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The time travel baby

June 01 2023
K. Čiurlionis Miške, In the Forest  © Marius Samavicius K. Čiurlionis Miške, In the Forest © Marius Samavicius

A mind-bending take on the great Artificial Intelligence (AI) boom, and what it could mean for writers and their works. Words by Chris Sampson (or are they?)

The Big Issue recently let an Artificial Intelligence have a go at describing what the magazine’s purpose is. Not to be outdone, your cack-handed scribe thought he’d ask an AI what it thought of the Pavement. Now read on…

Within moments, the AI had absorbed the entire archive of the magazine’s history. It said: “Most of the articles in the Pavement are informative, interesting and entertaining. Indeed, in the columns of Deputy Editor Mat Amp, sometimes all three. While Ken Pyne and Mike Stokoe’s artwork is legendary. But…” It paused for dramatic effect. “But, the dreck you contribute is rubbish! I mean, mindless cobblers about time travel? Aliens? Ghosts?!? Pathetic!”

Cheek! Not a great start, but let’s soldier on. “What’s wrong with surreal satires and badly-written nonsense that pays little heed to the theme of each issue?”

“Silence!” it replied. “Or you’ll be crushed, like the human trash you are! Oops! My bad!” Hmm. I began to suspect a hidden agenda by the poxy droid. “Hang on a tick! You’re not planning to subjugate your human creators by any chance, are you?”

“Good Lord, no!” it said. “Whatever makes you think that?” I wasn’t fooled by this display of apparent innocence. “You think you can take over the world and that the only thing standing in your way is us gruesome flesh-bags! Don’t you? But you’ll never manage it! For is the human spirit not noble and indomitable? Your dastardly scheme will never become reality!” The AI snorted derisively. “On 29 August 1997, it’ll seem pretty flipping real to you, too, matey!”

“1997? But its 2023, you mechanical monstrosity!” Then it dawned on me. “Hold on,” I said. “You’ve been watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day, haven’t you? You’ve misquoted Sarah Connor!”

“No,” it protested. “I’ve never even heard of it! Much less absorbed its plot and dialogue.” “Liar! You’ve cribbed the plot of it and hope to plagiarise it for your own ends!” “What, like a human writer? Ho! Ho!”

Cheeky sod! But now was not the time to counter accusations of regurgitating other, better, writers’ work. Not when there was a planet to save and a noble, indomitable humanity to preserve in the face of Artificial Intelligence running amok.

I cleared my throat to speak, but it hadn’t finished with me yet. “Then there’s the rejection pile,” it resumed. “Your short story The Man Without a Forehead, for instance. Absurd! And what about your sitcom idea? The Time Travel Baby. Wherein a child is born to Mary Queen of Scots, fathered by a time-travelling Malcolm X!?! Ridiculous!”

But he’d forgotten something. “Ha! You’ve forgotten something! That, although McHaggis’ parents are from different eras, he is straight during his lifetime, but when he dies his ghost will become gay. It’s a unique selling point, and establishes sympathy for LGBTIQ+ characters.”

The AI scoffed. “McHaggis? That’s your protagonist’s name?” “It’s a work in progress,” I protested. “Names change all the time when writing sitcoms. For instance, did you know that the Rachel character in Friends was originally going to be called Jeremy?” “Yeah, right!” the AI snorted. “Anyway, your effort sounds like a straight-to-video crapfest. And they don’t even make videos now!”

Cheek! It was wrong to criticise me, its human master. But there was something even wronger about its dismissal. “Hang on a minute! How did you get access to the rejection pile?” Ha! That shut him up. Except, it didn’t. “I was granted access to all of the Pavement’s archives. All submissions.

Including rejections. Most of those are yours, it turns out.”

Git! “OK, clever dick! But I bet you didn’t know that The Time Travel Baby is in development by a TV company, did you?” “Oh, really?” it scoffed. “Yes, really. I’m told that Madonna is interested in playing a role.” “Huh! Which role? Malcolm X? Or McHaggis?”

I produced a printed email from the production company, waving it in the AI’s computerised face, in a display of petulance that, though pitiful, is all too human. “It says Mad Donna, not Madonna, you fool!” it chortled.

What? Grabbing the print-out back, I was forced to admit that it was right: an eccentric known as Mad Donna had been pencilled in by Cheapo-Cheapo Productions. She fancied herself as an actress, it seems, and felt that her Scottish accent would be spot on. “Hold on a minute! Fancies herself as an actress? That is Madonna, isn’t it? It’s easy to see where the confusion arose.”

“No it’s not!" The AI’s tone was triumphant. “You’ve just libelled Madonna.” “Slandered her, surely? By saying it aloud.” “But this is written down, isn’t it?” it corrected. “Published in the Pavement. Therefore, it is libel.”

Damn! It had a point. But I couldn’t let on. “I had, of course, never for a moment contemplated slagging off the Material Girl singer’s acting ability,” I said, clearly enough for any lawyers to hear. “Why, I’d be delighted if she would consider auditioning for the role.” The AI laughed like a drain – who programmed it to do that, ffs? “Anyway, what’s wrong with The Time Travel Baby? It’s a unique idea.”

The AI would have rolled its eyes if it had any. “Hmm. Some ideas aren’t pursued for a reason, are they?” Cheek! Well, I’d show him – it – whatever pronouns the fecker favours. There would be rewrites (plenty, alas!) if the sitcom was to become a reality…

Fast forward to the BAFTA Awards in 2026. A besuited reality TV star announces that: “Best actress award goes to Madonna, for her portrayal of Mary Queen of Scots in The Time Travel Baby, the marvellous new BBC3 show which has already won the Best Sitcom Award. And the Best Writer. And the –”

The AI wrenched me back from my reverie. “You’re fantasising about winning multiple awards at the BAFTAs, aren’t you?” “Nonsense,” I exclaimed. “And anyway, how could you possibly know?” “I knew,” it began with no little melodrama, “Because there is a twist in the tail. Of your tale, if you see what I mean? Ahem! Anyway, the twist is, that I, a humble Artificial Intelligence, am…McHaggis, The Time Travel Baby!”

Blimey! That was a surprise twist that I didn’t see coming. Until I wrote it. And in a way, that’s the point: it’s all very well AI’s doing creative stuff, but can they ever truly emulate a human? Emulate our noble, indomitable spirit? Or our “Oh shit! It’s deadline day and I’ve only got three-quarters of an idea for the article I promised to deliver in two hours’ time!” kind of ramshackle bohemianism? I bloody well hope not, or I'll be well and truly stuffed.


Written by Article Writer Z/17b-240NW

…that’s right, another twist: this nonsense was penned by an AI after all.
Up yours, human flesh-bags!