Mr. Sloan wanted to see for himself. He acquired a database of texts from the Internet Archive: issues of Galaxy and If, two science fiction magazines popular in the 1950s and 1960s. After trial and error, the program came up with a phrase that impressed him: “The slow-sweeping tug passed through the emerald harbour.
“It was a line that made you go, ‘Tell me more,'” Mr Sloan said.
These original magazines, however, were too restrictive, filled with clichés and stereotypes. So Mr. Sloan has augmented the pool with what he calls “The California Corpus,” which includes the digital text of novels by John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Joan Didion, Philip K. Dick, and others; the poems of Johnny Cash; oral histories of Silicon Valley; old Wired articles; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Fish Bulletin; and more. “It’s growing and changing all the time,” he said.
Unlike Mr. French a quarter of a century ago, Mr. Sloan is unlikely to use his IT collaborator as a selling point for the finished book. It limits the writing of the AI in the novel to an AI computer that is a significant character, meaning the majority of the story will be its own inspiration. But although he has no desire to market the software, he is intrigued by the possibilities. Mega-sellers like John Grisham and Stephen King could relatively easily market programs that used their many published works to help fans produce authorized knockoffs.
As for more distant prospects, another San Francisco Bay Area science fiction writer long anticipated a time when novelists would entrust composition to computerized “word mills.” In “The Silver Eggheads” by Fritz Leiber, published in 1961, human “novelists” spend their time polishing machines and their reputations. When they try to rebel and crush the word mills, they find they’ve forgotten how to write.
Mr. Sloan ended his paragraph:
“The bison were lined up fifty miles long, not in the cool of the sun, herded around the canyon by the naked sky. They had traveled for two years, going back and forth between the main beaches of the city. They sound the furthest outskirts grumbling and muttering, and briefly disturbs, before returning again to the beginning, a loop that had been destroyed and was now reconstituting.
“I like it, but it’s still primitive,” the writer said. “What’s next is going to make it look like crystal radio kits from a century ago.”