Benjamin Bengfort was a much better scientist than he was a writer. He was the world’s foremost authority on artificial intelligence with an alphabet soup of degrees listed by his name, a corner office, and tenure. He was the big fish in the small, stale pond of academia. By all rights he should’ve been happy, reaping the rewards of his success. But every time I ran into him at the faculty cafeteria, the man was miserable.
“Hello, Jacquelyn.” He perked up a little when he saw me approach. “How’s life in the English department?”
“Oh, the usual. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to make a gaggle of bored freshmen appreciate Longfellow.”
Here was a man who could write a scientific paper in his sleep and have the editors of Nature and Science fight it out in a mud-wrestling cage match for a chance to publish it. But all he wanted was to write fiction. He was always eager to chat up anyone with an MFA, as if he could somehow absorb their creative writing skills by osmosis.
He was a pleasant enough guy, so I didn’t mind hanging out with him at lunch—so long as I could dodge reading another one of his manuscripts.
Benjamin sighed, stirring the contents of his bowl with a plastic spoon.
“Another rejection?” I didn’t really have to ask, but I’m a glutton for punishment. Not in Benjamin’s league, of course, but still.
“They bounced ‘No Quarter’ without so much as a personal comment,” he said.
I racked my brain. “Is that the epic fantasy retelling the War of the Ring story from the point of view of the Ents?”
“No. I sent that one to Colossal Fiction just the other week. ‘No Quarter’ is an existential literary prose poem about the narrator’s inability to pay at a parking meter. Would you like me to print you out a copy?”
I shuddered, then sent up a silent prayer for the folks at Colossal Fiction. Far as I knew, those poor souls didn’t even publish epic fantasy. Surely karma would find a way to make it up to whichever hapless editorial assistant was forced to read Benjamin’s submission. “Maybe I’ll pick up a copy at your office, later,” I lied.
“Oh, you should definitely come by. I’ve been working on something. A project you’ll really want to see!”
Naturally, I assumed that Benjamin was talking about another one of his stories. So I avoided his office and the entire Computer Science department like a day-old cafeteria casserole. That’s why I only found out about his amazing invention when everyone else did.
“I’ve been writing this program for years,” said the image of Benjamin on the screen. I wasn’t used to seeing Benjamin smile. But then, I wasn’t used to watching his smug face on the network news, either. “The computer is in the process of analyzing all the greatest works of literature. Thousands of books. Millions of words. It’ll identify patterns and figure out what makes those particular titles stand out, when compared to all the rest. And then the program will use this data to generate the definitive novel. It’ll be the greatest book the world has ever read.”
You can imagine the pandemonium that ensued. Talking heads speculated about how the program would reproduce the works of Shakespeare, or the Bible, or “Atlas Shrugged,” or whatever book they happened to hold in high regard.
Meantime, Benjamin’s computer program was in the final stages of consuming the world’s classical literature. It was scheduled to spit out its manuscript on the following Tuesday. Everyone who’s anyone wanted to be there and share in the moment. So it was a very pleasant surprise when I received one of the coveted invitations. My never having dumped on his fiction must’ve meant more to Benjamin than I realized.
On Tuesday an auditorium full of notables held their collective breath when Benjamin’s program finally finished its task. The first pages of the perfect book were displayed on the giant screens set up throughout the room and everyone began to read.
It was no Shakespeare. It was no Bible. It was the worst drivel I’ve ever seen collected on a page. The writing punched me in the eyeballs. Once read, it could never be unread. The prose made Benjamin’s own efforts appear brilliant by comparison.
The other scientists claimed that Benjamin’s program was flawed. It malfunctioned due to a bug in the code or some other faulty bit of programming. But, when presented with the source code, none of them could figure out a way to fix it.
As for Benjamin, he defended his invention fiercely, illogically, even as it cost him grants and prestige. He wouldn’t give up.
“There’s nothing wrong with the program” he told me the same exact thing he kept telling everybody else. “Fiction is subjective. Maybe today’s readers just aren’t sophisticated enough to recognize this book’s brilliance. The future generations will vindicate me.”
And if the readers failed to recognize the merits of this book, they could just as easily fail to recognize the talent in Benjamin’s writing. He didn’t say this, but I could see in his eyes that he believed it indubitably.
They never found a way to improve on Benjamin’s code and his project eventually faded from the public’s eye. Benjamin kept on writing fiction, and he kept on amassing piles of rejections for the stories that never seemed to improve at all.
But he was a lot happier.
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