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May/June 2011
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Building a Readership

"A new breed of robot is using text-spotting software, dictionaries and internet access to learn to read anything, anywhere."
—Colin Barras, "Robots learn to read the writing on the wall," New Scientist, November 29, 2010.

I RESISTED for as long as I possibly could, but in the end I broke down and bought one of Apple's Lector-5000s from Best Buy. With my SFWA discount, the cost was a mere $789.99. If you're familiar with the Lector line of products, you can tell what model I chose. I didn't buy the avatar-only version consisting of software alone, which was half the cost and ran on a number of platforms. I simply couldn't see myself holding meaningful conversations with an animated image on a tiny flatscreen, however perky and realistically sentient. Nor did I purchase the complete android version, three times as costly, which comes in a variety of somatypes and can accompany you under its own power to Starbucks, dressed and mannered however you please, for an intimate literary tête-à-tête.

No, the mid-range item I bought was only a human torso, head, and cleverly mechanized upper limbs of sufficient dexterity to hold and manipulate a book or e-reader. It had no mobility except when I carried it. But propped on some books (irony alert!) on a chair at the dining room table, and wearing an old sweater of mine, it looked remarkably lifelike. The deluxe animatronic face was a generic human one, modeled on a sampling of the biometrics of the entire populace of New York City. The resulting physiognomy was rather androgynous and colored like café au lait. I had decided not to buy an optional wig, and to regard the bald creature as male. When I added a tattered beret of mine, he looked rather hipsterish. I named him "Reed."

After I first ensconced Reed in his chair at home and powered him up, he instantly grabbed the nearest WiMAX signal and came alive. Because I had registered his serial number online already, Reed instantly knew me.

"Hi, Paul! Read any good books lately?"

This, I knew, was the standard first-time programmed greeting, so I wasn't dismayed at the clichéd question. I assumed our conversation would grow more sophisticated as we shared books and got to know each other's tastes.

"Well, Reed, since I'm a writer, as you might already know from the information on my registration form, I'd have to say that my own latest work strikes me as a particularly good book. Not to pat myself on the back! Perhaps you'd like to read it?"

Did I detect a moue of distaste briefly flickering across Reed's expression? In retrospect, I can't be sure. If I did notice such a fleeting look, I ignored it, and failed to foresee what the reaction might portend.

"Of course, Paul, I'd be glad to read your newest novel. But first, let me just catch up on public domain titles."

Reed fell silent and wore an abstracted look while internally reading the entire uncopyrighted contents of Google Books, the Gutenberg Project, the Library of Congress, and a half-dozen other databases. This information could not have been included in predigested form, since Reed's software demanded that he parse each text sequentially, the reading of each book building on all subsequent ones, creating nets of allusiveness and meaning, just as a human assimilated printed knowledge and, over time, became a veteran reader. Each Lector would assemble its own unique gestalt of all the books it had read. Not for the first time, I thought about what a remarkable thing this was, and how science fiction had failed to predict such a device accurately.

Most works of sf that conflated cybernetics and the written word had focused on attempts by robots to take over the task of writing. From Orwell's "versificator" to Leiber's silver eggheads, sf authors had presented images of robots usurping the joys of writing from humanity. Even Asimov's "Galley Slave," which featured a proofreading robot, had centered its drama around that automaton venturing illicitly into author status.

But what no one had realized would happen, in this day of instant and democratic publishing, was that authors would be worth a dime a million. There was simply no economic incentive to create a robot who could write when countless people would give away their work. Every talentless lamebrain scribbler and narcissistic cretinous storyteller with access to Lulu dot com, every rank amateur churning out fan fiction, every blogger and commenter and self-annointed pundit, could outperform any robot writer at a fraction of the cost. Hollywood would never bother employing a robot writer when studios could crowdsource a script, and so long as new celebrities were minted daily, book publishers would balance their bottom lines with tell-all biographies. For every hundred submitters to Poetry magazine, there were ten subscribers. No, in a world already oversupplied with words, readers were the real hot commodity.

And so the Lectors: robots that could read and appreciate your deathless prose, and volunteer intelligent feedback, as well as sharing your likes and dislikes in books, or even offering spirited debate on differing favorites.

Every professional writer—whatever was meant by that antique description these days; I guessed it implied that any income you were lucky enough to derive from writing was marginally larger than the cost of your broadband connection—had a Lector. They served as invaluable "first readers" on works in progress, and offered ego-boosting praise.

Or so I had been told.

Reed signaled with a smile that he had finished assimilating the world's literature. "That Dickens! What a genius! Okay, Paul, I'm ready for your novel now."

Somewhat deflated by this praise for Dickens, whom I could never possibly rival, I handed Reed a copy of my book. He took it with natural grace. Of course, he could have read it direct as an e-book file, but I preferred to have him ingest it the old-fashioned way.

Turning the pages at an invariant rate of one every fifteen seconds, his eyes tracking unblinkingly, Reed read my novel. I couldn't possibly do my day's writing during this tense interval, so I made lunch, washed some clothes, clipped the dog's toenails, and replaced all the batteries in the house's smoke detectors. Finally, Reed finished.

"Well?" I asked.

Reed's face was utterly noncommittal. "Do you have any of your earlier works handy?"

I dumped the contents of my "brag shelf" in front of the robot. "Here! Knock yourself out!"

By midnight, Reed had completed his survey of my work. His artificial eyes were virginal and sparkling, while mine were bleary and red-rimmed from alternating doses of caffeine and alcohol.

I sat down hopefully across the table from Reed, but soon had my hopes shattered.

"Well, to be blunt," said the Lector-5000, "I saw something promising in your first book, but you seem to have frittered all your potential away with subsequent ones." He then proceeded to deliver what amounted to a doctoral thesis on my work, elaborating in great detail and with apt supporting quotes its many deficiencies and notably fewer virtues.

"And so you see," concluded the robot, "the projected graph of your downward career shows you dying well short of the artistic level of such peers as Cory Doctorow, Ted Chiang, or Gene Wolfe, and you will certainly never attain the sales figures of Laurell Hamilton. I don't mean to be harsh, but those are the facts."

I held my head in my hands for a moment before I could speak. "What happened to all the salesman's promises about you being my reading buddy, offering me support and encouragement, sharing my passions for literature, and so forth?"

Reed looked genuinely surprised. "Didn't you read my instruction manual?"

I erupted then. "Read the manual! I'm a writer, for god's sake!" But upon consideration, I rummaged among Reed's discarded packaging for the brochure, and soon found the relevant paragraph.

I went around to his back, lifted up his sweater, opened a panel, and studied the revealed control, currently set to the factory default of CRITIC. I considered BOOK CLUB CHUM, BFF, MENTOR and FAN, before switching it to DRINKING BUDDY.

Instantly, Reed offered me his hand to shake, grinning fatuously. "Paul, you've never written anything better than your latest! You're really going places now!"

Despite everything that Reed had earlier said, I immediately felt wonderful, and considered my purchase of the Lector-5000 to be a very wise move.

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