A Computer Won Jeopardy!, But Can a Computer Write Literature?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 17 2011 11:21 AM

A Computer Won Jeopardy!, But Can a Computer Write Literature?

Around this time last year, I  reviewed  Zachary Mason's  The Lost Books of the Odyssey . The conceit of the novel is that it's actually a translation of 44 variations on  The Odyssey  that have been discovered on an ancient papyrus. A brief introduction explains that these variations circulated in ancient times, before the version of the epic we've come to know took shape. In one of Mason's variations, Odysseus returns home to find that Penelope has not remained faithful she's taken up with another man. In another, Odysseus marries Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess, forsaking his quest for Ithaca. Each variation is only a few pages long, but in that short space, Mason manages to both inhabit Homer's world and challenge some of our assumptions about it.

John Swansburg John Swansburg

John Swansburg is Slate's deputy editor.

One question  Slate 's books editor asked me while I was working on my review is whether Mason's book is actually a novel, as it is billed, or whether it's more accurate to describe it as a collection of linked short stories. I didn't have a good answer for that question. Each of the variations is self-contained and could hold up on its own as a riff on  The Odyssey . And yet the experience of reading the book wasn't like reading a story collection. Though the stories didn't proceed in any obvious order they're not arranged chronologically, or, ostensibly, by theme the progression of stories seemed to have been chosen with great care. The interplay between the stories was one of the reasons that Mason's book felt like more than the sum of its parts.


Mason has just given  an interview  to the always interesting  BLDGBLOG  in which he reveals some details about how he ordered the chapters in the book, and it turns out there was even more going on here than I'd thought. Mason is  a computer scientist by trade , and he explains to blogger Geoff Manaugh that his process for arranging his variations started out as a comp. sci. project: 

In an early version of the book I did use an algorithm to order the chapters. In those days, each chapter was associated with a handful of keys broad themes like "time" and "the gods" and "revenge" and so forth. I wrote a program that used simulated annealing to order the book in a more-or-less optimal way, where optimality was defined as maximizing the number of overlapping keys between adjacent chapters. The intent was to produce an ordering where there was always a strong sense of continuity between chapters, but where the nature of that continuity varied with every boundary.

Mason was unhappy with the algorithm's results, however, and took a different approach:

In the end, I didn't like the ordering the algorithm produced, and realized that there were actually other rules I wanted to follow, some of which didn't lend themselves to formalization, so I ended up arranging the chapters by hand. I try to alternate long and short chapters, and its good when adjacent chapters rhyme, thematically; also, the book now starts off by establishing the kind of recombinatoric game I'm playing with  The Odyssey , and then, as you get toward the end, that pattern breaks down, and you get all sorts of strange things The Odyssey  interpreted as a chess manual, for instance.

In a week when  a computer has defeated  mankind on our most-beloved quiz show, it's reassuring to know that there are still a few things that require a human touch.


Elsewhere in Slate , Chris Wilson wrote about " Emily Howell ," the computer program that's composing great, original works of classical music, and asked whether human composers were about to become obsolete.



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