Thursday 9 March 2023

Is Artificial Intelligence the Work of the Devil?

AI Artwork for boards, Literary Hauntings, Tartarus Press, 2022.
Artificial Intelligence is likely to revolutionise a wide variety of human activities, but while it may prove beneficial in many ways, it also has the potential to make some established occupations redundant, from mundane and repetitive jobs right through to positions in the creative and problem-solving professions. The anger of those who rail against AI is heartfelt and not without justification, but one cannot help being reminded of the nineteenth-century Luddites who destroyed textile machines in the belief they could halt industrialisation. They didn’t. It is not possible to put the AI genii back in the bottle, which means, like it or not, we are going to have to adapt to it, work with it, and consider ways to mitigate any damage.

In our world of publishing there are two major concerns relating to AI. The first is AI generated text, and the second is AI art. Thankfully, AI text is still in its infancy. It can create quite useful results if asked to write about widely-considered, factual matters, and it will do so with a level of competence that is likely to become more impressive over time. However, anything that requires a little specialist knowledge is slightly outside the mainstream, or is discussed in printed books rather than shared online, causes AI generated text to be full of obvious mistakes. The biggest concern at the moment is not that Artificial Intelligence is knowingly trying to mislead us*, but that it is very good at appearing plausible when it cannot find the information it requires. With just a little material it will generate a believable fiction to cover lacunae in its knowledge. (If asked for references to back up its claims, it will even create impressive-sounding but non-existent references.) AI may have already made redundant some authors of factual material, but editors are needed now more than ever because of AI’s dangerous potential for misleading readers.

Considering its ability to pass off fiction as fact, it is perhaps surprising that AI text is also failing to generate plausible creative content. Its attempts at stories, poetry, etc, are laughable, although these are likely to get better with time (and maybe not much time). At the moment the main problem in the world of publishing is that some people are using it to overwhelm editors with third-rate submissions. Looking into the future, if AI text continues to improve, there is a possible scenario of publishers having to choose between the work of human authors and AI generated texts of an equal quality. This would raise some very profound philosophical questions about the nature of literature and why we read it.

 Book jacket ideas created with AI.

However, the most pressing questions that need to be addressed today relate to AI art, because it is already being used by publishers, including Tartarus Press. Some AI art can be incredibly good, although it is not always recognised that some experience of writing the correct prompts is needed, and that digital re-touching is almost always required (the analogy is with editors who work on AI text). Is AI art likely to damage the livelihoods of artists? Almost certainly, especially commercial artists. For publishers, it is another alternative to conventional, hand-produced art in exactly the same way that photography became an alternative at the end of the nineteenth century, through to digital art in the early twenty-first century.   

AI art is a powerful and beguiling tool, but those using AI are not artists. Rather, they are akin to old-fashioned art directors who would previously have had discussions with a human artist as to what kind of image was required and achievable for a specific brief, asking for alternative options to consider, and fine-tuning the result. It is possible to generate good quality AI images in a fraction of the time and cost of working with a real artist, but AI art generated with simple prompts is easily recognisable as such by anyone who has used it for a short time. The creator of AI art has to be aware of such failings as its inability to generate hands with the expected numbers of fingers and thumbs. (In our field of weird and strange fiction, the errors in AI art generation, may, though, produce unintended and atmospheric results!)

AI art can create images in virtually any style you can imagine.

Before we go any further, there is a major ethical discussion to be had about copyright. Artificial Intelligence programmes ‘learn’ by feeding indiscriminately and voraciously on information supplied to them. It is possible to simply ask for a picture to be created in the style of an established artist, and this not only feels wrong, but any attempt to pass the work off as being by that artist is obviously illegal. This, though, is not a modern dilemma—the art world has had to grapple with similar problems down the centuries. There have always been ‘schools’ inspired by successful artists, outright imitators, and those who study the work of predecessors which they then attempt to improve. One major problem is that AI in its text and art forms is unable to ‘show its workings’ (as maths teachers still require).

