The World’s First Crowdsourced Sci-fi Novel Isn’t Good

Last month, we reported that Erin Swan’s YA fiction Bright Star would become the first novel chosen for publication by an algorithm (instead of a human editor). This was not a development that we foresaw, though we did manage to predict the discovery of yet more Harper Lee manuscripts, the proliferation of ever more varieties of adult relaxation books, and the mutation of self-published prole erotica.

And we did, in our own way, anticipate a publishing announcement made this week. CNET — not an outlet known for its literary ambitions — has published the first section of Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing, a broadly crowdsourced “novel.” Though we did not guess that CNET would be responsible for the first such novel, we did suggest it was likely to happen this year, if only because genre fans have been group-writing novels in hotel rooms since 2014. In our publishing predictions for 2016, we wrote:

To begin with, we will see the rise of the novel written by group or committee. We’ve already witnessed stirrings of this craze in genre fiction, where groups of self-proclaimed geeks now gather in hotels to churn out novels in 75 minutes. It’s just a matter of time before such projects are published and sold to readers.

The “process” behind the novel’s composition wasn’t especially complex. Several months ago, CNET asked its readers to crowdsource a science fiction novel, and they obliged. According to a statement, “hundreds of contributors…collaborated via a single Google Doc, working under a Creative Commons license to shape a rough draft a a story.” CNET’s edited version — one of an infinite possible versions, given the open source nature of the project — comes to about 50,000 words.

If you couldn’t tell from its title, Crowd Control: Heaven Makes a Killing is a genre-confused metafiction, one that features strange, italicized interpolations from a figure called “The Editor,” whose job is to remind you that you’re reading a novel on CNET. (And if you were somehow unsure that Crowd Control is a metafiction, a character named “Meta” is there to convince you.) One of The Editor’s least favorite pastimes, it turns out, is editing. He’s shy of the Oxford comma, and he has a penchant for leaving wormholes in the middle of sentences. Try to figure this one out:

He fidgeted with his long, dark hair as a three-dimensional rendering of a man dressed in furs ran through the woods, stumbling over rocks hidden beneath snow cover, an archaic hatchet-like weapon made of dull metal, branches and twine strapped to his back.

Fiction like this is about world building. (Namely, it wants to build out the world of CNET’s clicks and engagements.) It also makes you wonder (with its nod to Kurzweil) which of two available options will arrive for the novel after the singularity. Will it become a global LAN party? Or Web 2.0?

Still, the collectivization of fiction will have to compete with its automation. (Both cut down on labor time.) Last month, word came from Japan that a “team” from Future University Hakodate has written an AI program that can write novels — and enter them into literary contests. Unfortunately, according to one of the contest’s judges, the AI has some problems with character description. In this respect, the computer’s “work” bears a remarkable similarity to recent crowdsourced fiction projects. Along these lines, too, the AI has a thing for metafiction. The title of its novel? The Day a Computer Writes a Novel.

Meanwhile, Google is teaching its own AI to be “more conversational” by feeding it romance novels. In the face-off between genre fan and computer, it was already impossible to say which was which.