Wordmills

Tagged: Theme

The term "wordmill" for a novel-writing Machine was coined by Fritz Leiber in The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962), though the general concept is much older. When contemplating future innovations in Technology, it is perhaps not surprising that sf writers have regularly hit upon the idea that machinery might someday take over their own profession of writing (see Automation).

Most stories about writing machines function as acerbic commentaries by their authors on the debased nature of other people's writing, effectively arguing that these others' work is so lifeless and formulaic that it might as well be generated by a machine. The specific targets of such attacks vary; in what is probably the earliest story of this type, the third book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), the Scientists of Laputa show Gulliver an engine that creates textbooks (thus conveying Swift's low opinion of current textbooks). PACIC, the Psychological-Aesthetic Computer, Integrator and Creator of Robert Conquest's A World of Difference (1955), produces quantities of vaguely parodic verse, some obscure enough to suggest profundity ("... we've already had a sonnet accepted by Contemporary Poetry – under a pseudonym of course"). A machine termed the Bard in Isaac Asimov's "Someday" (August 1956 Infinity) vocally generates endless variations on classic fairy tales, suggesting the genre is less than complicated; "Tale of the Three Storytelling Machines of King Genius" in Stanisław Lem's Cyberiada (coll of linked stories 1965 Poland; trans as The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age 1974) also has a fairy-tale quality, with the machines' stories – supposedly based on memories drawn from their inventor Trurl – hinting darkly at the peril of not paying Trurl for his creations. Philip K Dick's "If There Were No Benny Cemoli" (December 1963 Galaxy) tackles journalism by envisioning computers that generate daily newspapers (see also Homeostatic Systems); Michael Frayn's The Tin Men (1965) spoofs the stylized prose and limited vocabulary of UK tabloids with a simple program to generate typical headlines (DO-IT-YOURSELF ENVOY IN SOCCER PROBE MARATHON) and stories. Routine religious sermons are critiqued in Arthur C Clarke's "The Steam-Powered Word Processor" (September 1986 Analog), wherein a nineteenth-century reverend, Charles Cabbage (parodying Charles Babbage), seeks to construct a pioneering computer to write his weekly sermons.

Modern novelists are more inclined to criticize other novelists and literary creators, with varying degrees of Satire. In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Winston Smith's girlfriend Julia works "on the novel-writing machines in the Fiction Department"; the eponymous machine in Roald Dahl's "The Great Automatic Grammatisator" (in Someone Like You, coll 1953; exp 1961) produces both short and long fiction and comes to dominate the publishing industry, with established writers meekly licensing their names as bylines for Grammatisator works; in J G Ballard's "Studio 5, The Stars" (February 1961 Science Fantasy) most poets now use Verse-Transcriber computers with whose aid "technical mastery is simply a question of pushing a button, selecting metre, rhyme, assonance on a dial"; Fritz Leiber's already-cited The Silver Eggheads describes future so-called authors as no more than figureheads who rely upon their mechanical wordmills to churn out the literary pabulum called "wordwooze", and are helpless without them; "Trurl's Electronic Bard" in Stanisław Lem's already-cited The Cyberiad takes a dim view of the poetic temperament, with only doggerel being produced until the Bard's logic circuits are replaced with "self-regulating egocentripetal narcissistors"; the Literatron of Robert Escarpit's Le littératron (1964; trans as The Novel Computer 1966) generates several novels including the bestselling hard-boiled thriller The Bastard Aims for Your Groin; a subplot of R K Narayan's The Vendor of Sweets (1967) involves a man who proposes to make money by building a machine to write novels; and Damon Knight's "Down There" (in New Dimensions 3, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg) features still-plausible interaction between a hack writer and a semi-intelligent word processor as they collaborate on a story. A twenty-first century instance of the theme is the short-short "The Word Mill" (June 2003 Analog) by Don D'Ammassa.

