Sunday, 30 September 2018

Will Robots Write the Next Great Novel?

Anyone over the age of 30 can’t help but notice how technology has crept into our lives. It begins by being an anomaly, then a convenience, and finally, a necessity. I learned to type in year nine on a manual typewriter. The kind that requires a powerful physical stab of one’s finger at each key as you force the machine to propel a metal rod up to strike the paper. In year ten, we had already progressed to electric typewriters. Still requiring a lot of force by today’s standards, we had to learn to control our strong fingers lest we trigger too many key strikes with each press. The year after that my family got our first personal computer and everything changed. Now, I can’t imagine having to use a manual typewriter or *gasp* writing a book by hand! But that was the norm less than forty years ago.

Today, we have all manner of wordprocessors and computerized writing aids to allow us to optimize our writing style, whatever it may be. Our computers are fast and powerful. We have smart phones — powerful pocket computers — that have millions of times more storage space and processing power than the first personal computer my family had at only a fraction of the cost. And people have written novels using these wonders while on their commute home.

Now, however, we're entering a time of science fiction reality as we develop and quickly improve artificial intelligence. I was still in university when the first computer, Deep Blue, beat the world’s top chess master. It took almost twenty years from that point to create an AI (Alpha Go) that could beat a professional Go player. In a few short years following that, AI (Alpha Go Zero - named because it trained with no human data) has advanced to an almost undefeatable level after mastering Chess, Shogi, and Go within 24 hours.

But games aren’t really that difficult to master, are they? They all have a very clear set of rules that a computer simply has to apply while determining the most effective use of those rules (strategy) to win. A computer could never do something like create a beautiful piece of art or music, or write a novel. Could it? A computer won't write the next great novel, will it?

Well, probably not the next one, but only because humans have a head start. Given the rate of development of artificial intelligence (AI) however, it seems only a matter of time until one does write a great novel.
Not everyone believes that and the debate typically settles over the question of creativity, the certain intangible qualities humans imbue their creations with, leading many to ask, ‘Can computers do art?’

You likely have your own answer for that, but before you settle yourself down on one side of the fence or the other, a little experiment. Have a look at these creative examples and decide which are your favourites and note whether the images come from the top panel or the bottom panel.

Next, see if you can guess which poem was written by a computer. I’ll let you know the creators of both art and writing at the end of the article.

However, if you want to try some while-you-wait computer-generated music, check out

Finally, I’ll just mention that in 2016 a Japanese competition for science fiction shortlisted a short story written by an AI. The comments were that it was surprisingly well written, although there were problems with characterization. Here is the eerie ending:
“I writhed with joy, which I experienced for the first time, and kept writing with excitement. The day a computer wrote a novel. The computer, placing priority on the pursuit of its own joy, stopped working for humans.”
So, how close is AI to challenging human authors?

Alan Turing famously devised the Turing Test for determining whether machines exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to humans. When applied to literary fiction, the test were expressed something like this:

The soft test would be passed if humans cannot tell whether the creation was human or computer generated.

The hard test would be passed when humans can’t tell who created it and they’d actually buy it to read.

Well, from the examples above examples above, which are now several years old, it seems clear we are quickly approaching a successful pass of the soft test. When that is accomplished, it can only be a matter of time until the hard test is also passed. When that happens, what will it mean for human authors?

The good? Fiction has room for many, many authors, stories, and ideas. It’s highly likely human originality will outstrip computers for some time yet. For better or worse, the AI will probably enter the market as software to speed up your story writing. It may also make for flexible or customized stories depending on reader variables. Your story could read slightly different for each reader. This could be the next evolution in fiction writing.

The bad? When AI enters the market, get ready for the next big shake-up of the publishing industry. The potential flood of fiction will mean the bottom will drop out of the fiction market as we currently know it and novel prices will plummet (and they're already pretty low!). A timeline? If it takes twenty years, I’ll be surprised.

So, with that doom and gloom scenario, why should we continue to write?

