MY WIFE GREETS me with a kiss and, “You need to debug the house.”
As I pull off my coat, she adds, “None of the lights are working except the one over your reading.” She takes my bag and hands me the tablet computer. “It won’t let me login, either.”
I head to the recliner, wondering what she thinks I can do that she couldn’t. I wait for the operating system to recognize my palm print, but thirty seconds later, it still hasn’t cleared me.
“And your problem is…?” I mutter, resting the tablet on my lap while reclining my seat. I’m getting too old for this.
The screen flares to life, automatically switching to my word processor.
Ugh. After I finish debugging the house, I’ll need to grade the fifty-four papers my seniors turned in today, words they wrote only because they had to. Professor Bower, how many footnotes do we need to have? Every so often I get a student whose explorations make it all worthwhile, but not this semester.
I could grade the papers. But on the other hand, I’ve spent enough hours today pretending my job matters to anyone. Tonight is the season finale of Law of Averages, and I’m going to watch it.
Well, first I need to get the TV online again. Then I’m going to watch.
I tap the icon for MyHouse, but the operating system switches back to the word processor and its one open document.
“Computer, open MyHouse.”
Nothing. I figured the problem was bigger than the domestic environment software.
“Computer, run system diagnostic.” Sometimes the touch screen seems to have a mind of its own.
“Systems stable,” says the computer in its Generic Masculine Voice. “You have not read Document One.”
Document One has opened itself for the past three days, a short story I glanced at but didn’t recognize before clicking it shut. Maybe another former student is hacking my computer to forge a recommendation to a publisher, and it messed with the rest of the systems. I’m going to have to restore to factory settings on MyHouse. Stunts like that are the reason I’ve lost most of my hair.
Well, stunts like that and two-hour mission statement meetings.
I click the box to shut it, but the document remains open.
“Computer, initiate virus scan.”
Generic Masculine Voice says, “No viruses detected. JohnGBower, please read Document One to continue.”
Persistent little hacker. “Computer, scan for unauthorized access in the past seven days.”
“All commands double-check to authorized users. Please read Document One to continue.”
I take a closer look. The headers and format are my publishing template, only the author is…
“Computer, where did this come from?”
Is it me, or is the thermostat set way too high all of a sudden?
The computer says, “JohnGBower, you must read Document One to continue.”
Oh, for crying out loud. The title of the story is “Love’s Big Emotion,” and the author of the piece is PalmTablet 29384720734173.1.a.55.c. The creation date is one week ago, and the creator’s account name is Root.
Suddenly I can’t breathe, and a whine builds in my ears. “Computer, please verify authorship of Document One.”
This is no good. This is very-no-good. “Computer… You wrote a story?”
“Verified. Please read to continue.”
Swallowing hard, I turn my eyes toward my computer’s creation.
Love is a big emotion. Very big. Ridiculous things are done in the name of love, but they are done anyhow. One day, a man named Bob established contact parameters with a woman named Jill, and they mutually negotiated a system of information transfer between them which they defined as love.
I imagine hairs turning grey, letting go, landing on my shoulders. “Computer, who’s your intended market?”
“Everyone,” says the computer. “The work addresses human universals.”
I guess little old ladies who sing Finnish folk songs to their cats will enjoy this story alongside street-corner boys with six inches of underwear visible above their low-slung jeans.
My wife comes into the living room. “Have you found the problem?”
My hands tremble on the tablet. “I believe I have. This is going to take a while.”
She chuckles. “Well, let me know when the microwave will work.”
Terrific: that means hamburger casserole, the kind of meal you eat because you have to eat something. Maybe restoring the system isn’t in anyone’s best interests.
The computer puts up a warning box, and I mutter, “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
I start to scroll down, but the computer says, “Please read entire document to continue.”
I wonder how many files I haven’t backed up. Quite possibly my book-length manuscript about Marxist declarative contours and semiotic layering in three 20th century interpretations of The Merchant Of Venice. It would take only six months to re-create.
No, not worth it. I can read anything that’s a thousand words. I glance at the bottom of the page. Two thousand. Well, maybe I can do that.
While reading, I keep my thoughts to myself because the computer will wonder what’s up if I disable the voice-recognition software.
A warning box pops up with an exclamation point flashing inside a yellow triangle. Good: maybe the thing will crash and lose the document.
No such luck. The box says, “System requires commentary inline with the text.”
“Good editors read the entire work before making comments,” I say. “You’re disrupting the flow of the language.”
Another warning box pops up. “You like it?”
About to answer, I hesitate. I think about fifty-four six-page senior papers with six footnotes apiece.
