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Friday, 16 April 2021 17:01

The Book Killer by Harman Burgess

The Book Killer by Harman BurgessThe sun radiated molten fire as Michael & I walked home from school. Around us, San Francisco suburbia hummed with activity as people bustled from place to place; walking dogs, picking up kids, returning from work, and so on. I stopped to wipe some sweat from my eyes as the concrete sidewalk bubbled beneath the heat. Michael kicked absentmindedly at the grass, watching the cars blur by; with his screen-addict eyes, overweight physique, and unshaven chin– he did not cut a very imposing figure.

 “Are you going to Sam’s thing tonight?” asked Michael, with the deep squeak of adolescence.

 “Dunno,” I said. “Did you understand what he was going on about earlier? Automated programming, neural networks, pattern recognition… way over my head.”

 I readjusted my backpack, and we continued walking. I wished—as I always did—that I’d remembered to pack a water-bottle and cursed my past self for subjecting me to this torture, as the temperature eased towards the hundreds. My feet rubbed unpleasantly against the sides of my sneakers.

 “He was talking,” said Michael, “about a process of automation that would allow an AI to generate certain patterns of text.”

 “I see,”—my voice implied I didn’t— “Think he wants to start a company?”

 “Probably, that’s what you do when you have an idea round here. Find a way to monetize it.”

 “You’re too young to be so cynical.”

 Michael laughed, and the conversation turned to other things: homework, a new short story I’d sold, what movies were on, video games, and did you hear what she did with the footballer in the locker-room? The turn off for Michael’s house came into view.

 “Until tonight!” declared Michael as he turned away from me.

 I waved my arm goodbye and watched as he receded from view. Then, I walked onwards as thoughts churned in my mind like whirlpools. If Sam’s starting a company why’d he want me? He beats me in every subject except English (I won a state prize for an essay once, got a $50 book voucher for it) and apart from being able to sell the occasional short story, there’s nothing about me that’s particularly interesting. Besides, I’m more inclined to Pushkin than Python. How’d I help with neural networks?

 I’ll find out later, I guess, so no need to get all anxious about it.

#

Sam’s garage stank of sweat and rotten food– a very teenage smell. There was rusted exercise equipment in the corner, old pulpy detective zines on the faded couch, shelves upon shelves of junk, a lonely bicycle; everything, in short, except cars. Those were parked outside. Moonlight bled in from a grime covered window, as Michael & I waited for Sam to stop fiddling with a projector.

 “Need a hand with that?” asked Michael.

 “I’m good,” said Sam in a thin voice. A thin voice from a thin boy, I could almost see his ribs under his school uniform.

 “All you need is a turtleneck and some Seinfeld sneakers,” I ventured.

 Sam pressed his lips together—turning them white—in an anxious sort of smile and jabbed at his laptop. Michael glared at me, and I felt bad: this was perhaps not the best time to make fun.

 Finally, cobweb-blue light filtered out of the projector and breathed against the garages’ back wall, bringing a PowerPoint presentation to life. Sam came and stood in front of a slide titled: BUSINESS PROPOSAL and cleared his throat. I could see how nervous he was and resolved to remain silent.

 “Thank you both for coming. I understand you probably have better things to do than listen to me, so I’ll try to be brief,” said Sam.

 Ahhh, the classic opening gambit: a self-disparaging statement (half-true) designed to elicit sympathy. We sat to attention, assuring Sam we were all ears, and he continued the presentation visibly relieved. He changed slides with a flick of the wrist and a casual air that must’ve taken him hours to work out in front of a mirror. A headshot of Stephen King filled the back wall.

 “How is it publishing houses make money?” asked Sam. “They distribute books. And the more they distribute, the more they make. Big authors like Mr King let publishers distribute a lot of books, making them a lot of money. But Mr King also gets a cut. Quite a lot, in fact. And what about smaller authors? They’re often more risk than they’re worth. A failed debut could cost a publisher thousands.”—he paused for effect— “What’s the lesson here? Publishers rely on authors to make money. And authors are expensive at best and unreliable at worst.”

