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The ChatGPT of 1964

In the months since ChatGPT and other examples of Generative AI arrived on the scene, plenty of writers and artists have had a genuine concern for their future careers. We now know that these systems have some distinct flaws in writing non-fiction - they struggle to identify the difference between reality and the made up stuff, and have been quite happy to, say, fabricate references because they've spotted references are a good thing, but not that they have to be real. However, this is less of a problem in the field of short fiction, where things are supposed to be made up.

When it comes to poetry, although Generative AI can come up with unsubtle stuff (one of the few things it seems quite good at is rap), it struggles for sophistication - but it's very easy to imagine, had there still been a demand for it, that the systems would be good at the kind of pulp fiction that used to be regularly consumed by the masses prior to the 1970s, and that still has a small toehold in, for example, romance.

It's fascinating, then, that fellow popular science writer Andrew May has uncovered an SF short story from 1964 that imagines a piece of technology able to churn out pulp stories, ready formatted. The story, Author! Author! (no relation to the Isaac Asimov story of that name) appeared in the 10th August edition of the cheap and nasty looking comic Unusual Tales - you can read the story here. There is no author cited (though Andrew wonders if it is Joe Gill, who seems to have produced a lot of material for Charlton Comics at this time) - but the author was assuredly human, unless a time machine was involved.

In the story, a scientist has a computer that 'will write all kinds of stories. Thus we save the money we pay to writers. In addition, it sets the type, does the printing, editing and binding. So we don't have to pay any person a salary.' The device has a series of controls similar to the specifications you might give to ChatGPT, to indicate, for instance that you want a Western, around 2500 words in length, with a hero who is a sheriff and a villain who is a gambler. We can add in other items, such as a heroine who might the daughter of the villain, and a fight. And off it goes. 

In the story, the machine gets stuck and produces stories that are a messy mix of genres. The investors are horrified - but it turns out the public love the resultant garbage, thinking it's a satire.

The mixed-genre ending of the story apart, the echoes of ChatGPT and its cousins are quite remarkable. Just to underline this, I asked ChatGPT to give me a 2500 word Western story where the hero is a sheriff, the villain is a gambler, there's a fight scene and the heroine is the villain's daughter. It produced the story below. Is it great fiction? Certainly not. But it certainly fulfils the promise of Author! Author! and is, frankly, as good as much of the pulp fiction of the first half of the twentieth century.

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Shadows of Redemption

In the rugged town of Dusty Ridge, the sun-baked streets were as unforgiving as the people who walked them. Law was maintained by a single, unwavering figure – Sheriff Caleb Morgan. A man with a past as weathered as his worn-out Stetson, he was known to be unyielding in his pursuit of justice, despite the scars that marked his soul.

Dusty Ridge had seen its share of villains, but none were as infamous as Jasper "Snake-Eye" McCallister. A cunning gambler with a heart as cold as the desert night, Snake-Eye had a reputation for cheating at cards and stealing hearts, all while leaving a trail of chaos in his wake. He owned the Silver Dollar Saloon, a place where smoke wafted through the air like lost dreams and poker chips clinked like promises on the edge of being broken.

The tension between the sheriff and the gambler had been building for years, a fuse waiting for the spark. That spark came when a beautiful, mysterious woman arrived in town, capturing the attention of every man, woman, and even a few stray dogs. Elena McCallister, the daughter of Snake-Eye himself, possessed an air of danger that could rival the wild west itself. With raven-black hair and eyes that held secrets, she was both a riddle and a revelation.

It was a crisp morning when Sheriff Morgan saw Elena for the first time. She was perched on the steps of the Silver Dollar Saloon, watching the town come alive with an intensity that matched the sun’s rising glow. He felt her gaze upon him as he strode down the street, his spurs ringing out a steady rhythm that matched his determined heartbeat.

"Morning, Sheriff," she purred, a playful smile tugging at her lips. Morgan's jaw tightened, his eyes narrowing at the familiarity that she dared to display.

"Elena McCallister," he acknowledged with a curt nod, his grip on his Colt subtly tightening. "What brings the daughter of a notorious gambler to Dusty Ridge?"

She leaned forward, her eyes locking onto his with an unsettling intensity. "The same thing that brings everyone to these parts, Sheriff – the thrill of the unknown."

A flicker of something unreadable passed over Morgan's eyes before he turned away, his long coat billowing behind him like a cloak of authority. He could feel her gaze burning into his back as he strode away, knowing that this encounter was merely the beginning of something darker on the horizon.

As days turned into weeks, the tension in Dusty Ridge grew thicker, like the brewing storm that had yet to break. Morgan's hunch proved true as Snake-Eye McCallister's schemes began to unravel, his clever tricks exposed and his wealth of ill-gotten gains diminishing. The townsfolk started to whisper that perhaps the gambler's luck was finally running out.

One fateful evening, as the sun dipped below the horizon, casting an amber glow over the town, Sheriff Morgan stepped into the Silver Dollar Saloon. The air was thick with the scent of whiskey and sweat, and the tension was palpable as he approached the poker table where Snake-Eye sat, his eyes sharp and calculating.

"Evenin', Sheriff," Snake-Eye drawled, a sardonic smile curving his lips. "Care to join us in a hand of cards?"

Morgan's gaze bore into Snake-Eye's, the two men locked in a silent battle of wills. "I ain't here to play games, McCallister. I'm here to put an end to your reign of deceit."

With that, chaos erupted in the saloon. Tables overturned, chairs flew, and the sound of breaking glass harmonized with the cries of men caught in the crossfire. Morgan's fists clenched and his fists flew as he fought his way to Snake-Eye, his years of law enforcement experience giving him the edge in the brawl.

Amidst the chaos, Elena watched from the shadows, her eyes torn between the two men who held her fate in their hands. Her father fought with a desperation born of a cornered animal, while the sheriff fought with a steely resolve that spoke of a deeper purpose.

As the fight reached its climax, Morgan delivered a final blow that sent Snake-Eye crashing into a table, his defiant spirit finally broken. The saloon fell silent, save for the ragged breaths of men who had just walked the line between life and death.

Sheriff Morgan stood amidst the wreckage, his knuckles bloodied and his breath heavy. He turned to face Elena, who had stepped out of the shadows, her eyes filled with a mixture of anger and relief.

"Your father's reign ends tonight, Elena," he said, his voice weary but resolute. "But you have a choice – to continue down the path he walked, or to forge a new one."

Elena's gaze wavered before she turned to her defeated father, his pride shattered and his world collapsing around him. She looked back at the sheriff, her resolve hardening like steel.

"I choose a new path, Sheriff. For Dusty Ridge, for my father, and for myself."

And so, the story of Dusty Ridge reached its turning point, as the hero and the heroine chose redemption over revenge, and the town began to heal from the wounds inflicted by a villain's greed. Sheriff Caleb Morgan had faced down the darkness within himself and the shadows that had haunted his past. Elena McCallister, once entangled in her father's web of deceit, emerged as a symbol of resilience and the power to choose one's destiny.

The sun continued to rise and set over Dusty Ridge, casting its golden light upon a town that had seen its fair share of struggles. But now, with the sheriff and the heroine by its side, it stood as a testament to the enduring spirit of the West – a spirit that could overcome even the darkest of shadows.


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