The Nameless Horror

The Grim Future of AI Writing

If you’re an author and want to find out if your books were used to “train” Books3 without your knowledge or consent - which is the kind of bullshit we do need to put a lid on - the Atlantic now has you covered with a searchable database of titles used for the platform. (Link via my old mate Duane Swierczynski, who was somewhat ticked off to find his own there.)

“Put a lid on, John? But don’t human authors learn by reading others’ work too? Don’t they then produce books derived from that process which will then compete with your own? How is this kind of thing any different?”

A good question, mysterious devil’s advocate.

For starters, even if their works were hugely, directly derivative, it’s still the case that this process adds to and sustains the next generation of human artistic expression. And while some of that will be dross - if you’ve ever seen me try to draw a mammoth, you’ll know that for a fact - enough nuggets will make it through to enable the active enrichment of the culture and individual engagement with the creative process for the generations to come.

AI-generated (or “trainable algorithmic”; let’s not pretend these systems are “intelligent”) artistic works of any sort do not do that. They train nothing but themselves, and the capacity to auto-produce thousands upon thousands of works in moments both buries slower, manual creative pieces and discourages active engagement with the process - leaving only consumption. Their contribution to ongoing cultural endeavour and creation is, fundamentally, a net negative.

Secondly, even if we all start off by reading the books of others (or seeing the pictures or watching the movies or listening to the music or etc.) and thinking, Damn, I wish I could write a book like Tolkien, just without bloody eagles solving everyone’s problems, our own creations, particularly in a long form like prose fiction, are each individually tinted and shaped by the trillions of interactions and events and people we meet, from formative experiences growing up to fleeting moments and interactions in the street the day before.

These experiences and combinations of influencing factors are unique and changing - and there are analogues in all art forms. Even our shakiest, most beginner art carries these unique fingerprints - our most derivative art isn’t ultimately that derivative, and is still identifiably mine, or yours. Making a work that purely, perfectly mimics a source is actually very hard, as counterfeiters have found out for centuries; creation by committee - where those individual elements are sanded down through the inputs of others or in pursuit of universality - is maybe the closest we get, and not normally something we associate with a good product at the end.

No learning algorithm has that. Its only fingerprints are the degree to which it leans on existing work to produce a given style, and its flaws - the way ChatGPT can’t resist introducing characters by their profession, say. And those flaws are being trained out of each successive generation, and will be the same for all their output, across that same vast volume of production. They have nothing new or uniquely different to add - and even if they were trained for “quirks”, those quirks will be limited by the scope of their design and the parameters laid out for them. Until learning algorithms walk amongst us, their experiences and influences are only static recordings of our own, regurgitated back to us.

But ultimately, regardless of how effective it might become, this is a technology that solves a problem which doesn’t exist. This isn’t labour-saving in the way that a washing machine is, or even the way that an assembly line machine is (allowing for a whole line of very good argument about the replacement of manually skilled human workers in many fields where both volume and standard quality were perfectly achievable, for purely cost/profit reasons and the enrichment of those at the top). It’s not freeing people from a previously lengthy but necessary chore or enabling the reliable production of a necessary product whose daily demand is in the thousands of units within extremely fine tolerances. It doesn’t make things better than they could be before.

The creation of art - as much as finishing a novel can be like pulling teeth at times; we’ve all been there - is itself a worthwhile, positive and often enjoyable process. There’s a reason storytelling, painting, singing and the like have survived as universal pastimes since prehistory. Its consumption is in part the sharing in that process, walking in someone else’s shoes for a time, feeling someone else’s imagination touch your own.

Why would you want to shortcut that? What’s gained by doing so? I could take a pill to guarantee 8 hours of blank unconsciousness every night and never need to dream, or have a gastric tube fitted and never have to eat - but why the hell would I?

Linear Narrative Games - Rise of the Third Power

Storytelling in an interactive medium like games is a tricky and to me fascinating thing, requiring you as a writer to do more with somewhat less (as most games - Death Stranding, looking at you here - can’t get away with asking the player to sit through thirty-minute cinematic cutscenes or 1,000-word text blocks to establish characters or setting) and to cede a much larger degree of narrative control to the player than in passive media. Outside the most rigid, on-rails game structure, the speed at which a player completes sections, or the order in which they encounter them (if at all), or the choices they make can and should have an effect on its pace, direction, tone, and outcome.

This isn’t always to the narrative’s benefit, and there’s a degree to which the audience has to accept the limitations of the form: I have fond memories of reaching the final stage of Fallout 3’s linear main story which I knew ended the game - you sacrifice yourself Spock-style to fix a live reactor and restore water to the wasteland - and deciding to go check for anything I’d missed on the map first. So I left my dad and a variety of other characters waiting for me outside the reactor and headed off into the wilds for several days, discovered the very silly “Republic of Dave” and rigged its elections, helped a rogue Mr Handy butler robot out and generally goofed around until eventually returning to find everyone still waiting for me, po-faced, to take the Noble Sacrifice way out. (A sacrifice that was itself ridiculous: by this point I had so much radiation protection gear and drugs that I could have spent hours inside the reactor with nothing more than a suntan.)

