books and authors

In which an AI hallucinates the content of my novels

My wife recently got a Google alert about a website/app called Bookey, a sort of digital Cliff Notes that offers summaries and analyses of more than a thousand books. including my novel Lovecraft Country. There’s a feature that lists the “30 Best Quotes” from a book, along with explanations of each quote’s significance. Very handy for anyone looking to cut-and-paste their English homework.

Trouble is, Bookey’s content appears to be generated by an AI, and in the case of Lovecraft Country, all of the quotations are fabricated. They don’t even sound like me:

This quote, according to Bookey, “encapsulates the complex emotions experienced by the narrator at a young age.” Ah yes, the ten-year-old first-person narrator of Lovecraft Country—what was her name again? I can’t recall. I also can’t recall ever using the word “bourgeois” unironically. And “loathe their whiteness” feels more 2020s than 1950s.

Bookey also offers imaginary quotations from Set This House in Order and Bad Monkeys.

That one made me laugh out loud. I also liked “Hell is other people, especially the really bad ones.” But I didn’t write it.

After I got done vanity searching my own novels, I spot-checked some books by other authors, to see whether Bookey’s AI would do better with more famous works. The list for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House does manage to quote (or misquote) some of the more iconic lines, but it also includes this figment, which “perfectly captures the mysterious and haunting essence of the story”:

The list of purported quotes from Stephen King’s The Shining opens with the “Here’s Johnny!” line that Jack Nicholson improvised for Kubrick’s movie adaptation. There are three separate lists for Gone With the Wind, one of which claims the novel was written by “Herb Bridges.” A list for H.P. Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness” gets most of its quotations from Orwell’s 1984, and throws in this gem for good measure:

A lot of artists I know are freaking out about AI right now, so I should probably note that I’m not upset about Bookey; I think it’s hilarious. Part of what fascinates me about large language models like ChatGPT is precisely their tendency to go off the rails and start hallucinating like this. That being said, I would not recommend signing up for Bookey’s premium service. You can get more than enough entertainment value poking around the website for free.

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Lone Women is on sale today

My friend Victor LaValle (The Ballad of Black Tom) has a new novel out today.

In the opening pages of Lone Women, Adelaide Henry burns down her California home with the bodies of her parents inside it and sets out for Montana. But her plan to start a new life as a homesteader is hampered by the literal baggage she brings with her: a steamer trunk containing a monster that can never be abandoned or set free.

Although this is a horror novel whose supernatural elements are part of the fun, the best part of Lone Women, for me, is the portrait it paints of Adelaide and the community of other women she finds out on the plains. Definitely recommended.

(The New York Times, which calls the book “almost impossible to put down,” has its say here.)

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Paul La Farge (1970-2023)

I am surprised and saddened to learn of the death of novelist Paul La Farge. He was the author, most recently, of The Night Ocean, which offers a fascinating fictional take on the real-life relationship between H.P. Lovecraft and his young fan and collaborator Robert H. Barlow.

Because of the Lovecraft connection, the Los Angeles Review of Books asked me to interview Paul when The Night Ocean was published in 2017. A month later, when he came to Seattle on book tour, we met up for coffee. In my all-too-brief interaction with him, he came across as a smart, thoughtful, and incredibly friendly guy. I was really looking forward to seeing what he’d write next.

You can read my interview with Paul here. And you should definitely check out The Night Ocean. As I write in the interview intro, it’s “one of those impossible-to-categorize books that seems to constitute its own genre.” My favorite kind, and a good legacy to leave behind.

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The Clarion West 2022 fundraiser auction is open…

The Clarion West Writers Workshop 2022 After Dark Gala & Auction is open for business. You can register here and help Clarion raise money by donating or bidding on various prize packages, including a Meet & Greet featuring myself and Kelley Eskridge:

Bidding is open through Friday, October 21, at 9 PM Pacific. The virtual Gala will be livestreamed on YouTube starting at 7 PM Pacific, and will feature a reading by Daniel Abraham, co-author of The Expanse series. Hope to see you there!

