AI Writers – It’s not all bad news for human writers

I had chance to visit Waterstones bookshop in the Galleries in Bristol yesterday and as ever, the science fiction and fantasy section was overrun with fantasy books. They do their best in promoting science fiction, but they can only work with what the publishers allow them to have. The publishers in turn can only work with what agents and their slush pile readers (if they have a slush pile) pass onto them. Equally the publishers have to satisfy their financial people that a book is worth publishing. And let’s face it many science fiction writers are turning to fantasy because it pays them better.

You’ve heard all these points from me before. But there is now a new threat – AI writing apps like ChapGPT. Anything produced by an AI does not attract copyright protection. If you take into account that all the publishers have to do is support a ChapGPT through the writing process, then the process of producing a novel will become even cheaper for them. The writer of novels as a profession is severely threatened. This has already happened in other arts areas, like composing music or pictures, with unhappy consequences for the creatives.

But taking a slightly closer look at ChapGPT, it appears to be a neural network which bases its learning on predetermined teaching set and a maths technique called ‘reinforced learning’. While I’m no expert in these techniques, I know enough to work out the dangers of using such a technique in a commercial sense. Yes, it is ideal for day-to-day normal business, kind of repeating or doing variations of repeating what has written in the past. This is the kind of novel writing that the financial people at publishers like when it has a track record of making money. It will use tried and tested themes and plots as a basis for a new novel. So when science moves on, as it inevitably will, to show a science fictional idea is utter rubbish, these writing AIs will continue dumping it the new publications. Science fiction as a genre will end up frozen into a straight-jacket if I may mix metaphors. It would be like being forever stuck with Battlestar Galactica knowhow and not moving on (though this is a microcosm of what science fiction would cover).

There is a second issue also coming into play. Many think there aren’t as many great discoveries as there use to be in science. They think this is because we’re running out of things to discover. I think the truth is far stranger than that. The money men are keen to show results, which is why they want to invest in developing gizmos that are likely to give them a profit rather than in blue sky research. The added issue here is that blue sky research costs an awful lot more these days than in did in previous centuries because then we were picking the low hanging fruit of discoveries.

There is a very big but ( I mean big BUT in spades). Published science fiction has hardly scratched the surface of the extrapolations of science we do know about.

Yes, I’m serious about this. It also makes me very sad. I enjoy a good space opera like many others (in fact I enjoyed Brian Trent’s Redspace Rising – my review can be found here). But I look at what I’m writing and compare it to what I can lay my paws on to read, and believe me I’m writing about ideas that I have not seen elsewhere. And they’re just extrapolations of known science.

I find it difficult to believe that I would be doing anything special. There will be other writers doing similar out there. And yet I hear little to nothing of them. And how many times have I heard a reader make similar complaints.

But with writing AIs encroaching on the business of writing novels, it means the more innovative writers among us will have something to offer that AI writers can’t. In fact I would go further to say that most writers who concentrate on variations on a theme will soon find their services will no longer be required, whereas us more inventive ones will continue to be needed (if only to help upgrade the AI writers).

Dealing with the New in Science Fiction

What do the words exploration, invention and discovery have in common?

They are all dealing with something new. Exploration is going somewhere where you have not been before. Invention is making something that has not been made before. Discovery is finding out something you had not realised before. Basically they answer the where, how and why of the new.

But what of Rudyard Kipling’s other questions, when, who and why?

When deals with time. We live in the now and have an appreciation of the past. We estimate or guess the future with varying degrees of uncertainty. The future here is the new, yet a word equivalent to exploration, invention or discovery does not readily come to mind. Why? We end up only following one future. There are no other futures to experience. There is no room for actually experiencing an alternative of the future in our actual lives.

A similar argument can be had for who. We are who we are at any given moment in time. Yes we change our characteristics over time, but there are no alternatives to find out about.

And what about why? Why deals with causal effects. This happened because of that type of business. The answers to the why question are built of history in one way or another. There is no room for the future in the answers. Even science, which is based on zillions of historical observations.

Science Fiction readily speculates about discoveries, new worlds and new gizmos. It has alternative histories and personalities (or slightly varied clones) galore. But what about the why? Which stories cover the explanation of things?

