Will AI Replace Writers?

The capabilities of artificial intelligence have grown by leaps and bounds in the past half-decade. Some of this is driven by improvements in algorithm design, some by hardware, but the results are on the Internet for just about anyone to see: Facebook’s face recognition and Apple’s autocomplete are both supported by neural networks. And AI seems to be breaking new ground daily: thrashing Go champions, managing funds, and even writing news stories.


So is fiction next on the automation agenda? Like most of us on Team Human, I’m going to say no, at least for now. Here’s why.


Neural networks do have a legitimately eerie ability to mimic the surface features of text, where “surface” actually goes fairly deep. Andrej Karpathy’s modern classic on deep learning, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Recurrent Neural Networks,”, presents the results of a Shakespeare generator that creates remarkably plausible formatting, vocabulary, character names, grammar, and even meter:


Why, Salisbury must find his flesh and thought
That which I am not aps, not a man and in fire,
To show the reining of the raven and the wars
To grace my hand reproach within, and not a fair are hand,
That Caesar and my goodly father’s world…


In my spare time, I trained a “Chaucerbot” on the Canterbury Tales to do something similar, with similar results:


With herte holy lotinge of the bagere

His wordes in my fekken it verealesage
Of the somm we good us, able noon ale up oyn,
wondo nat see clepte, in the pers, but,
See him proude, and doon the poina the of ese the boles.
No free mater, som a bren wef comes s hath it onle to lighge.


Chaucerbot didn’t train very long, so its Middle English isn’t as convincing as Karpathy’s Shakespearean English, but you get the idea.


Let’s check out another couple of examples. Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore) talks about his experiment [training a neural network to generate 20th-century science fiction magazine stories and hooking it into a text editor. You can see the results in his GIFs—it’s the same sort of stuff; give it a chunk of “seed” text, it returns something back. What comes back, here, is grammatical modern English with a distinctly science-fictional choice of words (although “the high goathemaker” is a little desperate even for the pulps). But it’s not necessarily a sensible choice of words—what do servo-robots have to do with two men’s enmity? What do a woman’s (grinning?) arms have to do with sunrise?


One more. The “not a poet” Ross Goodwin has a couple of articles on art and machine-generated text that are worth reading in their entirety, but let’s focus on the second one, which begins with a brief disquisition on Sunspring, a science fiction screenplay produced by a neural network trained on science fiction screenplays. Here’s a stage direction from Sunspring and Goodwin’s commentary on its interpretation by the crew:


He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor. He takes a seat on the counter and pulls the camera over to his back. He stares at it. He is on the phone. He cuts the shotgun from the edge of the room and puts it in his mouth. He sees a black hole in the floor leading to the man on the roof.

The machine dictated that Middleditch’s character should pull the camera. However, the reveal that he’s holding nothing was a brilliant human interpretation, informed by the production team’s many years of combined experience and education in the art of filmmaking…


Which is as good a place as any to stop and talk about where we are.


It’s tricky to say where, in language, form stops and meaning begins. But wherever that boundary may be, it’s easy to see that AI hasn’t made it all the way across. These networks can learn spelling, formatting, some grammar and meter, even diction and vocabulary. But they don’t understand how events go together. It doesn’t understand that you can’t stand and sit at the same time, that Salisbury and Caesar don’t go together, that you can’t take your eyes out of your mouth.


Francois Chollet, the author of a popular deep learning software library, recently posted an essay on “The limitations of deep learning” that gets at the heart of this. Chollet really understands the math in play, and I don’t, but his basic insight is this: All neural networks do is learn to warp points in one high-dimensional space into points in another high-dimensional space. That’s it. Any association that can’t be represented this way can’t be learned by a neural network—and it is very hard to represent reasoning and abstraction this way.


Related: People are good at making long-range connections, seeing similarities in things that are superficially very different. This is arguably one of the core elements of creativity. In contrast, neural networks have trouble with inputs that aren’t close to things they’ve trained on. If a neural network doesn’t see rap and musicals and the American Revolution in close proximity in its training data, it’s never going to produce them together when you let it off the leash, and that means it’s never writing Hamilton unless it’s already seen Hamilton (which, at this point in history, is presumably unavoidable). And, of course, actual humans synthesize so much more than just fiction when we produce fiction; we have relationships, emotions, and experiences, and even sensory processing streams (smell, taste, touch) that have nothing resembling analogues in computers right now.


