Mr. Sloan wanted to see for himself. He acquired from the Internet Archive a database of texts: issues of Galaxy and If, two popular science fiction magazines in the 1950s and ’60s. After trial and error, the program came up with a sentence that impressed him: “The slow-sweeping tug moved across the emerald harbor.”
“It was a line that made you say, ‘Tell me more,’” Mr. Sloan said.
Those original magazines were too limiting, however, full of clichés and stereotypes. So Mr. Sloan augmented the pool with what he calls “The California Corpus,” which includes the digital text of novels by John Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Joan Didion, Philip K. Dick and others; Johnny Cash’s poems; Silicon Valley oral histories; old Wired articles; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fish Bulletin; and more. “It’s growing and changing all the time,” he said.
Unlike Mr. French a quarter-century ago, Mr. Sloan probably will not use his computer collaborator as a selling point for the finished book. He’s restricting the A.I. writing in the novel to an A.I. computer that is a significant character, which means the majority of the story will be his own inspiration. But while he has no urge to commercialize the software, he is intrigued by the possibilities. Megasellers like John Grisham and Stephen King could relatively easily market programs that used their many published works to assist fans in producing authorized imitations.
As for the more distant prospects, another San Francisco Bay Area science fiction writer long ago anticipated a time when novelists would turn over the composing to computerized “wordmills.” In Fritz Leiber’s “The Silver Eggheads,” published in 1961, the human “novelists” spend their time polishing the machines and their reputations. When they try to rebel and crush the wordmills, they find they have forgotten how to write.
Mr. Sloan has finished his paragraph:
“The bison were lined up fifty miles long, not in the cool sunlight, gathered around the canyon by the bare sky. They had been traveling for two years, back and forth between the main range of the city. They ring the outermost suburbs, grunting and muttering, and are briefly an annoyance, before returning to the beginning again, a loop that had been destroyed and was now reconstituted.”
“I like it, but it’s still primitive,” the writer said. “What’s coming next is going to make this look like crystal radio kits from a century ago.”