Tuesday, 27 September 2022

The Book That Wouldn't Burn

In May 2023 I have a new book coming out!

It's called The Book That Wouldn't Burn, and it's book 1 in a trilogy (provisionally called The Library Trilogy). 

You can help me (& you) out by marking it "to read" on Goodreads.

& you can pre-order it in many places, including Barnes & Noble, US Amazon, and UK Amazon.

Pre-ordering is a great help to any author!

Books 2 & 3 are finished (bar editing) and due for release in May 2024 and May 2025.


There are no covers yet - just placeholders.


I don't like discussing what my books are about, never have done. It feels as if it lessens them. But I know many readers like to know. Hell, some readers turn to the back page and read that before starting on page 1. I mean ... those people are evil, and there should be laws against such behaviour. But yes, it takes all sorts.

If you read on you'll get a series of progressively more expansive (though still vague) descriptions of the content / themes / motivations.


The books concern a vast, ancient library. I mean big. Like REALLY big. (see how good I am with the words!)


The blurb on Goodreads says:

"A boy has lived his whole life trapped within a vast library, older than empires and larger than cities. A girl has spent hers in a tiny settlement out on the Dust where nightmares stalk and no one goes. The world has never even noticed them. That's about to change. 

Their stories spiral around each other, across worlds and time. This is a tale of truth and lies and hearts, and the blurring of one into another. A journey on which knowledge erodes certainty, and on which, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, blood will be spilled and cities burned."

It's a story that plays out across worlds and times, and involves doorways to new places. It features, unsurprisingly, a lot of books, and librarians, and some bookshops too!


A real bookshop in Porto, Portugal - they have my books in Portuguese!



It surprises me, but I’m actually more excited for the release of my 16th book than perhaps for any of its predecessors. Prediction is notoriously difficult in this business – which is why publishers need to be brave souls, prepared to gamble on their instincts and experience – but I feel THE BOOK THAT WOULDN’T BURN has the potential to reach my widest audience yet. The reaction from my editors and test readers has shown it to be a book that generates enthusiasm. And it’s that kind of excitement that can catch fire and make great things happen.

            It’s a book that’s been bubbling around inside me for a long time. My oldest memories are of libraries. When my (English) parents brought me to the UK from the US for the first time at age 1 my mother’s first job was as a librarian, and I still carry those toddlerhood impressions of wandering what seemed huge halls filled with impossibly tall book-laden shelves. I wanted to wrap up every book-thing I had in me, from library to bookshop to home-shelf and make it into a story. In the end it was clear to me that the story had to be inside a library, lost in it, trapped in it, sustained by it.

            THE BOOK THAT WOULDN’T BURN is about many things, adventure, discovery, and romance for starters, but across the trilogy it becomes obvious that it’s also a love letter to books and the places that they live. The focus is on one vast and timeless library, but the love expands to encompass smaller more personal collections, and bookshops of all shades too.

            It’s a novel wrapped around theme of books, and society, and how they interact. About access to information, the difference between information and truth, the seduction of convenient lies, and the danger of knowledge not tempered by wisdom. It’s also about the almost sacred awe a big library, church-quiet, can inspire. And about the comfortable heaping of paperbacks in a second-hand shop. Also, there’s kissing. 

An imagined bookshop, drawn for you by the AI Midjourney.





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Monday, 26 September 2022

A Gamble of Gods

Debut author Mitriel Faywood is releasing her first book in November.


Why should you care, you ask? Well, it's a great read that I've reviewed on Goodreads.

But above and beyond that, Mitriel has beta read the significant majority of my books. She's read through them chapter by chapter as I wrote them, offering immediate feedback, catching mistakes, and being enormously helpful.

In turn, I beta read this book. 

So, if you've enjoyed my work, you owe Mitriel some thanks, and what better way to repay her than by checking out her book? You can pre-order it on Amazon right now!





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Sunday, 25 September 2022

Page 1 critique - "The Girl With All The Gifts" by M.R Carey

This continues the reprisal my series of page 1 critiques - you can read about the project HERE, and there's a list of all the critiques so far too.

I'm also posting some of these on my Youtube channel (like, subscribe yadda yadda).

I turn to another of my favorite books from the past 10 years: The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R Carey.