AI is more than neural networks, of course, and there’s no reason to think we’ll stop getting better at what we can program computers to do. But, in my mind at least, the current state of the art in machine learning doesn’t threaten or even have a path to threatening human narrative creativity. We might be better off instead, as Ross Goodwin suggests, using the strange productions of computers as inspiration—not in the spirit of a muse, but in the spirit of the I Ching or the tarot, a way of throwing the mind open to a logic it can’t produce on its own, where eyes come out of mouths and Salisbury shares a stage with Caesar and men sit on the floor while standing in the stars.


Whatever your politics, one thing that’s clear about the present moment in the US is that a lot of people view our President as a villain. We — not all Americans, but people who share my political
affinities — believe the President is bigoted, corrupt, vindictive, indifferent to suffering at best and cruel at worst. In contrast, we look back with longing at the man he’s replaced: a President we
remember as level-headed and compassionate, restrained and ethical. Americans whose politics lean rightward may, of course, hold different views.
But it doesn’t take much looking to see that, at least so far, the truly consequential sins of Obama’s and Trump’s Americas (and, for that matter, Bush’s and Clinton’s) are as similar as they are
different. The differences matter, of course: I wouldn’t dream of erasing the sorrows of those who lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the joys of those who finally married the loves of
their lives after _Obergefell v. Hodges_. But we are stalled on climate change. The ACA has taken only some of the insanity out of health care. Inequality has gotten worse; mass deportation has flowered under the Obama administration, as has mass incarceration, with the one spark of progress — ending the federal use of private prisons — now extinguished.
No matter how much we’d like to believe that one President is Sauron and another Gandalf, these problems can’t be pinned on a President — or a legislator, or a justice, or any set of people small enough that you can learn all their faces. They’re responses to a complex mix of factors, and they’re embedded in the structure of our society, as elective and yet as intractable as the invisible borders between Beszel and Ul Qoma.
These structural forces are massive. It’s not too much of a stretch to say they’re evil. They’re obviously worth writing about. But how do you write about evil when there’s nothing we understand as human agency, no villain, behind it — without turning your story into propaganda?
Here’s how some smart fantasy and science fiction writers have done it.
STEP INTO ANOTHER GENRE. China Mieville’s THE CITY & THE CITY exposes  the tensions between the interleaved cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma through a murder mystery. That book wears its noir/surrealist blend on its sleeve, but Mieville takes a similar approach in PERDIDO STREET STATION, which has more or less a thriller structure — the heroes have to destroy a monster, to be sure, but they’re also on the run, beset on every side by the authoritarian political establishment and its efforts to control the crisis.
Fantasy and science fiction pair well with other genres: Mystery, thriller, romance, even historical. Those genres provide sources of motivation other than DEFEAT THE VILLAIN. You can motivate your hero to FIND OUT (mystery), PREVENT or ESCAPE (thriller), BE WITH (romance). Weave in your social issues as obstacles to the character’s ultimate goal, rather than making their abolition the goal in itself.
CONFRONT BUT COMPLICATE. There’s a (sort of) stand-up-and-cheer scene in the middle of James S. A. Corey’s LEVIATHAN WAKES: Our heroes have tracked down and subdued the director of an illicit science facility that’s responsible for the mass murder of a space station’s worth of people at the hands of an alien biological agent. The director is talking, persuasively, about how our heroes need his knowledge, how his influence can help solve the problem. And Detective Miller, a morally hollowed-out character in the process of becoming a monomaniacal sonofabitch, shoots him anyway. It doesn’t solve much of anything; it doesn’t help anybody do what most desperately needs to be done. But we thought the director was going to get away with it, and Detective Miller didn’t let him, and that is, in its bloodthirsty, antiheroic, morally repugnant kind of way, totally awesome.
China Mieville’s IRON COUNCIL takes this all the way around: The revolutionaries’ plan to assassinate the (admittedly corrupt and kind of evil) mayor of New Crobuzon ends up being a personal vendetta, and an active distraction from the true threat to the city.
Villains and duels and one-on-one triumphs aren’t necessarily non-starters in SF and fantasy that deals meaningfully with social issues. What they are is non-finishers. You can defeat a villain with swords and spells, and that can be meaningful; but the villain’s defeat won’t undo all the harm he’s done — to say nothing of the social conditions that permitted his rise to power in the first place. One day, I’m going to write a novel about the Occupation of Mordor — or maybe a monograph: “Colonialism and Nation-Building under the Gondor-Rohan World Order.” Seriously, you think a million orcs who’ve known nothing but plunder and fury are just going to meekly settle down inside their borders and be good? There’s going to be some kind of police action there, and no matter what King Aragorn and Queen Arwen would prefer, it’s not going to be pretty.
BROADEN THE APERTURE. If your goal is to illuminate patterns of oppression or discrimination that arise from social structures, one way in is just to tell _enough_ individual stories that you can have your cake and eat it too: Use the intense focus on personal struggles to hook and engage readers, and use the collective impact of the stories to paint the higher-level picture. Of course, this just about requires an ensemble drama, which is a challenge to craft on several levels — the characters have to be distinguishable, pursuing different goals and confronted by different challenges; but the plotlines have to interact in interesting and meaningful ways, adding up to a coherent whole.
Do it right, though, and you’ll have created an edifice of story on the level of THE WIRE, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, or GAME OF THRONES: a grand, sweeping story of a whole world, made real and inevitable through the lives of the people inhabiting it. GoT has done an especially good job with this, showing a social order that’s fragile and rotten, ripe for pillage, incapable of resisting or even acknowledging the threat that’s gathering in the North. And part of what makes it so effective, and so terrifying, is that each piece makes sense on its own: The reader can see the danger mounting, but it’s clear that, given what each character can do and what she knows, she’s doing the best she can.
Have we missed any great fantasy and science fiction that engages with social justice? (We’re confident the answer is yes.) Let us know in the comments!
BONUS MATERIAL: The Self-Publishing Podcast has a great episode on this very topic: Storytelling for Social Profit with Laura Leigh Clarke.

