set this house in order

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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A quick and dirty guide to the Matt Ruff oeuvre, or, what to read after you’ve read Lovecraft Country

I’ve gotten a number of requests from readers who’ve finished Lovecraft Country and want to know which of my novels they should try next. Because my books are so different from one another, this is always a tough question to answer, so I thought it might be useful to post a quick rundown of the options. If you see something here that looks interesting, you can click through to the main page for that novel and learn more about it:

The Mirage — An alternate history novel that came out of the same TV pitch session that produced Lovecraft Country. The story is set in a reality where the U.S. and the Middle East have traded places. The United Arab States is the world’s last superpower, and the “11/9 attacks” involve Christian fundamentalists flying planes into towers in downtown Baghdad. It’s not just the geopolitical situation that’s turned on its head; so is the sense of who matters. The novel’s protagonists—a trio of Arab Homeland Security agents—and the principal villains—the gangster Saddam Hussein, and a corrupt senator named Osama bin Laden—are all Arab Muslims. The Americans in the story are mostly nameless third-worlders, with the exception of a few high-profile terrorists like Donald Rumsfeld.

If you’re looking for another mix of history, genre tropes, and moral/social commentary with a similar tone and style to Lovecraft Country, this is probably your best bet.

88 NamesMy most recent novel is a near-future cyberthriller/twisted romantic comedy. The protagonist, John Chu, is a paid guide to online role-playing games who suspects his latest client may be North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The first two-thirds of the novel are set entirely in virtual reality, and most of the characters Chu interacts with, including his coworkers and his ex-girlfriend, are people he’s never met in the flesh, so he’s constantly forced to question how well he really knows them.

This book also came out of the aforementioned TV pitch session, and as such it forms a loose trilogy with The Mirage and Lovecraft Country, but despite the North Korea angle it’s much lighter in tone. If you’re up for a fun masquerade with video games and cybersex, this could be your ticket.

Bad MonkeysMurder suspect Jane Charlotte claims to belong to a mysterious organization that fights evil. Her division, the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons—Bad Monkeys for short—is an execution squad, though the man she’s accused of killing wasn’t on the official target list. The jailhouse psychiatrist assigned to Jane’s case gets her to tell the story of her career in Bad Monkeys: how she was recruited, what she did for the organization, and how it all went wrong.

I call this my Philip K. Dick novel. It’s a short, fast-moving mind-bender. Jane is the ultimate unreliable narrator: Catch her in an apparent lie or contradiction and she just throws another twist into the story, ratcheting up the weirdness while continuing to insist that it’s all true. If you like paranoid thrillers, you’ll probably like Bad Monkeys.

Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls The story of a relationship between two people who both have multiple personalities. Andy Gage manages his unusual condition by means of an imaginary house in his head where his various “souls” all live together in relative harmony. He meets Penny Driver, an undiagnosed multiple who still struggles with periods of lost time; when some of Penny’s more self-aware souls ask Andy for help, they end up destabilizing his house and force him to confront personal demons from the past.

This was my first fully mature novel, and I still think it’s one of my best. If you liked the family and interpersonal drama from Lovecraft Country but weren’t so sure about the supernatural aspects of the story, this might be a good pick for you. Despite the wild premise, it’s a fairly grounded narrative with no overt fantasy elements.

Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works TrilogyA science-fiction satire of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, written in the 1990s and set in the distant future year of 2023.

Rather than try to summarize the plot of this novel, I will direct you to the description of how I came to write it. If you find this origin story intriguing, then Sewer, Gas & Electric may be your cup of tea; if you are puzzled or appalled, you should probably read something else.

Fool on the HillA comic fantasy set on the Cornell University campus circa 1987. The cast of characters includes a retired Greek god, a lovesick writer-in-residence, a dog and cat in search of heaven, a group of modern-day knights, a race of magical sprites at war with an army of sword-wielding rats, and a giant wood-and-canvas dragon that comes to life in the novel’s climax.