I have reviewed the book.

First of all I'm going to cut and paste the disclaimers, and anyone prone to outrage really should read them:

It's very hard to separate one's tastes from a technical critique. There are page 1s from popular books with which I would find multiple faults. I didn't, for example, like page 1 of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (I didn't pursue the rest of the book). But that book has 150,000+ ratings on Goodreads, a great average score of 4.12 and Goodkind is a #1 NYT bestseller. His first page clearly did a great job for many people.

I'm not always right *hushed gasp*. You will likely be able to find a successful and highly respected author who will tell you the opposite to practically every bit of advice I give. Possibly not the same author in each case though.

The art of receiving criticism is to take what's useful to you and discard the rest. You need sufficient confidence in your own vision/voice such that whilst criticism may cause you to adjust course you're not about to do a U-turn for anyone. If you act on every bit of advice you'll get crit-burn, your story will be pulled in different directions by different people. It will stop being yours and turn into some Frankenstein's monster that nobody will ever want to read.

Additionally - don't get hurt or look for revenge. The person critiquing you is almost always trying to help you (it's true in some groups there will be the occasional person who is jealous/mean/misguided but that's the exception, not the rule). That person has put in effort on your behalf. If they don't like your prose it's not personal - they didn't just slap your baby.


I've flicked through some of the pages looking for one where I have something to say - something that hopefully is useful to the author and to anyone else reading the post.


I've posted the unadulterated page first then again with comments inset and at the end.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.

There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. Then, after a while, usually a month or two, a new face in the classroom – a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast.

Melanie was new herself, once, but that’s hard to remember because it was a long time ago. It was before there were any words; there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind. They fall out, and then they’re gone.

Now she’s ten years old, and she has skin like a princess in a fairy tale; skin as white as snow. So she knows that when she grows up she’ll be beautiful, with princes falling over themselves to climb her tower and rescue her.

Assuming, of course, that she has a tower.

In the meantime, she has the cell, the corridor, the classroom and the shower room.

The cell is small and square. It has a bed, a chair and a table. On the walls, which are painted grey, there are pictures; a big one of the Amazon rainforest and a smaller one of a pussycat drinking from a saucer of milk. Sometimes Sergeant and his people move the children around, so Melanie knows that some of the cells have different pictures in them. She used to have a horse in a meadow and a mountain with snow on the top, which she liked better.


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



Her name is Melanie. It means “the black girl”, from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. 

Interestingly, in the movie Melanie is actually black. 


This was back in 2016 before half the population seemed to have an aneurism if a black actor played a character described as white. Or perhaps it just wasn't a popular enough book/film to rile the base. It should be a more popular book/film since both were excellent, and the actor for Melanie did a great job.

Back to the thing in hand - shockingly, for me this isn't a great opening. As I've said before "great book" doesn't guarantee "great page one" or vice versa. 

It's good we've opened with a character and that we've got some of her thoughts. It just seems a little dull - wondering about her rather ordinary name.


She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that.

This is much more interesting. We should have opened with this, but delaying it by ~30 words is hardly disasterous. To complain about it would be churlish - so I retract the churl.

This is interesting. So many questions. Children given their names on arrival, mechanically, from a list.


There haven’t been any new children for a long time now. Melanie doesn’t know why that is. There used to be lots; every week, or every couple of weeks, voices in the night. Muttered orders, complaints, the occasional curse. A cell door slamming. 

More interest. Faintly ominous - why no new children? Cell doors? It's a prison. The text is making me speculate. That's good.


Then, after a while, usually a month or two, a new face in the classroom – a new boy or girl who hadn’t even learned to talk yet. But they got it fast.

Children who haven't learned to talk yet. But who learn fast? This is good. I have questions. I can imagine answers - feral children snared in a jungle - but am I right?


I asked some of my Discordians from my Patreon to read a possible page one of mine recently. The exercise highlighted the fact that many people don't distinguish between "being confused" and "having questions".

In a page 1, "being confused" is bad. "Having questions" is good.

Something that creates confusion is contradictory in a bad way. It can be read as bad writing. As a mistake.

-- John and Mary kept running down the twisting subterranean tunnel. "Slow down," Mary called. The blazing sunshine was rapidly overheating her and the distant mountains seemed no closer.


