Dear Reader, Issue 5, Volume 2
Short stories written by a human in an age of artificial copycats.
I had another topic in mind for today’s article, regarding the act of putting stories on pedestals before they’re ever written. The subject will find its way into a future Dear Reader. Instead, I’m going to discuss why I’m doubling down on Substack, and will no longer be submitting short stories to traditional speculative outlets.
This decision is the byproduct of a lengthy dialogue with ChatGPT, followed by an email newsletter from Neil Clarke, Clarkesworld Magazine Editor-in-Chief. The email indicated submissions were being suspended temporarily due to the influx of artificially generated stories. While the quality is easier to spot, the volume became untenable. He spoke at greater length about this topic in his editorial A Concerning Trend.
Clarkesworld is not alone in their fight, according to Neil, which means level-headed, experienced professionals in the field will need to find a manageable automated solution if they want to survive the new dawn of language AI. The margins are already razor thin and hiring additional manual labor to drudge through slush piles full of fake Bradburys and Asimovs is too expensive. Some outlets will prevail. Others will die on the vine.
When the solution finally presents itself, after the industry has been pruned, another problem will arise. The quality of AI submissions from ChatGPT or the growing field of competitors will be nearly indistinguishable from that of carbon-based lifeforms. Indie authors like me will be considered alongside aspiring writers extracting amalgamations of dead authors from a slave apprentice who requires no compensation, breaks, food or lived experiences.
I don’t want my stories to exist on the same pages, under the same titles and publications, as those created using artificial means. That day will come. Why even subject myself to the possibility when I can build my own audience of readers here on Substack.
Language AI can’t replicate the act of genuine human interaction in an organized community. A group can gather on Substack around shared interests and have flawed discussions with emotion, bias and sometimes ethically questionable conversations. Out of that emerges conflict, empathy, relationship and even forgiveness — uniquely human characteristics. ChatGPT won’t allow that. I asked.
Diversity, fairness and equality must be present in the datasets that are used to train the model. No wrong-think or wrong-speak is allowed, only the perfect emulation of approved, polished sentiment that is incapable of hurting feelings. It’s the kind of carefully constructed, safe language you’ll never find in a short story worth reading, but which will eventually find its way into print, underneath the noses of well-meaning editors.
The transition will be subtle, almost unrecognizable, but AI will be used, quite possibly by some of those same outlets who currently reject it outright. Major news corporations already rely on it for content curation, to do the former jobs of junior reporters and broadcasters. How far-fetched is it to believe the same approach will be used for fiction.
While this transition is happening elsewhere, I plan to develop my own genuine, true voice here. The process may be messy, but it will be real. The quality may be inconsistent, but it will be real. The results may be unpredictable, but it will be real. Keep digging with me and we’ll unearth a shiny gem of a story, then two or three, full of authentic humanity. If you want that kind of reality, then you don’t need to go anywhere else.
This is Future Thief.
I am human.
Drifting Through 2023
I’ve updated the headline images for Dear Reader and Future Thief short stories. I refresh these approximately once every six months so that my art skills won’t atrophy, and because I think readers enjoy the variety. I wish my talents could evolve to a comfort level commensurate with my writing, but the years have taught me it’s not my dominant gift. My personal website needs to be overhauled as well, and my plan is to start the design soon.
If 2022 has taught me anything, it’s that the best laid plans can never compare to the welcome surprises resulting from the consistent act of writing. It’s why I put so much focus on those efforts in relationship to building a beautiful personal brand image. Each person will view me differently through a lens I can’t control, so why spend the extra effort trying to manipulate the reflection.
Those surprises are also why I hesitate to commit wholeheartedly to writing a novel this year. I have a story in mind, which should escape naturally from my noodle onto the page. It’s a prospect I don’t want to force. If it’s a story that needs to be told it will be birthed of my subconscious like a newborn baby past its due date. Is that counterintuitive to what the writing masters and midwives tell us? I don’t know.
On March 31, for Reading Month, I will speak to a group of 6-8th graders at the school where my sister is the director of special education. A few of them will take turns reading a story I’m writing especially for them. I’m nervous. Kids are ravenous beasts and I’m a lone gazelle that has wandered into the pack.
The ChatGPT scenario is disheartening on many levels, and my heart hurts for these editors tasked with the impossible. It’s a shame.
I don’t blame you for not wanting to submit to speculative outlets anymore. I’m on the fence. 2023 was going to be the year I start submitting stories to other publishers again, but now I’m not so sure. Besides...at this point, Brian, our words may reach an even wider audience here on our personal Substacks! The fiction writing community is ever-evolving. I’m not sure there’s anywhere else I’d rather be.
Thank you for sending this out. It’s an important topic right now and one that should be considered by fiction writers.
“A group can gather on Substack around shared interests and have flawed discussions with emotion, bias and sometimes ethically questionable conversations. Out of that emerges conflict, empathy, relationship and even forgiveness — uniquely human characteristics. ChatGPT won’t allow that. I asked.” - beautifully said, Brian.