Yes, way back in the last century we used have what were called the juveniles where an author would explain how the extrapolation of some science or technology would work. But our understanding and application of science has now superseded or exceeded the the speculation of those stories for the most part.

What about now? Where can you find Science Fiction that explains the why of something from the future? Maybe this is what is missing from the genre.

Goodbye 2022 – Hello 2023

It’s that time of the year when nominations need to be in for the Best of Science Fiction Novel/Story/Artwork/Non-fiction/etc. One novel that deserves a shout out this year is The Flight of the Aphrodite by S. J. Morden. Certainly the ratings on Amazon say so as well. I was ever so pleased to be able to pick up a copy at Waterstones in Bath and by gum it’s an interesting read for the near future science fiction.

So what has 2022 been like for science fiction?

The post-Covid chaos in the publishing industry has not helped the genre. There are exceptions, but windows for novel submissions for unagented authors remain thin on the ground. Some magazines have stopped publishing, sadly. It all boils down to less opportunities for new and mid-list authors. This lack will feed through into the publishing industry for a few years to come.

I was lucky enough to have six stories published during the year – the best ever total for me to date. I put it down in part to being able to continue writing during the lockdowns when the creative inspiration of other authors faltered.

2022DecTaxedPenumbric – Vol 6, Issue IV, Dec 2k22
 JuneSeers of NeptuneThe Martian Wave – June 2022
 JuneGrey HaloNewMyths – Issue 59
JuneA Woman of Many Facets365tomorrows
JuneSpace BlindFelis Futura anthology
MarA Way with WordsCosmic Crimes Series – March 2022
Science Fiction Story Publications in 2022

There should have been a 7th story out, but unfortunately the said magazine stopped publishing in Autumn this year. So yes the publishing chaos did affect me directly. But I do have every sympathy for those involved in this magazine – they really did not have any other sensible choice.

What are the prospects for 2023?

Well we all hope for a better year and wish for things like an end to war Ukraine (with Ukraine having all its country back), a halt to horrendous cost of living crisis, the last restrictions because of Covid being lifted, all strikes being sensibly resolved (especially here in the UK), a readily accessible health service, etc. Even if these can’t be solved, taking steps towards them would help. With all this disruption to life and the universe going on, I can’t see the publishing industry taking priority in people’s lives.

So yes, science fiction will continue to recover from Covid issues in their various guises, but not as fast as many of us had once hoped. And yes, the high profile authors will continue to get their novels published because that is what brings in money for the industry. Publishers may continue to be choosy as to what they publish of these authors, but they are looking for a guarantee on return on investment in these times when readers in general have less money to spend. Bascially until the cost of living crisis and its causes are resolved, it is going to be a difficult year ahead for science fiction.

Previously when the publishing industry has taken a downturn, the authors suffer a squeeze in income. It has now got to the point when authors in general will not accept such a reduction in their pay. They will look elsewhere for income, because they have to, even if it is only stacking shelves in the local supermarket. So I would expect the pool of authors and hence stories publishers can choose from to reduce in number. By how much I am unsure, but it will be notable.

So far what I have suggested for 2023 is common sense. But history has taught us that when there are tough times, expect surprising solutions. I have no idea what they may be for the science fiction genre. Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that we will not just have more of the same, even if the quantity is reduced because of cost constraints.

A friend did suggest, ‘I think it still needs one massive SF seller and things will bounce back.’ Yes, science fiction has been in the doldrums for a few years now. All I’m going to add, I have no idea what that massive SF seller will look like.

Have a Happy and Interesting 2023.

pp

Short Story in Penumbric!

Delighted to have Penumbric publish one of my science fiction stories – you could say there is something of a Christmas spirit about it, especially with the title, Taxed.

Link to Penumbric here.

As to the background of the story – all I’m going to say is the facts about some of the flowers are true, which I learnt from an elderly neighbour of mine who loved her gardening. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but I’m sure she’ll be smiling about it, wherever she is.

Season’s Greetings to one and all!

