Lionel at his loneliest takes to the road. . .
When this website went on-line on May 27, 2021, it billed itself as a pandemic project. Two years later, with the virulence of COVID thankfully less, a terrifying new threat grips the imaginations of the writing classes. Artificial intelligence i.e. computers gone wild is where the veins of horror are really producing these days for paid writers, the really frightening stuff; and the consequent gold rush towards the worst that could happen has already raised stress levels in every medium. Quite often, Mary Shelley as the author of Frankenstein has been and will be invoked as a sort of presiding deity over our reasons to panic. It even seems as if many AI “stories” do little more than reprise her first novel’s 24 karat plot.
Gold rushes leave behind ghost towns. The Last Man, this one, feels like one of them. Silence echoes off the unread pages. The vaccinated don’t have time for world-conquering plagues. Nature’s enmity has gone back to being about sharks and extreme weather. Who cares about the last pandemic now, when writers who create work might “lose control” of it!
The Last Man was never popular or successful, though. It’s seen bad reviews, a century out of print, continuing neglect, while Frankenstein has always been everywhere. But as I hope to have helped make even clearer by now—following after the important work started for me by Muriel Spark—the same author wrote both books. They arose from the same fertile, vivid, uncompromising imagination, the same will to grapple a terrifying concept to the mat, whatever it takes, whatever shocks are delivered; the same Mary Shelley who if she were alive now could publish the hell out of a novel in which artificial intelligence wipes out human life. In 1826, she had plague do it, that’s all.
From the current installment:
One late afternoon, I’d toiled up a hill which led to Spoleto. At a scenic overlook I stopped and sat down on a boulder, with the view before me of a spreading plain encircled by the chestnut-covered Apennines. A dark ravine that split the nearer hills was spanned by a celebrated bridge aqueduct; though crumbling in spots, its soaring limestone arches testified that humanity had once deigned to bestow labor and thought here, to adorn and civilize nature—savage, ungrateful Nature, which with an overgrowth of climbing wild flowers and parasitic plants was bidding to pull down what remained into the dell below.
After a long time averting my attention from artificial intelligence because all the scary coverage depressed me, I became intrigued when I heard about ChatGPT and similar AI platforms for public use. If they can write term papers and scripts and short stories, I wondered, couldn’t they also rewrite them? Couldn’t they rewrite a novel by Mary Shelley in more modern English, too—and in considerably less time than 27 months? And what am I, a human novelist, bringing to the effort that AI can’t (yet)?
So here for curiosity’s sake are two passages from Mary Shelley’s original text followed by ChatGPT’s response to the prompt: Rewrite this paragraph in modern English. My versions, which appear in the current installment, are included at the end.
Original: As the fever of my blood encreased, a desire of wandering came upon me. I remember, that the sun had set on the fifth day after my wreck, when, without purpose or aim, I quitted the town of Ravenna. I must have been very ill. Had I been possessed by more or less of delirium, that night had surely been my last; for, as I continued to walk on the banks of the Mantone, whose upward course I followed, I looked wistfully on the stream, acknowledging to myself that its pellucid waves could medicine my woes for ever, and was unable to account to myself for my tardiness in seeking their shelter from the poisoned arrows of thought, that were piercing me through and through. I walked a considerable part of the night, and excessive weariness at length conquered my repugnance to the availing myself of the deserted habitations of my species. The waning moon, which had just risen, shewed me a cottage, whose neat entrance and trim garden reminded me of my own England. I lifted up the latch of the door and entered.
ChatGPT: As my fever raged and my restlessness grew, I felt an overwhelming desire to wander. It was the fifth day after surviving the shipwreck when, without any clear purpose, I left the town of Ravenna. Looking back, I must have been terribly ill at that time. If I had been more delirious or less coherent, that very night might have been my last. As I walked along the banks of the Mantone River, following its course upward, I couldn’t help but gaze longingly at its clear waters, thinking they could soothe my troubles forever. I couldn’t understand why I hesitated to seek refuge in its shelter, hoping it would heal the tormenting thoughts that pierced me relentlessly. I continued walking for a significant part of the night until exhaustion finally overcame my reluctance to seek solace in the abandoned homes of my fellow humans. The waning moon had just risen, revealing a cottage that greeted me with its neat entrance and well-kept garden, reminiscent of my beloved England. Without hesitation, I lifted the latch of the door and entered.
Two notes: according to Google, the contemporary spelling of the river outside Ravenna is Montone, which is what I used; ChatGPT let the original’s Mantone stand. Also, in the version produced on its near-instantaneous “regeneration” i.e. second try, the rather telltale “fellow humans” is already gone.
Original: Just then, there emerged from a near copse two goats and a little kid, by the mother’s side; they began to browze the herbage of the hill. I approached near to them, without their perceiving me; I gathered a handful of fresh grass, and held it out; the little one nestled close to its mother, while she timidly withdrew. The male stepped forward, fixing his eyes on me: I drew near, still holding out my lure, while he, depressing his head, rushed at me with his horns. I was a very fool; I knew it, yet I yielded to my rage. I snatched up a huge fragment of rock; it would have crushed my rash foe. I poized it—aimed it—then my heart failed me. I hurled it wide of the mark; it rolled clattering among the bushes into dell.
ChatGPT: At that moment, two goats and a little kid emerged from a nearby copse, with the mother leading the way. They started grazing on the hillside, unaware of my presence. I cautiously approached them and picked a handful of fresh grass, holding it out as an offering. The little kid nestled close to its mother, who seemed a bit wary and retreated slightly. The male goat, on the other hand, fixed its gaze on me and moved forward. I continued to hold out the grass, but suddenly, the male goat lowered its head and charged at me with its horns. In my foolishness, I knew I should have backed off, but anger took over, and I reacted impulsively. I grabbed a large rock with the intention of striking back, but at the last moment, fear and doubt crept in. I ended up throwing the rock far from its target, and it noisily rolled into a nearby dell among the bushes.
And my versions, from the current installment:
When my fever peaked, a desire to wander came upon me. It was the fifth day after my wreck, just past sunset, when, without purpose or aim, I rode a lightweight bicycle out of Ravenna. I must have been very ill. A little delirium more or less, and that night had surely been my last. I have a clear memory of a place on the banks of the Montone, the river whose course I was following. I stopped to look wistfully on the stream, admitting to myself that its pellucid waves could be a permanent cure for what ailed me; yet unable to account for whatever held me back from seeking their shelter even while my thoughts’ poisoned arrows continued to rain down and pierce me through and through.
I rode a considerable part of the night, and exhaustion finally conquered my repugnance to availing myself of the habitations my species had deserted. The waning moon, before it set, showed me a cottage with a neat entrance and trim garden that reminded me of the England I knew. The front door was unlocked. . .
* * * * *
Just then, some goats emerged from the bushes near me, two adults and a tiny kid; in the fading light they began to browse the sloping hillside. I approached them without their perceiving me, gathered up a handful of fresh grass, and held it out. The little one nestled close to its mother while she timidly withdrew. The male stepped forward, fixing his eyes on me. I drew nearer, still holding out my lure. He dropped his head and charged at me with his horns. I knew it was idiocy, yet I yielded to my rage: I snatched up a huge stone that would have crushed my rash foe’s skull—I readied it—aimed it—then my heart failed me. I hurled my missile wide of the mark and followed its rolling, clattering, crashing progress out of earshot.