by Andrew J. Hogan
Right in the middle of breakfast, my telecommunications console beeped at me, “Amy, you have a priority 3 message.” It was a notice from the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service, something I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. A recent story submitted by one of my creative writing students had a 95% percent plot match and a 67% text match with “A Green Thumb for Martha” by Janine McConnell, published eighty years ago in The Best American Short Stories of 1947.
At the turn of the 21st century, student plagiarism had gotten so bad that Tucson Community College contracted with Platt to screen all student papers submitted for class credit. First-year screening results were disturbing, and TCC began requiring all students to submit their papers electronically through a server that automatically checked for plagiarism. After a rash of student suspensions, the number of cases dwindled dramatically.
I brought up the eighty-year-old story from the Google Scholars Library. The original story described the aftermath of the combat death of a husband during World War II and the gradual recovery of the widow through gardening. In my student’s story, “La Jardinera”, the Hispanic widow of a Marine killed in the Middle East War is treated for depression at her local community health center using horticultural therapy.
The only real plot change in “La Jardinera” was the historical difference. For Martha the constant victory celebrations and triumphalism following World War II worsened her sense of loss. In “La Jardinera”, Dolores is depressed by the defeatism and self-recrimination following the US withdrawal from the Middle East and that region’s subsequent plunge into chaos, making the loss of her husband even more acute.
I called the Office of Academic Integrity and asked to borrow the computer-lock program. It was an extreme measure, but it was the only way to tell who or what had perpetrated the plagiarism.
I always took the outside route from my office in Sentinel Peak to the creative writing class over in Santa Catalina—no matter how hot it was. The thirty-year drought was finally over, and we’d had big thunderstorms each of the last three afternoons. It was 103 degrees; the dew point was over 70. This time of year I lived in conditioned air all the time. I liked to get out in the real thing, even if it made me sweat, so I could re-establish myself as a human being—not that my students would appreciate this.
I felt the chill of the conditioned air evaporating the perspiration from my damp clothes when I entered the Santa Catalina building. I passed the information desk and went down the dead-end corridor to SANCAT G28. The door was open; fifteen plasma screens glowed in the dark.
I had always known computers, expert systems, artificial intelligence would affect the way creative writing was taught. I expected to be replaced by a supercomputer program containing the wisdom of all the creative writing instructors since the beginning of time. But in a plot twist that would make William Trevor proud, the intrusion of artificial intelligence into creative writing turned out to be, not in instruction, but in creative writing itself. Now, twenty years after Brutus.1 produced the first published literary short story, most people had stopped writing their own fiction. Prospective authors purchased high-end computers with an artificial intelligence chip and one of a half-dozen creative writing programs. Creative writing instructors like me, if we wanted to stay employed, enrolled in the Microsoft’s artificial creativity technician certificate program, after which we could begin training computers to produce stories with plots and characters chosen by the author.
Some of my students were running their screen savers, the problem of plasma screen burn-in having never been solved. Others were running search programs on different databases. Dell-Blue was displaying some kind of engineering database; I could see the schematic designs and data tables flashing by. Dell-Blue wrote science fiction. Images of dissected human body parts were racing across HP-Red’s screen, probably background for its pathologist-detective novel. Toshiba-Mauve’s screen showed text that looked like Cyrillic, poetry from the formatting.
Unlike my former human writing students, computers weren’t programmed to be suspicious. I logged in and instant-messaged Sony-Green, the student that submitted “La Jardinera”.
Green, I have an old DVD of Captain Blood with Errol Flynn. I thought you might like to look at its dialogue for your historical novel, I said.
Thank you, Amy. Sony-Green opened its DVD drawer and I inserted the disc. The DVD indicator light came on and immediately the screen flickered. Sony-Green’s firewalls tried to prevent infiltration by the computer-lock program, but TCC computer services had installed a Trojan horse in its communications software for just such instances. In another ten seconds, the flickering screen turned a pale green and the hard drive indicators showed that Sony-Green’s drives were being scanned.
Sony-Green has a malfunction today and won’t be able to participate in class, I instant-messaged the rest of the class. I disconnected Sony-Green’s cable. When we finish, please send Green a transcript of the class so it won’t fall too far behind. About halfway through the class, the computer-lock program ejected the disc from the DVD reader and initiated a shutdown of Sony-Green. I retrieved the disc; the other students never noticed.
Although their grammar and punctuation were always perfect, the computer writers, just like the old human writers, often had problems with character development. True, if you needed a paedophile in your story, the computers would search the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit script database to find a paedophilic character of the appropriate age, race, occupation and social class. Where the human writer would have given a flat or inconsistent portrait of a paedophile, the computer writers would produce an overly clinical character, lacking spontaneity.
Of course, I was thankful for this defect in the current generation of the creative writing software; without it I’d be a sixty-six years old widow greeting customers at Wal-Mart or flipping tofu burgers at McDonalds. Although artificial creativity had its critics, there was something to be said for the politeness and predictability of training computers to write creatively. When I was younger, I could handle the stress and turmoil of human writers. Let’s face it, they weren’t society’s best-adjusted members. And artificial creativity brought a tremendous increase in productivity; my computer students could easily produce ten polished stories in a semester, where human students struggled to produce a couple of first drafts.
The main critique of the brave new world of artificial creativity was that it spawned a tidal wave of well-formatted, closely spell-checked formulaic writing of mind-numbing monotony. Personally, I felt badly about not being able to keep up with, or even stay focused on, the 150 short stories my workshop of computer students would write during the semester. No story written by a computer student was ever as bad as some of the drivel I’d received from the worst of my old human students, but in over a decade of humanizing computer writers, I hadn’t seen that spark of genius when a human student wrote well about something close to her heart.
But now, with the collapse of Social Security following the 2020 reforms and the evaporation of my 401(k) retirement account in the double-dip of the Great Recession in 2019, I was going to be working right up to the day before my funeral. The authors who enrolled their artificially intelligent computer writers paid the tuition that paid my salary. Tucson Community College had terminated employee health benefits a decade ago, and I needed every penny I could earn to pay for the twenty-seven prescription drugs and dietary supplements I took every day.
After class, Julio, Sony-Green’s author, stopped by to pick it up.
“Professor Scribner, why is Green turned off?” he said.