 Another hand flick and Stephen was replaced by a lattice-like graph of blue bubbles and black lines. Code floated inside the bubbles and Michael leaned forward to look at it, the couch groaning under him.

 “But, but, what if it’s possible to innovate here?” continued Sam. “To disrupt a stagnant and bloated industry. What if instead of being forced to gamble on a newbie who could fail, a publishing house could buy a bestseller ready-made?”—he gestured to the graph— “That there is a model of some code that could allow us to do just that. Michael, what d’ya think?”

 Michael massaged his whiskers and stared at the graph. After some consideration, he sighed—a long whale bellow—and smiled. “She needs some polish, but it might work.”

 And all of summer gleamed on Sam’s face. He flicked another slide. “Now, rollou–”

 “Sorry,” I interrupted. “I’m a little confused. This all sounds nice, but what do you need me for? I don’t know anything about coding.”

 “You’re a published author, yes?” Sam asked, and I nodded. “We need someone to tell us if the stories the program creates are any good. And you know the ins and outs of the publishing world better than I do. You know how to sell things.”

 I had to admit; he made sense.

 “Any other questions?” asked Sam.

 “Yeah,” said Michael. “We should sort out money before this goes any further.”

 “Simple,” said Sam. “Us three get 20% of the company shares each, with 40% reserved for investors.”

 “Well ok then,” said Michael. “Sound good to you, Jon?”

 “It does indeed, my friend,” I said, and we all grinned at each other. “What happens now?”

 Sam turned back to the slides and began outlining his plan.

#

As we worked, the days became one golden blur: in the mornings I’d meet up with Michael & Sam to talk about the company, then 6 excruciating hours of school, and (finally!) back to Sam’s garage– breaking at 11 pm or so to get ready for the next day. I didn’t do much, just waited around doing homework and writing short stories as they coded, but I was the necessary third wheel that brought them together; both being better friends with me than each other. And the effort ate up weeks at a time.

 “How’s this program even work?” I asked Sam one evening, as we were messing around in the garage. “In lay terms.”

 “Well,”—Sam chewed a pen as he thought how to explain it— “First, we create a neural network—a fancy program designed to imitate human thought—then we load it with a bunch of data: the works of Shakespeare, Hemingway, all that stuff. And then we teach the network how to create bots, small programs, and those bots will scan the patterns in the data and reproduce it. An example pattern might be the hero’s journey or character archetypes. The reproduced patterns should have enough nuance to be original. We’ll start getting results by the end of the year, I guarantee it.”

 And the weeks turned to months, the feel of possibility a permanent spark between us, drawing us closer together with a shared purpose. Until, one night, the program spat out a result: a 300-word piece of flash fiction. Michael jumped up—nervous tension on his face—and brought his laptop over to me for judgment. Sam peered over my shoulder as I read.

 It wasn’t good.

 In fact, it was terrible.

 “We can’t print that,” I said, after I’d finished reading. “Not only is the prose horrible, but it drops the n-word like twice in the first sentence. Whose writing did you base it on? H. P. Lovecraft?”

 “No,” said Sam. “The classics. Michael found a big database: Heart Of Darkness, To Kill A Mockingbird, Mark Twain, Beloved. Famous, bestselling novels.”

 “Have either of you read those books?” I asked.

 “Nope,” said Michael.

 I looked again at the flash. This time I understood what had happened: Michael, not understanding the data he was collecting, had trained the network to reproduce certain word patterns without understanding their meaning. And hence the slurs.

 “Ignoring that,” said Sam. “Is there potential?”

 “There is potential,” I admitted. “If we cut back on the dialogue tags and get it to stop using ‘!’ to indicate surprise… we might have something here.”

 Sam chewed on a pen as he studied the data. “Michael, run this through the network as an example of what not to do. And Jon, you create a list of taboo words that’d get a story rejected instantly, so we can instruct the bots to forget them. As well as some basic rules of style. We’ll brute force this, lads.”

