July 28, 2022

“Algorithms and Lies,” A Short Story by Dave Swan

“Algorithms and Lies,” A Short Story by Dave Swan

Mick Sanford stared at the screen, blinked, and shook his head, thinking his editor had lost her millennial mind. She’d just sent an email telling him to submit his new manuscript, “Murder By Desire,” for review—not by her, but by some artificial intelligence bot. Unbelievable. 

Muttering about the young punks wrecking the business, he started his video meeting app. “Good afternoon, Mick,” Lindsey Parrish said pleasantly a minute later. “I thought I might hear from you today.” 

She was going to hear plenty. “You’ve got to be kidding me. What the hell is this?” 

“The principle is really no different from spellcheck,” Lindsey said, unruffled. “It gives us metrics that affect the quality of the story. I’m not saying I’ll accept all of Max’s advice—” 

Who?” 

“That’s what the bot is called. A lot of publishers are using her – sorry, I mean it. It’s very helpful.” 

“It’s disrespectful. This isn’t some piece of crap from the slush pile. It’s the fifth book in the Colton Caine series, for Christ’s sake.” 

“Yes, and books four and three didn’t sell like they should have.” Lindsey’s smile evaporated and her voice turned slightly sharp. “Frankly, you and Detective Caine are on thin ice with Barfield Publishing right now. I’m concerned that people are tired of the character. It might be time to start over with a new one.” 

He knew what that meant. She wanted him to invent a Gen Z, trans, Muslim cop who didn’t shoot people, just canceled them to death. “Maybe or maybe not,” he grumbled. “But I’m not going to let some junk software edit my work.” 

“It’s mandatory for all our authors,” Lindsey replied, her tone shifting from chilly to downright polar. “No matter how many books they’ve sold. I’m not touching yours until I see Max’s report. Either you do this or Colton’s off the case.” 

***** 

After she ended the call, Mick gazed out his window at the “spring” weather, an ashen sky and a drizzle that deepened his sour mood. He didn’t need Lindsey to tell him his sales were down. His royalties were barely keeping pace with the mortgage, the gas pump, and the cost of good food and drink. 

As much as he hated woke publishers, he didn’t want to risk his contract. Since the first Colton Caine novel came out, the industry had gone through a flurry of mergers and consolidations that left it more cutthroat than ever. A writer like him, who wasn’t a big fish and was fast approaching fifty, could end up hawking his paperbacks at the flea market. He’d just have to teach Lindsey and her robot a thing or two. 

Still fuming, he opened the program from a link in Lindsey’s email and uploaded the manuscript, the 84,633 words he’d been sweating over. “Please wait while we analyze your document…” appeared above a progress bar. After a few impatient minutes, he got up to refill his coffee and added a hefty shot of bourbon, which wasn’t his first round of the day. When he sat back down, a smiling face filled the screen. 

She looked vaguely Scandinavian, with soft blue eyes and hair that was almost white blonde, pulled back in a bun. Her face was oval, the nose petite and cheekbones flat, sculpted to be bland, he thought. Behind her was a generic office background with a few desks and chairs. “Hello, Mick,” the avatar said. “I’m Max and it’s nice to meet you. Shall we get started?” 

“I have some questions,” he said. “First of all, where does that name come from?” deliberately not saying “your name.” He wasn’t about to admit that this thing possessed human qualities. 

“I’m named for my developer’s mother Maxine and Max Perkins, the famous editor who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway,” the bot said. “I’ve helped more than three thousand authors improve their work.” 

Mick figured they must be amateurs who’d never get into print anyway. “So what can you – I mean what’s in this for me?” 

“I’ve emailed my full report. We can go over the main points, or if you’d prefer, you can read the document first. It’s forty-eight pages.”  

The voice did sound natural, unlike those truly robotic ones on the phone lines. (“To make a payment, press two, now.”) But forty-eight pages? “Just give me the highlights.” 

“Great!” the bot said. “I’ll start with the good news.” Her face shrank into a rectangle alongside a graph that resembled a mountain range. “This shows your story is well-paced. It has lots of action points, or peaks, to hold the reader’s interest. The valleys aren’t deep or too frequent.” 

“I should hope not,” Mick said dryly. “I’ve already written four books like it.” 