The most common, and simplest in terms of how much player buggering around you have to account for, is the gated linear narrative (not an official term): by completing a mission, or reaching a geographic point, or otherwise completing an objective, you unlock the next part of the main story, whether told through character conversation, cutscene, conveniently abandoned audio log, or just your next mission text. In this kind of structure, your game’s mechanics - combat, resource collecting, exploration, puzzle solving, etc. - and the speed the player uses them sets your game’s overall pace, and the unfolding story acts as both a reward for engaging with those mechanics in the first place and as a way of contextualising the player’s actions. As game mechanics are typically quite repetitive (there’s a reason it’s referred to as a “core gameplay loop”), a good story or engaging characters can create a lot more attachment and engagement in a player than the simple dopamine hit of Numbers Getting Bigger by itself.

Rise of the Third Power

Which brings me round to Stegosoft’s Rise of the Third Power, a weirdly overlooked indie JRPG which was one of my games of last year largely on the strength of its storytelling.

For context, I’ve never been a big JRPG player (for the uninitiated, the term derives from the classic Japanese RPGs of yesteryear - the Final Fantasy series being a classic example - hence the “J”, but the term refers mostly to the mechanics nowadays: you control a party of characters, (usually) turn-based combat in which you choose individual abilities they’ll each use as you flit between them, an overworld map where encounters (usually) take you to a confined battle space to play out, after which you get XP and loot to share around). The furthest I’d gotten into one prior to last year was Yakuza: Like A Dragon, which is a homage to the genre as much as an example, and absolutely bananas. I’ve generally been put off by stories and characters who sound incredibly stock/tropey (or else completely nonsensical), settings that seem too wishy-washy to care about, and sometimes… let’s say the kind of uncomfortable character presentation choices that can give gaming a bad name. However, I’d picked up Stegosoft’s first game, Ara Fell, for peanuts in a GOG sale on the back of reviews calling it a hidden gem. And it is: thoroughly wholesome without being twee, a fairly stock hero’s journey story done well with fun characters, funny when it wants to be and dramatic when it should be, and with a really solid bittersweet payoff to its narrative and characters.

So, when someone mentioned Rise to me late last year, I jumped on it. It’s a bigger game with a more complex setup: a fantasy world loosely based on post-WWI tensions and the aftermath of a destructive but inconclusive war, and with a strong Game of Thrones skullduggery angle in that two of those former combatants, Arkadiya and Cirinthia, are about to cement an alliance and long term peace by marrying their respective heirs, except the baddie Arkadiyan emperor is planning to then stage a false flag attack by Cirinthia’s former wartime ally Tariq and use it as pretext to conquer them before taking over Cirinthia itself. Your initial party consists of ex-pirate Rowan and gung-ho rogue Corrina, breaking into Cirinthia’s royal castle the night before the wedding in order to get in place to kidnap the bride on the orders of a resistance movement who want to show Princess Arielle the truth of the nation she’s marrying into and so stop Arkadiya’s schemes and avoid another brutal war.

From there, hijinks ensue. I won’t go into the specifics of the story, or the other characters you encounter (though they’re all good fun). Suffice to say, things go awry and twist and turn, and you slowly come to learn more about the characters and why they are as they are - and discover through some of the cutscenes that they’re not being entirely honest with one another, or not what they appear.

Avast, cur! Literally a vast cur.

This is something that even in the brighter and breezier Ara Fell, writer Evelyn Rose Hall did really well. Characters have motivations, personal interests, and will act accordingly even if it’s to their detriment - and learn as a result, or fall. This helps provide friction and tension within your main cast, and the bad guys, quite separate from what the plot’s doing and the ongoing efforts to thwart the ambitions of a quasi-fascist/Stalinist empire.

The story’s pacing, as moderated by the need to fight through encounters or solve simple exploration puzzles to unlock the map, is solid too, and the mechanical benefits (better gear and abilities, more characters in your party - each with their own story - are satisfying). Fights are very fast, and while some maps can be a little too large (sewer/tunnel sections especially), it means that things develop steadily because you’re never far from the next step forward. Side-quests are also mostly sensibly short, meaning they can’t interrupt the flow of the main one too much; it’d be very hard to derail it the same way I did that old Fallout 3 game.

Hall also makes good use of cutscenes between chapters to move the wider story along, and pause points - an evening at an inn, a chance to explore town, etc. - to switch focus to a single character and allow them to wander, talk to others, and see how their individual arcs are progressing before plunging back into the main narrative. (I’ve always mentally called these “campfire scenes”, and they work well here in particular because the main cast is quite large and these give them room to breathe.) And she makes bigger, more dramatically important scenes longer, gives them time to sit, characters to interact and reflect their importance, in a way that less vital ones don’t.