That's confusion. They're in a tunnel, so how can they be in the sunshine and see the mountains. It doesn't make sense.


-- John and Mary kept running down the twisting subterranean tunnel. "Faster!" Mary called. The grobbla was catching up.


That's a question. What's a grobbla? Why are they running from it?


Sure, this is just semantics. You can say, "I'm confused, what's a grobbla?"

You can say, "I have questions: how is the sun shining underground?"


But I hope you'll agree that the first one is confusion - direct contradiction in text. Whereas the second is questions, "what's chasing them?" And that one is bad and the other good.


Melanie was new herself, once, but that’s hard to remember because it was a long time ago. It was before there were any words; there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind. They fall out, and then they’re gone.

So, we're getting more about the character - always good. She was one of these non-speaking children. She's been here a long time. Interesting. What's going on? [questions - not confusion]


Now she’s ten years old, and she has skin like a princess in a fairy tale; skin as white as snow. So she knows that when she grows up she’ll be beautiful, with princes falling over themselves to climb her tower and rescue her.

So, we're back to her skin colour, but here it's more interesting - it echoes the language in Snow White and with the other fairytale imagery is telling us that despite arriving as non-verbal and being doled out a name, and there being cell doors, she has been educated and told stories.

We see her ambitions and they are touching / innocent / childish. 


Assuming, of course, that she has a tower.

Another note of caution. She's not wholly naive. 


In the meantime, she has the cell, the corridor, the classroom and the shower room.

Great, efficient, effective world building. We see how small her world is. We know for sure that it's a prison of sorts. And we see how she doesn't really see it as such.


The cell is small and square. It has a bed, a chair and a table. On the walls, which are painted grey, there are pictures; a big one of the Amazon rainforest and a smaller one of a pussycat drinking from a saucer of milk. Sometimes Sergeant and his people move the children around, so Melanie knows that some of the cells have different pictures in them. She used to have a horse in a meadow and a mountain with snow on the top, which she liked better.

More world building. We're touched by her interest in the minimal distractions/art that her captors afford her. We understand that this is a military operation, not some weird paedophile sect. We are intrigued.


To conclude - despite a very brief wobble in the first two lines, my opinion of the first page is that it's very good. Perhaps not quite up to the promise of the excellent story that follows, but it does a great job and I don't think anyone's putting the book down and walking away at this point.




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Tuesday, 20 September 2022

AI Art contest - the vote!

The images below have been selected from the contest entries (see main page for attributions) by a broad canvassing of my social media.

The entries are now listed in the order determined by the public vote.


1st - Gog - The Broken Empire (#1) -- 28%

2nd - Emperor of Thorns - The Broken Empire (#3) - 17%

3rd - Katherine - The Broken Empire (#2) - 13%

Joint 4th - Killing A Nun - Book of the Ancestor (#8) - 9%

Joint 4th - Aslaug - The Red Queen's War (#9) - 9%

6th - Jalan runs away - The Red Queen's War (#10)

7th - Jorg - The Broken Empire (#5)

       8th - Mia - Impossible Times (#7)

9th - Holy Sister - Book of the Ancestor (#6)

10th - Yaz, Book of the Ice (#4)




Sunday, 18 September 2022

Page 1 critique - "Strange The Dreamer" by Laini Taylor

This continues the reprisal my series of page 1 critiques - you can read about the project HERE, and there's a list of all the critiques so far too.

I'm also posting some of these on my Youtube channel (like, subscribe yadda yadda).

I turn to another of my favorite books from the past 10 years: Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor.

I have reviewed the book.

First of all I'm going to cut and paste the disclaimers, and anyone prone to outrage really should read them:

It's very hard to separate one's tastes from a technical critique. There are page 1s from popular books with which I would find multiple faults. I didn't, for example, like page 1 of Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule (I didn't pursue the rest of the book). But that book has 150,000+ ratings on Goodreads, a great average score of 4.12 and Goodkind is a #1 NYT bestseller. His first page clearly did a great job for many people.

I'm not always right *hushed gasp*. You will likely be able to find a successful and highly respected author who will tell you the opposite to practically every bit of advice I give. Possibly not the same author in each case though.