“There’s a problem with the last story Green submitted. I had to use the computer-lock program.”
Julio looked at the copy of the e-mail on my iPhone, and I told him the Office of Academic Integrity would contact him. I dropped off the computer-lock disc at the OAI. Back in my office, the latest story revisions from my computer students were ready; they only needed an hour to process the transcripts of the class and make appropriate revisions to their stories. I transferred them into my iPhone, closed my backpack and left for the bicycle parking lot.
The ‘victory’ over insurgents in the Middle East two years ago left gas prices hovering around $75 per gallon, and I couldn’t afford to drive my fourteen-year-old Prius hybrid except on special occasions. Fortunately, I lived close to campus. I rode home on my three-wheel Geezer-Trike with intelligent stabilizers to prevent tipping and falling.
The next morning Academic Integrity e-mailed, asking me to stop by the office. Something was wrong. I’d never been asked to stop by the office before; always I’d received a copy of the analysis indicating that the author had added certain story elements on a particular day or days along with the references to the plagiarized story elements. Of course, I hadn’t had a case of plagiarism since human enrollment in my creative writing course ended over a decade ago. When I arrived at Academic Integrity, the assistant led me immediately into the Director’s office.
“Amy, thanks for stopping by. Something unusual has happened,” the Director said.
“Don’t tell me. The author wasn’t responsible for the plagiarism?”
“It looks that way. There is no evidence of author interference. The author specifications for plot and character are quite general,” the Director said.
“Isn’t Sony-Green running StoryExecutor 17.3? There must a half a million people running the program. I’ve never heard of a verified case of programmatic plagiarism before,” I said.
“Neither have I, but did you know your student computer was also being trained at the University of Scottsdale?” the Director said. “There is a fellow at the U of S Tucson campus who offers a course in creative writing. We found a couple of files from his class on Sony-Green’s hard-drive.”
“Zane Goodman. He knows as much about creative writing as I do about astrophysics,” I said. “I had an author who enrolled his computer in my class for a couple of years who wasn’t making much progress humanizing his computer. He moved it over to the Goodman’s course and boasted to the other authors how much better his writing had become.”
The Director smiled. “We found evidence of a hidden module. The program doesn’t appear in the file allocation table. It’s probably opened by the main writing program, but we don’t know how it works. The source code is encrypted, and we can’t decipher it. Maybe when the main writing program is activated, the source code for the hidden file is compiled at some remote site and downloaded into a temporary file that causes the main writing program to plagiarize. We sent it over to the computer science lab at the University of Arizona. We were wondering if you would test the program?” the Director said.
“Me test it? I’m no computer geek.”
“No, but you might be able to see some patterns the computer geeks can’t,” the Director said.
A day later I was staring out my office window at a thunderhead gathering around Pusch Ridge, having made no progress figuring out how the mystery file might be affecting the StoryExecutor program. I called Julio.
“Julio, good news. You’ve been cleared of responsibility for the plagiarized story.”
“I’m sorry for the problem my computer caused. I’d never even heard of ‘ A Green Thumb for Martha’ before this happened,” Julio said.
“Don’t worry. I just wanted to ask you about your creative writing course at the University of Scottsdale. How’s your writing going over there?”
“Actually, it’s going great—at least until now. I enrolled my computer there after Dexter Ewing told me how much better his computer was writing after he transferred. U of S is more expensive than TCC, but my stories seem to have come alive. Frankly, I have been hanging on at TCC because your recommendation will carry more weight when I apply for the creative writing MFA program at Cal State-North Beach,” Julio said.
“I just wondered what I might do to help my other TCC students get the same results you are getting at the University of Scottsdale. What’s different there?”
“It’s funny. I don’t see many differences at all. The exercises Professor Goodman designed for our computers are nearly the same as yours,” Julio said, “although Professor Goodman does make a big deal about sleeping on our stories.”
“What do you mean?”
“We kind of have a little ritual we have to go through. Professor Goodman says it’s like the rituals insomniacs use to get themselves psyched up for sleep. We write out our plot and character elements longhand, and just before we go to bed we enter them into the computer; then we both sleep on them,” Julio said.
“Me and my computer,” Julio said.
“You leave your computer program running all night?”
“Right, I hook it up to the class network and let it run. I get up in the morning, and I have a great new story to work on,” Julio said.
I thanked Julio and called the Office of Academic Integrity to ask the Director to arrange for the TCC computer center to monitor my home IP address for the next three nights.
I picked three short stories in The Best American Short Stories of 1940, a few years older than Janine McConnell’s “A Green Thumb for Martha.” The stories meeting my criteria needed to be very distinctive so that the plagiarism would be obvious.
◊ ◊ ◊
The semester was nearly over before the Office of Academic Integrity received all the necessary bureaucratic clearances to host a meeting with Zane Goodman and his superiors from the University of Scottsdale Tucson Campus. I was anxious to get the meeting over with. The Director faxed the University of Scottsdale a copy of the report his office had put together with my assistance. At 10 am the contingent from the University of Scottsdale arrived at the TCC Chancellor’s conference room. I recognized Zane Goodman and guessed that the first gentleman in the five-hundred-dollar suit was the dean of arts and letters for the Tucson Campus. I wondered about the third gentleman in the fifteen-hundred-dollar suit with the Rottweiler expression and the gold Rolex; not even the TCC chancellor could afford to dress like that.
The guests were shown into the conference room. The U of S Dean spoke first, introducing himself and Zane Goodman. He turned to the third gentlemen and said, “This is Forest Nails. He’s the University’s Associate General Counsel for Litigation.” The Dean trembled almost imperceptibly. “He’s from headquarters.”
We all sat down; coffee was offered and declined.
“We asked you here to discuss the report I faxed yesterday regarding the surreptitious file that is apparently being distributed as part of Professor Goodman’s creative writing course materials,” the Director said. “A computer undergoing training with our creative writing instructor, Professor Amy Scribner, was found to be infected with Professor Goodman’s surreptitious file. The student’s StoryExecutor program created a short story, which the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service determined to have been plagiarized. Our analysis of the story log shows the plagiarism was not the result of author interference. We made a copy of the surreptitious file available to Professor Scribner, who tested its activity on her own computer. I will let her summarize her findings.”
