Archive for December, 2014

Computers And Literature

What do you think?  Will a computer ever be able to write a novel?  Or paint a masterpiece?  Or compose a great symphony?  Or any symphony?

Limiting this discussion to writing novels and their shorter cousins the short story, will a computer, following only the directions of its programming software, ever be able to write something profound?  The act of writing consists of putting words down on paper or a computer screen one at a time in a very specific and profound order.  There are many rules for writing, from simple rules of grammar, such as a sentence has to have a subject and a predicate, to more complex rules that mandate how stories are structured and presented.  “Show; don’t tell,” and its ilk, for example.  Theoretically, it should be possible to program a computer to make those choices.  I suspect there are a finite number of rules by which stories are told, and a good programmer should be able to set them down in such a manner that a novel will result.  After all, we do now have software in most computers that will translate a line in one language to that of another.  And most word-processing programs have spell and grammar checkers.  That’s a step in the appropriate direction, at least.  They aren’t very good right now (in fact they’re downright terrible) but they do represent the first step in getting computers to become independent thinkers.  However, there is one very big step ahead for computers and their writing ability.  That is, inspiration.

The editing software currently in our computers is all reactive, as opposed to proactive.  A human writer conceives of a story line and begins to put it down on paper.  This is the act of inspiration and creation.  The human mind can conceive of stories of people, things and events that have never happened and, in most cases, never will.  How do we do it?  I don’t know.  How did H.G. Wells conceive of Martians invading Earth with green death rays?  How do I write the stories I write?  Where does that inspiration come from?  Apparently it’s due to the brain’s ability to absorb and digest all the details of human life and re-arrange them into stories of people and events that never existed.  The current computer software we have is limited.  It can act only on that which has already been written.  To my knowledge, no computer has ever proactively written anything.  On the other hand, science fiction is full of proactive computers.  HAL on “2001-A Space Odyssey,” Data on “Star Trek, The Next Generation,” and so forth.  It’s clear, then, that we expect computers in the next few centuries to be able to talk back to us, and perhaps even write for us.  I suspect it’s only a matter of time before computers write first-rate novels.  After all, Data took up painting, although his attempts were decidedly inferior.

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All That Life Out There, Part 2

Several times I’ve written in this blog about the possibility of life on other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy.  (Or other galaxies for that matter.)  It’s almost certain that life exists somewhere else, even though we here on Earth have never been able to find any evidence for it.  The recent findings that water existed on Mars in the distant past offers a good possibility that life will be found amidst the rocks and dirt of the red planet, although if life ever existed on Mars, it’s probably gone by now.  Life—whatever the type or style—is almost certainly out there.  Somewhere.

But science fiction writers (and I include myself here even though I haven’t published anything yet) seem to be focused on one type of life: that of the humanoid, logical, reasonable, communicative type.  As an example, I saw an episode of the old TV series “The Outer Limits” a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the manner in which the writers of that particular episode had endowed the creature that had invaded Earth with all sorts of human traits.  The invader was “trapped” here on Earth, and Earthlings had to help “him” escape.  A fairly typical sci-fi story.  The invader was depicted on the screen by saw-tooth-like lightning bolts that made up his body.  He was a two-dimensional creature, able to slip through 3-D walls since he had no thickness.  Again, a fairly typical concoction for science fiction.  And when the Earthlings gave him the object that he needed to return to his own planet, the invader told them how he very much appreciated what they did.  In other words, the invader acted exactly as you would expect a reasonable human to act in the same situation.

A lot of sci-fi is written that way.  I have to admit that the characters in my novels are “humanoid” and act as humans in most respects.  (I do that to let us get a good look at ourselves.)  We human writers put human traits into many of the aliens we meet in out fictional travels around the universe.  But it seems to me that that situation is almost certainly not what we are going to see when we really do meet the first aliens out there.  Life on other planets is almost certainly going to be weirder and more unusual than we can imagine.  None of them are going to “thank” us if we do something for them.  Giving thanks is a human trait.  Is it reasonable to expect that life on another planet—regardless of what it looks like—is going to operate by the social rules of Earth?  If we find life on Mars, or at least the remnants of Martian life, it probably won’t be what we think it will be.  We may go looking for Martian bacteria.  But who’s to say that life on Mars ever had bacterial forms?  There was an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation where the alien life the characters encountered was a thin film of salty water deep within the bowels of an otherwise uninhabited planet.  It was able to communicate with the Enterprise’s crew through the ship’s computer.  That was good, and a very good example of what I’m talking about.  Different.  Wild and weird.

We need to open our minds to other things.  Things we never thought of before.

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Be It Ever So Humble . . .

What’s the hardest part of writing for a writer, especially an unpublished one?  The hardest part for me is staying humble.

I haven’t found it particularly difficult to force myself to sit down and write every day.  I enjoy the process—of putting words down on a computer screen, of rearranging them to better say what I want; of adding or subtracting words that don’t fit or make sense, of cutting out words or paragraphs or chapters that don’t advance the plot, or show character, or set a scene, or reveal dialogue; of re-writing those same sentences or paragraphs or chapters over and over; of letting others read them; or of taking their comments back to my office and using them to once again rearrange and modify the words.  That’s never been a problem.  That’s because I’m writing a story.  I’m developing characters and putting them into situations where they have to use their wits to get out of.  That’s a caricature of real life.

What does give me trouble from time to time is staying humble—perhaps a better term would be realistic—about my writing, and about my writing abilities.  It’s tempting to think that the reason no agent or editor or publisher has wanted to take up the challenge of publishing or representing my novels (at least not so far) is that they just don’t understand them.  That my work is so unique, so avant-garde, so unconventional or experimental that no one understands it.  But I know that can’t be right.  In fact, that’s total, unmitigated horse manure.  They’re intelligent people; they wouldn’t be where they are if they weren’t.  The real hard part is admitting to myself that my work just doesn’t measure up; that it doesn’t meet the standards that so many people in the writing industry have established.  Sometimes I feel my ego inflate to red-giant size and I tell myself “how in heaven can anyone turn this novel down?  It says what I want it to say, it isn’t derivative of any other novel, it’s been heavily revised and edited, and it’s been polished to the best of my ability.  It’s prize-winning material.”  I have to tell myself, “that may be true, you stupid idiot, but that doesn’t mean it meets the standards for being published.”

Now, I fully realize that writing and the critique of writing is a very subjective affair, and someone, somewhere is probably out there waiting to see my works and accept them for what they are.  It’s just a matter of time before I get an agent/publisher.  And I’m sure every other unpublished writer on the face of this Earth has had, at one time or another, the same thoughts, the same doubts.  But it’s imperative we get a grip on our emotions and begin to realize that a large portion of why we aren’t published is that our work just doesn’t measure up.  It’s not them.  It’s us.  This isn’t an argument for becoming discouraged, it’s an argument for being realistic.

Now shut up, sit down, and get to work.

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