 So, Michael ran the story, and I drew up a list of words– as well as some guidelines. Stuff like not having 3 adjectives in a row or overusing italics. And time, as it normally does, passed. The network, nicknamed Babel (Michael’s idea of a joke), continued producing flashes and short stories, though without the slurs. I gave Sam a list of places that might buy from us, and he started emailing them the results of Babel’s scribblings. We continued in a steady cycle of hope and rejection for about a month. Until, one morning, Sam got THE EMAIL.

 Sam ran out to Michael and me as we walked to school. “Guess what! The New Yorker bought a bleedin’ short story from us!”

 “Holy shit,” I said.

 “No way,” said Michael. “How much?”

 “A grand,” said Sam.

 “Fuck me,” I said. That was 4x more than anything I’d ever sold.

 Sam pulled out his phone and showed us THE EMAIL. Then, opened his PayPal account and showed us that $1000 had been transferred to it.

 “Oh my God,” I said.

#

And with the New Yorker sale, Sam was able to set up a steady stream of income. First, Michael worked out a way to vary Babel’s output; by adjusting a slider, we could change the style from high-brow literary to keyboard thumpin’ pulp. Sliders for the numbers of characters, for monsters, for gore, and for romance soon followed. Second, I scoured the web for journals accepting submissions: anything that paid, we’d submit to. If an anthology wanted vampire short stories we’d be there with 5 separate ones with styles varying from Bram Stoker to Stephenie Meyer (each submitted under a different pseudonym– not strictly legal, but hey). We averaged 15 sales a month, giving us an income of $2000 per week. $500 for Michael, $500 for Sam, $500 in the bank, $500 for me.

 Life was good.

 Michael and I went halves on a car—a bitchin’ v6 Audi Coupe—that was the envy of the entire studentry. The three of us took to wagging 5’th & 6’th periods to dine at the kind of restaurants that bill in the triple digits. Drinking in the high life like good little tycoons. There seemed to surround us a perpetual summer, a confidence that nothing could go wrong; that we were on the precipice of wealth unimaginable. The kind that can never be spent, only dreamed of. We only needed a push, an in, somebody to get us meetings with the big boys. And that push walked into Sam’s garage one Autumn night wearing crocodile skin boots and a black Stetson.

 “Allow me to introduce,” said Sam, wrapping his arm around the stranger and drawing him into the room. “Mr Markus Huxley. Venture capitalist extraordinaire, member of the 8-figure club, and interested in us.”

 “Howdy folks,” said Markus. “Sam here’s been illuminatin’ me all week ’bout your little operation. And, oh boy, if it ain’t just the cutest thing.”

 His tone was pleasant and pastoral in its affectation, but his eyes darted around the room: measuring and judging, taking in Michael and me with a gaze that said, ‘I’ve seen dozens of you people before. Why’re you so special?”

 There was an awkward silence, neither Michael nor I wanting to speak first. Sam observed the standoff with eyes that were indecipherable. Finally, Michael said:

 “What can you do for us?”

 A carrion grin spread across Markus’ face. “That’s a direct ’un, sonny! An’ there’s a simple answer to it. I can git yer into the big meetin’s. I can give yer legitimacy, an office, the works. I can git yer money. And I can git yer power.”

 “What d’ya want in return?” asked Michael, chins wobbling as he talked.

 “40%” said Markus.

 “5%” said Sam.

 “30%”

 “10%”

 “20%, an’ that’s final.”

 “Well ok then,” said Sam. “I’ll get in touch with a lawyer about drawing up a contract.”

 “Oh, friends don’t need contracts,” said Markus. “Now, tell Papa want yer want for Christmas.”

 Sam thought before answering. “An office in the city. Cash to hire more coders. Cash to keep in reserve in case of accident. And meetings with the CEO’s of the big 6 publishing houses.”

 “Ask and ye shall receive,” said Markus. “Will 5 mil be enough for that?”

 My brain melted at the sound of that many zeros so casually flaunted, but Sam remained impassive.

 “10,” he countered. “And a nice office.”

