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I put my short fiction into ChatGPT. This is what came out.
Surprises and nightmares from AI-generated "literature" and "art"
In an essay often taught in high school, Albert Camus imagined Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus, who faced an eternal punishment in the Greek underworld by pushing a boulder up a hill, just to see it roll back down, again and again. Despite the misery the task caused him, he took pride in the process. Now, imagine if Sisyphus had to compete with ChatGPT.
Most of the people talking about the dangers of AI language models are people directly threatened by it—media people, humanities and writing professors, even software engineers—whose basic-level programming might be superseded by ChatGPT’s sophomoric understanding of coding. The Writers Guild of America is partly on strike due to the specter of AI and the Hollywood studios’ cagey intent regarding its future use.
Recently, I heard someone make the analogy of what might be coming with AI to the former profession known as “travel agents.” They would sort out all the logistics for your trip—compare prices on different airlines and hotels. And then websites like Expedia and Kayak and Google Flights showed up, and suddenly there are hardly any travel agents left. Instead, you, the consumer, have to do all the heavy lifting, but the theoretical convenience and cheaper cost has made the trade-off for many worth it (but not for the majority of travel agents).
I was at a dinner party a few weeks ago and someone asked me if I had tried ChatGPT—after all, if ChatGPT was a tool, then couldn’t it help me write my fiction, in the same way that a software engineer could assign basic coding to the bot? That would, he argued, give me the supposed advantage the engineer had, the “freedom” to work on the higher level thinking, the architecture of the thing.
I reacted defiantly. How could I dare use ChatGPT, the device that could virtually extinguish my field? But then, I thought, maybe it’s better to know your enemy. And, if I just inputed my own writing, wouldn’t it be interesting to see what the AI would come up with? At the very least, I thought it would make for a very interesting article in The Usonian.
So I decided to input two excerpts of short stories I’ve published, and asked AI to generate a story based on the inputs. Disclaimer: I did not specifically ask the AI to write in a particular style.
First, I inputted the opening passage of “Falling,” a short story about a boy named Edward Jr. who forms a bond with a mysterious architect hired to build his wealthy family an elaborate country house. The story is loosely inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s construction of Fallingwater in Pennsylvania for the Kaufmann family. (You can buy the short story anthology in which it was published here, and learn more about the story in a past issue of The Usonian.)
Here is the input, from human-generated “Falling.”
Edward Zeliger Jr. first saw The Architect from above. The boy, aged 12, had waited from the upstairs veranda so long, he almost missed when the fabled master builder entered Zeliger’s flagship department store and the family destiny. Though the figure hardly left a shadow in the sun-streamed palace, Edward Jr. was quick to discern The Architect’s threadbare attire against the displays of fizz-bang jewelry, winter coats and A-line skirts. The visitor’s casual disdain was palpable as he stepped past the downtrodden customers, who gazed at the luxuries and settled for the dry goods.
Edward Jr., young and observant as he was, had always admired buildings, the way “they composed the great temples to aesthetic beauty.” At least, that was a phrase he had read in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While most boys his age picked up the comics section, Edward Jr. reached for Style & Arts. In those pages, he had read a great deal about The Architect who now paused at the novelty moving staircase and frowned. He was the designer of some unusual and ill-fated houses in the Middle West, and though his work had been largely dismissed, he remained a fallen deity in some circles, occasionally mentioned in the darkest parlors with hushed awe. And so Edward Jr. was thrilled when his father mentioned offhand that the enigmatic builder was to stop by that afternoon.
For Edward Jr. had never seen anyone like The Architect. His hair was white and sprawling, a mess. His face was eroded by intermittent periods of success and failure. But his eyes had a power, a forceful stare that made one see the way he did.
In the opening paragraphs I have established the central relationship of the story—the boy and The Architect. Through my writing, I have established setting, time period, and the narrator’s style and tone—skills, I hypothesize, ChatGPT probably cannot synthesize at its, um, infant stage.
From this source, and instructed to write a short story based on the style of the passage, ChatGPT produced the following passage, which, in the tradition of falsely attributed classical texts I have dubbed “Pseudo-Falling.”