Four Amazing Families in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

If you read my last post, you might have picked up a subtle hint or two that the big relationships in my life, right now, are family relationships. This isn’t to scant my relationship with my wife, or my friendships, but kids from 0-5 have many needs and few means with which to meet them on their own; there’s a level of urgency there that grown-up relationships just can’t match.
I’m not unique in this, obviously; we were all raised by some sort of family, and many of us go on to start families of our own. So why is our literature of the imagination dominated by orphans? Think about Kvothe, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker; Batman, Superman, Spider-Man; Katniss, forcibly separated from her family; Bella and Buffy, both vampire-lovers, both attached to single parents who are not much more than meal tickets and mortgage-payers; and so on. If we all have families, why don’t our heroes?
You could argue that it’s the influence of the Hero’s Journey, but in my mind, that’s just pushing the question one level back: Why do we so readily accept the Hero’s Journey as a template for our stories, when our lives are shaped and governed by the attachments that the Hero’s Journey has to break? Sometimes I think the question answers itself. Family life is like the water in David Foster Wallace’s much-quoted parable of the fish; it permeates our life so thoroughly that it’s invisible — or, at any rate, taken so much for granted that it sometimes doesn’t seem worth writing about in genre traditions that prize inventiveness and wonder.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some masterfully written families in science fiction and fantasy. They’re just rarer than the high-profile friendships and romances. Here are four.
The Grosvenors (Finder, by Carla Speed McNeil). We meet these people in the first volume of Finder stories, Sin-Eater, and they seem like a normal enough family — a single mother, Emma,  and her three daughters. The eldest, Rachel, is fast approaching womanhood and trying out flirting with her mother’s paramour (who’s also our hero, Jaeger); the youngest, Marcie, is very young, withdrawn and confused and attached to her things; the middle, Lynne, is fiercely scornful of Jaeger and her family, except for Marcie, whom she protects like a junkyard dog.
Now add in the father, Brigham, who has just gotten out of jail and who wants to be reunited with his family; the feeling’s not mutual. Add in Lynne’s anguish over her gender, and the racial mixing that’s caused it — Emma is a member of a clan who all identify as female, irrespective of biological gender; Brigham’s clan enforces strict gender roles, and Lynne, who is biologically male, takes after Brigham’s clan. Add in Emma’s periodic dissociative states; add in the clear love that Jaeger and the family share, and his basic, bone-deep unreliability, his inability to stay. It’s a complex mix, but the complexity is familiar — even if unexpected, like visiting a foreign country and running into an old friend from home.
There’s a lot more to be said for FINDER — the worldbuilding, the speculation, the art, the language — but, for my money, the Grosvenor women are its heart, the part that keeps me coming back.
Vlad and Cawti (Teckla, by Steven Brust). Vlad and Cawti are married; both are humans, an oppressed minority in a city that’s almost all Dragaerans, who are more or less giant killer elves. Vlad is an assassin and mob boss with a title in House Jhereg, a Dragaeran house that’s more or less the mafia; Cawti used to be a freelance assassin, which is how they met (she kills him; then they have sex; it’s very cute). Their relationship begins in Jhereg, the first of the Vlad books, and continues happily through Yendi, the next.
Teckla is the third, and it is basically the Red Wedding for their marriage in slow motion.
The cause is simple enough: Vlad is fundamentally a Dragaeran functionary; Cawti has gotten the bug for humans’ rights, a cause Vlad sort of sympathizes with but finds basically dumb and futile. Cawti’s work is making Vlad’s bosses mad. Something has to happen; and, as things get worse, that something is increasingly likely to be Cawti getting killed. Vlad, at least in his own view, can support Cawti’s cause or save her life, not both.