 I glanced at Michael; his eyes were the size of dinner plates. Those were some big numbers to just toss around. I wasn’t sure just who exactly was scamming who.

 “Yer’ll have the cash and the offices by Monday,” said Markus, sticking out his hand for Sam. “I’ll git in touch with some publishing friends to set the meetin’s up. How long will it take yer ta make a novel? They sell best.”

 “A novel is nothing,” said Sam, leaving the hand unshaken. “I could have a hundred novels for you by next week. All guaranteed bestsellers.”

 “I like the sound of that,” said Markus, and he pivoted out of the room, promising to be in touch to work out the details.

 “Did we just go pro?” asked Michael, more than a little stunned.

 “Get ready to drop out lads,” said Sam. “We’re going corporate and education is an optional extra.”

#

Sam paced back and forth, covering the width of the boardroom (all glass and polished mahogany) in long, worried sweeps. I sat opposite Markus, avoiding his gaze.

 “Where the hell is he?” asked Sam.

 “What?”—Markus spread his arms in a gesture of innocence— “The chief editor of Newbury Publishing House is allowed to be late. He’s an important man.”

 “You promised me CEO’s!” snapped Sam. “Not fucking editors.”

 “I got ya the office,”—Markus gestured to the vast corporate space: coders in bullpens churning out short stories, windows that opened onto picture-perfect San Francisco cityscape, vending machines that dispensed unlimited energy drinks— “An’ the cash. An’, an’ if we clear the editor, then we’ll git the CEO. It’s a large publishing house. They’re doin’ us the favour.”

 Sam grunted and continued pacing, Markus checked his phone, and I remembered: remembered sitting here, in this office, as Markus kicked Michael out of the company. I was sitting where I am now; we’d just finished the first round of interviews for the programmers– the last candidate leaving the building, when Markus cleared his throat and spoke the words that sealed Michael’s fate:

 “So, pal, how much for ya 20%”

 “Huh?” said Michael, looking up from his laptop. “Watcha want?”

 “Your shares,” said Markus. “1 mil? 2?”

 Sam stopped examining the resume of the last applicant to follow the exchange. His face looks taught, I thought, like he hasn’t been sleeping.

 “Are you serious?” asked Michael. “I’d sell out for 2 million dollars. Where do I sign?”

 “How about 2.5?” asked Sam, coldly.

 Markus’ head snapped around; his eyes were viper tight. “Where’d you git that money?”

 “Not me,” said Sam. “The company would buy the shares.”

 “You cain’t do that!” said Markus.

 “I’m CEO, not you,” said Sam. “I control the company money.”

 I watched as anger, real anger distorted Markus’ face, twisting and changing it into something horrible.

 “The owners!” objected Markus, overcome with fury. “They’ll stop ya.”

 “We are the owners,” replied Sam. “I own 20% and control the 20% the company owns. Jon owns another 20%, and I believe our 60% is bigger than your 20%”

 “Do ya support him?” Markus hissed at me.

 “Yep,” I grinned.

 “3 million!” yelled Markus.

 “3.5,” was Sam’s counter.

 The two glared at each other; I could feel the air crackle under the electricity of their gazes. And I watched as fiscal responsibility and vengeful indignation warred in Markus’ eyes as he debated whether to go even higher. But, despite the image Markus cultivated, 3.5 million was an awful lot to just throw around. A cloud passed over the sun, plunging the boardroom into shadow. Markus leaned back in his chair, the tension easing.

 “Fine,” said Markus. “Throw your money away, for all I care.”

 Michael had watched the exchange, slack-jawed, visions of caviar and fast cars dancing in his mind, of freedom from work for the rest of his life.

 “Holy shit,” said Michael. “I accept Sam’s offer. Now what?”

 “I’ll have a lawyer draw up a contract,” said Sam. “And when it’s signed, I’ll transfer you the cash.”

 Markus said nothing as they continued working out details; clasping his fingers together, making them turn white.

 The memory blurred and splintered in darkness, like a projector running out of film. There was a buzzing sound, and I realized that someone had been speaking. A middle-aged man stood in the boardroom doorway in a dark business suit. Sam was shaking the man’s hand and commiserating with him about traffic. Markus was a shadow, a Shakespearean ghost– ignored and impotent.