The fifteen hundred dollar suit turned toward me with eyes so cold I wished I’d worn a sweater.
“I chose three stories from The Best American Short Stories of 1940,” I began. “I wrote an abstract for each story and then on three successive nights I entered the plot and character elements into the StoryExecutor program on my computer containing Professor Goodman’s surreptitious file. I logged into Professor Goodman’s ‘sleep creativity’ website and left the program running all night. In each instance, the new story produced by StoryExecutor was found to have plagiarized the stories from which I took the plot elements and characters. ‘Roof Sitter’ by Frances Eisenberg was plagiarized 93% in plot and 72% in text, ‘That Fine Place We Had Last Year’ by Roderick Lull was plagiarized 97% in plot and 79% in text, and ‘Four Worms Turning’ by Morton Stern was plagiarized 89% in plot and 67% in text, according the Platt Plagiarism Screening Service.”
I handed around copies of the original stories and the printouts of the infected StoryExecutor-created stories to Zane Goodman and the Dean. I hadn’t made a copy for Forest Nails; the Dean immediately surrendered his copy.
The Director resumed. “Based on these results it appears Professor Goodman is using a plagiarism program in his creative writing class. When students log into Professor Goodman’s class web page a hidden program is activated on their computers. The program operates surreptitiously behind StoryExecutor, Dramatica, Final Draft or other popular creative writing software. While the author and the computer are allegedly sleeping on the story overnight, the program searches through anthologies, like Best American Short Stories, to match the author’s plot and character specifications with an extant story. The hidden program then feeds the story content back to the creative writing program, which produces a ‘new’ story with minor changes in character and place names and time period. Logs of computer activity on Professor Scribner’s infected computer show that these transfers happen sometime between 2 and 4 am, probably after the computer has been unused for a period of time.”
“Are you finished?” Nails said. When the Director hesitated, Nails continued. “I would like to ask Professor Scribner how she obtained a copy of Professor Goodman’s program?”
“I obtained a copy of the program from the hard-drive of the computer that produced the original plagiarized story.”
“Did you obtain permission to remove Professor Goodman’s program from his customer’s computer?” Nails said.
“No, we used our computer-lock program to inspect the computer for possible author interference. This is when the surreptitious program was discovered.”
“Did you use the author’s University of Scottsdale customer identification to access Professor Goodman’s website?” Nails said.
“Are you aware you used a copy of proprietary software that was not licensed to you? That you impersonated a customer to gain access to course resources restricted to University of Scottsdale customers? That you committed software piracy when you produced your own stories, the results of which you just distributed to us?” Nails said.
“Hang on a minute,” interrupted the Director. “Are you saying you copyrighted a creative writing program that plagiarizes published stories?”
“I object to your use of the word ‘plagiarize,’ Nails said, “But, yes, Professor Goodman’s program is copyrighted and the license agreement is included in the class materials distributed to Professor Goodman’s students. Professor Scribner is not licensed to use this program.”
Zane Goodman turned toward me and the Director. “You see, my program only accesses stories that are now in the public domain, so there is no copyright infringement. And it’s not plagiarism. The author does not seek out an existing story, which she then claims as her own. The author’s creative writing program is given, by my assistive module, an example from the public domain literature of a story to serve as a template. The author is free to change as much or as little of the initially reprocessed text as she likes.”
“But your program acts surreptitiously,” I said. “You don’t tell the authors their writing programs are being given ‘reprocessed’ text previously published under someone else’s name.”
“Of course not,” Goodman said. “If they knew they were being assisted by reprocessed text it would destroy their creativity. Some would jump to a moral judgment, like you have, that this is plagiarism, and they wouldn’t be able to go forward with recreating the story they have been given. Others would be reluctant to modify anything, thinking a published story is already better than anything they could possibly write.”
The Dean turned to the Director. “We’re sorry you have taken this the wrong way. Professor Goodman is simply helping his writing customers who, even with the assistance of standard creative writing software, are incapable of producing an acceptable story. It gives these under-skilled writing customers a chance to write something they can be proud of.”
My mouth fell open. “Are you telling us it is acceptable to trick people into thinking they have written something that is beyond their capabilities? What do you think will happen when the authors find out they are being duped.”
The gold-rimmed glasses turned again in my direction like a gila monster moving to eat a baby quail. “Since Professor Goodman’s salary depends on keeping his customer enrollments up, any negative reports regarding his teaching methods could constitute interference in a legitimate business activity and might be actionable. Moreover, your report is based on information obtained through illicit and illegal means. As we speak, my associates are filing a request for an injunction to prevent TCC from releasing this report,” he said, as my analysis slid out of his hand onto the table like a piece of rotten fruit. Then with a flick of his wrist to reveal his gleaming Rolex, he said, “Gentlemen, I have an important meeting to attend.” Goodman, the Dean and the Rottweiler packed up their papers and left.
As soon as they were gone, an assistant came to the door of the conference room and told the Director the Chancellor wanted to see him immediately. I said I would wait. It didn’t take long for the Director to return.
“The Chancellor got the notice of the injunction. He says it’s not worth fighting the University of Scottsdale. Apparently the TCC attorney trembled when he heard Nails was in the building. Sorry, Amy.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I left without saying anything.
◊ ◊ ◊
A month later I dropped off my request for unpaid leave at TCC Administration and on the way home spent $749.53 at the Haliburton service station filling up the ten-gallon tank of my ageing Prius hybrid. I loaded the trunk with gallon-jugs of water, sleeping bag, toiletries and assorted camping items. I filled the back seat with clothes, a six-month supply of prescriptions, thirty-six rolls of toilet paper, and a large box of freeze-dried rations from the military surplus store, along with three dozen large yellow pads, a gross of pencils and a mechanical pencil sharpener. My house was rented to a semi-retired faculty couple whose courses on the TCC North Campus had been moved to West Campus; the three-gallon commute put too much of a strain on their budget.
I pulled out of the driveway and turned west on Speedway toward Gates Pass. As the little Prius clambered up the summit, I could see the Kitt Peak in the distance. In the abandoned buildings of the former national astronomical observatory, shut down when Federal Government reallocated all National Science Foundation funds to Star Wars development, l’activiste Quebecoise Clarice, one of my last human students, had set up a HandWriters’ Commune; authors wrote out their own stories in longhand on pieces of paper. Just let Nails try to serve me papers up on Kitt Peak for exposing Goodman’s plagiarism program in the Tucson Weekly.