There are several answers to that. One is that AI will likely write like someone from a culture we've never heard of with themes and topics we haven't read before, or not in the same way. Bringing AI to the marketplace may just open up a new genre. Another answer, that almost any author will give instantly is that we will continue to write because the stories within won’t let us do anything else. Authors have to write, the stories in their heads won't let them live in peace otherwise. All of us have examples of interrupting day jobs to scribble down story ideas, waking from dreams in the middle of the night to jot down vivid scenes before we forget them. Our stories are part of us and they want us to give them life. That’s why there will always be humans creating stories, regardless of how fast computers can do it. It’s just who we are.

And who I am is Edwin H Rydberg, a futurist and a science fiction author. You can find out more about me and me writing at

As for the artistic works shown earlier, the creators are:
The top panel of images are by the following humans: Paintings from Art Basel 2016 used in the experiment, with works, in order, by: Richard Caldicott (2003), Jigger Cruz (2016), Leonardo Drew (2015), Cenk Akaltun (2015), Lang Li (2014), Xuerui Zhang (2015), David Smith (1956), Kelu Ma (1989), Xie Nanxing (2013), Panos Tsagaris (2015), Heimo Zobernig (2014), Zao Wou-Ki (1958), Andy Warhol (1985), David Smith (1956), Wei Ligang (2014), KONG Chun Hei (2016), Ye Yongqing (2015) Wei Ligang (2010), Xiaorong Pan (2015), Xuerui Zhang (2016), Xiaorong Pan (2015), Xiaorong Pan (2015), Xu Zhenbang (2015), Xuerui Zhang (2016), Zao Wou-Ki (1963) 
The bottom set of images were made by AI at Rutgers University’s Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. 
The first poem was written by a computer, the second by a human.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Mellow unfruitfulness: N M Browne

Oh, God! It’s the end of September and my head is still in August. For the first time in twenty-five
photo 'Cherwell'
years I don’t have a child starting school or university and I am disoriented and confused. I haven’t had to argue over school shoes, iron-on labels, choose pencil cases, or duvet covers, visit Ikea or shoehorn hair straighteners into a car filled to bursting with black bin bags of essential stuff. It is zombie apocalypse levels of weird.
  I never get much done in the summer: I am lured by walks in the countryside, the odd glass of rose´ overlooking the river, or coffee out-doors watching the world go by, indulging in a little light gossip. I have lots of useful thoughts but I store them like nuts for colder weather.         This year those signs which tell me it’s time to stop metaphorically gathering hay or wool (or whatever the damn phrase is,) the secret semaphore signals to my brain to tell me to knuckle down have not been heard. I’ve always been like some migratory bird neurologically attuned to the mysterious subliminal messages of the academic year to determine when it is time to set out on the arduous journey to the winter-feeding grounds. And I haven’t yet received them.  Roughly translated this means that I still think I’m on summer holidays and haven’t got going on revising/rewriting/finishing the novels stacked up on my hard drive. Only yesterday I was sipping chilled rose´ in the garden on a school night because there is no school and the sun was shining.
   The weather hasn’t helped. I mean each lovely day could be the last day of summer. The river viewed from Richmond Hill may not look so beautiful tomorrow, the deer in the park might be less magnificent. I am so busy carpe-ing the diem that I am way behind on work. 
   Anyone who regularly reads this blog will know that it always reads like an extended justification for procrastination, but it really is worse than usual.  The dog has not eaten my homework (mainly because he died some years ago) but I have been writing short stories and poetry and nothing else, except for ‘to do’ lists which I have always ignored.

   But here I am at my desk at last. I am ignoring the dirty windows and the fact that the whole place needs a good clean and a sort out. I am not yet so desperate that I will do housework to avoid work, no, I have one more trick up my sleeve first: I am getting ready to teach a new class for Oxford Continuing Education. I think there may still be places. It is in ‘Writing for Children’ and it begins next Wednesday and I have a lot to think about and plan before then. After that, I’ll fix my novels. Honestly.  