Taking an analogue rather than a digital view of text processing, Lewis Carroll's "Photography Extraordinary" (1855 The Comic Times anonymous) fantastically extrapolates from photographic darkroom techniques, the chemical and optical precursors of Photoshop. By these means an insipid romantic passage, in which a young poet's horse harmlessly stumbles, is "developed" to a Gothic-Parody extreme at whose climax "Three drops of blood, two teeth, and a stirrup were all that remained to tell where the wild horseman met his doom."

On a more positive note, successful literary creation may be regarded as confirming self-awareness in sf AIs. The computer EPICAC in Kurt Vonnegut's "EPICAC" (25 November 1950 Collier's Weekly) writes love poems on behalf of the hopelessly unpoetic human narrator, and commits suicide on learning that it cannot itself marry the woman to whom the verses are addressed; Mike in Robert A Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (December 1965-April 1966 If; 1966) creates poetry which a "dignified" magazine is glad to publish; Domino in Algis Budrys's Michaelmas (August-September 1976 F&SF; exp 1977) at one point spontaneously expresses his or its feelings in verse. Although the wordmill premise might provoke intriguing visions of the strikingly different sorts of literature that might emerge from an AI, few examples of such provocative works come to mind. In Philip K Dick's Galactic Pot-Healer (1969), alien Robots enigmatically generate a constantly updated book describing future events, but here the emphasis is on the aspect of Precognition rather than any literary quality in the work. Stanisław Lem's introduction to the imaginary A History of Bitic Literature (in Wielkość urojona, coll 1973; exp trans as Imaginary Magnitude 1984) discusses a range of machine creators including the mimetic (one such computer satisfactorily completes an unfinished work by Franz Kafka) and, ultimately, advanced cyber-authors whose work is incomprehensible to the human mind. The trope of literature-creating Machines would perhaps be stretched too far by wholesale inclusion of tales whose first-person narrators are AIs or Robots, such as Otto Binder's "I, Robot" (January 1939 Amazing), Robert Silverberg's "Going Down Smooth" (August 1968 Galaxy), John Sladek's Tik-Tok (1983) or Ted Chiang's "Exhalation" (in Eclipse 2, anth 2008, ed Jonathan Strahan) (see Entropy). Such protagonists naturally tend to present as varyingly sane humans in metal garb; even the highly eccentric Epiktistes of R A Lafferty's Arrive at Easterwine: The Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine (1971) is odd in a characteristically Laffertian rather than a machine-like way.

A non-computer story generator which ransacks existing texts is described in Damon Knight's Oulipo-like spoof "A Brief Introduction to Logogenetics" (November 1953 Hyphen), whose worked example selects alternately from A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948) and Ray Bradbury's "The Golden Apples of the Sun" (November 1953 Planet Stories) to produce "The World of Null-Apples". Stanisław Lem sardonically describes a more extensive "literary erector set" for recombining out-of-copyright works in "U-Write-It" (in Próżnia doskonała, coll 1971; trans as A Perfect Vacuum 1978).

Mechanical literary critics are thinner on the ground. Edgar Allen Poe's "Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq." (December 1844 Southern Literary Messenger) features a review-generating machine fuelled with quantities of suitable nonfiction cut into narrow slips, which are simply shaken out at random on to an adhesive-coated page. Two Robot examples are Izaak (IZK-99) in Poul Anderson's "The Critique of Impure Reason" (November 1962 If), who falls in love with sensitive "little magazine" prose and criticism, refusing his designed task as a miner on Mercury ("I may even try my hand at a subjectively oriented novel.") until weaned from this infatuation by a carefully concocted dose of old-fashioned Space Opera; and Zeb in Frederik Pohl's "Farmer on the Dole" (October 1982 Omni), an ex-farmhand unwillingly retrofitted with what proves to be "a literary-critic vocabulary store [...] Look, somebody has to use them up." Literary robots in slightly different fields include Easy (EZ-27), the expert proofreader and copyeditor of Isaac Asimov's "Galley Slave" (December 1957 Galaxy), and Miss Blushes, the comically prudish censor-bot in the already-cited The Silver Eggheads.

As examples of computer-written poetry and prose are now commonplace, and becoming ever more sophisticated, stories of wordmills and related devices appear to represent one sf Prediction that has come true. [GW/DRL]

see also: Primo Levi.

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