The art of receiving criticism is to take what's useful to you and discard the rest. You need sufficient confidence in your own vision/voice such that whilst criticism may cause you to adjust course you're not about to do a U-turn for anyone. If you act on every bit of advice you'll get crit-burn, your story will be pulled in different directions by different people. It will stop being yours and turn into some Frankenstein's monster that nobody will ever want to read.

Additionally - don't get hurt or look for revenge. The person critiquing you is almost always trying to help you (it's true in some groups there will be the occasional person who is jealous/mean/misguided but that's the exception, not the rule). That person has put in effort on your behalf. If they don't like your prose it's not personal - they didn't just slap your baby.


I've flicked through some of the pages looking for one where I have something to say - something that hopefully is useful to the author and to anyone else reading the post.


I've posted the unadulterated page first then again with comments inset and at the end.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------


MYSTERIES OF WEEP

Names may be lost or forgotten. No one knew that better than Lazlo Strange. He'd had another name first, but it had died like a song with no one left to sing it. Maybe it had been an old family name, burnished by generations of use. Maybe it had been given to him by someone who loved him. He liked to think so, but he had no idea. All he had were Lazlo and StrangeStrange because that was the surname given to all foundlings in the Kingdom of Zosma, and Lazlo after a monk's tongueless uncle.

"He had it cut out on a prison galley," Brother Argos told him when he was old enough to understand. "He was an eerie silent man, and you were an eerie silent babe, so it came to me: Lazlo. I had to name so many babies that year I went with whatever popped into my head." He added, as an afterthought, "Didn't think you'd live anyway."

That was the year Zosma sank to its knees and bled great gouts of men into a war about nothing. The war, of course, did not content itself with soldiers. Fields were burned; villages, pillaged. Bands of displaced peasants roamed the razed countryside, fighting the crows for gleanings. So many died that the tumbrils used to cart thieves to the gallows were repurposed to carry orphans to the monasteries and convents. They arrived like shipments of lambs, to hear the monks tell it, and with no more knowledge of their provenance than lambs, either. Some were old enough to know their names at least, but Lazlo was just a baby, and an ill one, no less.

"Gray as rain, you were," Brother Argos said. "Thought sure you'd die, but you ate and you slept and your color came normal in time. Never cried, never once, and that was unnatural, but we liked you for it fine. None of us became monks to be nursemaids."

To which the child Lazlo replied, with fire in his soul, "And none of us became children to be orphans."

But an orphan he was, and a Strange, and though he was prone to fantasy, he never had any delusions about that. Even as a little boy, he understood that there would be no revelations. No one was coming for him, and he would never know his own true name.

Which is perhaps why the mystery of Weep captured him so completely.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

It's worth noting, as I did for Senlin Ascends, that just because I think this is a great book, it doesn't necessarily follow that it has a great page 1, any more than it means it has a great cover(*).

(*) My copy has this cover

 ... it's OK. 

.


MYSTERIES OF WEEP


What do we think of chapter titles? Me, I'm not a big fan, but not opposed to them either. This one is fine.

Names may be lost or forgotten. No one knew that better than Lazlo Strange. He'd had another name first, but it had died like a song with no one left to sing it.

As a first line ... pretty neutral, but as a first 3 lines (all short) it's good. We immediately have a character to focus on. This isn't disembodied chat, we're not staring at the mountains or describing the weather. There's a person, and he has an interesting name. The most important thing is that we immediately know we're in the hands of an author who wields words with skill. His name had died like a song with no one left to sing it. That's non-standard use of the language - that's a line reaching toward poetry. This is a writer who understands the power of writing on the small scale and has declared her intention to do just that for us. 

Maybe someone would call that purple or flowery. They'd be wrong (in as far as anyone can be in a subjective judgement) this is on point, a direct hit on my taste centre. Purple or over-flowery language certainly can be used by someone attempting this sort of impact. Often people who try this fail painfully and the result is a cringe to read - though again, tastes vary and there will be readers who eat up the purplist of purple. Anyway - onwards!

Maybe it had been an old family name, burnished by generations of use.

Immediately we're hit by another fine line. A name burnished by generations of use. It's a small thing, but applying the familiar concept of burnished by use to something intangible, like a name, rather than an object, is just a nice linguistic step. Taylor is brave enough to colour outside the lines, and skilled enough to make it look good.