Science Fiction – Current Issues about Ideas for Stories

I am in the middle of writing a science fiction story so off the beaten spaceways that there is not even a close equivalent in any published literature, in-genre or otherwise. This may sound like an outrageous statement to make, but it’s scarily true. Firstly the story involves recently discovered science that I have not seen written about anywhere. Secondly the protagonist is highly unusual. Thirdly the consequential idiom in the protagonists’ language reflects the very unusual setting that is necessary for this story to be set in.

The uniqueness of this story makes it much harder to write than standard tropes. There are no ‘off the shelf’ ideas to grab hold of to include in the story. Everything has to be new and thought out. Each sentence has to be crank-processed to check that it fits into the preceding story context and ratcheted down the shoulders and arms into the fingertips to be typed onto the screen.

Will it get published once I’ve finished it?

Hardly likely. As a friend said, ‘We’re both aware of the types of stories out there enough to recognise when we go places other writers don’t go and have a decent idea or prepared to turn things upside down. Convincing publishers to accept such material is a lot harder because most see it as a bigger risk.’

Yet in the middle of the last century it was almost a necessity in science fiction to have a new idea before it would be published. What has changed?

While any literature can be considered a political statement, the science fiction genre has seen a flood of political issues being debated from topics like the oil crisis of the 1970s onwards, through the climate crisis and datarisation of humans at the end of the last century to the LBGT campaigning of this century. These enrich the genre, but it also means they are taking the publishing bandwidth from new ideas staple of the mid-1900s.

Another issue is the much easier access to the screen. A lot of pre-1960s science fiction had descriptions of places the readers would never be able to visit in their lifetimes. Arthur C Clarke was good at setting an outer space scene as accurately as the scientists knew then, but spicing it up with a sense a of wonder. The reader came as close to experiencing it for themselves as anyone could. These days the scene does that – well at least as far as sight and sound goes – but those are the senses we rely on the most. It is not surprising that literature turned to bring out the impact of other senses like smell, taste and touch, and in the case of science fiction sense of weight and balance… senses that could only be indirectly implied on the screen.

But the screen’s impact went further. Like life in general, we could sense people’s presentational aspects, but not their internal thoughts and emotions. So literature went where the screen could not: they internalised the protagonists. This is immersive literature. It takes space on the page to describe the inner human, which in turn reduces publishing bandwidth for science idea based stories.

The third issue is the headlong rush for escapism from reality. Life has become demanding in different ways and these ways are continually changing. You just need to think about how the tax system has changed over the decades to give you an example. Or how medical care has changed. Or indeed how schooling has altered. Somewhere away from the complexities of real life is a welcome break to refresh oneself. Hence the need for fantasy or its encroachment on science fiction as in space opera. Well, who would use swords, sorry light-sabres, to fight evil when you can travel through interstellar space? Again this reduces the bandwidth for science idea based science fiction.

So there we have it. The three big issues that are eating away at what I would call the core of science fiction: political manifestos, screen stealing and escapism from life’s complexities.

Is there an answer to this for idea generated stories? Well that would depend on how brave the publishing industry is willing to be, but that is an entirely different issue.

The Everest of Short Story Submissions

Every now and then I review the status of the stories I’ve submitted to various prospective publishers and not yet found a home.

One of the principal reasons why some do not find a home is because they don’t follow any accepted science fiction theme (e.g. space opera, dystopia) that editors can easily recognise and relate to. They are what I call my ‘breaking new space’ stories, with themes and ideas nobody seems to have thought of. For instance in my Seers of Neptune kindly published by Tyree Campbell in The Martian Wave magazine (UK Amazon link here), I place a quantum computer on Triton, Neptune’s principle moon, because it is the coldest place with a significant amount of gravity, which will allow that computer to function. Yes, Triton is even colder than Pluto! So which science fiction writers do you know would come up with an idea like that? I’m sure there must be someone other than me, but I can’t think who.

I won’t say how many rejections I got for Seers of Neptune , except to say it quite a lot. It amounts to a lot of effort on the part of the short story writer. Sometimes I think I spend more time sending out my stories than I do actually writing. While I can understand this for writers learning their tradecraft, the effort spent on submissions should diminish with the improving writing. That is the theory and common sense, but not my experience.

