Siri, write me a novel

Stuck for inspiration for NaNoWriMo? This guy wants to code your book

Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Trillion Sonnets_3

One of the arch Twitter-bot provocateurs has set his sights on a new challenge. Darius Kazemi (aka @tinysubversions), whiz video game developer turned mirth-maker and open web programmer, explains: “I've been building software that generates sort-of-creative output for a few years now, so when I saw people talking about starting NaNoWriMo, my immediate thought was, "I bet a computer could do that."

Darius has issued an open invitation to all literary-minded programmers: for the duration of November's NaNoWriMo they are invited to collaborate on writing code that generates a 50K long novel (the same benchmark that writers set themselves). Beyond the word count everything else is fair game!

“I'm not policing anything about the content,” Darius elaborates. “It could be 50,000 repetitions of 'meow' and that would totally count. Generative is pretty open too: you could generate words by cutting up existing text, or building fake words of your own, or whatever.”

Darius is aware of those who have gone before him in the domain of algorithmically generated literature. Many a creative has turned to pseudo random computer output for literary inspiration. While writing Outside, David Bowie programmed the Verbasiser: this software (aka 'app') would chop up and reassemble his sentences electronically: a personal computing version of the 'cut-up' technique Bowie (and others like William Burroughs) had earlier experimented with during the seventies. An algorithm is a set of repeatable instructions, so this trend in writing stretches back at least as far as dadaist Tristan Tzara: at a rally in the 1920s he composed a poem by drawing words from out of a hat!

Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Trillion Sonnets_2
Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Trillion Sonnets

Many of these methods are present in Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. The Oulipo collective (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: "workshop of potential literature") were a troupe of creatives who expanded and pushed the artistic practice of algorithmically generated literature. But Darius' NaNoGenMo is cut from a different cloth. Rather than computers providing suggestions, props and other assistive crutches for creatives stifled by writers block, the code of NaNoGenMo will produce an entire body of literature by itself! However, a computer writing literature is not entirely without precedent.

In 1952 Christopher Strachy, a contemporary of Alan Turing, wrote a program for the Ferranti Mark 1 computer (a hulking brute that spanned many rooms) which composed love letters:

DavidLink1

Be still your beating heart, right? Barely a decade later and computational wordsmithery had come on in leaps and bounds. The SAGA script generator – written for the TX-01 in MIT, created a 13,000-line movie script for a Western. Before making a TV debut on a CBS documentary, The Thinking Machine, the SAGA programmers even managed to include an “inebriation factor" algorithm. This randomiser increased the illogical behaviour of the bank robber villain in the plot, based on the number of shots consumed before the sheriff arrived on scene.

saga_workflow
SAGA programmers with an algorithm chart

These days the measure of automated storytelling sophistication is judged thusly: algorithms have nailed the formula for producing market gold in the Hollywood blockbuster script, irrespective of genre. Shock horror, lowest common denominator storytelling has not become any less formulaic in the intervening half century. That said, algorithmically directed movies have debuted at Sundance. And any number of startups can data-mine box office receipts and focus group feedback to spin an appealing yarn that caters to the masses better than most hacks.

Darius himself has re-purposed human-produced data in preparation for NaNoGenMo: “I generated a novel that is simply cobbled-together dream diaries of real people. I even enlisted the help of one of my Twitter bots to lend a more identifiable voice to one of the protagonists.”

Despite the contrast between who is the author (computer or human) Darius doesn't deem there to be that much difference between his endeavor and the cut up literature which has preceded it: “In the end it is still about ceding authorial control to an algorithm”.

What I want to see is code that produces alien novels that astound us with their sheer alienness

Subjugating one's writerly impulses to the machine was something explored in Exquisite Code, another instance of contemporary digital artists exploring algo-literature. A room full of writers write freeform, and at periodic intervals the computer commands that their writing cease. At this point the computer reasssembles all the inputted text into a narrative it deems best. The mashed up text provides the starting point for each writer, and the process begins again.

These recent projects can provide solace to the post-new-net-aesthetic aficionados out there,  especially after the standard bearer of poignant word salad (aka @Horse_ebooks) was revealed to be a canny human all along. But what are Darius's hopes for NaNoGenMo?

“It's pretty easy to make 50k words of nonsense, so personally I'm interested to see intelligible things that get generated," he says. "That said, what I ultimately hope to see from this event is not code that reproduces a Herman Melville style novel. What I want to see is code that produces alien novels that astound us with their sheer alienness. Computers writing novels for computers, in a sense.”

 

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