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On fantasy and AI

trees across snow covered mountain

As I have previously written, the goal of fantasy is exploration. Whether we are writers or readers, we are not delving into the mysteries of a bicycle, or quantum mechanics, or the origins of humankind. These are matters that are by turns fully understood, obscure but predictable, or involving a high degree of speculation. Whichever, we work our way towards a known goal. In most literary genres the goal is also known. Thus, in most crime fiction the goal is to conceal the identity of the murderer for as long as possible, while offering tantalising clues. In writing a dystopia, we are generally giving a warning, such as, ‘this is what can happen unless we change our ways.’ In most other forms of fiction the good guy or girl wins, to the reader’s comfort; that is, unless the goal is to explore the mind of a character, or characters, in ‘real life’ situations. Always, therefore, we know where we are going, as writers, as readers.
Is there another way? ‘Real life’ is where we live, most of the time. We make our world orderly by living largely in our thoughts, which are memories, or derived in various ways from memories. In our goals for life, or for writing, we delve into that storehouse, and assemble bits of our past (or somebody else’s past) in the manner of connecting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps this is good in that it is an occupation that will entertain for a time, but it is also a pastiche, an assemblage of our stuff for our own purposes, or the entertainment of others. It is also a shame if it is carried out all the time, at the expense of exploration, of discovery.
Memory is a loyal and essential servant, but it is not a good master. To live according to its dictates is like walking backwards through life, always looking at the fading image of where we have come, rather than the vibrant image of what lies ahead. It wasn’t always this way. In our early lives everything was new and magical. There were fears, there were joys, but there was no looking backwards.
Good fantasy is not necessarily about the fantastic. It is rather about moving off the beaten path of the usual, the predictable. Obviously, we don’t know precisely where any work of fiction is going, but we do know the domain in which it will terminate. The fairy story will stay in fairy, the crime thriller will end with the detective triumphant. But what if we mix the domains? Statues of ancient heroes come to life, goblins mingle with commuters in a New York subway? All certainty is laid aside.
That is one way, and the other is to probe the minds of the characters, since ‘mind’ is the source of all magic, all fantasy. Perhaps the characters interact with the author? This has been done often enough, of course, and one of the best examples is the novella Christie Malry’s own double-entry, by B.S. Johnson. (Quartet Books, 1973). As for the mixing of domains, I refer again to Neil Gaiman’s story Chivalry, in which knight errantry from the mythical past mixes with the business of a contemporary Oxfam shop. (See Smoke and Mirrors, Headline Publishing, 2010)
The fairy domain on its own, if explored in depth, as for example by Tolkien, once more takes us to fantasy because the rules are unknown. Just how much power does the Dark Lord have? Can the fairy host withstand him? It is like going back to our own world as a child: everything is new, fresh and uncertain.
It remains to be seen if artificial intelligence will ever emulate the best fantasy. Certainly, it is a long way from doing so at the present time. Here is a little story I asked ChatGPT to produce. I think it is instructive to take it apart a little, since it gives insights not just into how AI operates, but also into the manner in which humans differ.

The Enchanted Melody
In a hidden valley nestled between towering mountains, a mysterious mist swirled ceaselessly, cloaking the land in an air of enchantment. Legends spoke of a magical melody that could be heard within the mist—a melody that could grant the deepest desires of any who listened. Many had ventured into the mist, but none had returned, their desires unfulfilled or their hearts ensnared by its enchantment.

Among those drawn to the valley was Elara, a young bard with a voice that could rival the sweetest songbirds and a heart full of dreams. She had heard tales of the mist’s melody and felt a magnetic pull, as though destiny itself called to her. Armed with her lute and a heart full of courage, she set out on a quest to uncover the truth behind the enchanting mist.
As Elara ventured deeper into the valley, the mist thickened, and the air grew heavy with anticipation. Whispers of forgotten stories danced in the breeze, and strange lights flickered in the distance. Undeterred, Elara continued, her heart beating in time with an otherworldly rhythm.

After days of journeying, Elara stumbled upon an ancient, overgrown temple. Its entrance beckoned with an eerie glow, and the sound of a haunting melody emanated from within. Steeling herself, Elara stepped inside, her lute at the ready.
Inside the temple, a vast chamber was illuminated by ethereal orbs, casting a soft, iridescent glow. At its centre stood an ornate pedestal, atop which rested an intricate sheet of music. As Elara’s fingers brushed the parchment, the melody intensified, enveloping her senses.

With a deep breath, Elara began to play her lute, her fingers dancing across the strings in harmony with the otherworldly tune. As the last notes resounded through the chamber, the mist outside the temple began to swirl and coalesce, forming fantastical shapes and figures.
A spectral figure materialised before Elara, its form shifting and shimmering like a mirage. “Brave one, you have unlocked the melody of the mist,” it intoned, its voice a melodic blend of wind and water. “You may now ask for your heart’s desire.”

Elara’s heart raced as she considered her wish. Her mind flickered through dreams of fame, wealth, and power, but her gaze fell upon her lute—a symbol of her true passion. “I wish,” she began, her voice steady, “for the gift to share the beauty of music with all who wish to hear, to spread joy and inspiration through my songs.”
The spectral figure nodded, and a radiant light enveloped Elara. When it faded, she felt a surge of energy within her, a newfound connection to the very essence of music itself.

As Elara stepped out of the temple, the mist had transformed. It now shimmered with a renewed vibrancy, carrying her music to the farthest corners of the valley. Villagers emerged from their homes, drawn by the enchanting melodies that flowed from Elara’s lute. Hearts were lifted, and dreams rekindled, as her music wove a tapestry of wonder.
And so, Elara became the valley’s bard, her songs carrying hope and magic wherever they reached. The legend of the mist’s melody lived on, a reminder that the truest desires were those that kindled the heart and uplifted the soul.

So here, AI has dutifully made the right connections: otherworldly enchantments, mysterious mists that ‘form fantastical shapes and figures’, ‘whispers of forgotten stories’ and so on, and along with all this the necessary happy ending. So why is it so boring? Purple prose aside, there are a number of problems. The one that comes first to my mind is, why did Elara even need to ‘unlock the melody of the mist’, whatever that means? She seems perfectly capable on her own behalf of becoming the valley’s bard, without the need of any magic to back her up. And of course, nothing has been unlocked as far as the reader is concerned. What was the mist all about? Or the ancient temple? There may be a ‘magnetic pull, as though destiny itself called’ but there is nothing backing it up. It is all smoke and mirrors, one thing that good fantasy is certainly NOT.
I invite readers to pick out other problems with this story – or alternatively, anything they thought was well handled.

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