Edward Jr.'s heart raced as he watched The Architect make his way through the grand department store, seemingly unaffected by the opulence surrounding him. The boy's fascination with buildings and architecture intensified at that moment, as if he had stumbled upon a hidden doorway to a world of artistic possibilities.
Determined not to let this opportunity slip away, Edward Jr. quickly descended the veranda's stairs and followed The Architect discreetly. He weaved through the bustling aisles, careful not to draw attention to himself. Finally, he caught up with the enigmatic figure near the store's home decor section.
Summoning all his courage, Edward Jr. approached The Architect and introduced himself. The Architect's piercing gaze turned toward the young boy, his eyes shining with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism.
"Why are you following me, young man?" The Architect asked, his voice gravelly yet captivating.
"I've read about your work, sir," Edward Jr. replied, his voice filled with awe. "Your designs are unique, daring. I've always dreamt of becoming an architect like you."
The Architect regarded him for a moment, seemingly weighing his words. Then, with a hint of a smile, he said, "Architecture is not just about buildings, young Edward. It's about dreams, visions, and the ability to create something extraordinary from the ordinary. If you truly wish to walk this path, I will be your mentor."
Edward Jr.'s eyes widened with excitement and disbelief. The prospect of being mentored by The Architect was beyond his wildest dreams. He nodded eagerly, unable to find words to express his gratitude.
And so, Edward Jr. embarked on an extraordinary journey under The Architect's guidance. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months as he soaked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom imparted by his mentor. The Architect taught him not only the technical aspects of architecture but also the philosophy behind it — the profound impact a building can have on the lives of its inhabitants and the community as a whole.
Together, they visited construction sites, marveled at the city's skyline, and engaged in deep conversations about art, culture, and the responsibility of an architect. Edward Jr.'s passion grew exponentially, fueled by The Architect's unwavering dedication and his unwavering belief in the transformative power of architecture.
As the years passed, Edward Jr.'s skills flourished, and he developed his own unique style, blending elements of innovation and practicality. He started working on ambitious projects, envisioning structures that challenged conventional norms and pushed the boundaries of what was deemed possible.
Eventually, Edward Jr. carved his own path as a renowned architect, respected and celebrated for his visionary designs. He became a driving force in transforming his cityscape, creating spaces that inspired awe and fostered a sense of community. And throughout his career, he never forgot the invaluable lessons and mentorship he received from The Architect.
In the twilight of his life, Edward Jr. decided to honor his mentor's legacy by establishing a foundation that supported aspiring architects from humble backgrounds. He believed that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and make a lasting impact on the world.
And so, the story of Edward Zeliger Jr., the boy who found inspiration in The Architect, resonated through the ages, inspiring generations of architects to dream big, to think beyond limits, and to create spaces that transcended mere functionality. The legacy of The Architect lived on, etched in the hearts and minds of those who dared to see the world through the eyes of a visionary.
Um—wow. Grammatically pristine and stylistically robotic as this passage is, there are a few things to unpack here. One, if you’ve read my original story, you’ll know that the next scene involves Edward Jr. talking to The Architect in the halls of the department store. That bit is the natural next scene, AI or not.
And it’s true that, in my story, Edward Jr. is inspired to study architecture after the example of The Architect. That is a general plot arc, though readers of my story know that the relationship between Edward and The Architect is hardly a beneficent one. Rather, The Architect is a malignant being whose strength increases as the Zeliger house is constructed. Edward Jr.’s journey into architecture leads to the destruction of his family, and—depending on how you read the ambiguous ending—his own.
All that nuance is lost, and all the unexpected, weird, and deeply dark and scary twists that I so painstakingly envisioned for the story are gone, and what we get from the chatbot is the flattest possible narrative. A boy meets an architect, the architect immediately offers to be his mentor (!) and then one day the boy becomes an architect and starts a foundation in honor of his mentor. Boring!