 “So,” said Sam, sitting the man down in Michael’s empty seat. “Let me talk to you about authors.”

#

Newbury House bought a novel, and it was almost predestined for success. The prospect of a machine generated act of literature appealed to everyone: tech-heads who idolized Elon Musk, literati who idolized Tolstoy, hacks who saw only opportunity, mothers looking for a fresh book club pick, and more and more and more. Pre-orders quickly climbed into the millions as news panels debated the meaning of art. A petition came out against it (gathering over a million signatures, all potential customers) stating that it wasn’t art, that it was against the concept of authorship. And they were right. The novel wasn’t art; it was distilled commerce. And it sold.

 Soon, more publishing houses were reaching out and Sam (for a modest fee, and a cut of the profits) sold them masterpieces: literature darker than Nabokov, more sparkling than Proust. Fantasy more resplendent than Tolkien, and sci-fi deeper than Dune. All for any huckster who had the dough, a fully customized experience guaranteed to be to your personal satisfaction.

 And I, me, Jon, was there– cashing my checks and basking in the glow of wealth. Until I wasn’t. Sam called me into his office one day—mahogany desk, cream-coloured walls—to make an offer. I sat and listened and accepted; it was too high an offer not to. When faced with a number that big, you can only smile and say thank you. Sam clapped me on the back and broke open a bottle of something expensive. It seemed like the thing to do.

 “Thanks,” I said, sipping liquid smoke. “What about Markus, though? You won’t have a majority without me.”

 “That leech?”—Sam snorted into his glass— “This was a personal transaction. I own 40% now, on top of the company’s 20%. When we get around to going public, I expect he’ll cash out. Or I’ll buy him.”

 The confident certainty of how he spoke washed over me. I studied my friend: his figure, already thin to begin with, had become like a skeleton. His eyes were shrunken and rimmed with darkness. There was no nervousness in them anymore, only ambition. Cold ambition.

 “What are you going to do now?” asked Sam. “Focus on your writing? I’d be delighted to publish you.”

 “Nah,” I said. “I haven’t written anything since the New Yorker sale, all that time ago. It seemed wrong, I mean, like, what’s the point anymore? None. Not when Babel exists. What about you? What’s next for the company?”

 “Oh, I’ve got big plans, man, big plans. These novels are just the beginning. I’ve got people working on plays, movies, poetry, TV, music, sculpting, portraiture, opera… you name it, I want it. And when I’ve got the people and the politicians and the publishing houses and the movie studies and record labels and, well, everyone eating out of my hand, that’s when I take over. Make the right people the right offers and make things so they have to do what I want,”—Sam paused. Then, in an ironic tone, he continued— “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a world where entertainment is controlled by an algorithm, where culture is a dollar sign, and dreams are sold wholesale. ‘Art’ is a commodity, my friend, and I’ll own it all. That’s what’s next.”

 Outside the office window I saw pedestrians going about their daily grind: gotta pick the kids up, do the groceries, walk the dogs, do something, do anything! keep distracted, keep the thoughts away. I wonder, if those people out there could hear this conversation, what would they think? Would they even care? Do I? And I realised, with some surprise, that I didn’t. I hadn’t for a long time. I’ve got my money, my freedom.

 “Good luck with that,” I said, shaking Sam’s hand as he led me towards the door. And the funny thing is I meant it; I really did.

 The employees clapped as I left the building, recognizing that I’d got a lot of something they so desperately needed. There were offers of drinks and celebrations that I politely declined. Not really in the mood for it.

 I stepped out of the office and onto the street. Losing myself in the mass of humanity, searching for a distraction to ease my mind. No more unique than any other lonely face; one more hollow man in the crowd.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO:Harman Burgess studies psychology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. His short fiction has previously appeared, or is forthcoming, in a number of magazines including Flame Tree Press' Newsletter, After Dinner Conversation, and Cosmic Horror Monthly.

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