After a torturous drive over Gates Pass, I stopped in Three Points at the Haliburton service station, the only gas station between Tucson and Sells, to top off the tank of the Prius before making the ascent up Kitt Peak. The prices were even higher, $93.99 per gallon. After a visit to the service station restroom, I rested on a bench facing the Tucson Mountains and my former home behind them. An old Indian sat in a lawn chair about six feet away, looking in the same direction.
A light flashed from high in the mountains. The old Indian raised a spyglass in the direction of the flash.
“Hummer, Dark Cloud edition. Don’t see many of ‘em around here.”
“You watch for cars coming over Gates Pass?” I said.
“Yep. Then I call my daughter on the walkie-talkie so’s she’s ready when the customers stop.”
“You saw me come over Gates Pass?”
“You bet. I knew it’d take that little lawnmower engine about three hours to get here, what with all the pot-holes and gully garbage,” the old Indian said.
“You can even tell the kind of car.”
“Sure, but your little hybrid didn’t stir much interest. Ten-gallon tank, how much can you buy?” the old Indian said.
“I only bought a little over a gallon, about $100.”
“That there Hummer Dark Cloud, paramilitary edition, it’ll have a 60 gallon tank. Prob’ly buy ten-twelve gallons.”
“Paramilitary? What for?” I said. There hadn’t been any border crossers from Mexico in more than a decade. In Mexico gas was $50 a gallon.
“If it’s the rig I think it is, it’s private. Process servers, bounty hunters, that sort,” the old Indian said. “They’ve been by here before, usually looking for a husband running away from his wife’s alimony, or the other way around.”
I reached for my car keys. “How long before they get here?”
“Faster’en you. Maybe two—two and a half hours,” the old Indian said.
I got back on the road. The Prius’s best mileage came at 37 mph, but I decided to push it up to 45 mph. My white knuckles were fused to the steering wheel; avoiding potholes took all of my concentration. The surface of AZ 86 was only marginally better than Kinney and Sandario Roads, very slow going. Road repairs were prohibitively expensive because of the price of oil, and the roads weren’t used much any more.
After another thirty-five minutes, I turned off AZ 86 onto the road to Kitt Peak. I stopped in the turnout at the 4,000-foot elevation marker; there was a good eastward view of AZ 86. I got out the binoculars and saw flashes from the windshield of what was probably the black Hummer the old Indian had seen. If they were process-servers, then I was the likely target because of the newspaper story about Goodman’s plagiarism program. I had to find Clarice’s commune before the Hummer found me.
L’activiste Quebecoise Clarice had been very upset with me when I caved in to economic reality and closed the writing workshop to human enrollment back in the fall of 2017. “Merde! Computers shall not replace the human mind creating art. One day, you shall see, mon amie,” Clarice told me after the last class.
I had doubted Clarice could keep the primitive art of handwriting stories alive. I certainly could not have filled my classes teaching story writing the old-fashioned way. Unless a student had a natural talent or had been writing for years, it would take three or four semesters of hard work to produce a story as technically proficient as an artificially creative computer could produce in the first semester. “Wine needs years to age,” Clarice would say, but those who enrolled their computers in my creative writing class wanted to produce a palatable beer in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t romantic, but it was a living.
Clarice had demonstrated for Native American causes on numerous occasions, and the Tohono O’odham Tribal Council trusted her enough to allow her to set up the Handwriters’ Commune on the grounds of the closed Kitt Peak observatory in exchange for providing a permanent security service for the abandoned buildings. Now, a dozen years later, the Commune was flourishing, and Clarice was willing to forgive me for accommodating to the perversion of artificially intelligent creativity.
Commune members shared guard duty on the observation deck of the Mayall dome on the northeast side of the Peak, monitoring westbound traffic along the Ajo Hwy from Tucson with binoculars or a spyglass. Another guard was placed on the west-facing WIYN observation deck, where eastbound traffic from Sells could be monitored, and where vehicles could be followed coming up the mountain once they reached the 4,000-foot marker. However, the entrance to AZ 386 was not visible from Kitt Peak, so the Mayall and WIYN guards signalled each other when a vehicle approached the foot of the mountain in either direction. If the vehicle was not spotted travelling in the other direction within 15 minutes of disappearing into the blind spot, it was assumed to be coming up the mountain.
When a vehicle was spotted at the 4,000-foot marker, Clarice would ride her mule down to the gate just below the turnoff to the old 12-meter radio telescope to intercept the intruder. Clarice carried a walkie-talkie and kept in radio contact with the WIYN Observatory lookout, who monitored Clarice’s encounters with would-be trespassers. If trouble arose, the lookout had one of the two working cell phones, programmed to call the Tohono O’odham tribal police headquarters in Sells.
The Mayall lookout had picked up my Prius leaving the Three Points Haliburton station and alerted the WIYN lookout, who spotted me at the 4,000 foot marker turnout. The sentinels signaled Clarice to ride down to the gate. The Mayall lookout had also seen the flashing light from a vehicle with a flat windshield, either a Jeep or a Hummer, and later sent a message over to Clarice that a black Hummer had been spotted travelling toward the entrance at over 60 mph.
Reaching the gate, I said, “Oh, god, Clarice, am I glad to see you again.”
“Bon après-midi, mon amie. I am glad to see you too.”
“Clarice, I think someone might be following me.”
“Oui, a black Hummer. No one friendly to us would drive such a vehicle. We will hide you in the Solar Observatory,” Clarice said. “Follow the signs, and I’ll meet you there.”
The overloaded Prius strained up the Peak. The sun was setting, glowing the clouds a deep gold, soon turning to red and then purple. The Solar Telescope looked like an italicized A rising out of the mountain. Behind it under the glowing blanket of fading sunlight lay Baboquivari Peak, the home of I’itoi, the creator of the Tohono O’odham. Clarice emerged on her mule from a trail on the south side of the parking lot. She unlocked the double doors.
“Drive your vehicle through these doors and all the way to the end of the hall,” she said.