The course I'm teaching

Friday, 28 September 2018

Dragons, Vegetarians, and Bluebeard fantasies, by Enid Richemont

 My latest small book with Franklin Watts came out around ten days ago. It's the story of a dragon who's fooled by a princess into attacking his own reflection in a deep pool. He does this because he can't bear to accept that there may be another dragon who might be even better than himself at laying waste the countryside, barbecuing knights and capturing (preferable blonde and subservient) princesses, like the ones pictured in his reference book, to be his slaves.

I first came up with this story for a Kingfisher anthology called: "Don't Kiss the Frog" - a more sophisticated version, so a much more grown-up presentation. Visually, I love both versions. Interesting to see that in both, the dragon has come out scarlet, maybe because he breathes out flames? I love the elegant typography in the older version, which I've shown here. And for the vegetarians among you, you'll be pleased to learn that the dragon was converted, and currently lives on his five-a-day (or on whatever the princess can forage for him.) He and the princess also run their own airport - DRAGON AIR, anyone? No free meals on board, and you'll have to wrap up warmly, but better than Ryanair...

Lately I've been re-reading Ian McEwan's novel: SATURDAY, written at the time of the Iraq war, and still relevant. Among other questions it raises is the difficult one: if a dictator is persecuting his own people, as well as threatening world peace, is it morally justifiable to attack him and, obviously his country? The main protagonist is a neurological surgeon, who's had first-hand dealings with one of Saddam's victims, and the main action takes place against the anti-war demonstrations in London, which I remember well, and which I supported (my husband, a wise and knowedgeable man) did not. At the beginning, though, I have to confess the joy we felt at seeing Saddam's statue topple - a man who'd used torture and poison gas against so many people - maybe the West was right? Of course it wasn't that simple, as we've all now learnt to our cost.

McEwan's writing is slow, detailed, and, at times, requiring great concentration, which I don't always have, being sometimes, plotwise, a bit like the child who keeps demanding: Are we there yet? without ever bothering to look out of the window and appreciate what's happening now. There's a lengthy scene in SATURDAY, in which the protagonist's state of mind is directly related to his game of squash with a colleague, and I don't play squash, so found myself, guiltily, skipping.

Which brings me, quite illogically, to Angela Carter, a very different writer who always makes me shiver, and via a very circuitous route, to Gransnet, an online forum for grandparents (I am one). Mostly, discussions are related to family and children, but they can also become interestingly political, and even more interestingly, weird. Someone had a friend who'd had her house 'spiritually cleansed' after unhappy events, so the discussions moved moved from whether this was profitable nonsense, or could buildings in some mysterious way hold a memory of the past, and this led me - because I have a nasty imagination - to Bluebeard and his many murdered wives, their remnants kept inside the forbidden room. This, in turn, led me into so many possible stories, so now I have to research Bluebeard, and also made me wonder why a room mightn't hold memories of happy events, too - lovemaking, maybe a birth, maybe a particularly fun party - but the dark side, as Angela Carter knew so well, is always what grabs people.

"DOUBLE DRAGONS", part of the 'Reading Champion' series, is now available on Amazon and also via Franklin Watts at Hachette:




Thursday, 27 September 2018

What Would You Be Willing to Do to Be Successful? - Andrew Crofts

If offered a Faustian pact, what would you be willing to do in exchange for fame and success as a writer? 

I only ask because I have been reading John Boyne’s latest book, “A Ladder to the Sky” which is about a young man who will literally do anything to be a literary star – even though he has no real talent. (It’s an extremely entertaining read by the way, but does not reflect well on the morals of the publishing and writing worlds).

Image result for a ladder to the sky john boyne

So, what would you be willing to give up? What moral and ethical lines would you be willing to cross?

Most of us are willing to give up any hope of earning steady livings. We are willing to forgo all those secure things like regular salaries and company pensions. We are willing to risk ending up broke, taking our families down into the gutter with us. We are willing to suffer endless rejection. We are also willing to take full responsibility for the work we produce. If your book – or your whole career - is a flop there really isn’t anyone else to blame; we might have a go at blaming the publishers for their appalling marketing skills or the reading public for their lamentable lack of taste – but we’re not fooling anyone, not even ourselves.We set ourselves up for the fall and have to face the consequences.