There will always be a demand for artists using traditional materials and media, and many artists feel compelled to draw and paint whether or not they receive employment or recognition. Times will be getting much more difficult for them, but that has been the case not just since the invention of lithographic reproduction and photography, and most recently since digital artists appeared on the scene. Artists have always found that they need to adapt—very few work in a way that could be considered ‘pure’, standing at an easel with their subject in front of them. At Tartarus Press we have very recently been working with an artist who paints subjects in oil inspired by their own imagination, another who uses oils and works from photographs, another who draws in pen and ink based on all manner of existing images, and another whose work is entirely digital, but who does not use AI. Few artists are ‘pure’ in their art—they are on a spectrum, not only for how they conceive imagery, but how it is created and manipulated . . . and the furthest boundary of that spectrum has just been moved further away again in a manner we could not have conceived of only a few years ago. I am aware of artists who now use AI to inspire conventional artwork that is rendered by hand on paper.

To sum up, AI is here, and it isn’t going away. We believe that it should be possible to work with it ethically and harness its many possibilities. And we will also continue to work with real, living artists!

Recent art on Tartarus Press volumes by contemporary artists (left to right) Joseph Dawson, Kathleen Jennings, Gina Litherland, R.B. Russell, Eric Hansen, Reggie Oliver and Stephen J. Clark.

* This is not the place to discuss the concerns that AI might be used to manipulate our thoughts and even control our lives. There have always been information and news providers with biases and agendas, and just because their dubious content can now be generated by computers rather than people doesn’t alter our need to be vigilant. At all times, even before the advent of the internet and digital fakery, we have had to be wary of who is trying to exert influence by offering partial information or downright lying. To really understand the dangers of the mass media, we have to go back to Caxton and the first printing press.

Friday 24 February 2023

Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories – A Memoir and Manifesto by Rosalie Parker

Some of my earliest memories are of books. I was an early reader and spent a lot of my childhood and teens on our isolated family farm with my nose in a wide variety of books, often chosen for me by my mother during her weekly visit to our local library. They ranged from popular science and history to all kinds – and I mean all kinds of fiction. At around seven I began writing stories which I read aloud to Duncan, my long suffering little brother. As far as I can remember, those early stories often featured animals. No one in my family had been to university at that time, and when one of my English teachers suggested I should do an English degree, a whole new world of possibilities opened up. I was lucky enough to benefit from the expansion of higher education in England in the 1970s, and from a solid education at a state comprehensive school.

After completing a degree in English Literature and History, I spent several years trying to find a way to earn my living as a writer. I hadn’t a bean at the time, and worked in a part-time job in a shop and lived in some very cold rented flats, but the main problem was that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about. In the end I realised I needed to live a bit more first. I went back to university and pursued a career in archaeology, a subject I that had always interested me, met Ray, produced our son Tim, and eventually joined Ray in running Tartarus Press.

This all sounds pretty idyllic, except that something fairly traumatic happened to me in my forties. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and, as well as some of the inevitable horrors of the ups and downs, sledgehammer medication and occasional hospital admissions this entails, I also have to live with the stigma and prejudice experienced by many people like me. Often, especially by some health professionals, you’re seen only through the prism of your condition. Somewhat under the radar, I managed throughout this difficult period to continue my work for Tartarus Press.

While still being advised to take one of the worst of the pills, and feeling life was hardly worth living, out of a strange mixture of desperation and hope I returned to writing short stories. A few of them were published in anthologies, and in 2010, Brian Showers at Swan River Press in Dublin very kindly agreed to publish my first collection, The Old Knowledge. I think there was some luck involved there. If I hadn’t already achieved some kind of profile as an editor, my stories might never have seen the light of day.

Some of my stories deal overtly with mental illness (especially ‘Bipolarity’), and I have been open about my experience of it in interviews. I wanted to make it doubly clear here that I am writing from personal experience, and not just picking a subject off a peg. I often write about things I have strong views about - some of them political. I don’t think my writing is therapy, more a creative exploration of the things that are most important to me, and which interest me. Sometimes I have no idea where a story comes from.

Since The Old Knowledge I’ve written three more collections, and now Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories has just been published by Tartarus. There are eighteen short stories and a kind of book within a book, ‘Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences’, which started life as an attempt to write a novel. It was supposed to have been a sort of ‘portmanteau’ novel, with various component parts. I wanted to write a novel because they’re generally taken more seriously than short story collections in the wider world of publishing. Also, I thought that if I didn’t at least try now, I might never get round to it! However, I soon had to accept that I was essentially writing a group of related short stories, and, anyway, instead of trying to get away from short stories, I should be celebrating them!

