Short Story Peril: The Last Gothic

The first story that came to my mind for the Short Story Peril challenge was “The Last Gothic,” by Jon L. Breen. It was originally published in Asimov’s (1979) and reprinted in Laughing Space.

Why, you may ask, if the challenge is to read Gothic, mystery, and horror, have I gone and read a science fiction story? The reason is that “The Last Gothic” contains a story within a story that is something of a parody of the Gothic formula..

You see, in the year 2020, nearly all published fiction is written by computer. At the Sheldrake Publishing Company, a computer named Edwina churns out twenty Gothics per year under as many pen names. After fifteen years and three hundred formulaic books, Edwina has grown bored with the genre, and frustrated. Her editor and caretaker watches in horror as Edwina’s printer spews forth the novel “Whither Thou Ghost.”

In “Whither Thou Ghost,” a naive young governess is summoned to a foreboding castle perched on top of an ominous mountain overlooking a small village. Though she has been hired as governess for the children the lord of the castle, she soon learns that a tormented spirit within the castle has other plans for her.

I found both stories to be delightful. Although the idea of computerized fiction generation may still seem half-baked, I suspect that someday it may be a viable concept.

Consider the reason that Edwina was constructed. A shrinking readership made it more cost-effective to randomly generate literature than to hire actual writers. Consider a parallel in the real word: television producers have found that it can be more cost effective to film “reality” shows than to hire writers.

Putting the two together, it would seem that a there would be a better way to generate fiction than by creating an infinite number of virtual monkeys and waiting for one of them to bang out the next Twilight. Instead, create a finite number of virtual automata with conflicting motivations and the ability to exchange dialogue. Set the automata loose in a virtual haunted castle and wait for hilarity to ensue. If not, try again and again, possibly employing a genetic algorithm to breed funnier (or more dramatic) automata over time. Eventually, the process could evolve automata that could be used over and over again to churn out mildly interesting fare with wide appeal to the lowest common denominator. Ka-ching!

Of course, it still might be less work to just sit down with pencil and paper to think of a good idea…

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3 thoughts on “Short Story Peril: The Last Gothic”

  1. The premise of “The Last Gothic” sounds similar to Fritz Leiber’s “The Silver Eggheads” about machines that have replaced humans as the authors of the world’s literature. I’ll have to find a copy of “The Last Gothic”; I think I’d enjoy it.

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