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The AI Backrooms of Literature
What to do about all the AI SFF? Also: Zoning Holidays & Hooray for Earth
This week, Clarkesworld, a prominent sci-fi magazine had to close down their open submissions process because of being inundated with AI-produced stories. This graph shows how many authors had to be banned because of their policy of not accepting AI-generated stories.
People are not happy.
Unfortunately, dear reader, I’m into AI and crypto, and have written, published, and edited SFF. So, here’s my take:
It’s a new problem, regardless of whether you believe that there’s existential problems to detecting and banning AI. What AI-written short stories can do well, is being good at being okay. If you are a human-curated magazine, you now are faced with the problem: spend time effort on detecting and banning AI-created works, or spend time judging the AI works themselves. Both, however adds new workload. As Neil Clarke himself says:
It's the quantity problem.
If you choose the former: detecting and banning AI works, my suspicion is that you’d likely not lose much, especially if you are a broad genre magazine (like Clarkesworld). Exceptional works will be rare, because AI stories without heavy-handed editing will likely just retread established tropes and genres (which it can do well). It can write well (which is great for non-native English speakers), but it will likely just be a poor to an okay storyteller.
So, if you put the axis on a 2x2, you’d get the following with most AI stories in the grey.
An okay, established story told well can be a bestseller. A romance novel with familiar characters and plot can be joyful and evocative if the writer knows how to make the butterflies in one’s stomach flutter.
A new, good story, told badly, will be forgotten: the amazing premise, ideas, and characters ultimately kneecapped by a poor writer. If you’re lucky, it might accrue niche cult status. We often lament in cinema, for example, that we wished another director would’ve taken the helm of a particular script. We’ve also heard someone tell a joke we’re familiar with, really poorly.
Most AI stories will just be okay. See for yourself.
I tried this, with no post-prompt editing:
Write a sci-fi short story about humanity who discovered Earth doesn't exist anymore because it was used as collateral in a cosmic betting game.
The year was 2250 and humanity had just discovered that Earth no longer existed. The news sent shockwaves through the galaxy, leaving many wondering how such a catastrophic event could have happened. As it turned out, Earth had been used as collateral in a cosmic betting game between two alien civilizations.
The story began over a century earlier, when a group of humans stumbled upon a small, uncharted planet on the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy. Excited by the possibility of discovering a new home for humanity, the group began to study the planet in depth. They found that it was rich in resources and had a habitable climate, making it the perfect candidate for colonization.
However, unbeknownst to the humans, two alien civilizations had been watching them closely. The first civilization, the Zoraxians, were a race of advanced beings who had grown bored with their own existence. Seeking new forms of entertainment, they had taken to betting on the outcomes of various events across the galaxy, from the success of fledgling civilizations to the outcomes of cosmic battles.
The second civilization, the Sarnans, were a group of ruthless traders who specialized in the buying and selling of planets. They had been eyeing the humans' discovery of the new planet, which they saw as a potential goldmine.
In a moment of recklessness, the leaders of the Zoraxians and the Sarnans decided to merge their interests and make a bet on the fate of the human race. The stakes? Earth itself.
The Zoraxians placed their bet on humanity, believing that the species had the potential to thrive and spread throughout the galaxy. The Sarnans, on the other hand, saw Earth as a valuable asset that they could sell for a handsome profit.
Over the next few decades, the two civilizations watched as humanity developed at an astonishing pace. They marveled at the humans' technology, their art, and their culture. But they also watched as the humans began to expand beyond their own planet, colonizing other worlds and threatening the delicate balance of power in the galaxy.
In the end, it was the Sarnans who won the bet. As humanity continued to grow and expand, the Sarnans swooped in and sold Earth to a group of mysterious beings from another galaxy. The humans were none the wiser, continuing to go about their lives on their various colonies throughout the galaxy.
It wasn't until a group of human scientists stumbled upon some old archives that they discovered the truth about Earth's fate. Shocked and horrified, they spread the news to the rest of humanity, who were left reeling from the revelation.
For many, the news was a wake-up call. They realized that they were not alone in the universe and that their actions had consequences beyond their own small corner of the galaxy. And while they could never get Earth back, they could work to ensure that the same fate did not befall any other worlds. For as long as humanity existed, they would be vigilant against the whims of cosmic betters and the greed of intergalactic traders.
While the prompt is loosely based on a short story I wrote in 2020, the output doesn’t make total sense. Interesting, but has plot holes.
Thus, intuitively and with a simple example: telling a story well is a much harder skill than inventing a new story. That’s not going to change, because the AIs-as-fancy-autocompletes can’t verify its output.
So, what to do then? You can choose to ban AI works to ensure your reading workload stays manageable. The odds are that by doing so, you won’t miss out on exceptional works (because exceptional works will still require extensive rework/editing from good storytellers).
But, where the more interesting question lies: what if curation is already broken?
What lies beyond? What if you did accept AI works and under what circumstances would it be desirable?