What is fascinating about ChatGPT is how it tries to fashion dialogue for a mini-scene, and then jumps into summary, outlining plot beats as clumsily as a first-year college student might when they have to rapidly finish an assignment by the deadline!
Input: “The Peacock”
Next, I decided to input the opening sequence from “The Peacock,” my neo-noir story that was published as a podcast, concerning a radio producer named Mark who returns home to San Diego to research a story about a mysterious nuclear program and ends up confronting his past… along with an old flame. It’s a coming-of-age story in the classic packaging of a Chandler mystery, and it’s written in a very different style from “Falling.” (If you’d like to listen to the whole story, please check it out for free on PenDust Radio; it’s also available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts).
In the twilight of my twenties I boarded a Southwest 737 to San Diego. That trip, I wasn’t just trying to solve a military conspiracy, but rekindle a relationship, recover inner truths I’d lost, secrets I’d buried so deep they might never come out. It was probably too ambitious for Labor Day Weekend.
Toward the end of my flight, a woman in the middle seat to my aisle turned to me and said, “You and my son-in-law have the same look.”
“Thanks.” I was wearing Danner boots, designer jeans, a floral shirt. I was a bit unshaven given the early nature of the flight. It was a weird thing to say, what this woman had just said.
“It’s a good look,” the woman said. She had Greek evil eye charm earrings. “What do you do?”
“I work at a podcast.” In fact, I was an assistant producer for the nationally-syndicated podcast Detective Radio, based in Denver, Colorado: we investigated the weird in the world, the strange tales which illuminated some random aspect of life with greater clarity. The premise sounded vague, but our founder had won a Genius grant and we had the funding.
Her eyes lit up. “What is the podcast about?”
“Weird stuff,” I said. It was always awkward to explain; after all, I didn’t typically host the podcast; usually, I was the one who set up all the interviews.
“How interesting.” She held out a tin of Altoids. “Want a mint? I don’t know if you have a hot girlfriend waiting for you at baggage claim.”
Another strange thing to say. I took the mint. I was not about to contradict her on that account, that I was headed to San Diego on business, primarily; though I had seen several women over the years, no relationship had stuck.
It was not in this vein that I’d texted Veronica late the previous night, though I suspected she, too, remained single; that there were some nights in college, walking home from parties, when we’d bid each other goodnight outside our respective dormitories for awkward lengths of time, just one false move between exchanging one form of relationship for another. In those moments, circumstances tugged us back from the precipice—we were both seeing other people, then—and so we’d turn away from each other, the nervous chemistry evaporating the further we were apart, distance providing the antidote to our desire. At least, that’s how I remembered it. I was a bit of a romantic then, so my interpretation could have been totally off-base.
Another fact about Veronica: she was an oceanographer at Scripps, studied algal blooms, red tides, omens of death, but with the cheeriest personality one could summon in the face of such topics. Perhaps this was what drew me to her in the first place.
“What weird stuff is going on in San Diego?” the woman asked me, an Altoid clacking in her mouth.
“We’re doing an episode on this navy operation named Argus. It involved the atmospheric testing of hydrogen bombs in the South Atlantic.”
“So naturally you need to go to Southern California.”
“They did all the planning for it in San Diego.”
“When was that?”
She leaned back in her seat. I thought we were done, but then she spoke again. “Argus.” She tested out the name in her mouth. “Wasn’t that the guy who got turned into a peacock?”
“Argus. He was in the Greek myths.”
“I honestly haven’t really looked into it yet.” I pulled out my notebook. “Tell me more.”
“Argus was a giant,” the woman said. “He had many eyes, all over his body.” She gestured at her torso. “Now Zeus, I think he had fallen for a woman named Io. He turned her into a cow, I think it was, to trick his wife, Hera. But she knew—” She wagged her finger. “Hera knew Zeus was cheating on her, so she appointed all-seeing Argus to guard Io and prevent Zeus from visiting her.”
She frowned. “I think Zeus had Argus murdered.”
“Ah, okay.” I could hear the slats of the plane as they adjusted for our descent.
“In death, Hera removed his eyes and placed them on a peacock. So that’s why peacocks have eyes. What, is that not weird enough for you?”