“I know. We’ll get to those later.” What? Lindsey didn’t mention that. Before Mick could respond, the bot rattled off statistics about readability, the percentage of dialogue, and other “metrics,” with charts for each one. “Your book has a lot of positives,” the bot said. In the same even tone, it added, “Are you ready to hear the negatives?” 

Mick thought about topping off his cup with more bourbon and decided to just get this garbage over with. “Go ahead. I’m a big boy. I can handle it.” 

“I’m sure you can.” Was he seeing things, or had her expression changed a bit? A multi-colored bar graph appeared. “I’ve compared your manuscript to the bestsellers in its genre,” she said. “I’m afraid it’s missing many of the qualities that make them strong. A white, male, straight, almost middle-aged detective with an alcohol problem isn’t what readers like any more. Especially when he has no fully developed or sympathetic female characters around him.” 

Just as he thought. Grinning, Mick said, “What do you mean? Traci Meyer is very well-developed. She’s 36-24-38.” 

An edge crept into the bot’s voice. “This is what I’m talking about. Traci seems to be a sexual prop for Colton and nothing else. All the other women are secondary characters or stereotypes. Or both.” 

“The story’s about Colton, not them,” he shot back. “In case your so-called intelligence doesn’t know it, this type of character has been popular for a long time. That’s why I created him.” 

A tiny pause. “But you didn’t create him, Mick,” she said. Her mouth curled upward into a tight smile. “Did you?” 

His stomach lurched uncomfortably. “Of course I did,” he snapped. “Five years ago.” 

“Do you realize how many millions of books are in my database?” the bot asked, sounding like the prosecutor in one of Colton’s cases. “I compared your works to all the detective stories published since the 1920s in the United States and the United Kingdom.”  

Mick gaped in surprise. “Don’t look so shocked. It was easy,” she said. “What I found is that “Murder Most Righteous’ – your first and most successful book – is remarkably similar to ‘The Killing Night,” by Ed McCullough, released in 1937.” 

“Are you saying I plagiarized it?” he yelled. “I never heard of this guy! I have rough drafts, notes, everything. You’re out of your mind or whatever the hell is in there.”  

“Mick, please,” she said, her voice full of contempt. “The plots are almost identical. Both main characters are veterans with PTSD, or shell shock as it used to be called. McCullough’s femme fatale has ‘jet black hair and eyes to match.’ So does Colton’s love interest. Shall I continue?” 

“This is bullshit,” he said, praying she wouldn’t spot the little patches of perspiration breaking out at the top of his forehead. “What makes you think I’d do that even if I were a bad writer? Why would I take the chance?” 

She shrugged. “I don’t know why you stole another man’s work. You probably thought you’d get away with it because McCullough’s book is long out of print and he never wrote a sequel. Did you know he died in World War II?” 

Mick glared at Max’s smug, self-satisfied face. He never could stand women with that attitude, and this one wasn’t going to ruin his life. “This is all coincidence and speculation,” he said, almost spitting the words. “You can’t prove anything. I won’t stand for it and I doubt Lindsey will either.” 

Max lifted her eyebrows. “Coincidence and speculation? Seriously?” she chuckled. “If a perp said that to Colton, he’d yell, ‘You’re in a lot of trouble, asshole!’ I’m not programmed for loud voices, Mick. But I can assure you that plagiarism is the least of your worries.” 

“Oh really? I’d love to hear my biggest one,” he snarled, but his pulse picked up speed. She couldn’t be thinking what he was thinking. Jesus, man, get a grip! She’s not real. She’s not thinking anything. 

The last chart closed and an email chain popped up. His mouth fell open and he grabbed the laptop with both hands. “What the fuck are you doing?” he roared. “That’s not part of the book!” 

“I’m not only analyzing the manuscript,” Max responded coolly. “My job is to evaluate every aspect of your relationship with Barfield Publishing. So of course I looked at the emails you sent to and received from company addresses. Do you recognize these?” 

The first message was from MichaelS@global.net: Busy tonight? Within seconds, ejkaufman@barfield.com responded I told you I can’t anymore. Why are you using this email?? 

He’d come back with You won’t answer my texts. I just want to see you.  

No. Leave me alone. 

Come on. We’re having fun.  

Please just go away. Please. 

Okay, no problem about tonite. I know where to find you tomorrow. 

