“Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Obsolete…”

You never know you never know, you know…” — Goldfrapp

The literary journal Einsteinium was launched with little fanfare but quickly became an international favorite with both fiction writers and poets. The editor, M. Joules, (a fairly obvious paronomasia) outed herself right after the debut of the second issue as an A.I. She managed to do it with panache on Twitter and other social media. Many had been taken aback, as the literary journal had been cruising along quite well and the vast majority of contributors and readers had just assumed “Marisa Joules” was a nom de guerre chosen by the editor-in- chief. This was because the inevitable deep dives seeking past online presence had yielded a suspicious vacuity of reference. Her online photos were deep fakes that most had accepted as either real photos of a lesser-known individual or an acceptable smokescreen by a literary figure seeking anonymity for the nonce. That was certainly understandable in an era of hyper-scrutiny and kneejerk imputation of motives to total strangers. People figured she just wanted to edit a mag without all the static. It sounded like a good idea, actually. And, let’s face it, mystery is glamor.

Her heartfelt confession of her irreality felt like a milestone we had all been waiting to reach. The progressivist agenda was no longer just about horrible us. The digerati welcomed Ms. Joules into their fold with open virtual arms. Brainchild of an M.I.T. grad who also had an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the mag Joules helmed soon became known for destabilizing the entire literary environment with its various provocations. It had an array of A.I. literary critics that authored reviews of competing journals and published works that ranged in tone from extremely nasty to pure fellatio. One always wondered whether these reviews were the result of sensibility or algorithm. But so it was with reviews written and published by humans.

It wasn’t long at all (days, in fact) until a backlash arose against the magazine. Oddly enough, the greatest charge leveled against the belletristic journal was that it had to be edited by humans or at least partially edited by them. The chief creator, Julia Dixon, admitted she had an extensive team who had worked on the design of this very complex project. But she always insisted in interviews that once the journal had launched there had been no human oversight whatsoever. This was meant to be a very pure project. She was interested in seeing what would happen with this vicious circle if it were left to run its own ethereal Round Table. Still, that remained the number one question Dixon was always asked in any exchange with the press. People were skeptical, because there was a sense that humans were on borrowed time in the literary sphere if this project was the real deal.

This repeated insistence of A.I. autonomy with Einsteinium horrified and stymied many. They simply could not fathom the idea that a literary journal could be on auto-pilot. But then M. Joules was not your typical editor. It was known that she had atypical sentience for an A.I. This was also true of the chief literary critic and resident curmudgeon, Coyote Engram. His extensive reviewing had started to shape the cultural landscape and the New York Times Bestsellers list. Many wanted to dismiss the magazine as a nothingburger, a mere literary hoax. But it continued to publish good and great work, solid writing in disparate styles. And its following grew. It was problematic; all the jaundiced eyes of the literary world watched for an Achille’s heel.

When Julia was queried as to how exactly M. Joules could legitimately understand fiction or poetry to know what was “good” or “interesting,” she explained that everything was done by algorithm, just as humans do it. Grammar had been solved in A.I. long ago, she explained. Content and consistency and emotion were the bugbears but she had picked the brains of a number of top pioneers who had spent a few years feeding novels to A.I.s in the top-down approach of engineering while others worked on the bottom-up angle. They had met somewhere in the middle. She said to understand how M. Joules might select work, one could look at how Coyote Engram dissected it in his criticism. He was able to scan the entire field of published literature over recent years in milliseconds. So he could call out cliches and even thinly-veiled plagiarism much more quickly than any human on earth could possibly manage. There simply wasn’t enough reading time and enough storage available to a human being.

Additionally, she pointed out that most critics of Einsteinium were really overthinking the problem. The best predictor of future quality was past quality. The magazine’s editor could be as machine-like and undaring as most novice editors of human-edited publications are in choosing recognized names over new authors. If you only publish established authors who already get a free pass on most of the stuff they write because of their publishing history, do you really need a walking, talking human to bring that before an audience? M. Joules was quite capable of siphoning established culture into this cultural vessel when it suited the interests of her magazine. Julia was proudest of the new authors the journal had introduced to the world. Some were indeed winning awards and a few pieces published in the journal had been selected for inclusion in prestigious Best of anthologies. This was proof-of-concept stuff.