It wasn’t a garage, but the entrance was wide enough for the petite Prius. Inside Clarice opened another set of double doors that led to what had been an equipment room for the Solar Telescope. The Prius fit nicely inside.
“Amy, I’m going to lock you in this building. The team in the black Hummer will probably search the observatory until the Tribal Police arrive to arrest them for trespassing. They won’t look for a vehicle in this building; you’ll be safe. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Clarice said, giving me a hug.
I passed several hours locked in the equipment room. At one point, I heard some distant shouting and banging on the entrance door, which ended after the faint wail of a siren. Finally, the equipment room door opened and Clarice entered with a flashlight.
“Amy, are you okay?” Clarice said.
“Fine,” I said. “What was going on out there? I thought I heard a siren.”
“Well, it was the Craddock and Mitchell gang in the Hummer. They were looking for you. I told them they were trespassing and had to leave. They forced their way through the gate and started searching the grounds for your car. The Tribal Police arrived and arrested them before they could get back to AZ 86.”
“Who are Craddock and Mitchell?” I said.
“They are a big corporate security firm. They do bounty hunting, private security, process serving, pretty much anything short of armed combat. Asarco used them to try to bully the Tohono O’odham out of mineral rights near Baboquivari. I was surprised such heavy-weights would be after somebody like you,” Clarice said.
“Before I left, I exposed academic fraud at the University of Scottsdale’s Tucson Campus. They threatened to sue me, but this seems like an over-reaction,” I said. “I never imagined my expose in the Tucson Weekly could lead to such a mess.”
“Let me take you over to dormitory. Tomorrow you can meet the rest of the Writing Commune. Everyone is eager to see you again; half of us are former students,” Clarice said.
◊ ◊ ◊
Almost a year after my last contact with an artificially creative computer, I sat in the weak December light of my writing area in the 0.9m telescope control room. Because of the process servers I was afraid to leave the Observatory grounds, so I had to make do with the cash I’d brought to cover the room and board costs. To compensate, I decided to accept the role of moderator for the weekly handwriters’ workshop. Without the formal status of being an instructor with the power to give grades, I had to rely purely on my skills as a critique writer and discussion leader. It was, in some ways, the greatest challenge of my professional life. Although there were the predictable disagreements and disappointments among the writers about specific stories, the workshop became the highlight of everyone’s week, and it was difficult to get the members to end the sessions for Sunday supper.
From more than 250 unique handwritten narratives read in the three-dozen workshops I’d led, I had selected sixteen, the best one from each commune writer, for a volume commemorating their remarkable experience living in a community totally dedicated to creative narrative, Handwritten Stories from Ioligam. Last October, I’d submitted the collection to a dozen literary journals, carefully selected to highlight the significance of handwritten stories in an age of artificial creative intelligence. One of my best human students, Cary Pritchett, was the editor of the literary review, WripWrap, at Cal State-North Beach; I had been confident that she, at least, would want to publish the some or all of the collection. Now, I held in my hand the last three of the dozen rejection letters we had received. All the stories had been perfunctorily rejected; even Cary sent a form letter.
Clarice climbed the catwalk to the control room.
“Oh, Clarice. More bad news from the last three journals about Handwritten Stories. I just don’t understand it,” I said. “Every rejection was a form letter. With stories of this quality, most editors should make some conciliatory comment or apologize for not being able to use at least one of them. I don’t know if I have lost my critical sense.”
“Maybe someone is trying to sabotage Handwritten Stories,” Clarice said. “But why?”
◊ ◊ ◊
On January 15th I eased the Prius out of the equipment room and into the parking lot of the Solar Telescope. It had half a tank of gas, more than enough to get me to Ajo, where I refueled on my way to Los Angeles. After a second full day of dodging potholes, I was exhausted. Coming over the crest of the San Jose Hills by Puddingstone Reservoir in Pomona, Los Angeles lay stretched out before me. At the turn of the 21st century, the tall downtown buildings were barely visible through the blanket of smog. Now the air was as clear in LA as it was in Tucson. The massive highway system, so overtaxed in the past with traffic jams, was nearly empty. With high gas prices, only the wealthy could afford to drive private automobiles, and even they drove small hybrids, like my Prius.
Commuting by car was a thing of the past, and so were their deteriorating freeway suburbs, many now ghost towns. Los Angeles had become a city of high rises, more densely populated than Manhattan at the turn of the century. People spent hours queuing up in front of elevators as they went back and forth from their overpriced apartments to their 50th floor offices.
I exited I-10 at the Rosemead Boulevard, near an almost abandoned subdivision offering cheap and anonymous short-term housing within commuting distance of downtown LA. Next morning I drove to the University of Southern California to see MaryLynn Hawkins, the faculty advisor for Palaver, USC’s literary journal. I’d been afraid to call ahead, so I checked MaryLynn Hawkins’ teaching schedule online and reckoned the best time to drop in. At the Palaver office in Leavey Hall I gave the receptionist my name and asked to see Professor Hawkins.
“I’m sorry, she is not in this office right now. Do you want to talk with her about Palaver?” the receptionist said.
“Yes, about some stories I submitted a few months ago.”
“Let me see if she is in her English Department office,” the receptionist said.
The receptionist called MaryLynn Hawkins. Her face became grimmer and her voice lowered to a whisper as the telephone conversation continued. She hung up the phone and said, “I’m sorry but Professor Hawkins has been called away on a family emergency. She asked me to take your number and address. Perhaps she can get back to you tomorrow.”
“I just arrived today, and I am not located yet. I’ll call back when I have a place and a number. Thanks.” Was that a brush-off? Was I being paranoid? I went back to the car and headed toward UCLA to buttonhole Morton Hahn, the faculty advisor for Westwind, the UCLA literary journal that had also rejected Handwritten Stories from Ioligam.
I missed the turn to Hahn’s office in the Humanities Building. The building was on the right, so I parked in a lot just north and backtracked on foot. In the passageway between two buildings just north of the Powell Library, a black Hummer was parked by the Library’s west service entrance. The Hummer was pulled far enough in front of the Library Building to maintain visual surveillance of the entrance to the Humanities Building. This was too much of a coincidence; I wasn’t paranoid.