I can understand why short story authors want to write and publish novels, once they’ve had their first novel published (getting that first novel published is a different nightmare – the agents issue alone is a sheer space elevator to climb). It takes less business effort on their part, so they can spend more time writing.

One of the reasons why it is difficult for any writer to get their short story published is the ratio of submissions to stories that can be accepted. The publishing system is sinking under the story files’ weight. Editors are human (well, a lot of them pretend to be) and if they can take shortcuts or come up with quick ways to reject stories, they will. Can yo blame them?

The real question should be how can the whole publishing industry reduce the ratio of submissions to allowable acceptances?

I’ve seen various mechanisms where authors are asked to jump through preliminary hurdles e.g. write a query that the editor checks before the editor will allow the author to send in their manuscript. It started with novels and I later saw it used for short stories. But this is more work for the author! Sorry, this ploy does not work with me for short stories.

Another ploy is the limit the submission windows. That from the author’s point of view is more than a damned nuisance. If when the author thinks a story is ready to submit, then they will only look at those publishers that are open for submission at the time – blow the ones that are temporarily closed to submissions, even if they might be a good match for the story. (The exception here is when the editor is on holiday – remember editors are human – but that should only be for a short duration and the author can wait that long.)

A further ploy is to require a story to be within narrowly-scoped theme. That would usually mean writing a story from scratch in a relatively short time scale. Well, those themes tend to be uninteresting compared to the stories the author is already writing, especially to the author. Where there is no or little interest in writing a story, it tends to end up being substandard compared to the author’s other works. Those narrow theme calls tend to get ignored by many authors because they are too busy with something far more interesting.

Basically with the increase in submissions, publishers and editors are coming up with ploys to lessen their workload, but it ends making more work for the author. This shifting of the workload cannot continue. Authors are human too – they need their sleep like everyone else. It is time editors and publishers realised this!

Of course in the good old days in England the Arts Council gave a small grant to Interzone to encourage and publish up and coming authors. That was last century, when David Pringle was its editor. I don’t know of any such grants being given in England, which makes me all the more miffed that the English National Opera is complaining about its grant being slashed unless it moves out of London. At least they have a chance of having a grant.

But now? Well you know the state the short science fiction story market is in (and I’m not talking about fantasy here). Do I need to say more?

Science Fiction should Thrive in Times of Crises

Why does the need for new science fiction remain as strong as ever, if not stronger, when the publishers are all veering their novels, anthologies and magazines to fantasy? It’s a good question, especially as this trend has been going for decades and you would think by now the ceaseless push towards fantasy must have had some effect on readers.

Before I can even start to answer this question, I need to talk about background pushes and that includes a little bit of economic history.

The Berlin Wall fell on 9th November 1989. Literally, the political world-scape changed overnight. It allowed West and East Germany to reunite and West Germany to pump loads of resources to bring East Germany’s infrastructure up to Western standards. It allowed many countries, like Poland and Hungary, to throw of the influence of Soviet Union. This included many of their workers from the East Bloc to come to Western Europe to earn money to send back home. Yugoslavia disintegrated into its constituent nations. The Soviet Union also broke up into constituent countries e.g. Ukraine, Belarus, Russia. All this upheaval resulted in many things, but it was all summed up in the term, ‘Peace Dividend‘.

After all the work of readjustment to the new order and ensuring access for many people to things they could only once have dreamt of, came a period of relative stability in the naughties. Notice, I said relative here, because of course there was reaction to the outright extremism and terrorism in the Middle East to contend with – basically dealing with issues for which resources had not been previously available.

People in general settled down to lead ordinary lives, having routines and not wanting any nasty surprises. This also occurred with the rise in popularity of the fantasy genre. It felt like science fiction was sinking behind the facade of immersive ordinariness of fantasy.

Yet if you look at the new novels published stats, it was fantasy taking off in popularity, leaving science fiction where it was. However, something else insidious was happening. The fantasy genre was eating into the SF genre. There were more cross-over fantasy-SF stories and less straight SF, yet these were being counted as SF, some justifiably so, others not. Why did they get the latter wrong? Basically the SF label sells.

