I read an interesting article at LitHub yesterday that used an on online AI-bot to write more of some of the world’s classic novels based upon first sentences. I decided to use the same Transformer tool to see what its response would be to some of my favorite eco-fiction stories, just to find an alternate “feeling” about our future in a climate-changed world. As an author, my worst fear is a bot writing better than I do. Maybe they already do.
Jeff VanderMeer’s The Strange Bird
Actual first sentence: The Strange Bird’s first thought was of a sky over an ocean she had never seen, in a place far from the fire-washed laboratory from which she emerged, cage smashed open but her wings, miraculous, unbroken.
Transformer’s response: Her second thought was a sky over an ocean she had never seen, in a place far from the fire-washed laboratory from which she emerged, cage smashed open but her wings, miraculous, unbroken. She had spent more years on the water than she had on the land. This was one of the many ways in which she’d learned how to swim. But she was so far from the sea that she could only see the water as far as her eye could see. It was almost night, and now there was the sound of a great wind, a great sea swell, and she heard a low roar, not unlike the sound of a great gun going off in the hills. She knew she was close, but she could still see only the water’s edge, and the sound of the wind.
My thoughts: I like how the second thought is exactly like the first. Maybe birds do that. The rest was kind of cool.
Helen Marshall’s The Migration
Actual first sentence: When I was younger, I used to play dead.
Transformer’s response: Then the whole family was in the basement. When I’d see a big bear, I’d play dead and throw a rock at him. I thought it was funny. Nowadays I think that’s pretty stupid. And if you’re really scared, just run. Running is the best way to survive.
On the first time he encountered a grizzly bear
It was a little over three years ago. We were on a walk in the park. We were at a place called Mount Baldy, where there’s a trail that goes all the way up to the top. We were looking at the bear and we were just walking and I thought, “This is a little weird. There’s a big black bear here and we’re walking along the trail.” Then I realized that the bear was walking really fast, and when he was walking fast, he could see very well. So I kept looking around, and I noticed there were three little children.
My thoughts: I think the bot has a thing for bears, as they showed up in one of LitHub’s transformer stories too. I want to know what happens next.
Rajat Chaudhuri’s The Butterfly Effect
Actual first sentence: Captain Old steered his electric scooter through the warren of alleys around State Shopping Paradise on his way to station A.
Transformer’s response: The shop windows had been boarded up and the front door boarded up too, but the building was still in decent shape. There were some broken windows on the ground floor, though they were mostly obscured by rubble, but there were no obvious signs that the area was heavily used as a venue for the music scene.
Old knew better than to bother trying to find the main door, though. The place was too heavily guarded and the security on site was all but invisible, so he followed his gut. He looked to his left and right and couldn’t find a way in. He checked the corner of the building and didn’t see any other possible entrance points.
He didn’t want to wander around for too long; his stomach was feeling a bit queasy from his recent trip to…
My thoughts: The bot doesn’t always stop at the end of a sentence. But I thought it was kind of interesting here, and I wanted to know where he had been to make him so queasy.
Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves
Actual first sentence: Mitch was smiling so big his back teeth shone in the soft light of the solar-powered lamp we’d scavenged from someone’s shed.
Transformer’s response: “You don’t like to do this, but I’m going to have to have a word with the others on the team.” He started to walk towards his locker, but I waved him off. “We’re going to have to be more creative if we’re going to take down a giant.”
“It’s what we do.”
I gave him an incredulous look. “I never knew that.”
“It’s what you’re good at, so it’s natural to be good at it.”
“I thought you said-“
“That’s not what I said, I said it’s what you’re good at.”
“I’m not a big fan of the giant.”
“Then why are you good at…
My thoughts: It’s times like these I worry I am getting early signs of dementia that runs in the females of my family. I am lost. At the same time, I like the line “It’s what we do.” Also, I wonder if the giant they have to take down is in fact the real story’s white man stealing the bone marrow?
Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man With Compound Eyes
Actual first sentence: The trickling of water through the fissures in the subterranean rock was suddenly drowned out when the mountain made an immense but also somehow distant sound.
Transformer’s response: The sound stopped and the fissures began to open up again.
The cave continued its descent, gradually making its way through the mountain, before stopping. At the bottom, a large stone slab was erected by the side of the cave.
At this point, the sound of breaking stones echoed in the underground cave.
The stone slab was gradually removed from the cave, as the people who were guarding the cave started to feel that they were facing an opponent that was far beyond their understanding. However, what they could not understand was the reason for the sudden change of events.
When the stone slab was finally removed, a huge hole was revealed and a large, dark-red stone, measuring approximately a meter in diameter, was pulled out.
A few more holes…
My thoughts: Well there is a cave in the novel too, but that’s where the stories depart. Still–and Wu Ming-Yi is one of my favorite authors, whose actual novel stole my heart–Mr. Transformer’s continued writing also has my curiosity piqued. Because who doesn’t like strange large stone slabs mysteriously appearing in a cave? It’s clearly a time portal.
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
Actual first sentence: I had my recurring dream last night.
Transformer’s response: I was in a bar in New York City and someone asked, “What do you think about the future of the United States?” My response: “We’re going to be a superpower again.” I don’t know what it means to have superpower status. I’ve never had to play an important role in anything, so maybe I’ll have more to say when the time comes.
You have an enormous fan base. Where are you watching the games from now that you’ve retired?
