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

BristolCon 2022

Yes. I will be attending that annual hallowed convention next Saturday known as BristolCon to be held at the Double Tree Hilton Hotel near Bristol Temple Meads railway station. (Link to BristolCon website here.)

The organisers have kindly let me be on a panel at 13:00 hours in Panel Room 1 in Central Park / Avenue. Details are:

The Disappointment Of AI 

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? 

Rosie OliverGareth L. PowellJustina Robson, Nik , Jasper Fforde (Moderator)

Oh… and I’ll have a little item in the art room all being well!

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.

Receiving Too Many Rejections? What To Do!

There is a story out there in the wilds of the writing community that surfaces every so often. It goes like this..

An author had been writing novels. On completion of each novel, said author would send it round to literary agents in the hope of getting representation. Yet all the author got were rejections. The agents watched the author improve with each submitted novel. With his latest novel the agents knew the author’s next novel would be publishable. So they waited for it. And waited. And waited.

One agent contacted the author asking when the next novel was coming. The author said it was not. He had given up writing novels and moved onto something else. Horrified the agent asked why? The author replied he had had so many rejections he thought he would never become a published author. Nobody had told the author his next novel had been eagerly awaited by the agents because they were going to get it published.

Of course the agent tried the author to write one more novel, but no the author really had moved onto something else.

Whether this sad story is true or apocryphal, it shows the need for realistic encouragement – otherwise people just move onto something else. Every author goes through heaps of rejections before they get published and they still get rejections after they are a success story.

Take Robert Heinlein for instance. He had had a string of stories accepted by John Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction. Robert had made it a policy that if he ever began to slip in ratings or be offered less pay or start to collect rejections he would quietly retire. Eventually Campbell did reject one of his stories, so Heinlein stopped sending the editor more stories. In the end Campbell chased Heinlein to find out what was going on and had to persuade to go back to writing. The rest, they say, is history.

Stephen King’s story about how his wife persuaded to turn down a job for desperately needed money so he could write Carrie is well known. Yes, by that stage he too had a stack of rejections and seemed to be getting nowhere fast with earning much money from his writing.

Rejections are part of a writer’s life. A writer gets them and there is nothing they can do about except move on either to submit the story elsewhere or write something new, preferably both.

But when authors finally finds success, they are more likely to stay with the publishers that helped made them successful. Those publishers that rejected authors without giving them any hope of future success will be very much less likely to get a submission from them, thereby missing out on the profits they could have had publishing their work.

But there is an awful stage in an author’s career – the stage where the author regularly gets published in minor publications and tries to get their stories into the go-to publications. In the case of Science Fiction we are talking about the likes of Analog and Asimov’s for stories up to novella lengths. For novels everyone wants to get theirs published by one of the big five –  Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, who have imprints like Gollancz, Tor, DAW and Orbit.

The author keeps on trying to get accepted by these great publishers and the rejections just pile up over time. It is as if there is this secret glass ceiling beyond which authors cannot rise. They watch as familiar author names get published time after time wondering if they will ever get their turn. It gets to the point that that glass ceiling feels like an immovable object with no way round it. What can an author do in these circumstances?

Well, writing more of the same will obviously not solve the problem, and yet for many authors it is so easy to fall into this trap. It gets them published. People can read their work. What is the point of making the effort to these great publishers if they only dole out rejections? Might as well continue submitting to those publishers that are enthusiastic about the work.

If an author wants to improve their chances of getting published elsewhere, they have to be willing to experiment, both in theme and style. I say theme here because a publisher does not want to publish a theme that has already been done by one of their own authors, so copying theme-wise what is out there is a no-go.

With experimentation comes the danger of being perceived of going downhill in quality of writing. I deliberately used the word perceived here. What is really happening is the author is learning which new techniques are successful and adding them to their writerly toolkit. It gives the author the wherewithal to add more variety into their prose. This is true of both technique and subject matter.

But I hear you say there is nothing new to written about. While I agree a lot of authors write variations on a theme and crossover themes, there is the occasional new topic to be written about. Science does keep on coming up with new discoveries and technology with new inventions. Yes, I know much of the science and technology is now being done on the molecular down to quantum physics scales and applying that to what ordinary people experience is difficult. If an author can come up with a way of doing it, then you can bet that a sufficiently polished story will get published somewhere, just because the idea is new!

Now for a few tips:

But make sure you stick to one idea per story! Putting multiple new ideas into a story leaves publishers baffled – many just cannot keep up with the new and don’t expect their readers to either.

What about changing style? Well if you learn new techniques in writing, sometimes it is worth going through the heap of unpublished stories to change the writing style to make the story more effective.

While combining really new ideas is a no-no, putting a lot of cliche ideas around the new idea adds the sense of wonder to the story and makes the new idea far more acceptable. Trust me on this!

Ignore the rejections that encourage you to submit something new to the publisher. Some are just standard replies and it is difficult to judge between the standard rejections and the genuine ones trying to help. Keep writing what you want to write and judge where to submit that story based on what the story does and how it is written.

Above all, don’t give up hope that one day you might make it into the ‘big league’ of writers. An author will not know which of their stories will do the trick, but they will have a small group that they know are promising. (I had a spate of writing better stories and every single one of them has been picked up by a publisher – that spate derived from trying to work a particular theme – every single one of them got picked up with one publisher requesting a follow-on story be submitted.)

Time to Accelerate Beyond the Speed of Light!

Even science fiction reader wants to explore the universe and beyond, not only in the imagination but also in reality. That means being able to travel faster than the speed of light.