And yet… the publishing industry continues its bias towards immersive fantasy…

I know some publishers say they are eager to accept near future SF – sorry, my personal experience suggests otherwise – mainly because the publishers have surrounded themselves by fantasy-loving suppliers and closed themselves from access to SF.

But my main point in all this, is that we have had two decades of relative peace in the world that has induced a ‘laziness’ bias towards fantasy.

Now we’ve had a couple years of hell with Covid, Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. Around the corner are the consequences of climate change with floods, droughts and goodness knows what else. Science and technology can and does help alleviate some of these nightmares. The Covid vaccines are a good example – but when the formal enquiries are done, they will show that had we invested more in science, we would have have been able to shorten the need for lockdowns – trust me on this. Had we had the imagination of what science could do supplied to us by science fiction, we might have encouraged the missing investment etc.

Science Fiction is one area to look for answers in times of crises. Now that we’ve got the majority of Covid restrictions out of the way (because they’re no longer needed) and a whole heap of crises heading humanity’s way, you would expect an uptick in SF publications, wouldn’t you.

The Real AI – Now and into the Future

For those of you who are interested in what I thought of BristolCon 2022 (14th convention of that name!), please see my report on SFCrowsnest (Link Here.)

However there are a couple of topics stemming out of BristolCon that need a separate post. One of them is a consequence of the BristolCon panel, The Disappointment of AI – I was a panel member and I had a lot more to say than time allowed.

Background Blurb on Programme: Artificial Intelligences are all around us, but they are a long way from the sentient robots and computers of our dreams. How does the panel see AI evolving in the near future, and what could be the impact on our daily lives? Jasper Fforde (Moderator), Nik Whitehead, Rosie Oliver, Gareth L Powell, Justina Robson.

The panel did indeed speed through a whole load of topics related to this and I hope that everyone in the audience found something to interest them. We covered topics from anything like answering what is intelligence to the legal responsibilities for the functioning of AI.

But one panel said something that kind stuck in my throat (even though I smiled sweetly while listening attentively). That was results of AIs are just calculations, and that is all.

Er… have to disagree with this… for several reasons.

A long long time ago when I using computers for mathematical modelling (this is making me feel ancient), I was all too well aware that answers could only be guaranteed as correct to so many significant figures in a number. You see the numbers put into computers were only correct up to so many significant figures and after that was a tail end of random white noise numbering – the allowable error bit. One of the things I came to realise was different white noise tail bits would be estimated for different computers. Yes, the calculation could to a limited extent be computer dependent.

In the vast majority of the same calculations, using different machines would not matter. But there are a small proportion of calculations where it really does matter which machine you work the calculation on e.g. mathematical equations that are chaotic (where a very small difference in starting conditions can lead to a humungous different in results). So AIs are hardware dependent!

Of course this means that same design AIs coming off the same production line could take very different actions in the same circumstances! (I haven’t seen a science fiction story on this theme I hasten to add, though I suspect it exists somewhere, some-published.)

A second issue I had with AI results being just a matter of calculations is the quantum issue. Quantum computers are currently in their infancy of development and rely the quantum state – um… yes… the quantum state can change without warning. This means the calculation can change without warning and unless said calculation is well enough designed to take into account such effects, you might end with different answers for different runs of the same calculation.

The final issue is what I call the hybrid computer. This is a digital computer linked into an analogue computer. Why bother with such a device? The advantage of using such hybrid computers is the analogue parts are faster or less expensive. Only issue is that they will gradually wear out and the analogue results will migrate to something different.

So no, AI is not just a set of calculations. AI is inclusive of the hardware those calculations use.

Let us turn to another issue, the future of AI, or to be more precise what will AI do for us in the future that it can’t do for us now. Well, everyone can extrapolate the development paths current AI is on to predict what will happen – this kind of app will do more of whatever it does in the same time or that kind of app will become faster type of thing. But what is missing is what I call the system predictions. This is when one AI capability combines with a totally different AI capability to produce a useful third capability. These are thought to be unpredictable – well, they’re not, just nobody has had the time or inclination to work these system predictions out. But for all intents and purposes, such system mergers will appear to come out of nowhere as a result of someone have a serendipitous moment.