Maybe it had been given to him by someone who loved him. He liked to think so, but he had no idea. All he had were Lazlo and StrangeStrange because that was the surname given to all foundlings in the Kingdom of Zosma, and Lazlo after a monk's tongueless uncle. "He had it cut out on a prison galley," Brother Argos told him when he was old enough to understand. "He was an eerie silent man, and you were an eerie silent babe, so it came to me: Lazlo. I had to name so many babies that year I went with whatever popped into my head." He added, as an afterthought, "Didn't think you'd live anyway."

A question has been posed, and we're speculating on it. We have a tiny bit of general world building (Zosma) and a nice bit of that pin-point detail that I'm always encouraging you to use. Will the fact that the monk's uncle was tongueless ever be important, or even mentioned again? (Spoiler: No & I don't think so.) But the fact that we get this interesting, useless, very specific detail makes it all seem more real, less generic, it grounds us and adds colour.

That was the year Zosma sank to its knees and bled great gouts of men into a war about nothing. 

That, right there, is an excellent line. Now you know that you're in for a verbal treat. I might have tweaked it slightly and opened with that, but here is fine too.

The war, of course, did not content itself with soldiers. Fields were burned; villages, pillaged. Bands of displaced peasants roamed the razed countryside, fighting the crows for gleanings. So many died that the tumbrils used to cart thieves to the gallows were repurposed to carry orphans to the monasteries and convents. They arrived like shipments of lambs, to hear the monks tell it, and with no more knowledge of their provenance than lambs, either. Some were old enough to know their names at least, but Lazlo was just a baby, and an ill one, no less.

Worldbuilding wrapped around great imagery. And all of it directly pertinent to the character, our focus, our question.

"Gray as rain, you were," Brother Argos said. "Thought sure you'd die, but you ate and you slept and your color came normal in time. Never cried, never once, and that was unnatural, but we liked you for it fine. None of us became monks to be nursemaids."

I say that description should illuminate the observer as well as the object. Here Lazlo is the object, and in having him described by the monk we're learning about the monk's character too. He seems to be a no-nonsense, practical man, his compassion delivered sparingly.

To which the child Lazlo replied, with fire in his soul, "And none of us became children to be orphans."

Lazlo's first words inject character into him. That's good.

But an orphan he was, and a Strange, and though he was prone to fantasy, he never had any delusions about that. Even as a little boy, he understood that there would be no revelations. No one was coming for him, and he would never know his own true name.

Which is perhaps why the mystery of Weep captured him so completely.

And by the foot of page 1 we're returned to the chapter title, the question that has hovered over all these words. So, encouraging us to turn the page we have the super-high quality of the prose, the question of Lazlo Strange's origin and destination, both seeming uncertain, and the mystery of Weep which has captured our main character and which I immediately want to know about too. It sounds intriguing in and of itself - what kind of a name is Weep?

++++

So, how was it as a first page? Very good, I thought. It's a tour de force of great prose, it brings two characters to life with minimal space, deploying some dialogue to great effect, and it presents us with both problems and questions.

The problem is, admittedly a general situational one - an orphan in a war-torn world, but still, our guy isn't safe, it sounds dangerous and precarious. And the questions are specific: what is this mystery? what's Weep? and general: who is this strange little boy that the book is named for?

There's not much room on page 1, not much time to hook a reader, but Taylor's done it as far as I'm concerned. And the promises of quality and of intrigue that she makes here are fulfilled in spades. Both this book and the one that completes the duology are brilliant, full of imagination and emotion. Read 'em!


Thursday, 15 September 2022

AI art - artists - neural networks - all sorts!

This blog post (which you can watch me talk through on youtube) rambles through a bunch of related topics and starts with a very shallow dip into neural networks and the breakthroughs in their use.

Here is an image made by MidJourney (a neural network) of a neural network:

(a self portrait?)


I honestly do not get very technical in this next section, but if you are allergic to such content, scroll down and look for the "Back to art!" heading.

***

I spent 20 or so years as a research scientist, looking into topics which all sheltered under the umbrella lay-man's term Artificial Intelligence. I did brush up against neural networks occasionally, and coded a couple, but it was not a serious involvement. I am not a neural network expert - take what I say with a pinch of salt.

