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September/October 2012
 
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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Call Me Ishmael: Choose LIKE/DISLIKE

"In a society in which checking the crowd's opinion becomes the norm, Professor Katz said, taking risks or relying on one's instincts may be devalued. 'Those who want to strike out in new directions and challenge the sentiments of a crowd, like artists and writers, have an additional burden with this technology because they can know that no one takes comfort in their vision,' he said. 'There goes the Great American Novel.'"
—Jan Hoffman, "Speak Up? Raise Your Hand? That May No Longer Be Necessary," The New York Times, March 31, 2012

 
FOR THE past month I had been advertising my new project on every social media platform where I was a member: Snarl, FizzyOgg, KnowMe, ChainGang, ImpulseCircus, EgoBourse, SquareCircle, ioYouth, Flotbot, WanderYeah!, Remora, WigglePuppy, TeamYou, HermitMob, Cloudseeder, Panopticon, Twaddle, Chunga, Pashabolo, Yup, Ranked, Tarpkat, Linus's Blanket, DreamScream, Snollygoster.…

The announcement was simple, tagged with my universal online ID and a link, and read the same in each forum:

 

STARTING MY NOVEL ON AUGUST 12TH, 2019
CLICKBACK WELCOME
CLIMB ONBOARD!

 

The reception to my proclamation had been heartening. So far, over twelve thousand individuals had clicked the various types of approval or endorsement buttons indicating a positive response to, and interest in, my project. And I had attracted only three dozen trolls, all of whom were digitally shouted down or moderator-hammered pretty fast. I attributed the large supportive response to my ceaseless years of arduous networking, the essential course for any aspiring writer.

For the past several years, there had been weeks, it seemed, when I seldom put down my smartphone, or looked up from its holographic screen, so busy was I interacting with my vast online social set of friendly strangers around the globe, tagging, liking, commenting, posting, reposting, emoticonning, rec'ing, vlogging. I couldn't tell you on those days what the weather was, what I had eaten, or whether I was wearing clean clothes or dirty rags—or no clothes at all. I often had to allow half an hour for my legs to regain sensation when I finally forced myself to get up to go to the john, and I worried incessantly about fatal blod clots. Yes, it was true: sometimes I felt as if my whole life was passing me by unlived.

But then I reminded myself of what all the sacrifice was for. My dream of becoming a writer. I had wanted to write fiction for a career ever since I was a book-besotted adolescent, reading turn-of-the-century classics like Christopher Paolini's Eragon and R. A. Salvatore's Promise of the Witch King. (My tastes, admittedly, had matured and deepened since then, but I still revered those early gateway books.) And this social-networking process was the only way that I knew of achieving that lofty goal.

And so now, finally, at age twenty-eight, after years of college and grad school and workshops, with my MFA firmly in hand and my personal crowdsourcing infrastructure solidly in place, I was ready to begin!

The countdown to August 12 seemed both infinite and instant, but finally the big day was here!

I chose a comfy chair and my favorite tablet for the ease of its virtual keyboard and its largish screen, and logged on to the shared GaggleSpace wordprocessing document where I would begin to compose.

A small window showed me the statistic that eight thousand people were logged into the same space. I could have had all their names if I wanted. Not a bad turnout from the initial 12K who had expressed interest.

Taking a deep breath, I began to type the title of my novel, which was to be a classic John Grisham-style legal thriller set in the U.K.

 

THE FELICITOUS SOLICITOR

 

Even before I had finished typing that final "R," the words on the screen were mutating and changing. It was like watching the spinning barrels in an antique mechanical slot machine whir and flash. Vowels and consonants and syllables passed in rapid, bewildering succession as my crowd of supporters sought to register their myriad reactions to my tiny initial offering. Finally, all the AI-mediated voting was tabulated and locked down, and my new title showed firm on the screen:

 

HIGH-STAKES POKER
AT THE BOTTOM
OF THE MARIANAS TRENCH

 

That massive shift took me slightly aback. This was much more dramatic than what I was used to in a classroom writing session, where you faced the input of only a handful of fellow students, friends, and peers who were leery of interfering too heavily with your work, lest you do the same to theirs. But I bucked myself up with the poetic advice of my favorite writing instructor, Dr. Fleagle: "A modern writer must be like a volitionless, selfless feather in the winds, allowing each breeze to waft him or her willy-nilly to new consensual vistas."

Time to recalibrate.

I had been planning to make my protagonist a mild clerk named Kershaw Wishcup, who would become embroiled in an international conspiracy against his own inclinations. But my new title seemed to demand a bold and adventuresome type from the outset. So on the spot I coined the name "Santiago Dos Maltas." I decided to plunge my hero directly into his adventure.

 

Climbing into the advanced, high-tech submersible of his own invention resting on the deck of the U.N. vessel Sensible Sanctions, Santiago Dos Maltas experienced no fear, but only a transient worry about whether he would find his latest lover, the beautiful Polish fashion model, Malgorzata, still faithful to him upon his return.

 

Well, that sentence was what my brain composed and conveyed to my fingers to type. But what eventually settled down on the screen after dizzying gyrations was this:

 

Sammy TwoGuns, Native-American Olympian and former astronaut, felt the suckers of the kraken ripping into his naked flesh. He vented an ancient Navajo war cry that emerged underwater as explosive, peyote-scented burbles, before pulling the taser-machete from his belt and plunging it into the foul creature's enormous eye, triggering 50,000 volts of pure pain.

 

Sighing deeply, I picked up from where my new opening sentence left me.

But soon, the ecstasy of crowd-sourced composition overtook me. Like a dancer hotstepping it under a hail of bullets aimed at his feet, I capered and jigged, responding to each new morphing direction of plot and characterization, each shift in tone and theme, like the expert writer I longed to become. My novel mutated and exfoliated in a thousand unforeseen directions, but I was the guiding genius behind the entire collaboration, fueling my social media buddies with my own transient imaginings. Even when a global change was implemented, ret-conning half of what had already been deemed stable, I did not flag nor falter.

That first day of intense writing saw the successful completion of an entire chapter of some five thousand words. The subsequent month of stringent work brought the whole book to closure. And then, once I typed THE END (which instantly morphed to THE END?), I queried my collaborators:

 

BUY A COPY OF THE NOVEL: YES OR NO?

 

In the space of a few seconds, I sold some 8500 books for ninety-nine cents apiece. Not a bad paycheck for a month's work, tempered only by the knowledge that I'd never see another dime from the project. The spontaneous coalition of people who had worked on my novel with me—the only people in the world who could possibly be interested in such a random collage of a text—was already splintering and moving on to the next such project. Sure, I'd wistfully post my book on all the literary retail outlets with the millions of others like it. But chances were almost zero that anyone would ever see fit to sample or buy it. Audience and creators were one and the same.

But such a fate had been the writer's lot since time began.

Or so I had always been told.

 

AGREED: YES OR NO?

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