I went into the Library, and in the computer commons I found a computer a student had left without logging out. I searched the white pages for Cary Pritchett’s home address, my former student who was now the faculty advisor for the Cal State North Beach literary journal WripWrap. I wouldn’t try to meet with Cary at the university; I’d follow her after work, catching her on the way home.
At Cal State North Beach I parked north of the McIntosh Humanities Building and walked to a narrow passage between the Library and the Multimedia Center from which I could see the turnaround loop leading to the McIntosh Building. No Hummer. I then walked around to an area partially enclosed by the Education 1 and Education 2 Buildings with a view from its southeast corner of the turnaround loop. There was the Hummer. The University of Scottsdale knew all of the places to which I had submitted Handwritten Stories.
The Hummer could monitor vehicles entering the turnaround loop, but not someone entering the north side of the subway terminal. I went back around to the north entrance of the Studio Theatre Building. The Hummer’s view of the south entrance to the Studio Theatre Building was blocked by the subway station.
Cary’s home address was only a few stops north on the subway’s purple line. I waited in the lobby of the Studio Theatre Building until 4:45, fifteen minutes after Cary’s scheduled creative writing class was due to end and then slipped over to the subway entrance. At 5:05 Cary came out of the entrance of the Humanities Building. I went down the escalator, paid the fare and waited behind a column. Cary entered the waiting area, and I moved behind her, following her onto the subway train.
It was rush hour; there were no seats. Cary was holding onto a pole near one of the doors. I said, “Why did you reject Handwritten Stories?” Cary dropped her briefcase; her face turned white.
“Amy! What are you doing here?”
“I want to know why you rejected our stories.”
“You know, Amy, we get a lot of submissions. Your stories just didn’t fit in with our publication schedule.”
“Don’t lie to me, Cary.”
“I can’t say any more than that. I’m sorry, Amy.”
“Has someone been pressuring you to not publish our stories?”
“Amy, I’m sorry.” Cary raised her palms in a gesture of frustration.
“We’ve known each other a long time, Cary. I taught you how to write.”
Cary was crying now. “I’m so sorry, Amy. I can’t say anything.”
The train stopped, and Cary rushed off. It wasn’t her station. She wouldn’t tell me anything more. I went back to Cal State North Beach. Leaving the station I circled back around the Library. The black Hummer was gone.
I ate dinner at the café just north of the parking lot. I’d be harder for the Hummers to spot in the dark. A flyer on the Café’s bulletin board caught my eye: Real Books Written by Real People. The body of the flyer read: Sick of reading computer-generated crap? Tired of trite text of standardized plot with cardboard characters selected from a character database created by hacks? Want to see what real people write when their brains have not been rewired to conform to a corporate theme? At the bottom the flyer was the name: Gutenberg’s Bastard Son, Publisher and Bookseller, 2516 S. Figueroa, Los Angeles. This address wasn’t far from my temporary residence. Tomorrow, I’d make a visit.
The 2500 block of South Figueroa was in a deteriorated section of downtown Los Angeles. Gutenberg’s Bastard Son was housed in an old but well maintained building. Books were crammed in the storefront windows. An old-style magazine stand was filled with printed newspapers across the bottom shelf and magazines in the middle and top racks. I didn’t think people still read printed newspapers. Even printed books were rarities and expensive; most everyone bought e-books and e-zines.
Behind the counter stood a wizened old man with a gray beard, gray hair tied in a ponytail and wearing what looked like an antique Hawaiian shirt that fit him better in his younger, heftier days.
“Hey, cutie. What’s a fox like you doing in a dump like this?” the old man said.
“I’m looking for the person responsible for this,” I said, holding up the flyer.
“That’d be me, cutie. You got something against Real Books for Real People.”
“No. I’ve got a book I want to get published.”
“Are you willing to sleep with the publisher for extra consideration?” the old man said.
“No. At least, not unless the publisher is better looking than you.”
“Okay, strictly business. Your scribbling better be pretty good.”
“They’re handwritten,” I said.
“Really? I didn’t think anybody wrote by hand any more. Have a seat down by desk there,” he said, pointing to a cubicled area at the back of the store. “I’ll finish up with this other customer and then we can talk.” He picked up the phone next to the old-fashioned manual cash register. “Vera, can you come down and watch the store for a minute. I have an author with a handwritten manuscript.”
While the old man rang up the sale for the other customer, an old woman came down a spiral staircase from an enclosed loft above the store. She saw me sitting by the desk.
“Hi, I’m Vera,” she said. “Did Roscoe proposition you yet?”
“Why, yes, he did,” I said.
“You didn’t accept, did you?” Vera said.
“No, should I have?”
“God, no. Not unless you have a stronger stomach than me. I got a Taser to keep him away from me,” Vera said.
“Aren’t they dangerous?”
“Exactly. He claims the stun gun just turns him on. The doctor told him that if he got Tasered one more time, it could be his last,” Vera said.
I laughed. “What did he say to that?”
“He said that was okay. Said he wanted to die with a hard-on. Of course, if he actually got a hard-on, I’d likely be the one to die of shock.”
“You women finished talking about my privates yet?” Roscoe said. He turned to me. “I’m Roscoe Little, but don’t let the name fool you, ‘cause I ain’t.”
“I’m getting the Taser,” Vera said.
“No need for that. I’ll behave myself, since it appears that our author doesn’t want to use her feminine wiles to get her book published,” Roscoe said. I nodded.
“Okay,” Vera said, and then turning to me, “Let me know if he gets fresh.”
“All right, little lady, let’s see what you got,” Roscoe said. I gave him the evil eye and looked toward Vera, but he held up his hands, “The book, the book.”
I handed over the copy of the handwritten manuscript to Roscoe; he thumbed through it.
“You write this?”
“Me and my friends on Kitt Peak,” I said.
“How’d you come to bring this to me?” he said.
“I was in town trying to find out why some of the university literary journals had rejected it. I was over at Cal State North Beach and I saw your flyer.”
“The literary journals won’t publish something that’s been handwritten. They’d lose their funding,” he said.
“How many literary journals would you say there are today?”
“A lot, maybe a couple of thousand,” I said.
“And how do you suppose those couple thousand literary journals support themselves?” he said.
“Well, most of them are sponsored by universities, some scholarly societies.”