Bottom line we can only predict what types of AI will come into being for the very near future. After that it could be totally different to what we expect.

Which brings to what I consider the biggest problem of AI. When AI was coined as a phrase in 1956, it was with the idea of getting machines to copy the way humans thought and reacted. Our understanding of what AIs can do has significantly expanded as new logic paradigms have been discovered. Yes, I do mean EXPANDED! The AI dreamt of in the middle of the last century is now a smidgen of what is now considered to be possible AI. This has gone way beyond the copying of human capability.

It means we have little idea as to the full extent of what AI can do. Yes, we know a lot of what it can and will do, but not the TOTALITY of its capability. We really are reaching into the unknown here.

The really sad thing as far as science fiction is concerned, there are very few if any published stories that cover the points I’ve made.

Let me give you a simple example, based on my C.A.T. series. C.A.T. is a self-learner robo-cat who is learning about the ways of the humans. He gradually gets to understand them better and takes on certain ‘humanising’ aspects into his character. Nothing new here as far as science fiction themes is concerned. What would be new if the later C.A.T. stories ever get published (a big IF here), is that even with his expanded AI capabilities, AIs develop a self-policing society to make sure no nasty self-learner AIs develop, and if they do, are quickly deleted! The reason for such an AI societal development is the very basic instinct for self-preservation. As I said this is a simple example.

These issues point to a bigger problem in science fiction we have these days, but that will be an issue for another post.

An Honourable Mention!

The results of the Writers of the Future Contest for the 3rd quarter 2022 have been announced and I’ve been lucky enough to be awarded an Honourable Mention. I’m especially pleased with this as this story was a new area of interest for me. You could call it my third universe. The first of course is the C.A.T.-iverse (that arrogant self-conceited smug robo-cat) and the second is the one centred on the Uranian moon, Miranda (The Martian Wind is a prequel to this universe). I’m not sure yet what to call this third universe as it is not yet anchored to a particular place, but I’m sure that will come in due course.

The interesting thing about the results from this quarter is that nobody from Great Britain got a higher award than an Honourable Mention. The reason for this is unknown, but it does make me wonder how much British science fiction could be diverging from that being written elsewhere in the world.

I now have accumulated a total of eleven honourable mentions and three silver honourable mentions. The first eight honourable mentions were all in the C.A.T.-iverse. The first one has been since edited and thanks to Manawaker Studio, published in the Felis Futura anthology. Two silver honourable mentions are in the Miranda-verse. The full list is:

Background thanks to NASA

This competition is a wonderful encouragement to writers trying to get a foothold in the science fiction publishing world. If nothing else, it encourages them to regularly enter stories so they get into the rhythm of writing. Well, it does more than that – submitters get to learn what is good and what is better. (it looks like my Miranda-verse is preferred to my C.A.T.-iverse, but sh… don’t tell C.A.T. that). And entry is free!

As for the story that achieved the latest award, all I’m going to say is that the future is the result of continuity.

Neptune as Never Seen Before!

C.A.T. here – well my author isn’t exactly in her usual chatty mode, but then I’ve been keeping her busy and her typing fingers are rather tired! So you’re all going, ‘Ah’. Why does she get all the sympathy?

Let’s forget about her, shall we? I’m the important one!

Did you see the new photos from the James Webb telescope of my home planet, Neptune? WHAT? You didn’t? Must I do everything. Well here’s the wide view:

And here’s a closer view with labels added:

You can see where my latest published adventure took place, Galatea.

What do you mean you don’t know about the Galatean adventure? Buy a copy of Felis Futura at once. I’ll even provide you with the Amazon UK link here.

Of course, you all know what these pretty pictures mean. There’s going to be some serious research done on Neptune, especially those storms – the bright ovals within the wind bands. It might even give you humans a clue about is going on deeper in the atmosphere, apart from raining diamonds that is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some serious pretty picture gazing to do, in between making my author do some editing to make me into a magnificent robo-cat!