The Flesh, Alas, is Wearied; and I Have Written All the Books

Can a giant machine write fiction better than people? Are fiction writers just foremen on the killing floor of the unconscious, tending the assembly line of narrative before packaging new meat into zip-sealed plastic?

To date, the world's most prolific fiction author was a woman named Mary Faulkner who is known for publishing over 900 romance novels in her lifetime. But thanks to a scientist named Philip M. Parker and his AMAZING BOOK MACHINE, Ms. Faulkner's noteworthy record might soon be eclipsed.

According to this article, Parker has written over 200,000 books without lifting a finger, or spending even one night slumped over in some dark bar.

Parker is the Chair of Management Science at INSEAD, the Institute of European Administration Affairs. With a team of programmers, he has created a system where he collates and sells information of a public and cursory nature. His coders develop applications which essentially collect information from free databases and compile them into book form. According to Parker, if you are "good at the internet," you shouldn't buy his books, because that's essentially what he gives you: a copy of your search query in book form.

One of these books is The 2007-2012 Outlook for Chinese Prawn Crackers in Japan.

Fine and dandy. However, Parker's ambitions are now stretching out to encompass the world of fiction.

According to the New York Times, Parker is now developing an algorithm that will automatically write romance novels. Parker told the Times, "I've already set it up. There are only so many body parts." And for every body part, there is a presumably an enthusiast. And for every enthusiast, there is presumably 20 dollars cash.

This idea isn't really new or necessarily patentable; techniques such as the Postmodern Essay Generator, CmdrTaco's Poem Generator, and cut-ups have been around for a while. But Parker is throwing down the gauntlet. He's GOING THERE. If you place an infinite number of computers at an infinite number of typewriters, will you be able to produce the complete text of Les Miserables?

Roald Dahl wrote a short story in 1954 called "The Great Automatic Grammatizator." The story centers around a thwarted would-be author named Alfred Knipe who creates a machine that publishes fiction, controlled by levers that regulate variables such as tension, plot, passion, humor, and pathos. He starts buying out fiction writers in the same way that Standard Oil or James Patterson buy out their competition, giving them a percentage for the rights to their name.

Writers know how oversaturated the fiction market already is with human authors. What will happen when robots control our presses? Doesn't it follow that people who enjoy the formulaic fiction of Nicholas Sparks will enjoy the work of the SPARX 5000 five thousand times more?

One hopes that this is a joke; a gimmick; a con. Passionate readers will still buy books from passionate writers, and that's the way it's going to stay. But if this "innovation" ever means completely giving up the act of human book creation to computers in order to put food on the table, then my attitude is the same as the hero of Dahl's story, a man who refuses Knipe's offer in spite of his own crushing poverty: "Give us strength, Oh Lord, to let our children starve."


Posted by kevin on Wed, 16 Apr 2008 16:56:05 -0400 -- permanent link

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