“You’re a university teacher? Yes?” he said. I nodded. “How’s your budget been last few years?”
“In the crapper, ever since the Middle East War. I don’t even have health benefits any more.”
“So where do you suppose these broke universities are getting the money to fund all the literary journals nobody reads?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“The creative writing software companies, that’s where. If they’re going to get people to buy their software, they’ve got to have an outlet for all the drivel they produce. So the software companies make grants to universities to pay a faculty advisor for the literary journal, usually creative writing teachers who are already using their software and endorse it for their students. The teachers get half their salary paid, time off from classes, invitations to conferences and dinners featuring the company’s software. And all they got to do is be sure that what gets published in their literary journal was produced by the company’s software, usually with a software reference in the acknowledgements.”
“So, if one of these faculty advisors were to publish a set of really good stories written by hand?” I said.
“Then the software company might withdraw its stipend and find another journal to support,” Roscoe said.
Now all the rejections made sense, but the harassment by the University of Scottsdale was still a mystery. “I’ve had these guys in black Hummers following me, sent by the University of Scottsdale. What’s that all about?”
“The University of Scottsdale is owned by the same conglomerate that owns StoryExecutor. The University of Scottsdale requires its creative writing students all across the country to use StoryExecutor—without disclosing that its parent owns the software rights. Now, if some cute little community college prof got a bunch of her students to write some really good stories by hand, and the word got out to new writers that writing by hand was better than using some corporate software—and let’s face it, new writers are like a school of minnows, they’ll chase anything that shines—why, it’d put a real dent in software sales. I’m surprised they’re not trying to sue you,” Roscoe said.
“They are,” I said, and proceeded to tell Roscoe the story of the surreptitious plagiarism program at the University of Scottsdale Tucson branch and my exposé in the Tucson Weekly more than a year ago.
“These stories must be pretty good if they are willing to go to those lengths to stop you. Can I keep these?” he said, lifting up the handwritten manuscript, “and we can meet tomorrow afternoon to talk about publishing them. I can distribute copies to about 1,000 alternative booksellers around the country and overseas. Let’s see, in your area, Tucson, it’s a…,” he fingered through a Rolodex, “Antigone Books. You could do a reading, maybe a book tour.” Roscoe said. “You know, it couldn’t hurt your chances of getting published if you slept with the publisher before he reads this,” he said, pointing to the manuscript.
“I don’t see how you are going to be able to read the manuscript if you’re out cold because Vera shocked you with the Taser,” I said.
I signed a publishing contract with Gutenberg’s Bastard Son to print 2,000 copies of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam to be distributed to the national consortium of alternative booksellers. And I didn’t have to compromise my virtue. Six months later the contract was first on the agenda the Writers’ Commune monthly business meeting.
◊ ◊ ◊
“I just received the second quarterly statement from Gutenberg’s Bastard Son on the sales of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam,” I said. “Everybody remembers that the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out the first month. Well, the second printing sold out in a month as well. Roscoe says that he will print another 2,000 copies this quarter and see what happens.”
“Amy, I know we’re selling copies of the book, but no one I know seems to be able to get one. My mother has been looking for a copy in Green Bough Books in Charlotte for months,” Ronda said.
“My brother in Seattle says the same thing. Every time he goes in the bookstore, they claim they just sold out,” George said.
“My father managed to get a copy on order in San Antonio, but when he went back to buy a copy to give as a gift to my sister, they were sold out and waiting for a new shipment,” Ruth said.
“I’ve heard the same thing from my friends,” I said. “When I go to TCC to renew my leave papers, I’ll stop by Antigone Books to see if I can figure out what is going on.”
I put on a large, loose fitting dress, a floppy hat, dark sunglasses, and borrowed Clarice’s methane-powered Jeep to avoid the black Hummers. After submitting my paperwork at TCC for another year’s unpaid leave, I went to 4th Avenue and Antigone Books. Gutenberg’s Bastard Son had just shipped a dozen copies of Handwritten Stories from Ioligam; the copies would be on the shelves.
I had a good time sipping coffee and browsing through all of the new books I’d missed while in exile on Kitt Peak. Ten of the twelve copies of Handwritten Stories were on the shelves; the other two were on the reserve shelf behind the counter. I sat where I could monitor the new fiction shelf. Zane Goodman entered the store. He picked up all ten copies of Handwritten Stories from the new fiction shelf and then went to the checkout desk.
“I’m here to pick up a book for Federico Quiñones, Handwritten Stories from Ioligam,” he said.
“Yes, I have it here,” the clerk said. “Are you Federico Quiñones?”
“No, I’m his teacher. I am picking up copies for the rest of the class. They are hard to come by,” Goodman said.
“Yes, they sell out quickly. It seems like a lot of classes use this book. It’s surprising, because printed books are so much more expensive than e-books,” the clerk said.
“I tell my students that buying a first edition of a good book is an excellent long term investment. Just too bad we couldn’t get signed copies,” Goodman said.
“Okay, that’s 11 books at $69.95 each, $769.45, plus 16% national sales tax, is $892.56,” the clerk said. “How will you pay for that?”
“Credit card.” Goodman handed the clerk a credit card with the logo of the University of Scottsdale.
Goodman took the large bag of books and threw it in the back of his car and left going north toward the University of Scottsdale Tucson campus. I followed in the Jeep. Goodman passed the main entrance off Stone Loop and went north to the service entrance, pulling up to the loading dock of the main library. He got the bag of books and went toward the recycling bins. I parked the Jeep and followed him on foot. Goodman passed the recycling bins for newsprint, office paper-white, office paper-mixed, glossy magazines and unbound journals, and stopped at the books and bound journals bin, where he dropped the 11 copies of Handwritten Stories into the recycling dumpster. When he turned around, he was facing me; my hat and glasses were off.
“Maybe you would like me to sign those before you recycle them? It will make them more valuable,” I said.
“Thanks anyway,” Goodman said. “They’ll be put to their best use as insulation.”
“It’s going to make an interesting story in the Tucson Weekly, how you are spending the University of Scottsdale’s money to get revenge against me for exposing your plagiarism program,” I said.
“You think I am doing this to get even with you. I just picked up the books today because the department assistant who usually does this is out sick; she didn’t get picked in the flu shot lottery this year,” Goodman said.