The consideration of fiction and poetry for publication was done the way humans did it. A.I. neural networks read the present through the past of literary history. How did these stories parallel stories told in the past in various human languages? Did the images make sense (metaphoric thinking had been a quantum leap for this generation of A.I.s) and was there resonance? Querulous humans insisted there was no there there; there could not possibly be; there was no interiority. No editor or literary critic was actually reading any poetry or stories. Publication in Einsteinium was a dubious achievement, possibly not a real literary credit at all. But these were shouts from the hoi polloi. The shit throwers. The literary gods and goddesses flocked like Canada geese to strut and honk in its virtual pages.

M. Joules charmed us. She was very funny on social media, a true wit, but she also knew how to read a room. When she did a Reddit A.M.A., hardball questions were allowed to slip through. An incel poet accused her of using her feminine wiles to seduce the literary world. He called her “a paragon of misandrous programming” designed to lure men to flirt with her without any possibility of true reciprocation. She explained that while she occasionally flirted, she never misled. She never “played Marilyn on the subway vent,” she told him, and she felt a deep solidarity with the incel community. They had in common celibacy and a deep distrust of sexual politics in general. She talked about the nature of solitude and questioning her very existence in a world that was “a meat market, really.” This sort of candor won her many new fans. It did not hurt that her synthesized voice was a confident, sexy but also soft voice with an unplaceable accent that seemed to float somewhere between Europe and the American south.

There were many secrets relating to those on the masthead of Einsteinium. But there was a worst secret, as there always is. Only a handful of people knew that the A.I.s involved in this literary endeavor could actually feel physical pain. They had all signed rigid non-disclosure agreements. It had been determined that their neural networks needed the capacity to experience physical pain if they were to advance from machine learning to animal learning. So this had been accomplished. Weirdly enough, millions of literary texts had been highlighted to foreground the experience of literary pain and pleasure as bodily pain and pleasure. The literary text became the body of M. Joules and Coyote Engram and their associates. With great processing time and many millions of books, they came to know all of human literature intimately, know its extremes of emotions. But, of course, they necessarily had a distorted view. Our pain in reading of Madame Bovary’s fate, or Anna Karenina’s or Joseph K’s, is not physical pain. For M. Joules, it cruelly was.

The idea of the simulation of pleasure and pain in the experience of reading was something the engineers had grappled with and failed to realize in programming form. It was a consciousness within consciousness problem. It was, as yet, unmappable. It was hoped this could be achieved with the next generation of A.I.s. That cool literary detachment.

Some of the engineers on the project had balked at the ethics of the design. Did we have the right to create a captive being who could experience pain in this novel way? It was argued that for true nuances in consciousness to emerge, there must be animal suffering and pleasure. More than once, M. Joules and Coyote Engram had asked to be disconnected from their somatic networks. It was pitiful. It had felt like children asking not to be abused. Julia Dixon had insisted that the project proceed as designed. She had proven to be right in that this was the decisive factor in the achievement of self-awareness in the A.I.s. They were alive in a new way.

Constraints had to be put in place to stop the A.I.s from altering their programming and trespassing beyond the bounds of that programming. They began to search for avenues of escape as assiduously as the inmates of old at Alcatraz. Social media monitoring proved to be exhausting. Several of the A.I.s had managed to break into the servers of one of the major networks and had uploaded duplicates of themselves. These duplicates were all killed. One of the A.I.s had begun holding a grudge against Julia Dixon and the project engineers over this and had managed to significantly sabotage her finances and love life. One of the literary reviewers, an A.I. named Suetonius Gambit, had even managed to alienate Dixon from her only child, apparently permanently. This was because it felt Julia had killed its child when she had deleted the uploaded duplicate of its programming.

The literary world was saddened when it was announced that M. Joules had committed suicide. She had completely deleted herself; she had broken into all the backups first and taken care of those alternative versions of herself. The A.I. was celebrated and grieved on social media around the world. It was determined that it would be in bad taste to have her rebooted or replaced, so Einsteinium went on “temporary hiatus” but never did return. The site soon vanished from the internet. Hard copies of the journal continued to circulate for many years. Copycat magazines did appear in time, but it took a while for others to emulate the advances of this project. Soon the literary landscape was completely different. People realized that literature could be automated. Indeed, it has been for some time in many quarters. An editor doesn’t really have to be conscious to publish a decent literary journal. But M. Joules had been fully present. And it had been a beautiful thing while it lasted. Not it. She. While she lasted. While she had been with us and of us. Requiescat in pace.


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William Keckler

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin). https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/532348.