I’m watching them on TV. I was in San Francisco recently. We’re going to the game at Candlestick and I will be in my suite, so I’m hoping to be able to watch a game there. I’m a fan, I love the game. If I could go back, I would go back and watch. I’ve seen a few games and I’m a fan of what they do and I’ll continue to support them no matter what…
My thoughts: I got a little shiver at the first part of the response. If you realize Butler was a mastermind and may have also predicted the future in a sense, you aren’t wrong. In the novel a Texas presidential candidate wants to “make America great again”. Ronald Reagan’s catchphrase was “Let’s make America great again,” #notmypresident Trump repeated the phrasing, showing that he is not very original. In my spotlight on Octavia Butler, I noted the following:
According to Wired Magazine (Sci-Fi Tried to Warn Us About Leaders Who Want to “Make America Great Again,” by the University of Illinois Press, December 6, 2016), Gerry Canavan, who wrote the biography Octavia E. Butler: An Outsider’s Journey to Literary Acclaim, said that the presidential character was actually inspired by Ronald Reagan, but it reeks of the current president as well–two decades after Talents was published–who uses the exact phrasing of “make America great again.” Maybe what Octavia was concerned about was that we need to make it great someday, but we cannot make anything great by disregarding scientific fact, civil rights, ecological and economical sustainability, forethought, and equality.
I kinda feel like the transformer has already read this first sentence and learned from it.
Frank Herbert’s Dune
Actual first sentence: A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.
Transformer’s response: For such an endeavor as making a new country free from the oppression of a monarchy, as to whom the most delicate care should be exercised is a matter of such importance that it is well to call to mind the words of the great writer, “the work of a new country can never be complete till the last particle of the old is effaced.”
As soon as a republic or democratic government has been created by the will of the people, it will be the first care of every citizen to see that all the institutions which are not consistent with liberty are abolished. The principle of “the preservation of property” being a fundamental principle of every government, the first object will be to see that all taxes levied to support or maintain the government are paid by those whose property is thus supported or maintained; and this, it is true, without encroaching on property already possessed. In other words, the principle of “the preservation of property” will be enforced by all…
My thoughts: I fell asleep reading the response. But it sounds like a legit collection of sentences a history book might have.
Jean Hegland’s Into the Forest
Actual first sentence: It’s strange, writing these first words, like leaning down into the musty stillness of a well and seeing my face peer up from the water–so small and from such an unfamiliar angle I’m startled to realize the reflection is my own.
Transformer’s response: My eyes are wide and bright, my mouth still agape. My face and hair are still as well. But the words are mine–mine to speak. I have no memory of having said them. It’s as if I’d already known them–as if I’d already spoken them before. And if that’s true, there’s nothing strange about it. What is strange is the lack of memory. I’ve no idea how much time has passed between the moment I was born and the moment I realized that I was talking. My mother was an American and she told me about the Great Depression before I was born, but she never mentioned the words “Great Depression.” And I didn’t ask her about them. I knew what a Depression was but it didn’t seem strange. The Depression came to…
My thoughts: Not a bad follow-up, though a bot will never think nor write like the brilliant Hegland.
Richard Powers’ The Overstory
Actual first sentence: First there was nothing.
Transformer’s response: Then there was the next thing: The moment when he noticed something was wrong.
“It’s the same with me,” Hynes said. “Sometimes you feel a little different about your teammates than the coach does.
“He tells me to go out there and play my game, play my style, so I do. I try to make plays. I have good hands. I just need to do a better job finishing at the net and not being lazy on the puck.
“I’ve just got to get back to the way I was before. I feel like I’m starting to understand it again.”
Hynes has not taken it personally. The two haven’t spoken since Jan. 9, when the coach asked him to talk to the media after a 2-0 loss in Toronto.
“I just told him I was disappointed,” Hynes said. “I told him I’m not happy with the…
My thoughts: It’s kind of scary how AI can think of this stuff and form such a big response to a short first sentence. I laughed at “Then there was the next thing.”
Omar El Akkad’s American War
Actual first sentence: I was happy then.
Transformer’s response: “…and I am happy now,” he said.
The other men were also not present at the time of the attack.
“It is not easy to go to prison and the judge is fair,” he added.
My thoughts: You can keep trying the transformer and get more thoughts, but I went with the first “thoughts” for all of these, and this one is weird and not very satisfying.
Clara Hume’s Back to the Garden
One more! Now I as a writer do not belong in the category of the above authors, but I want to know how the transformer will interpret my own sentence. I’ve been waiting for this. Let’s see.
Actual first sentence: Between dropping seeds like raindrops onto pitted soil and slogging hotly through the creek at the hatchery, I often thought what it might be like to find someone to love.
Transformer’s response: To have a little baby and to nurture that baby with a life of its own. But I knew I couldn’t, not then, not after I’d lost someone. And so I took the road less traveled and headed south. To my family’s hometown.
The first time I got to meet the family of my grandmother’s sister, I could feel the love. The love was there when we shared a laugh and when we held hands and smiled and talked about things we’d never talked about. And when, a few years later, my grandma had her own son, and we had my grandfather in our lives and my cousin in ours, and I was watching the little guy grow up and know his dad, and he was looking at me with a broad grin, I knew, I knew that…
My thoughts: They read my novel, didn’t they? At least the part about heading south to the family’s home town, and a baby comes eventually. I’m a little spooked by this, but also a bit relieved, because in this case (maybe not always), I might have upped the bot in writing style. Then again, maybe my first line was just too predictable.
The featured image is of a silver didrachma from Crete depicting Talos, an ancient mythical automaton with artificial intelligence. The photo is in the public domain and is taken by Jastrow (2006).