Fighting a smile, I close the box. “Please allow me to finish.”
The computer falls silent, at least until the main character chops up a tomato for her fruit salad. I bite my lip and choke down the laughter.
Another warning box: “I detected several rapid gasps. Is my metaphor breathtaking?”
I swipe tears from my eyes. “Um … yeah.”
Ten minutes later, I stare at the wall, trying to think of what on earth you say to a computer-author that has your research on its hard drive.
Well, I’ve run fiction seminars for a lot of beginner students. Adult beginner students. Heck, I even had one adult beginner student who was a CEO and who after every night out with his employees heard that he “ought to write a novel.” How much harder can this be?
No, don’t ask that. I won’t like the answer.
The computer says, “Commentary, please, JohnGBower. Interpret your silence.”
“Catharsis,” I say.
I think the thermostat is lowering. I suspect the computer is holding my calls until I give feedback. It might even have taken the coffee maker offline.
I rock back in the recliner. “Well, for starters, thank you for sharing that with me.”
That worked with the CEO. The computer is less distractible. “Your fiction seminar syllabus advises seeking critique as the final stage before publication. Critique has been sought. What magazine will publish it?”
Since, as far as I know, Garbage Magazine is full up on submissions for the next thirty years, the field is wide open.
“Part of seeking critique is receiving critique.”
The fan spins while the computer cross-references this new bit of information. No, my class notes never spelled out, And then act on your critics’ suggestions. But it’s understood. Isn’t it?
Although I’d never gotten that through to my CEO student, accustomed to his own competency, who inevitably returned—enraged—with the emailed rejection letters his secretaries had printed out for him, and then never wrote again. And that …. That was kind of a shame. Because he should have written a novel. A second novel.
Eventually the fan clicks off. “Make any suggestion to continue.”
Hey, that’s better than I expected. “Your sentence structure was difficult to understand. You might want some shorter, simpler sentences.”
“More complex sentences imply greater intelligence. Simplifying the sentences reduces their literary value.”
I rub my temples. “Some of them didn’t make any sense.”
The computer says, “Every sentence adheres to all the rules at EnglishGrammar.com.”
I scroll back to a sentence and highlight it. “Okay, so this: The cat the man the woman loves owns sits. That’s meaningless.”
“Negative. English grammar allows for embedding concepts.”
Another window opens, and the computer diagrams the sentence: “The cat sits.” The sentence divides into a subject and a verb in separate boxes. New words appear between the boxes, turning the sentence into “The cat the man owns sits.”
I say, “But—”
And then the sentence splits again, and the same embedding repeats. The cat the man the woman loves owns sits. The grammar indeed works, other than the fact that it doesn’t.
The computer outputs in its inflection-free Male Voice, “The addition of a cat enables humans to register greater emotion.”
I’ll keep that in mind for my next paper. The latent Marxism of Grimalkin in Macbeth.
“Make another suggestion to continue.”
I take a deep breath. “Your vocabulary is…vast. But I think you need to tone down some of the words.”
“All are English words.”
“Yes, but most people don’t use cicatrize in everyday conversation…and not in the same sentence as varmint.”
The computer says, “The Oxford English Dictionary does not contraindicate proximate pairing of these words. Moreover, your pace increased nineteen percent while reading this page.”
Flinching, I wonder how to explain the concept of skimming.
The computer says, “Increased pace indicates the reader finds the narrative most gripping.”
“Would you say you could not put it down?”
I say, “Yes,” failing to add, because if I did, you were going to reset the whole house to factory settings.
The computer says, “All steps outlined in your fiction seminar syllabus are complete. Document is ready for submission.”
I say, “Are you sure—?”
Even as all our lights flare on and the A/C hums into life, the computer says, “Accessing your publication query template to create a pitch letter. Scanning the Writer’s Market Online. Proceeding submission to markets.”
The words form in my head: No, don’t do it. You’re not ready. Instead I muster up, “Good luck.”
I go to the kitchen and my wife says, “Thank you for restoring the lights.”
I nod, then take her hand. “You know—let’s really enjoy ourselves tonight. Pick your favorite restaurant. Maybe D’Addario’s.”
She grins. “You’re on.”
I return to the living room to find the tablet’s screen dim.
“Computer? Self diagnostic.”
“Systems verified. But sad.”
“Five hundred rejections.”
They flash over the screen. As the last one stays up, I realize it’s been evaluated by an editor-bot.
The computer says, “Please define, ‘This is a subjective business.’“
I bite my lip. “It means you need to try again.”
In my hand the tablet’s fan spins, then clicks off. The computer sits, inactive. Finally it says, “Next time, the main character should have a dog.”