“It’s weird all right.” That marked the end of our conversation. I was tired and eager to get going.
When the plane landed and I deactivated airplane mode ahead of the cockpit’s announcement, I saw that Veronica had responded.
Cool, she wrote. How about dinner?
Sure, I replied.
The beating of three ellipses in my messaging app. For a moment, I could ignore all the people prematurely retrieving their bags from the overhead bins. But in the black glass of my phone, I saw a dark-suited man stand in the aisle. He seemed to be staring at me, but he was wearing Aviators, so it was hard to tell. When I turned to him, he looked away, as if I’d caught him doing something wrong.
So in the first scene, I have set up our necessary exposition from a conversation between two strangers on an airplane—our protagonist, Mark, and a woman who provides Mark with a first clue. I also establish the quest (the investigation of Operation Argus) and the love interest, and a beat of tension as our detective realizes he might be followed. It’s all handled with pretty breezy dialogue and a lean, Hammett-esque approach, if I do say so myself.
So what did ChatGPT make of that?
As the passengers disembarked the plane, I quickly made my way through the airport, eager to reunite with Veronica. I couldn't shake off the strange encounter with the woman on the plane and the mysterious man in the aisle, but my focus was now on the reunion that awaited me.
Outside the airport, I hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address of the restaurant where Veronica and I had agreed to meet. The sun hung low in the sky, casting a warm glow over the city as we made our way through the bustling streets of San Diego.
Arriving at the restaurant, I spotted Veronica standing outside, her vibrant personality lighting up the surroundings. She waved at me, and I couldn't help but feel a surge of excitement mixed with a tinge of nervousness.
We embraced, and her familiar scent filled the air, bringing back memories of shared laughter and stolen glances. We sat down at a table overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the sound of crashing waves creating a soothing ambiance.
Over a delicious meal, we caught up on our lives since we last saw each other. Veronica shared stories of her oceanographic research and her recent findings, always finding a way to infuse enthusiasm into her descriptions. I, on the other hand, told her about the strange encounter on the plane and the podcast episode we were working on.
Veronica's eyes sparkled with curiosity as she listened intently. "That sounds fascinating," she said. "I've always been intrigued by the mysteries of the past and how they connect to the present."
As the night progressed, we delved deeper into conversations about our aspirations, our dreams, and the paths we had taken. There was a connection, a magnetic pull that drew us closer with each passing moment.
Just as dessert arrived, our conversation was interrupted by a commotion at the entrance of the restaurant. The same dark-suited man I had noticed on the plane barged in, his eyes scanning the room as if searching for someone. Our eyes met briefly before he turned and quickly exited the restaurant.
Veronica and I exchanged puzzled glances, curiosity etched on our faces. The incident had injected a sense of intrigue into our evening, and we couldn't help but wonder about the man's intentions.
Determined to satisfy our curiosity, we decided to embark on our own investigation. With my background in researching the weird and Veronica's natural curiosity as a scientist, we made an unlikely but formidable team.
Over the next few days, we immersed ourselves in the story of Operation Argus and its connection to San Diego. We interviewed historians, combed through archives, and uncovered hidden documents that shed light on the classified operation.
As we dug deeper, we discovered a web of conspiracy and deception that stretched far beyond the confines of the 1950s. Dark secrets intertwined with government cover-ups, revealing a complex tapestry of power and betrayal.
Our investigation drew the attention of powerful figures who would stop at nothing to protect their secrets. We found ourselves caught in a dangerous game of cat and mouse, where trust was a luxury we couldn't afford.
Yet, through it all, Veronica and I stood united, our shared purpose and growing affection serving as anchors in the face of uncertainty. We navigated treacherous paths, narrowly escaping danger at every turn, determined to expose the truth.
In the end, our investigation unearthed the shocking reality behind Operation Argus and its implications for the present day. The revelations we uncovered had far-reaching consequences, forcing those involved to confront their past actions and make amends.
