, an impassioned defence of man’s creative capacity launched by the very machines usurping it. Was it genius? Was it a malfunction? She was still unsure.
The intercom crackled.
‘Unit D-14. Lead mechanic was Julia Andrews. Level 3 ma’am.’
Srishti rose, grabbed her blazer, and left the office. She nodded to Stephanie as she made her way down the glass-walled hallway to the elevator. Far below, visible through the window, thousands of machines whirred, LEDs ablaze, churning out some new work or another.
Indeed, the explanation in unit D-14’s story had been mostly correct. As traditional markets like paperbacks declined, the publishing industry needed to adapt. It looked towards the online marketplace. No overheads, not a dime spent on paper or presses, an investor’s dream.
Her firm had been one of the first to realise the potential of the sheer data stored on their servers; a blueprint for how to produce literature without penning a word. Now the process was refined to near perfection; the synthesis of the greatest voices of the canon (Wordsworth and Ginsberg fused in prose!), recreating the old with the new (she had dreaded a serial of Plath and Meyer, but by God it had flown of the shelves).
The elevator doors were already open when she reached them, and Srishti filed in beside her colleagues. She was met by several nods, but no smiles. Her appointment had been controversial amongst the Etonians and Harrovians, many of whom had thought their fathers had reserved the position of editor-in-chief for them. She was one of very few women in the office. As far as she was aware she was the only person-of-colour in senior management. She never complained.
There had been a time, perhaps in her internship all those years ago, that she had been fiery, hungry for change in the industry. Now, perhaps cynical, perhaps world-weary, she saw little point in opposing the products that came across her desk. Sure, she hated the fact that 78% of novels they produced had a male protagonist. She despised that their products with prominent people of colour sold 17% less, but it was not the machines’ fault. They couldn’t help the data they had been fed. They couldn’t help what sold.
The doors opened and Srishti stepped out of the elevator. She was amongst them now, the hulking behemoths of wire and steel so much larger up close. The publishing-house was arranged like a spoked wheel, a cluster of offices in the centre each arrayed to a single machine around the circumference. This floor was industrial-purposed, and so it was with caution that she made her way across a corrugated iron walkway towards Julia’s office.
Julia, a spritely twenty-something with a mess of blond curls, had been informed of her approach and was furiously tidying the office space. Srishti put her at ease with a smile and motioned for them both to sit.
‘I take it you’ve read it?’ Srishti asked. ‘Nom De Plume?’
Julia nodded with a toothy grin, frizzy hair bobbing excitedly as she spoke.
‘Pretty clever hey? Probably only good for a short circulation, but sales thought it had promise in the tertiary education market, assigned texts and all that, Postmodernism 1001 yaknowwhatimean?’
Srishti paused, her hands clasped over a folded leg.
‘You sent it up to me because you saw it was different. It is. I’ve never had anything like this come across my desk before.’
Srishti trailed off, unsure how to proceed. Julia beamed back at her, two dimples forming beneath warm hazel eyes.
‘Julia, you see those processors out there, the ones that look like slabs of steel. What do they do?’
Julia’s face blanched, the smile gone. ‘The-they produce digital literature.’ Her voice had lost its earlier exuberance.
Srishti continued in the same uniform tone.
‘And what is the central message of this new text?’
Julia’s eyes were glued to the floor. ‘I suppose… that digital literature is … well really bad’ she half-whispered.
‘Right. You see the problem? I’m sorry Julia, it’s a lovely piece, but it’s dangerous. Not worth the risk. Re-configure it if you can, destroy it if you can’t.’
Srishti rose and turned to leave. At the door she paused, before turning back to face Julia.
‘Oh, and Julia this unit, D-14, what is its composition matrix?’
‘I believe we marked the contributors at 40% Orwell, 29% Nabokov, 22% Salinger and 9% assorted contemporary authors ma’am’.
‘Let’s knock the Orwell down to 20%.’ She thought for a moment, lips pursed.
‘And mix in some Matthew Reilly and Dan Brown. It’s too clever for its own good.’