A neural network is a bit like a hammer: a very useful tool for many jobs, but often not the best tool. When you have some understanding of the problem you're working on, and that understanding can be represented mathematically, then there are very often far better ways to make efficient use of that understanding than to use a neural network. And that's what I spent my time on.

However, neural networks are a powerful and very adaptable approach. One reason many scientists have sidestepped them in the past is that often they will work - but we don't know HOW they are doing what they are doing, and so we don't learn anything.

In the late 1800s scientists started to talk about the function of our brains in terms of the interconnected network of neurons.

In 1943 the first computational models of such networks were made (though with no hardware to run such algorithms on, other than paper and pencil).

In 1954 a neural network was first implemented on a computer (a very basic one).

In the 1980s interest (and computer power) surged and neural networks started to be spoken about more generally in scientific circles.

In 1992 I coded my first one.


Neural networks are very simple things. You have an input and output and at least one hidden layer. The input is a number at each node - the output is a number at each node. The numbers could be anything - they could be the pixel values of an image. You could put in one image and get out another. Or you could have just two outputs and get your image turned into two values - perhaps a yes or a no.

You can have extra "hidden" layers:
 
But when I took my first job as a scientist (for the Royal Radar And Signals Engineers), I learned that some clever mathematician had shown that every neural network with more than one hidden layer could be replaced by a network with just one hidden layer. So what was the point of all that extra work? None, was the consensus, and we worked with just a single hidden layer.

Those lines joining everything to everything else - you can imagine them as pipes, the inputs as water. The only thing that changes in the network is the width of those pipes - or more technically: the weighting on those connections.

We train the network (supervised training) by giving it inputs for which we know the desired output - we might feed in many pictures of dogs and cats and have two outputs. We want the "dog" output when there's a dog in the picture. The weights on the connections (bore of the pipes) are adjusted in an attempt to get the correct answer as often as possible.

And that's it. Then, we hope that when the network is given a new picture, of a cat or a dog, one it has never 'seen', it will give the right answer. And if we have been careful about the data we trained it with and the way in which we adjusted those weights ... it will!

Understanding the method by which it has done the job is a task that lies somewhere between difficult and impossible. Although we have a dog/cat detector, we haven't really learned anything about HOW to tell dogs from cats.

Anyway - for the next twenty years or so it felt to me (in my small corner of science) that this was the state of play. Computers got more powerful, data became easier to gather and handle, neural networks slowly got better at doing stuff. But they weren't GREAT, they didn't solve every problem.

Two (to me) unexpected things happened.

1: Layers - these days neural networks are like ogres who are like onions who have layers.

Something called DEEP LEARNING came along. That clever mathematician who said you only needed one hidden layer wasn't wrong - but another clever scientist/s pointed out that when you added in those unnecessary extra hidden layers your neural network suddenly became much easier to train.

Neural networks started to learn from data much more efficiently.


2: Scale

Scientist generally like to be subtle, efficient, and clever. The way to solve a problem is not to throw more and more resources at it. Fermat's Last Theorem was not proved by checking if it held for every possible set of numbers.

However, as computing power got better and better, someone/s noticed that if you just went and built a fuck-off huge neural network, say 1000x bigger than sensible - it didn't just do the same thing faster ... surprisingly it did whole new things, it used that space to solve problems it couldn't solve before.

This was a very surprising result. Maybe not to non-scientists, but trust me, it was unexpected.

A lot of the advances in performance in speech recognition, translation, and (probably) in the recent art AIs, is in large part a product of just making these networks BIG.

The drive to bigness is starting to move the process out of digital computers and into the analogue world of more traditional electronics. It's a brave new world out there, and don't be surprised if someone builds an electronic brain in your lifetime - not a computer but a piece of kit whose workings are obscure but whose results are remarkable.

So ... back to ART!

Recently some AI art applications have been producing remarkable results. These are neural networks that have been trained on vast databases of imagery. These images will have been primarily taken from the internet. The training will have been complicated and clever, but probably boils down to having prompts like "a dragon" "a cat in a hat" "flying dog" etc as the inputs, and having the internal weightings adjusted to make the output 'better' - a judgement that probably required a human to do an awful lot of judging.