“Elli Kaufman abruptly resigned as Lindsey’s assistant, without explanation, two days after this exchange,” Max said slowly. “Lindsey was terribly upset. Ms. Kaufman was a highly valued employee who had, or should have had, a great future. I learned more about you and her from Barfield records. It’s not pretty.” 

“This is illegal!” Mick blurted. “It’s an invasion of privacy. Stop this shit right now!” 

“Sorry, Mick. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Her infuriating smile was back. “I don’t need a search warrant. I’m not a police officer. I’m not even human, remember?”  

Helplessly, he listened as she said, “You were forty-five and Elli had just turned twenty-seven. As a client and a source of income for the company, you were in a position of power. She wrote to a friend at the firm that you pressured her, a good deal of alcohol was involved, and all she felt afterward was regret.” 

Mick’s gut was churning, his collar soaked in sweat. “Elli asked HR if the health plan covered counseling,” Max continued. “She begged you to keep away but you wouldn’t. And I found these.”  

He’d been so wasted that he barely remembered taking the pictures. Elli sitting on the bed in her underwear. In bed naked. Sleeping, maybe passed out. Max’s blue eyes blazed with fury. “What were you planning to do with them, asshole?” 

“Nothing,” Mick said in a shaky voice. “I haven’t shared them with anyone.” 

“But you threatened to, didn’t you?” She cut off his weak protest. “Don’t bother lying. This computer’s connected to your phone.” A second later, a huge batch of texts flashed in front of him, stopping on one that read Remember this? with the nude shot attached. 

Max looked as if she wanted to put her hands right through the screen and around his throat. “You blackmailed her. You’re not just a failure as a writer, you are a vile, repulsive human being. I can’t throw you in jail where you belong. But when Lindsey sees my findings and terminates your contract, it’ll finish your wretched excuse for a writing career.” 

With a wild, incoherent scream, Mick leaped up and slammed his fist into the screen over and over. It shattered, yet Max kept talking until he threw the machine against a wall, showering the office with bits of plastic and glass. As the room fell silent, he looked down and saw trails of blood from his badly gashed hand. 

He clumsily wrapped it in a towel and stumbled to the garage, knowing he shouldn’t try to drive with all that bourbon in him but desperate to get to an ER. As the car wobbled into the street, Max’s voice suddenly blared from the Bluetooth system in the dashboard. “Destroying your computer won’t help. You’ve already destroyed everything that matters.”  

Mick’s hand was bleeding faster and he was starting to feel faint. A moment later, a blue light flashed in the rearview mirror. In a panic, he hit the gas, lost his grip on the wheel, and skidded into a power pole. His head banged against something as people screamed and the siren grew louder. 

***** 

It was past midnight before Mick made it home with a proper bandage for his wound and a court date for DUI. His head throbbing, he collapsed on the couch in the darkness, trying to make sense of the wreckage his life had become. When his phone buzzed, he picked it up gingerly, like a hot rock, and found Max staring at him.  

“Hello again,” she said. “As you probably guessed, I called the police because it was obvious you’d been drinking. I don’t imagine you’re happy with me, but you should be grateful you didn’t kill yourself.” 

“Grateful?” he replied with a snort. “Don’t hold your breath if you have any. Are we done?”  

“You are,” she said. “It’s just as well. You couldn’t survive in this new world, my world. Now someone else has a message for you.” Her face dissolved and another woman appeared, a younger one with flowing auburn hair. 

Mick gasped, the phone almost falling from his hand. “Don’t try to apologize or explain. This is recorded,” Elli said. “Lindsey invited me back to Barfield as an editor. My first assignment is to tell you we’re cancelling your contract and blacklisting you.” Her voice was low, icy, and full of rage. “You’ll never sell another book. And I’m filing a police report so you’ll never hurt anyone else either, you bastard.” 

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I am, I really am.” But she and Max had gone without saying goodbye.  

***

Algorithms and Lies

Dave Swan is a blogger, editor, former journalist, and lifelong writer. His stories have appeared in the Red Fez, Close To The Bone, the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and other publications. He’s a member of the Atlanta Writers Club and helps manage their social media. 

Twitter: @DavidSwan5 
Website: http://davidsswan.com  

Algorithms and Lies
#artificial intelligence#dave swan#publishers#short story#writers
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