Vitali Vitaliev, a contributor to E&T Magazine, reviews the first ever novel written by a computer.
Should we celebrate or scream in panic?
"There's nothing else here but the bloody sea and the bloody rocks… And it is in such a drab place that I am going to kill you," the woman muttered.
Not a bad start for a thriller novel. How about an end? Here it is:
After that, he sat on the wet sand, so close to the water that the waves - heavy and clumsy like pregnant seals - were almost touching his feet. The setting sun was painting pink the underbellies of the clouds hanging low above the grey sea. White caps could be seen here and there, but it was obvious that the storm he had been expecting all day was not going to happen.
A fairly fluent and lively description, I would say. If not to count the "pregnant seals".
Whose literary style do the extracts (which, incidentally, I have translated from Russian) remind you of? Ian Fleming? Stephen King? Harold Robbins?
No need to phone a friend. The name of the author is PC Writer 1.0, and the above quotes are taken from the 285-page book, with an intriguing title 'True Love.wrt' (for brevity, let's call it simply 'True Love' from now on) and the subtitle 'An impeccable novel', he (or rather "it") has penned down.
"The first ever book written by a computer," says the blurb (in Russian, no doubt). And that reminder is helpful, for opening 'True Love' at random and leafing through it, one can be forgiven for thinking that it is an average modern novel whose heroes (both goodies and baddies) happen to have the same names as the characters of Leo Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina': Levin, Vronsky, Kitty and Anna, of course. The only Tolstoy protagonist that is missing is the fatal Steam Engine (or "Parovoz" in Russian) - definitely a baddy.
To write 'True Love', a group of software developers and philologists working for the publisher Astrel-SPb created the program PC Writer 2008 over a period of eight months.
The philologists then compiled 'dossiers' on each of the novel's main protagonists: these described their appearance, vocabulary, psychological profile and other key characteristics. The novel was then 'written' by the computer over three days.
The style of 'True Love' is truly "impeccable", if at times a bit clichéd:
Kitty couldn't fall asleep for a long time. Her nerves were strained as two tight strings, and even a glass of hot wine, that Vronsky made her drink, did not help her. Lying in bed she kept going over and over that monstrous scene at the meadow.
The book's razor-sharp and very colloquial dialogue is totally devoid of any peculiar speech patterns, i.e. all the characters sound precisely like one and the same early 21st century young urban professional.
And the vocabulary, the turn of phrase and the sheer length of sentences (succinct), as you might have noticed from the above samples, are definitely not Tolstoy's. If so, you are absolutely right, for the authors of the computer program, at St Petersburg-based Astrel-SPb, have uploaded (alongside 'Anna Karenina') 17 modern works of Russian literature. A Russian translation of a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami was used as the main style matrix (to make PC Writer 1.0 more PC, so to speak?). The result is a grammatically correct and free-flowing Russian-ese mongrel of a modern novel, populated by Tolstoy's characters.
How about the plot?
The computer-devised denouement of 'True Love' is of course significantly different from that of 'Anna Karenina'.
In Tolstoy's novel, Anna meets and falls in love with Andrei Vronsky, a handsome young officer. She abandons her child and husband to be with him. When Vronsky tires of her and leaves her to go to war, she kills herself by leaping under a train.
In 'True Love.wrt' by PC Writer 1.0, the characters find themselves on an uninhabited island. All of them have amnesia. They know who they are, but don't remember if they are married or have children, and what relationship they have with each other. They are given a chance to build their relationships anew.
Would the latter plot make Leo Tolstoy's ghost even more pale (with envy) than he is already? I don't think so. But outwriting Tolstoy was not the aim of the program's creators. As Alexander Prokopovich, chief editor of Astrel-SPb, explained modestly in an interview for The St Petersburg Times: "The program can never become an author, like PhotoShop can never be Raphael."
His opinion, however, was not shared by the ebullient post-Communist Russian media.
"The new author is indeed promising. He doesn't require royalties, won't go on leave and will always deliver on time," enthused NTV, Russia's main TV channel. Their 5th Channel colleagues took the concept even further, having russified it a bit: "A cyber author won't get pregnant or go on a drinking binge!"
I am happy to agree with the last statement: making PC Writer pregnant would require a coup of audacious science-fiction. Yet it cannot be stopped from creating other pregnant creatures, like the "heavy"-going and rather naff "pregnant seals". Metaphorically speaking, a "cyber-writer" can still be made pregnant with clichés and give birth to a piece of unadulterated trash.
Whatever the scary (for real flesh-and-blood writers) predictions may be, I am not in a hurry to change my battered author's toga for the expensively casual jeans-and-trainers outfit of a computer wizard.
Contrary to some Russian newspapers' prognosis, 'True Love' has not become "a literary bomb". While being an undisputed achievement of the country's IT professionals and linguists, it still has a long way to go to being even distantly comparable in literary merit to the hasty black-ink scribbles of the bearded and short-ish Russian Count.
As the serious Izvestiya newspaper concludes: "Leo Tolstoy would have had enough sense of humour to laugh off the whole PC Writer idea…"
So, in the foreseeable future there's little chance of a computer producing a new 'Anna Karenina', 'War and Peace' or even a 'Harry Potter' and JK Rowling's 'Fortunes'. The only possible blockbuster we can expect is most likely to be called 'PC Writer and the Pregnant Seals'.
As the modernised, computerised and Haruki Murakami-sed Levin mumbles prophetically on page 61 of 'True Love':
"You know what: I would have been very scared of what's to come had I not been so drunk."