It’s a well-built dilemma, but it’s the execution that really makes this work. Anyone who’s been through any kind of rough patch will wince at the signs: The tense, sour silences, the fights that go nowhere, the tries at making up that don’t actually make anything better. This isn’t the come-down from a whirlwind romance; it’s a strong, solid marriage whose foundations are slowly but inexorably crumbling.
Of course, it’s only after their relationship ends that they found out Cawti’s pregnant…
Marko and Alana (Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples). This is a book that was written as BKV was learning how to be a father, and it hits all the beats — the sleep deprivation, the new strains on the marriage, the in-laws, the choking realization that you can’t protect your child from everything forever, the slicing horror of baby fingernails. What’s a little bit astonishing is how it manages to embed those beats in a gonzo fantasy space opera war story full of magic, sex, drugs, chases, fights, robots, bounty hunters, and anthropomorphic animals — and to use that juxtaposition to find fresh territory, things we haven’t yet seen in the fictional mirror.
My favorite moment in the series is one near the end of the third volume, where our heroes have just landed on a new planet in their tree starship, and the door opens up and we see, for the first time, a tiny bare foot poke out, with its little toe a bit spread out from the other toes in that searching, sensing way little kids have with their feet; and, on the next page, we see baby Hazel, now a toddler, standing for the first time with her shoulders held back and a proud smile on her face.
My second favorite moment is this one. There’s context that makes it cut a bit deeper, but most of it is right there.
Basically everyone (A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin). Of course, no list of great family-oriented fantasy would be complete without name-checking the stories that brought “sexposition” into the vernacular (there are those who’d argue the same about the Weasleys, I suppose, but they can write their own damn blog posts). It would be easy to come up with a long list of reasons why any given family should be on the list — Cat Stark’s inescapable hatred for the boy she believes to be her husband’s bastard, Cersei Lannister’s tragic marriage and kingdom-shaking infidelity, Theon Greyjoy’s suicidal yearning for his father’s respect — but it’s all of a piece in some sense. It’s all facets of the pain and deformation that the family undergoes when it’s weaponized as a form of social control, when blood and marriage can buy the privilege to crunch peasant skulls under your horse’s hooves and put your enemies’ heads on spikes so the crows can eat their eyes.
This has, of course, taken on no keenly renewed relevance in the current political climate. None whatsoever.
Any fantastic families I’ve missed? Let us know in the comments. (Unless it’s the Weasleys. Just kidding, you can say the Weasleys.)

Parenthood as “Reverse Leveling Up.”

I. 1980–2011

In role-playing games, challenges typically increase with your character’s capabilities. When you start, a pack of goblins is a mortal threat. As you advance through the levels, you become powerful enough to kill an army of goblins without suffering a scratch—but you’re no longer fighting goblins, you’re fighting dragons.

A few months before my first child was born, back when “video game journalism” didn’t automatically evoke Twitter death threats and white nationalism, Yahtzee Croshaw published the following modest proposal:


You start off as a level 85 demigod in a wealthy and decadent court of heroes, but after some terrible threat strikes the land you are forced to embark on a series of quests, each of which takes its toll through either injury or exhaustion, gradually and permanently reducing your stats. After a while you’re too weak to defend your home nation and must flee to a neighbouring territory where the threat hasn’t escalated so far, but this is also some kind of spiritual pilgrimage where at various points you’re required to select one of your legion of special powers and abilities to be simply erased from your repertoire before you can proceed…


Instead of leveling up, you level down. Foes once easily vanquished become daunting and lethal. The challenge, as you advance through the game, is not to figure out what shiny new tool shows the most promise, but which tried-and-true tool you can most afford to lose—and how to make do with what remains.

