Flounder Is Critical

So there I was at a London summit meeting of the UK SF Writers' Skiving-Off Collective, held in a pub near Blackfriars bridge. The roll-call is a deadly secret, as I'm sure Richard Calder, John Clute, Graham Joyce, Paul McAuley and Christopher Priest would agree. Why, you ask, did groans of horror resonate through the bar when someone quoted (from an advance proof copy) the words "highly promotable new author"?

To wrinklier SF hacks, this is a bitter reminder that we aren't young, personable or indeed female enough for our photographs to be plastered over proof copies in the hope of wooing susceptible stock controllers at W.H. Smith. Oh well, life's like that.

This syndrome was predicted in Fritz Leiber's prophetic genre novel, The Silver Eggheads (1962), where all fiction is ghost-written by mechanical "wordmills". Authors exist only as photogenic, amusingly eccentric figureheads with suitable stage names: Homer Hemingway, Sappho Wollstonecraft Shaw, H.G. Heinlein ...

Wordmills themselves are a Great SF Prediction, because we all use them now. Word processors may not actually generate fiction, but we can type as carelessly as we lyke and thee spilling chequer will insure it awl terns owt rite.

I wrote about computer-generated prose back in SFX 47, but was beaten to it not only by Leiber but by the now very wrinkly Jonathan Swift, who described a writing engine in the Laputa section of Gulliver's Travels (1726). This simply combines lots of dictionary words at random, with secretaries recording the phrases that make sense – until eventually all knowledge is produced, rather as those notorious monkeys should eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare.

(Pause for limerick by an eminent scientist, Sir Arthur Eddington: "There once was a brainy baboon, / Who always breathed down a bassoon. / For he said, 'It appears / That in billions of years / I shall certainly hit on a tune.'")

Jorge Luis Borges expanded Swift's concept enormously in "The Library of Babel", whose library contains all possible books – that is, book-length permutations of letters and punctuation. It's not infinite, merely far too large for our universe to contain. All true knowledge is guaranteed to be in there, plus all false knowledge, and vastly more gibberish than either. My own SF story "The Net of Babel" tries to show how computerising this library for instant searches would make it ... even more futile.

SF and other writers have long been fascinated by the idea of grafting some mechanical or computerish element into their fiction. John Sladek said he wanted to write a novel in collaboration with a computer, and (not actually having a computer in the 1960s) devised a prose engine using dice throws to select words and sentence structures. The resulting very short story had a weird sewing-machine rhythm that was certainly, er, different.

Less obviously, Philip K. Dick allowed random judgments from that Chinese oracle the I Ching to steer the plot of his Hugo-winning book The Man in the High Castle. Italo Calvino built his strange fantasy The Castle of Crossed Destinies from the chance fall of Tarot cards. John Fowles (a secret SF writer; see his novel A Maggot) famously decided the ending of The French Lieutenant's Woman by tossing a coin.

Computer-written prose still hasn't succeeded in a big way, unless you count the weird and wondrous "poetry" of automatic Babelfish translations on the net. But it's sobering that the first book of prose and verse written entirely by a computer program appeared as long ago as 1984.

The title is The Policeman's Beard Is Half Constructed, and the author is RACTER. (It would have been "Raconteur", but the operating system allowed only six-letter program names.) Possibly the software writer, William Chamberlain, also had something to do with it. Besides compiling RACTER's vocabulary, I bet he discarded an awful lot of duff output and cherry-picked the best for publication.

Eccentricity and derangement rule. RACTER uses several literary and conversational styles but keeps circling back to favourite concepts: classical music, physics, meat and fish, lettuce and seltzer. "Lettuce sipped with seltzer. ... Telemann loved wine. He loved champagne as well. Telemann once yodelled to Bach, 'Flounder is critical with wine.'"

Another intimate RACTER dialogue climaxes as follows. "DIANE: Get ready for my fantasy, Helene. My fantasy is that cold wine is like delicious lamb. HELENE: Diane, you are loony."

Elsewhere: "He is loony and crazy about her. That is not the love of steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and neutron. This dissertation will show that the love of a man and a woman is not the love of steak and lettuce."

The main difference between RACTER's gentle insanity and the average slushpile manuscript is that the program – with cruel mechanical superiority – never makes errors in spelling, punctuation or syntax.

All this was twenty years ago. One wonders how far computer-generated fiction has progressed since then. Was RACTER supplanted by ARCHER? Perhaps some of today's eerily good-looking author photographs are mere fronts for the latest wordmill software? We wrinkly old SF authors demand to know.

David Langford found yodellings of lettuce sipped with seltzer at http://www.ubu.com/concept/racter.html. [And, after this column appeared, received suspicious e-mail from highly promotable new author Steph Swainston. Oops.]