Would you, however, be willing to sleep with someone who could further your career? Steal someone else’s story? Or possibly even worse …

Reading “A Ladder to the Sky” reminded me of how hungry I was for success when I first left school; how frightened I was that I might not be able to earn a living from the one thing I wanted to do and that I would eventually be forced to get a “proper job”. It was probably ten years before I was earning enough from writing to support a family and I wonder what lengths I would have gone to if those hungry times had stretched on for another ten, twenty or even thirty years. I have a feeling that people who are meant to be full-time writers are incapable of giving up the struggle gracefully and I shudder to think what I might have been capable of if I had been pushed too far.     

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee

When the invitation came through Facebook Messenger as a friend request, I saw a young man, no friends in common. Populated as facebook is by shirtless wonders peddling sleazy messages, I was about to hit Decline, but decided to check the message first.

Image result for chicago south asian film festivalIt was from the Festival Director of the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, inviting me to moderate a session after the screening of the latest film by one of the most acclaimed stars of the Bengali screen, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, on September 22, 2018. 

I am glad I got to view Shonar Pahar, The Golden Mountain. I also had to think about Bengali cinema -- and Bengali poetry -- in a way I haven’t consciously processed in many years.

Bengali cinema is recognized worldwide for the towering genius of Satyajit Ray, and Shonar Pahar also pays tribute to a childlike wonder about the world. Parambrata Chattopadhyay beautifully weaves a story about the power of the imagination to create an alternative joyful universe even when the reality is rather bleak. And at a time when movies sell on sex and violence, Shonar Pahar tells a nuanced gentle story of the magical friendship between a 70-year-old woman and a 7-year-old boy.

However, the use of a Tagore poem, Birpurush, as a trope in this movie was problematic. This much venerated poem has become a classic of Bengali literature and the patriarchy inherent in the fable of a little boy, single-handedly saving his mother from dacoits in the deep dark jungle, was very much a product of the time it was written. You can read the poem and an English translation here

Iconic or not, how likely would it be that a feisty single mother – and a librarian with a wealth of literary texts at her disposal – would so worship a poem about little boys being their mothers' saviors?  The intertextuality with 'Birpurush' made me question the director on whether the movie could have been more nuanced when it came to gender-roles in this movie, or whether that would be unrealistic. (The full interview is here).

As I thought about the treatment of this single poem in this movie, I also thought hard about the Bengali poems from my own childhood, which made me, as a young girl, feel brave or empowered. 

I could not think of a single one. 

There is a poem about swinging in the air, red comb in hair, waiting for my groom to sweep me off from there. Another about a new bride, speechless with shyness. The most memorable nursery rhyme is about a young girl's wedding (Shonamonir biye). But the wedding arena is not exclusive to girls, shared as it is with a bat wedding, and little boys marching to their brides accompanied by 600 drummers, then another is accompanied by a tomcat.

Rhymes abound with little boys dancing and bears being exhorted to watch; boys fishing while elder brothers are randomly cruel to fish; boys watching the dangerous play of frogs on the heads of snakes. In these poems, little girls are absent.

The moon is a maternal uncle, but the dispenser of sleep is an aunt, called in to – you guessed it – spread sleep on infant male eyes.

It may seem silly to complain about misrepresentation from a different time (who thinks of Catholic priests and sex when reciting Goosey Goosey Gander anymore?)  but representation matters. If we are still teaching little girls from babyhood that they are invisible or less worthy of being seen, it has real repercussions. The language used to frame the girls born into our homes triumphs over any tradition of chanting mantras at our clay goddesses.

India as a whole has a problem with female foeticide. In West Bengal the sex ratio is 949 girls per thousand boys and Bengal ranks fourth in child marriages nation-wide: 54.7 %marriages involve a child bride

Still, nobody thinks about female foeticide or child brides while sing-songing about little girls getting married under the full moon with adorably footloose elephants and horses.

As creative artists, we all tread a fine line between standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before us and genuflecting on the archaic. Asking uncomfortable questions is only the beginning.

Dipika Mukherjee is an internationally touring writer, sociolinguist, and global nomad. More at