AI as the author, protagonist and villain
Recent fiction offers an exhilarating ride through our wildest AI fantasies and darkest fears
It has been a year of explosive growth in generative artificial intelligence (AI). Along with the growing sense of wonder and excitement about its potential is a burgeoning sense of unease and fear about its latent dangers. Will machines become superintelligent, and will humans eventually lose control?
This complex mix of emotions is fertile ground for thrilling fiction. From sentient robots claiming their place in society to dystopian landscapes governed by omniscient AI overlords, recent fiction offers an exhilarating rollercoaster ride through our wildest AI fantasies and darkest fears.
Storytelling and the role of AI in writing in Roland Barthes’ classic 1967 essay The Death of the Author he wrote: “We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” Stephen Marche’s metafictional murder mystery Death of an Author offers a twisted interpretation of the French scholar’s hypothesis; he composed his novella using three AI tools, including ChatGPT, and published it under the shared pen name Aidan Marchine.
Gus Dupin, a literary critic, is invited to the funeral of Peggy Firmin, a famous novelist who has been murdered; he becomes determined to find out why. Then he is drawn into an experiment at Marlow AI, a large language model company. Things become scary when he is named as a suspect in the murder and fears he might be the next target. Marchine blends a suspenseful story with questions about storytelling itself and the role of AI in writing.
Before her death, Firmin made a telling prediction: “We’ll ... see stories created specifically for individuals inside their experience, the ability to recreate dead relatives through AI technology. Stories where the audience doesn’t even know they’re stories. Characters who are felt so deeply that they aren’t characters at all, but you become the character. It’s going to be a gorgeous mess.”
The New York Times is dubious: “Death of an Author is arguably the first halfway readable AI novel, an early glimpse at what is vectoring towards readers. It has been presided over by a literate writer who has pushed the borg in twisty directions. He got it to spit out more than boilerplate, some of the time. If you squint, you can convince yourself you’re reading a real novel.”
The value of human emotions in a calculating world is explored in I Am AI by Ai Jiang, set in the bleak metropolis of Emit, revolves on Ai, a cyborg struggling to survive in a world where AI has become ubiquitous, and the human workforce is marginalised. Burdened by debt, Ai struggles to make a living as a writer because AI is churning out content, and she can’t compete. She desperately wants to upgrade her cybernetic enhancements, believing that becoming more machine-like will improve her output and free her from the limitations of her human body.
As Ai delves deeper into the realm of AI, she grapples with the blurring lines between human and artificial intelligence. Observing the relentless march of technological advancement, she questions the very essence of what it means to be human and what role emotions play in a world dominated by logic and algorithms.
Can a human superbrain combat AI? In The Girl from Wudang, Emmy-winner and best-selling Brazilian writer PJ Caldas crafts a story about immortality, martial arts and AI. The protagonist Yinyin, nicknamed Tigress, was raised in the sacred mountains of China, and moved to California to pursue her dreams as a fighter.
Despite warnings from her shifu and others, she continues to engage in cage fighting, and agrees to participate in a scientific experiment that will link her mind with others through tiny, superintelligent nanobots in her head, making her invincible. The aim of this “Brainternet” is to create a super brain to combat AI and save humanity from enslavement by robots. The experiment successfully cures her suicidal headaches. But this connection gives others access to family secrets Yinyin has sworn to protect — secrets that in the wrong hands could be a very dangerous thing.
Booktribe had this to say: “Caldas brings the essence of old kung fu movies that inspired generations into the new world of modern fighting, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience in a timely story that will stick with you long after you reach the end.”
AI and climate change
Vietnamese American writer Lena Nguyen’s We Have Always Been Here is described by Kirkus Reviews as “claustrophobic and dark, full of twisting ship corridors and unreliable characters. Nguyen [raises] questions about totalitarian systems, environmental destruction, and the nature of humanity”.
Nguyen explores AI ethics and the effects of climate change. A multilayered ghost story, the novel is set on the Deucalion, an interstellar ship sent to explore a new planet for human settlement. Psychologist Grace Park, caught in a web of toxic work relationships, begins investigating why crew members are falling mysteriously ill. When it becomes clear that something is haunting the ship, Park finds herself caught in a terrifying labyrinth. Plagued by dreams of an Earth ravaged by climate change, Park’s only allies are the ship’s loyal androids.
Akil Kumarasamy’s novel Meet Us by the Roaring Sea alternates between the perspective of Aya, an AI trainer, and a translated Tamil manuscript from the late 1990s about young female medical students. An unwanted pregnancy forces her to weigh her options: “You find a flowery weed in the backyard and begin to pluck the petals: 1. Have baby./2. Don’t have baby./3. Place baby in a basket and send it down the Hudson River./4. Turn into an asexual, womb-less mythical creature./5. Apologise to baby for your surprise at its existence and all these doubts.” Option six is unprintable in this paper. Option 7: “Have a baby but then you wipe your memory clean so then you too are a baby.”
Witty and clever, the novel invites readers to pause and reflect on a journey that teaches its young protagonists about the fragility of life and reshapes their understanding of beauty, as they selflessly offer parts of themselves, both physically and emotionally.
“If you want a post-climate-change novel that goes all the way weird, look no further than Meet Us by the Roaring Sea... The story is a kind of multilayered dream sequence that asks big questions about civilisation, memory, and survival... Kumarasamy’s gorgeously written book captures the terror of living through a bewildering disruption,” the Washington Post writes.
Captivating and unnerving, stories about AI are as profoundly thought-provoking as they are wildly entertaining. A word of caution: “Though I may have been constructed,” says Brittle, a scavenger robot in C Robert Cargill’s postapocalyptic Sea of Rust, “so too were you. I in a factory; you in a womb. Neither of us asked for this, but we were given it. Self-awareness is a gift. And it is a gift no thinking thing has any right to deny another. No thinking thing should be another thing’s property, to be turned on and off when it is convenient.”
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.