II. Una, 2011

The first casualty of parenthood is, of course, sleep. Everyone knows how important sleep is. I worked in a psychology department alongside a sleep scientist who compared getting six hours of sleep to being cripplingly high on marijuana; after that, I worked at a company whose entire business model turned on improving workers’ productivity by improving their sleep.

Time comes next. But with one child, time isn’t such a big deal. A single kid can be handled solo; with two parents, you can tag-team and one of you can take a break. And Shin-Yi was on maternity leave for 15 months; during that time, I could work an eight-hour day with an almost-two-hour commute on either side and all was well.

So, all right, I’d dropped a few points from my Sleep and Time stats, and made my Write on Weekends power a bit more expensive. I’d nerfed my Exercise power—no more 90-minute lifting and cardio sessions at the work gym. But, all in all, I didn’t lose much. And, on the train, I finished, edited, and self-published a novel, The Dandelion Knight, and a short story collection, Reverie Syndrome. They came out just before our son was born.

III. Rowan, 2013

In February of 2013, Shin-Yi returned to work.

In October of 2013, Rowan took his first breath.

So in a few months, we went from one working parent, one stay-at-home parent, and one kid to two working parents and two kids. Two working parents meant I needed to be home to help, which meant bringing more work home; Write on the Train had just gotten more expensive. Two kids meant that hours at home without a child awake were almost vanishingly rare; so much for my Write on Weekends power. Two kids meant less time, and also more laundry, more food prep, more cleanup, more midnight wakings to calm night terrors and change diapers; say good-bye to more points from Sleep and Time.

Still, I could do about 1000 words, or edit a few dozen pages, on the 50-minute train trip in the morning. I finished The Eighth King on that train, somewhere in 2014.

At the end of 2014, I left academia to work at home for a startup. Another level down: My Write on the Train power was gone. No dedicated stretch of uninterruptible, Internet-free quiet time. I was going to have to find it myself.

Long story short, I didn’t.

But instead of dropping my Write Occasionally power, I dropped Play Video Games and Watch TV. I wrote about 40,000 words of a 50,000-word novel in January 2015, between jobs. The remaining 10,000 took me until May. The rest of the year’s output was a novelette and a short story, collectively maybe 12,000 words. As we begin 2017, none of that stuff has so much as been revised.

IV. Kira, 2016

In July 2016, on the day of the Brexit vote, we had Kira.

Now there was even more to do… but I couldn’t go another year without figuring out a way to write at least somewhat consistently.

What I actually came up with was a bunch of ways—a bunch of penny-ante powers and items that I’d disdained to use before. Now I lean on my Write at Lunch power, even though it reduces my Sociability score at work, and my Write in the Evening power, for all the Sleep points it sometimes costs me. My weapon of choice is the Ubiquitous Notebook—a weak and clunky instrument compared to my Shiny Laptop, but it holds an edge. I’ve shored up my Willpower stat with a cheap Cloak of Accountability in the form of Habitica, and with a tattered Spreadsheet Shield where I track my words.

All together, it doesn’t add up to the power of a 50-minute stretch on a quiet train with no Internet, or a wide-open evening to myself. It’s just what you do when you’re a low-level character. You use what you have, with all the ingenuity and ferocity you can muster.

V. 2017–present

In Croshaw’s framework, leveling down is the price of advancing in the game. Moving the story along. So where has it gotten me?

Well, I have three kids who constantly delight and amaze me, and barring tragedy I’ll have them for the rest of my life. So there’s that.

There are sentences and scenes and storylines I’d never have written, or written as well, without the first-hand understanding of how precious and vulnerable kids are to their parents; so there’s that.

And then, maybe, looming in the mists of the future like the gold glint of Cibola through the jungle fog, there’s that hazy who-knows-how-far-off day when time expands again. When the kids begin to pull their weight, when they don’t lean so hard on me. When I’ll get the chance to pick up one of the skills or tools I’ve had to cast aside.

If that day comes, then I’ll look back to my slide down the levels, to the things I chose to keep and the things I chose to lose. I’ll think about why I quit video games, movies, TV, why I condensed my exercise to maximum intensity in minimum time, rather than quit writing.

I’ll think on all that, and I’ll choose my new power well.