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This weekend: Crypticon, Christopher Moore, and Lovecraft Country

I’ve got a bunch of online events scheduled this month (full list here), including two this weekend that I wanted to spotlight:

On Saturday, October 17 at 8 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be reading from and answering questions about Lovecraft Country as part of Crypticon Seattle’s 2020 online convention. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased here.

On Sunday, October 18 at 5 PM Pacific Time, I’ll be in conversation with my friend and fellow author Christopher Moore, as part of San Francisco’s 2020 Litquake. Admission to this event is free, but with a suggested donation of $5-10. You can sign up here.

And immediately after the Litquake event, I’ll be tuning into HBO for the season finale of the Lovecraft Country series. If you’ve got things you want to ask about the show or the book, and you can’t make it to any of my live events, I’m still taking questions over at Goodreads.

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Friday read: Sundown Towns

Watching the online reaction to Lovecraft Country‘s pilot episode this week, I’ve seen a number of viewers mention that this is the first time they’ve ever heard of the concept of a sundown town. So I thought I’d re-up my recommendation of James W. Loewen’s excellent book on the subject.

Sundown Towns was a hugely important resource when I was researching my novel. It’s where I learned about black travel guides like The Negro Motorist Green Book, and it’s also where I first read about the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. Most importantly, it’s a book that helped me understand that Jim Crow-era racism was just as big a problem in the North as in the South.

Contrary to what you might expect, sundown towns were relatively rare in the South, where black people were traditionally viewed as a source of exploitable labor and their presence tolerated. Elsewhere in America, attitudes were very different. Loewen documents the waves of ethnic cleansing that began in the post-Civil War era and continued through the mid-twentieth century, as white citizens in the northern and western U.S. sought to drive out non-whites who they saw as undesirable. Much of this history has been suppressed or forgotten, but the legacy of it persists: Even today, there are big swaths of the country where you’ll rarely encounter anyone who isn’t white, and that’s not an accident.

In addition to Sundown Towns, I’d also recommend Loewen’s other books, Lies My Teacher Told Me and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. And Loewen’s website includes a sundown town database where you can learn about confirmed or suspected sundown towns in your home state.

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Second Life Book Club video

Here’s the video of my recent appearance on the Second Life Book Club. My host, Draxtor Despres, came up with the idea of having me read a short passage from each of my seven novels, to create a sort of “tasting menu” of the Matt Ruff canon. I thought it worked out pretty well, and the discussion was a lot of fun, too.

Also, just a reminder, if you’re interested in catching me live, there’s still time to register for this evening’s Zoom event hosted by Powell’s City of Books. My friend Christopher Moore and I will be chatting about 88 Names. The event starts at 5 PM Pacific Time and you can sign up here.

And if you’re busy this evening, you’ll have another chance to see me on Zoom when I do a solo appearance for Sunriver Books & Music on Saturday, July 25 at 5:30 PM Pacific. Details here.

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The Fear of God podcast

This week I am a guest on the Fear of God podcast, talking horror and Lovecraft Country with hosts Reed Lackey and Nathan Rouse. This was originally supposed to be a ninety-minute conversation, but we were having so much fun I ended up chatting more than two hours. You can listen here.

FYI, we focus on the novel—and there are spoilers—but I’ll be back on the podcast to talk about the Lovecraft Country TV series after it airs.

Also, a reminder that tomorrow, July 1, starting at noon Pacific, I’ll be a guest on the Second Life Book Club. Hope to see some of you there!

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Second Life Book Club this Wednesday

My SL avatar emerges from the deep.

This Wednesday, April 8, starting at 10 AM Pacific, I will be a guest on the debut episode of the Second Life Book Club, along with authors Ken Liu, S.L. Huang, C.B. Lee, and host/master of ceremonies Draxtor. The event will be livestreamed on Second Life’s social media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Mixer). If you sign up for a Second Life account (which is free), you can also join the event in-world, here.

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