The likely area where AI produced works will flourish, is in the niche, where being okay isn’t that bad, and where the workload will be more manageable. If AI writing is just okay, you could still find audiences for it, especially among people that want to tell stories, but whose day-job isn’t being a storyteller.
And that’s ultimately, fan-fiction. Writing well is not a requirement for a good fan-fic story. It’s about comfort. It’s about fantasising and world-building. It’s about the social aspect of sharing the story and world with others. It’s not about necessarily being a good storyteller. Writing poorly or not being a good storyteller is forgivable, because the fans are often, too. They can see past the quality for the joy in building worlds together.
“This is something we really need to be worried about, these books will flood the market and a lot of authors are going to be out of work,” said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of writers’ group the Authors Guild. Ghostwriting - by humans - has a long tradition, she said, but the ability to automate through AI could turn book writing from a craft into a commodity.
“There needs to be transparency from the authors and the platforms about how these books are created or you’re going to end up with a lot of low-quality books,” she said.
AI written stories *is* like everyone having an okay ghostwriter-as-a-service. What’s going to change is that we’ll likely have more writers producing more niche work that will be read by more people. Authors are *not* going out of work, it’s just that what people might want to consume won’t be what’s being produced today.
As Allegra Rosenberg argues, talking about fandom this week (in contrast to the web3/crypto ideas of wanting to tokenize and financialise contributions):
Historically, fans have tended not to think of the (very real) work they do as labor; they conceive of it as leisure. It’s a hobby, it’s a passion, it’s how they spend their time outside of work, or instead of it. Fandom is fun!!!!!!!!! Dammit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
In time, I think the fear of not being seen -
- might be replaced by the fear of not knowing where to fit in as a storyteller: an endlessly deep rabbit hole of niche self-referential and expansive universe fiction. The backrooms of literature. Can be cozy or deeply unsettling. Perhaps, both.
PS. I might add. As opposed to imagery which can be more justifiably subjective/vague and thus allow an AI visual generator to suffice, poor writing is more evident, which is also why its domain as a storytelling medium is harder. Certain flaws in AI imagery can justifed as just: art and style. Flaws in AI written stories is harder to justify (maybe until people invent AI literary fiction that plays with the flaws? 😅)
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This is an interesting reply from Kristina Kashtanova’s lawyers on what they think the US Copyright office got right and wrong about her comic book. You can read a summary of the report here. In short, the arrangement and story got registered copyright, but the images did not, citing the fact that because you can’t predict the outcome of the AI generator, it does not have sufficient input from a human. Her lawyers argues that it’s wrong, since there is generally a selection process involved: from designing the prompt to selecting, enhancing and modifying the prompt to find the image one looks for. As they argue, what should get copyright is that it should require a “modicum of creativity”.
My current belief (subject to change) on the output side, is that AI generators is just a tool. Most stuff should be able to be copyrightable due to the minimal requirement of a “modicum of creativity”. However, if it infringes on existing work (just like you could do with existing tools), it’s just straight up: infringement. If there’s no human author, it’s not copyrightable. You can’t also just generated a billion images and claim copyright, because it does not have that minimal input from a human author that indicates intent.
I just don’t know how to draw the line otherwise. For example, sci-fi magazines don’t even allow AI assisted stories. What *is* AI assisted? If I use ProWritingAid to help me edit, is that AI assisted? Where is your line?
Copyright is often now seen as the saving grace that will save ““the creators””. But, is it fit at all in the current regime?
If we want to protect creators, it requires new thinking, because we still in a world where Disney is the one that will sue everyone when it gets more control of copyright law. From Cory Doctorow:
Under these conditions, giving a creator more copyright is like giving a bullied schoolkid extra lunch money. It doesn’t matter how much lunch money you give that kid — the bullies will take it all, and the kid will still go hungry
The same old story, with NIMBY’s fighting development. Builder’s Remedy can be invoked by developers when local planning commissions don’t build enough. This, of course, causes conflict between the local community and the developers.
This is a great article taking one through the various setbacks involved with increasing development.
Meanwhile, cities are attempting an eleventh hour subterfuge by imposing application fees as high as $50,000 (many being mulled even higher) to just file a Builder’s Remedy project, as is the case in Mountain View. Huntington Beach is going to war against the state. Daring the attorney general to sue them, they’re outright refusing to allow Builder’s Remedy projects or even backyard granny units/ADUs to be filed.
Hooray For Earth – La Que
I find this week’s song hard to describe. A mix of reverby, chunky guitars, and soaring vocals, with ambient pads. Enjoy it!
Enjoy the sunsets, friends!
Till next week.
I must admit. I don’t always intend on writing so much about AI. This week had been busy with being on holiday and seeing family and that’s most of the news I had found flowing across the limited feed-time I had. I haven’t been able to fully scour the internet as in previous weeks. Sometimes I’m exasperated by the constant AI talk, but it’s still incredibly interesting. It’s happening so fast!