Of course Einstein put the final nail in that ability when he published his special relativity paper in 1905. It explained the Michelson-Morley experimental results and has been since proven through experiment far too many times to not be believed. Einstein then went onto publish his general relativity paper ten years later, where he shows how gravity curves the fabric of our universe. But this in no way contradicted his special relativity theory. Or did it?

Fast forward to 1994. Miguel Alcubierre publishes a research paper claiming that theoretically at least there is way. He proposed changing the geometry of space by creating a wave that would cause the fabric of space ahead of a spacecraft to contract and the space behind it to expand. A spacecraft could then ride this wave inside the region of flat space, known as warp bubble, and would not move within this bubble but instead be carried along as the region itself moves due to the actions of the drive.

Alcubierre Drive Design in Warp Bubble

Turns out there is a bit of a problem with that. The drive would require negative energy. Yes, that is right NEGATIVE energy. Further research has however shown that we have a drive that is quite efficient at getting much closer to travelling at the speed of light with normal positive energy. So Alcubierre’s theory has some promise, but not as much as was originally hoped.

Fast forward to 2021 (that dreadful second year of Covid) and Erik Lentz offers an alternative method. He describes a warp bubble as a soliton – a phenomenon that has been known about in physics since 1834 when John Scott Russell observed it travelling along the Union Canal in Scotland. He constructs his faster then the speed of light solitons not using negative energy, but using stress-energy of conducting plasma and classical electromagnetic fields. In short the soliton / warp bubble can be generated using conventional physics that we all know and love. He is saying faster than light travel is possible on paper.

You can bet the scientists and engineers on Earth are working away at trying to improve the theory and making this a reality. But will it really happen? Your guess is as good as mine.

But this little history proves one thing – humans never give up their dreams and they will try to achieve them no matter how hopeless those dreams are in reality. And it is science fiction that keeps on fuelling those dreams.

But the interesting thing is that science fiction today takes faster than light travel for granted (unless the story is set in the near future before faster than light travel has been developed). It will happen. What is missing from science fiction these days are stories about how to make it happen without it being handed to us humans on a plate by aliens (as in James S A Corey.s The Expanse series).

Me thinks it’s time for making faster than light travel stories to be written and published, if only to encourage the scientists and engineers along, and maybe even give them ideas of how it is done.

Seers of Neptune – A Convergence on Triton

Wow! I have another short story that has been published, the fourth in the space of a month.

It is Seers of Neptune published in June issue of The Martian Wave, edited by Tyree Campbell at Hiraethsffh. UK Amazon Link Here.

This is super-exciting for me, because it is the breakout story of a whole new theme I’m exploring.

It helps that the setting is on Triton, the largest moon orbiting Neptune, which I have learned a fair bit about over the years. Yes, it is the home of that lovely ginger robo-cat, C.A.T., but it is a story totally separate from his adventures.

Talking of C.A.T. … I got a copy of his latest adventure in paper! It is a major first for him. Even better, he is in hardback! It’s a real privilege for him (and me).

Proof of Hardback!

Time Travel?

Time travel is a popular science fiction and has been so since at least 1895 when H. G. Wells published The Time Machine. Many see the main problem with time travel being the grandfather paradox – this is where someone goes back in time and kills their grandfather before he could have sired his parent and therefore he can no longer exist.

I would like to put this paradox in a different light. What we have here is a continuity problem. Let me take you step by step through the thinking.

We all experience time going forward. It is like going along a single thread and as we do, we undergo change from and implement change to the world around us. We cannot sense what is further along the thread, but we carry with us the memory of what has happened in the past. But that thread is continuous. We slip smoothly from one moment to the next. The changes are never abrupt, but gradual in their properties. Even switching on a light is gradual, just we are not quick enough in sensing the change.

If we were to travel back in time, we can theoretically do in one of two ways.

The first is to abruptly jump from our current time to say a century ago. In your existence we have a continuity of existence, but suddenly we are gone in the present. The present has now developed a discontinuity of a sort, which goes against the whole ethos of continuity of the world through time.

The second is where we ‘gradually’ and continuously travel back through time. This means that between now and then we exist in the world. We have not seen such people travelling backwards int time. So if they do, they must do it at sub-luminal, sub-audible, sub-everything levels. But nobody has noticed such a phenomenon. True we could be going faster than light, except we would weight a humungous amount and block the way of something in the normal world going forward in time. Or whilst the phenomenon may be possible, nothing is travelling back in time. How likely is that given the way human technology is developing?

You can see why from an existential point of view, I find time travel hard to believe on. The continuity of existence is just not there or highly improbable for it to exist.

At the end of the day, all the time travel science fiction stories I am aware of involve discontinuity, and the physical universe abhors discontinuity.

Silver Honourable Mention III

Wow! This comes as a lovely surprise – I’ve got a Silver Honourable Mention from the Writers of the Future Contest for the first quarter of their 2022 year (which runs Oct 2021 to Sep 2022). Link to results here. My congratulations to all winners – all their stories will have something special about them.

This is my third one! Yay! It means having achieved this standard of writing, I seem to be maintaining it. For those who want to have some idea of what gaining a Silver Honourable Mention means, see my previous blog on the subject (link here).

This particular story is set on Mars in the same universe as The Martian Wind. The heroine of this story does have a bit part to play in the new story, but is not the main protagonist. So yes, I have been building on this universe. And no, it is nothing like The Expanse. My stories are more technology-driven, by which I mean the extrapolated technology from our current time drives the way society has developed and is effectively a main character in the story (i.e. no alien intervention or magic of any sort).