|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #47, January 1999|
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This is a tale of long ago, before there were home computers. In those days men were men and we programmed gigantic mainframe machines with hand-punched cards. If the punch had gone astray, you had to gnaw holes in those cards with your bare teeth. Tell that to today's youngsters and they won't believe you.
It all began with an erudite article on computer-generated sf in the very first issue of Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, back in 1972. Next issue, programmer Doug Letts proudly showed readers what his Plot Machine Mk.1 could churn out. Here's the climax of its 150-word debut novel:
BEHOLD! – SURROUNDED BY SLIME MOLDS – HERE COMES THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD! / ON THE BATTLEFIELDS OF ISCHAR – THE BODIES OF YAMS EVERYWHERE ABOUND – HERE COMES THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD! / AT THE CENTRE OF THE SUN – THE MOON SHONE BRIGHTLY – XORXA RETIRED TO HER COUCH / BENEATH THE SURFACE OF JUPITER – SURROUNDED BY SLIME MOLDS – THE MOON SHONE BRIGHTLY – SUDDENLY – HERE COMES THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD! -END-
Reading this stirring stuff, I had the fatal thought, "I could do better than that ..." Unfortunately I also had access to a huge computer in the Oxford University nuclear physics department, and started typing in immense lists of vaguely science-fictional nouns, verbs, names, exotic weapons, etc. This led to three exciting discoveries.
The first was that persuading a computer to generate grammatical sentences is horribly hard work. That ever-growing writing program, called SFCOMP, ate up all my study time and started to cut seriously into my pub-going time. The second, depressing discovery was that SFCOMP's semi-random prose was lots more popular than my own efforts to write sf. A chunk of its output was even pirated by some fly-by-night student magazine, under the title "The Rampant Moles of Morog" – which for some reason featured in a long program array of implausible alien menaces.
My third discovery was that popularity can be a Bad Thing. That old mainframe computer wasn't designed for security ... anyone could copy anyone's files. At the height of its fame, there were eighty or ninety bootleg copies of SFCOMP (by now a vast, sprawling program) cluttering up the very limited and expensive disk space. This was when the computer manager worked out what was happening, summoned me to his office, and in a few uncouth and poorly-chosen words told me I was banned from his nice machine. If you've ever wondered about the petty tyrants called T.W. Thacker who so often died gory deaths in my early fiction, this is why.
SFCOMP stories were cunningly arranged to start quietly and get more frenetic as the narrative lurched onward. Thus a typical one might gently begin: "It was the 20th century AE (After Einstein), and the sadistic Murgatroyd was ravishing the gorgeous cat-girl." Murgatroyd turned up a lot; other regular characters were Elric, Fardel, Glockenspiel, Woodcrog and George Hay (editor of Foundation). I forget why.
Unsubtle rhetorical questions alternated with violence:
"'You are trapped, fool!' observed Elric, mindlessly pointing his poisoned arrow at the Rampant Moles of Morog. Were the very laws of chance against them? The devastating George Hay was pondering on the destruction of the ecosphere and blasting a rogue octopoid to shreds. Had the Shadow Minister of Propaganda betrayed humanity? In the chaos of wrecked time-lines, the Keeper of the Sacred Voles was aiming a superhuman useless weapon at the marble floor ..."
When SFCOMP produced "In the chaos of wrecked time-lines" or "Transfixed in eternity" rather than "It was a nice day," you could tell it was straining for a narrative climax. They just don't write them like that any more, although A.E. van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard came pretty close.
SFCOMP also spawned an eldritch H.P. Lovecraft version: "'Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!' belched the squamous Elder God as he unspeakably made the Voorish Sign at a nearby shoggoth ..." After escaping from Oxford, I lovingly recreated these programs in FORTRAN on much bigger computers at a certain atomic weapons research establishment which had better remain nameless. Copies still exist, on microfiche. Is it time for SFCOMP and HORRCOMP to stalk cyberspace once again?
Well, no. So long as Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen King keep paying me huge sums to suppress this possible competition, the software must remain under wraps. But I can still dream.
David Langford is knackered from working on 24,000 words of corrections and updates for the paperback Fantasy Encyclopedia.
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