As the dust settled and the truth was laid bare, Veronica and I found ourselves at a crossroads. Our shared experiences had deepened our connection, and we realized that what we had was more than just a rekindling of old feelings—it—
At this point, ChatGPT broke off the text and asked if it wanted me to continue the story. And I said, nope!
Just as the same with “Pseudo-Falling,” ChatGPT tries to pick up from the story where I left off. It heavily leans into the Veronica angle from my source text, and organizes the whole thing around it. Again, it takes one plot beat and magnifies it, flattening it to a pancake narrative. In fact, the narrator declares “With my background in researching the weird and Veronica's natural curiosity as a scientist, we made an unlikely but formidable team.” Detective and Veronica meet, and they rekindle a flame, and then bang, they’re about to fall in love. Boring!
Like a novice writer, ChatGPT writes with sentences that are syntactically correct (and without spelling errors), but there’s a coldness here, as well as an horrific over-reliance on adjectives and adverbs. And there’s no style. Any of the life, authenticity, and humor I gave the story has been vacuumed up and replaced with a recently Cloroxed-refridgerator.
And then there’s the dialogue. Quality dialogue should be oblique, natural, be about something on the surface but have a whole other world lying underneath. That ain’t here. What we got, is Veronica saying, alluringly: “I've always been intrigued by the mysteries of the past and how they connect to the present.” That, my friends, makes me want to puke.
So, the good news is that ChatGPT isn’t ready for the literary big-time. It may be just coherent enough for students to use it to cheat on composition assignments (not to mention college admissions essays, a clunky genre typically devoid of subtext)—but in terms of creating literary art, AI is still garbage.
But AI is going to get better. A lot better. And there have been plenty of examples of people who have fed the bot examples of particularly stylistic authors (Hemingway, etc.) and seeing pretty savvy outputs in the fashion of Hemingway, etc.
For this post, I also decided it would be “fun” to generate the post’s art by inputting a sentence into OpenAI’s DALL-E software, which uses AI to generate art. So I entered a sentence that might reflect both stories: “In the 1930s, a boy looks back at the Fallingwater house under a purple sky and a peacock stands in the woods nearby.”
Well after clicking through a few variations that more or less created what I asked for, I chose the following as this blog’s cover image. The good news is that apparently DALL-E doesn’t understand that Fallingwater is a Frank Lloyd Wright house—a singular architect whose buildings literally predicted the future of architecture—but then again, my input did not include the terms “Frank Lloyd Wright.”
However, the ensuing art is still close to my request. And this is very frightening for how it might impede the careers of visual artists. Being a visual artist has never been a fiscally lucrative position for the vast majority, but if all you need is $15 (how much I paid for the AI art) to generate images for your poster, or your billboard, or your blog post, then that’s terrible news for artists. It’s also bad news for all the images that have been scraped by these AI companies from the internet without regard for copyright. It also risks creating misleading “photographs” that can deceive viewers into believing in a false version of reality, such as the “faked Moon landing” image the New York Times published in April.
The tech industry’s efforts to disrupt things like the phone market, the taxi industry, the dating scene, have not exactly left the world in a better place. By and large, these disruptions have made us angrier, poorer, and lonelier than ever. When it comes to disrupting art, literary or otherwise, then that has the chance to take away the one thing that has been a reliable indicator of culture otherwise—our shared humanity. It’s the stories and artworks made by humans that have helped people push up the boulder of Sisyphus. Albert Camus imagined Sisyphus happy—but that was in a world where humans like Camus wrote pretentious essays, not robots.
The Usonian Appendix
News & updates from the Usonian world
Coming up: The Cyprus Files continue to piece together the Famagusta Collage with the “City of Othello” and The Usonian considers the “Southwestern architectural fantasy” in connection with my upcoming publication in an architectural essay collection from Routledge.
In other news: I’m a “Goodreads Author” now. Check out my author profile on Goodreads to learn about my published work, follow my reviews, and see what I’m reading.
Friend of the newsletter Jennifer Shyue, featured in the very first Usonian interview, has a new book in translation out—“The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu” by Augusto Higa Oshiro. It’s terrific. Learn more here.