World Views

Fiction writers fear the rise of AI, but also see it as a story to tell

Hillel Italie, MDT/AP

For a vast number of book writers, artificial intelligence is a threat to their livelihood and the very idea of creativity. More than 10,000 of them endorsed an open letter from the Authors Guild this summer, urging AI companies not to use copyrighted work without permission or compensation.

At the same time, AI is a story to tell, and no longer just in science fiction.

As present in the imagination as politics, the pandemic or climate change, AI has become part of the narrative for a growing number of novelists and short story writers who only need to follow the news to imagine a world upended.

“I’m frightened by artificial intelligence, but also fascinated by it. There’s a hope for divine understanding, for the accumulation of all knowledge, but at the same time there’s an inherent terror in being replaced by non-human intelligence,” said Helen Phillips, whose upcoming novel “Hum” tells of a wife and mother who loses her job to AI.

“We’ve been seeing more and more about AI in book proposals,” said Ryan Doherty, vice president and editorial director at Celadon Books, which recently signed Fred Lunzker’s novel “Sike,” featuring an AI psychiatrist.

“It’s the zeitgeist right now. And whatever is in the cultural zeitgeist seeps into fiction,” Doherty said.

Other AI-themed novels expected in the next two years include Sean Michaels’ “Do You Remember Being Born?”, in which a poet agrees to collaborate with an AI poetry company; Bryan Van Dyke’s “In Our Likeness,” about a bureaucrat and a fact-checking program with the power to change facts; and A.E. Osworth’s “Awakened,” about a gay witch and her titanic clash with AI.

Authors are invoking AI to address the most human questions.

In Sierra Greer’s “Annie Bot,” the title name is an AI mate designed for a human male. For Greer, the novel was a way to explore her character’s “urgent desire to please,” adding that a robot girlfriend enabled her “to explore desire, respect, and longing in ways that felt very new and strange to me.”

Some authors aren’t just writing about AI, but openly working with it.

Sean Michaels centers his new novel on a poet named Marian, in homage to poet Marianne Moore, and an AI program called Charlotte. He said the novel is about parenthood, labor, community, and also “this technology’s implications for art, language and our sense of identity.”

Believing the spirit of “Do You Remember Being Born?” called for the presence of actual AI text, he devised a program that would generate prose and poetry, and uses an alternate format in the novel so readers know when he’s using AI.

In one passage, Marian is reviewing some of her collaboration with Charlotte.

“The preceding day’s work was a collection of glass cathedrals. I reread it with alarm. Turns of phrase I had mistaken for beautiful, which I now found unintelligible,” Michaels writes. “Charlotte had simply surprised me: I would propose a line, a portion of a line, and what the system spat back upended my expectations. I had been seduced by this surprise.”

And now AI speaks: “I had mistaken a fit of algorithmic exuberance for the truth.”


Hillel Italie, MDT/AP

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