This training is still going on, and if you use these AI's you may well be part of it. Midjourney gives 4 images for each prompt and offers the option to add detail or produce variations of any of them. When you choose to 'upscale' one of your four images, or produced variants of one of them, you are telling the AI that image number 3 was the 'best' answer. And it learns from that.

There is some controversy around this training (a lot of it understandably from artists) as the neural networks will have learned how to do what they do by using the work of artists online. Midjourney can be explicitly asked to copy the style of an artist. It also knows what famous people look like since it has learned their names and their images from the web.

Witness: I typed /imagine "Donald Trump on fire in the style of Renoir" into MidJourney and got this:


Obviously, when framed in a "training your replacement" sense, it would be pretty galling to have your art used by your competitor. I would not appreciate an AI reading all my books then churning out new ones "in the style of Mark Lawrence". 

It's a complex question. We all fear change on some level. Change doesn't care and stomps all over us. Ned Ludd inspired the Luddites, who set about breaking the weaving machines that were stealing their livelihoods. Artists were shocked by photography - it seemed to render many of their hard-won skills pointless.

Real artists learned their trade by studying the work of others, by being taught by artists.

Some might say that the training of an AI is the same thing. It's looking and learning.

But when the AI learns some part of your signature along with your style and slaps down a vague approximation next to its next creation ... how to feel? 

When I typed I typed /imagine "fat dragon wearing a hat" into Midjourney I got this:


Look more closely:


Is that an actual Japanese signature - or does Midjourney just "know" that Japanese style dragons come with a signature and this is its own unique signature?


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(update - 12/11/22 the above fat dragon wearing a hat was Version 3. Here is the same prompt for version 4:


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I asked /imagine "dragon blueprint"

And got this: 



The background writing is gibberish. Maybe the signature was too...



What I can say is that the floodgates have been opened and there's no holding this tide back. These types of application will develop rapidly, becoming more responsive, more sophisticated. Perhaps images will animate in real time, following verbal commands. Perhaps our houses will be wallpapered with screens that can show images created in real time to all manner of cues.

Who knows, we're living in the future, baby. We didn't get jet cars, we got this stuff.

(yup - more AI art I 'created' in seconds)


(and yes, there's a "signature", and if it is recognisably some artist's jet car and some artist's signature then that would adjust my attitude here - but I think (could be wrong) the AI just knows that stuff in a 'painted' style needs a signature and slaps down a pretend one)



So, is Midjourney copying?

In pursuit of this issue I gave Midjourney the prompt /imagine Hopeless Maine, "Tom Brown".

Tom is an artist friend of mine that I've known for a decade and whose work I'm a fan of. He has a VERY distinctive style, involving a dark pallet and an abundance of intruding tentacles and floating eyeballs. Check out my review of the first Hopeless, Maine graphic novel.

I was amazed (as a non artist) by how closely Midjourney mimicked Tom's style. I could wholly believe that the images produced came directly from his published work:






For the record, images 2,3 & 5 are Tom's work. Tom himself was impressed and surprised. His artist's eye could see significant technical differences, but he gave the Midjourney images A to A+ for quality, and said that he could see no signs of stealing - the images are wholly original, just using a similar colour palate and style.

I've canvased Tom for a broader reaction and will add his thoughts here soon.


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Am I going to populate my blog with AI art? Absolutely, it makes it better and more interesting. Am I paying $10 a month for Midjourney? I am!

Are artists losing out? They are not. I would never, and have never, gone out to ask an artist to produce art for my blog (except in a general sense when running art contests). It would be too expensive and too slow. So in this particular instance - who loses?

More broadly, yes, I feel bad for the upheaval artists will endure. Will we start to see covers drawn by AI? ...I'm certain of it. I'm not saying it's something I wanted to happen, but publishers always want to save money. If they can get away with stock art instead of paying an artist for something bespoke - they'll do that. If they can save the artist's fee with AI, they'll do that. Water runs downhill.

I feel bad for the artists. I'm sure there will always be a place for them, but there will be change, recalibration will be needed. If/when the AI comes for authors ... well, I think to write a book they would basically have to be intelligent, so I feel I'm safe. I'll die before they arrive. But, to be honest, I would not have said that AI art would come this far any time soon. So what do I know?



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