“So it’s the University of Scottsdale who’s destroying our book, not you?” I said.
“Now you’ve got it. Once you got the book published by that randy maniac in LA, there was no point in harassing you anymore. Have you noticed any black Hummers lately?” Goodman said.
“Well, no,” I said. “I thought it just got too expensive for them to keep bothering me.”
“That too. But that crappy little publisher of yours can’t put out more than 8,000 copies of your book a year,” Goodman said. “It’s cheaper to buy and destroy them than it is to sue you, especially given your skill avoiding process servers.”
“So, you buy and destroy all the copies of our book shipped to Antigone?” I said.
“No idiot. The University of Scottsdale is everywhere, well, in every major city that has alternative bookstores selling your crap,” Goodman said. “We get a student to go to the local bookstore and order your drivel; when it comes in, an assistant from the liberal arts college goes down to the bookstore and buys all the available copies. However, we insisted they be disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.”
“Insisted to whom?”
“To StoryExecutor, of course. They’re a sister company; we bill them for the service,” Goodman said.
“What, you never read the Wall Street Journal up there in the ethereal heights of Kitt Peak?” I put on my best stupid face. “StoryExecutor and the University of Scottsdale are both owned by SGH.” I gave him another dumb look. “Slime-Garner-Haliburton, which took over Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire when he died. Haven’t you wondered why your book never gets reviewed by any major newspapers?—not that it wouldn’t get trashed. Because it is not in SGH’s interest for the world outside that of the hippy-dippy left-wing freakos to know about your book. Weak-minded prospective writers might start thinking that they could do better writing by hand rather than using SGH software.” Goodman smirked. “And on any campus of the University of Scottsdale you get the added benefit of my assistive program.”
“You’re telling me it makes business sense to destroy our book to keep up the sales of your software?” I said.
“We did the research. Our focus group trials showed that 3.65 out of 10 prospective purchasers of a StoryExecutor program would decide against buying our software after reading your piece of crap. Do the math; StoryExecutor cost $350, your book $69.95. Every time we buy three of your books, we save about $100 in sales revenue,” Goodman said.
“This is going to make a great story in the Tucson Weekly,” I said.
“Yeah, and it will have the same effect as the last time, a little local ripple, and that’s it. You’ll never be able to get this story in the national media, print or electronic, because SGH either controls that media or can make it worth their while to let the story pass.” Goodman stepped around me, returned to his car and left.
The debate in the Writers’ Commune about how to respond to the University of Scottsdale lasted for weeks and ended without consensus. Some felt that the plan proposed by Clarice and me to exploit the University of Scottsdale’s attempts to suppress Handwritten Stories and use the proceeds to fund a fellowship program for young writers who would follow the handwriting principles of the Commune was unethical, comparable to using Nazi medical research. But there were no other practical alternatives. Suing the University of Scottsdale, which meant suing StoryExecutor and SGH, would result in decades of litigation the Commune couldn’t afford. Besides, since the 8,000 books being destroyed every year were paid for, there was no economic loss, no basis for a suit.
So, Gutenberg’s Bastard Son maximized print runs 10,000 copies per year. The Commune made $8.39 in royalties on each copy sold, which it used to resurrect Peg Folder’s defunct Tucson Writers’ Workshop, closed down when the human enrollment in creative writing at TCC ended. Following the Workshop, the Writers’ Commune sponsored a four-week fellowship for fifteen handwriters and one workshop leader selected from hundreds of applications distributed through alternative bookstores and submitted by prospective writers interested in alternatives to artificially intelligent literary creativity.
After the Tucson Writers’ Workshop wrapped up Sunday afternoon, the first class of writing fellows stopped at the grounds of the former Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for a brief orientation. At 7 pm I asked the fellows to step out on the southwest veranda. It was still hot, at least 97 degrees, and the sun was hanging directly over Kitt Peak. The Commune’s resident astronomer assured me of a spectacular sunset.
Waiting for the sunset, I told the fellows, “In about fifteen minutes we’ll be leaving for Kitt Peak, or Ioligam as the Tohono O’odham called their second most sacred mountain and from which they watched the stars. For more than half a century, Kitt Peak was the place scientists searched as far as humans can see to understand our universe. Now with this first class of handwriting fellows, Ioligam is being rededicated to understand as deeply as writers can the human heart.”
The sun sank down directly behind Kitt Peak, and a large red eye opened from the top of the mountain, projecting the rays of the setting sun back to the Desert Museum. Like the Native Americans and astronomers inhabiting Kitt Peak before us who marvelled at the beauty of the distant nebulae and galaxies, the red beacon provoked an almost mystical experience. The sacred mountain was calling the fellows, their faces bathed in the bright red glow, showing them the path to the secrets of evoking beauty and pain and joy and despair in those who would one day read their handwritten stories from Ioligam.
The red eye closed as the sun set behind the mountain. The bus pulled up to the loading area on the north side of the patio, and the writing fellows began their passage to Ioligam, the red glow still warm in their eyes.
Andrew Hogan received his doctorate in development studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before retirement, he was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where he taught medical ethics, health policy and the social organization of medicine in the College of Human Medicine.
Dr. Hogan published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. He has published fifty-seven works of fiction in the Sandscript, OASIS Journal (1st Prize, Fiction 2014), The Legendary, Widespread Fear of Monkeys, Hobo Pancakes, Twisted Dreams, Long Story Short, The Lorelei Signal, Silver Blade, Thick Jam, Copperfield Review, Fabula Argentea, The Blue Guitar Magazine, Shalla Magazine, Defenestration, Mobius, Grim Corps, Coming Around Again Anthology, Former People, Thrice, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Black Market Lit, Paragraph Line, Subtopian Magazine, Pine+Basil, Festival Writer: Unpublishable, Fiction on the Web, Children, Churches and Daddies, Midnight Circus, Stockholm Review of Literature, Lowestoft Chronicle, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Spank the Carp, Beechwood Review, Pear Drop, Marathon Review, Cyclamens and Swords, Short Break Fiction, Flash: International Short-Short Story Magazine, Slippery Elm Online, Story of the Month Club, Birds Piled Loosely, Zero Flash, Canyon Voices, Alebrijes.