This was my first published novel, and I think it holds up pretty well, especially as a time capsule of the era and the place in which it was written. If you’re a Cornell alumnus, a nostalgic adult of a certain age, a current college student who doesn’t mind dated cultural references, or a Matt Ruff fan curious about how I got my start, this could be for you.

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Rocket Feather podcast

This week I am a guest on the Rocket Feather podcast, which is hosted by my old college buddy Charles Matheus and his partner in crime, Kelly Roberge. Our conversation was originally planned to last about an hour, but we were having so much fun it stretched to nearly two (and might have gone longer, if Charles and Kelly’s cats hadn’t been so insistent on having their dinnertime respected). We take a trip down memory lane to our days at Cornell, recap what I’ve been up to for the last 35 years, and then do a couple of deep dives into my novels Set This House in Order and Lovecraft Country. (Note to my publicist, if she’s reading this: I’m pretty sure I managed to work in a plug for 88 Names somewhere along the way.)

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the player above, or visit the Rocket Feather website for additional options. Many thanks to Charles and Kelly for having me on the show!

A couple programming notes while I’ve got your attention:

  • On July 16, starting at 5 PM Pacific, I will be doing a virtual 88 Names event (via Zoom) for Powell’s City of Books of Portland, OR. My friend and fellow novelist Christopher Moore has graciously agreed to act as moderator.
  • On July 25, starting at 5:30 PM Pacific, I will be doing another virtual 88 Names event (also via Zoom) for Sunriver Books & Music of Sunriver, OR. This event will be hosted by the bookstore’s owner, Deon Stonehouse.

Both of these events are open to the public, and you don’t need to be in Oregon to participate. I’ll post details on how you can join as we get closer to the event dates.

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Songs About Books — Aug. 19

If you’re in the Seattle area and looking for something cool to do on the evening of August 19th (that would be the Friday after next), Fremont Abbey Arts Center is hosting Songs About Books, a project in which five local songwriters will be performing original songs inspired by books assigned to them by The Stranger‘s Paul Constant. My own Set This House in Order is one of the books, and the artist who’ll be making it sing is Johanna Kunin (Bright Archer).

The other artists who’ll be performing are Alex Guy (Led to Sea), singing songs inspired by Vladamir Nabakov’s Pale Fire; Ryan Barrett (The Pica Beats), singing about Michael Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island; Joshua Morrison, singing about Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; and Levi Fuller, singing about Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.

Tickets, available online, are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Everybody gets a free limited-edition Songs About Books CD at the door; I’ll be in the audience with a pen, so if you’d like me to forge Nabakov’s signature on the liner notes, just give a yell.

If you can’t attend the concert but still want to hear the music, you can listen to sample song tracks and buy copies of the CD on the Ball of Wax blog’s Bandcamp page.

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Charles de Lint reviews “Set This House in Order” in F&SF

I’m not sure what inspired Charles de Lint to rescue Set This House from the depths of his to-read pile (he was at my Richard Hugo House reading in October, though, so maybe he liked what he heard), but I’m glad he did. This is one of the nicest reviews I’ve gotten in a while:

This is the sort of book for which the f/sf field exists. It’s moving, dramatic, funny, and completely original, using the speculative strengths of the genre to tackle real world problems in a way that allows us to understand something with which most of us have no firsthand experience… This is a gorgeous and important book from a writer who always challenges the norm, and inevitably does so with success.

Full text is here.

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Custom cover art from Hamburg

An artist named Britta Kussin who attended one of my appearances in Germany last February gave me a gift, a set of custom covers for my first three novels. When I saw how cool they were, I asked if she’d send me scans that I could post on the blog.

Here they are:

I really like this style, and of course there’s something neat about seeing (almost) all of your books illustrated by the same hand.

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Bad Monkeys update

For those who have been wondering, my next novel is scheduled for publication by HarperCollins in late July/early August of next year.

Foreign rights sales have been unusually brisk. Although I don’t have dates yet, Bad Monkeys is slated to be published in the U.K., Germany, Brazil, and the Netherlands (the Netherlands publisher is also going to do a Dutch translation of Set This House in Order; can’t wait to see that).

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