A campfire scene on a ship, though campfires and wooden sailing vessels are a poor match

The underlying narrative isn’t wildly reinventing the wheel in its broad strokes - it’s your basic thwart-the-evil-empire romp in a GoT-does-interwar-Europe world - but it doesn’t need to. It’s a slice of solidly entertaining adventure with some great dialogue and a proper dramatic arc to it, where the game mechanics mesh well with both the story’s content and its tone, and help to pull the player into seeing the characters overcome the challenges in front of them. All while never - tunnel sections maybe aside - forgetting to be fun.

Really, consistently good. One of the best games I played last year, and as good an example of a thoroughly pleasant gated linear interactive narrative as you could hope to find.

Arise From The Dead, Again

Frosty strawberry leaves.

/Blows dust off a pile of old HTML.

Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

An elderly spider scuttles out briefly into the light. Behind it, dozens of hollow shells of cast-off skins and past generations of mates sway in the circulating air.

Dear god, it’s been ages since I’ve used this. As always, I’ve been very busy, and then the back-end of this site was a pain in the arse to get working again.

It’s also been tricky figuring out what to do with it, given that I don’t want to talk about anything editor-related as I’d never want a client thinking I was talking about them (I wouldn’t, because it’d be enormously unprofessional and also make me a terrible person, but you see what I mean), I don’t write quickly enough anymore to talk about writing anything, and I don’t read for pleasure enough to reliably say much about that (because of being busy with the aforementioned editing). At the same time, Twitter’s (currently) going down the shitter, Facebook’s algorithm is madness, and where else am I going to shout into the void (I am technically on Mastodon as but that relies on me making use of it).

But I do have a couple of very geeky hobbies that have tangential relevance to writing and storytelling which I can get into without worrying about anyone taking it the wrong way. So all being well, and assuming I don’t break the site again, I’m going to try to talk about those here when I don’t have anything desperately interesting on a personal level to yell incoherently about. Which is to say, most of the time.

Now, let’s see what this button does…

A Note On Hibernation

I suppose if you’re going to miss a year out on a rarely-used blog, 2020 was a great year to pick. Sure, there have been worse ones, historically, and there’ll be worse in future, but still. Obviously I’ve not kept this place updated/in use the past couple of years. Pre-pandemic, that was down to the technical chicanery behind the scenes (auto-building it through cunning use of Dropbox) ceasing to function (the aforementioned Dropbox and AWS default server settings), making it a real pain to manage. And then everything ground to a halt, and here we are.

And that’s been the main reason for going quiet; between home-schooling during lockdown and a lot of people using their time shut indoors to write - and thus needing a freelance editor for their novel or short stories, I certainly haven’t had the time for this place even if I did have anything interesting to say.

Anyway, I’ve managed to replace the technical chicanery (all the files that make up the site are stored in Github, which can auto-build and send everything to AWS for hosting) and if you can see this post, it’s worked. In theory, and ideally, it might get more use because I can post from my phone like the Good Old Days. But don’t fret if everything goes quiet for another 18 months; it just means I’m working.

Review: Summerland

The stars have aligned. The Old Ones stir in their sleep. The great sky wolf has devoured the moon. And I have finished reading a book*.

It’s Hannu Rajaniemi’s Summerland!


In short, it’s a pre-WWII Brits-versus-Soviets double agent spy thriller as both sides try to meddle in the Spanish Civil War to push either Franco or a little-known Georgian emigre on the run… from the overmind that now runs the USSR. And half the secret service are dead, operating from the afterlife - the titular Summerland. One of whom is a mole for the Russians.

That might sound more batshit than it is; the existence of Summerland - and the ecto-technology that allows communication with and exploitation of the dead and the land beyond - is presented as such a fact of life, that it’s clear from very early on that the story is going to be about questioning the effects of its existence both on the political world and on the human level, where the long-dead still run their affairs back in the world of the living, rather than about, hey, dead people, isn’t that weird.

Rajaniemi does a great job of humanising both central characters - demoted field agent Rachel White and Summer Court spy for the Soviets Peter Bloom (no spoiler on that; the story’s not a case of whether he is the traitor, but why, and whether he can be caught) - to the extent that the story doesn’t have an antagonist as such; it’s just a messy situation on all sides.

The plotting is intriguing, the pace snappy, and the style very lean. If I was to split hairs, I’d wonder (having gone through similar) whether the sequence of events in the closing section was as originally intended or changed in editing because as well as introducing concepts and capabilities much less steadily than in the earlier stages, it also greatly ramps up the physical action. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the climax, though; it’s just a little different tonally to what’s come before.

Summerland is a great book, and one I’d very much recommend.

* Obviously I finish other books across the year, but that’s work; dissecting something when the author’s paying for short story or novel editing services isn’t the same as reading a book for fun.