I hope if you decide to read the hardback or ebook of Dream Fox, you will enjoy the stories and find them interesting. I wrote them to be read, and I’m glad they’re out there. The rest is up to you.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Save Great Easterfields!



Great Easterfields, 1920/1930

In Fifty Forgotten Books I wrote about the paperbacks my parents kept in a jumbled heap at the bottom of their wardrobe, and how I devoured them, along with others that I bought from the local junk shop, Magpies. These were all read in my bedroom at the family home, Great Easterfields, an historic, tile-hung Wealden farmhouse on Chiddingly Road in Horam, East Sussex.

My two sisters and I had the three bedrooms at the front of the house, reached via a long, dark passage with an uneven floor and exposed timbers. It is a very old house, and my room had exposed posts and beams that hinted not just at its age but its original construction. My bedroom door was made of several old planks with a wrought-iron latch, but my sister Jen had a door that was of even older timber, with a wooden latch. She, too, had exposed beams in her room, wattle and daub walls (too delicate for her to be allowed to put up posters) and a secret passageway to the bedroom of my other sister, (Jo), which was behind another really old door. Was it any surprise that in these historic, atmospheric surroundings, exposed to all kinds of random literature, I became more and more drawn to strange and supernatural fiction?

To be honest, Great Easterfields was not at all spooky. It was a loving, friendly house that had formerly belonged to my grandparents, who added a large extension to its rear elevation (my grandfather was a builder). Perhaps I should have also noted in Fifty Forgotten Books that my grandparents left behind, in the sun lounge, a bookcase full of Companion Book Club thrillers, and I remember enjoying reprint editions by writers like Gavin Lyall.

Great Easterfields, 1972, with my grandparents

I never took Great Easterfields for granted—I loved the house. I lived there between 1974 and 1984, from the age of seven until seventeen—formative years in my life. I have always had family and friends in the area so whenever I return to Sussex (two or three times a year) I always go out of my way to drive past Great Easterfields.

My father died last year. He was a local man and just before Christmas his ashes were interred at Waldron church, in the next parish to Horam. When we left the church, the whole family stopped to take a look at Great Easterfields, which we all remember with such affection. It was then that we saw the planning notice…

Great Easterfields is now the subject of a proposal for nine new houses to be built on the site. The application does its best not to openly mention that this would entail the demolition of the original house. By some quirk of fate Great Easterfields has never been Listed as an Historic Building, which would have given it protection from developers. When I contacted the Head of Planning at Wealden District Council I was told that the owners were at liberty to demolish the house without anything more than a courtesy letter outlining their intentions. The Chief Planner said there was currently nothing they could do to protect the house.

We immediately contacted Historic England, who have agreed to assess Great Easterfields for Listing. However, in the meantime it is still in danger, and it appears that the local planners do not have it in their power to protect the building. After some correspondence, and our setting up of a petition to save the house, they have grudgingly agreed to assess it themselves to see if it can be considered an “Historic Asset”.

Does Great Easterfields deserve to be saved? I accept that I remember the house nostalgically, but I know for certain that it dates back to at least the 1600s, based on architectural features such as the inglenook fireplace and chimney. The layout of the house is identical to that of a medieval Wealden Hall House from the 1500s or earlier, and the timber framing visible inside adds weight to this possibility. Although the house has been much altered (as have most buildings of this age), there is, in our view, enough of the original house remaining to warrant protection.

My old bedroom, c. 1984 with exposed timber posts and beams (and teenage posters, books in the corner, copies of the NME and crash helmet)

Anyone who has an interest in the area around Horam will realise that the local planners seem to have a mania for granting permission for new building, even beyond previously established village and town boundaries, to the detriment of the countryside that gives the area its character. Given the damage already done by new development on Chiddingly Road it may not seem unreasonable to build new houses on the large garden of Great Easterfields, but to demolish the house would seem to us to be an act of historical and architectural vandalism.

If you agree, then would you kindly consider signing the petition that we have started, and which already has a large number of signatures from local residents. (Petition link) Every new signature increases the possibility that we can persuade the developers, and planners at Wealden District Council, not to tear down an historic building of great character.

The Tardebigge Myth

The only known photograph of Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together ( Yorkshire Post , 31st August 1948) Robert Aickman’s primary ambition w...