Among the hundreds of people bad-mouthing my use of AI to write over 100 sci fi books (which I never claimed to be “novels,” btw) on Twitter, I did see one person raise the more interesting to me question of: would Philip K. Dick have used AI to write, had he had it available to him as we do today?
My own personal response to that, intuitively, is a resounding YES! And I think there’s ample narratological and exegetical evidence to prove it. I won’t try to go through it all, as I don’t have the sources laid all out in front of me. But a concatenated version I think might look like this:
- Philip K. Dick made extensive use of the I Ching in developing his plots.
Regarding that point, ChatGPT itself was able to come up with this:
Philip K. Dick, a prolific science fiction author, has made notable references to the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text, in his works. The most prominent of these references is found in his novel “The Man in the High Castle.” In the novel, the characters make important decisions based on their interpretations of prophetic messages from the I Ching. One of the characters, Hawthorne Abendsen, the author of a fictional novel within the story, also uses the I Ching to guide his writing1.
Philip K. Dick himself used the I Ching to craft the themes, plot, and story of “The Man in the High Castle.” In an interview, Dick mentioned that he used the I Ching as a plotting device in “The Man in the High Castle.” Each time a character asked a question of the I Ching, Dick would throw the coins and write the hexagram lines they got, which then determined the direction of the book. For example, when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abendsen that he is the target of assassins, the I Ching indicated that she should, and so she did2.
Elsewhere, I asked ChatGPT for more general info about the I Ching, which I think also highlights that as a divinatory system, perhaps one might be consider it to almost be like a chat bot which can only give one of sixty four pre-programmed responses.
The 64 hexagrams of the I Ching are symbolic representations of all possible states of change in the universe. Each hexagram is a unique combination of Yin and Yang lines, and these combinations are believed to encompass the totality of human experience and the universe’s various states. The text associated with each hexagram provides guidance and wisdom related to that particular state.
I submit here that the functionality of the I Ching, though rudimentary compared to something like ChatGPT, was an artifical external device which Dick constructed to build stories. In other words, like how many authors and artists are using AI tools, in an almost “divinatory” capacity. How far we might stretch the comparison between the I Ching and LLMs is probably beside the point. My argument is, simply: dude would have flipped his fucking shit over AI language and image generation tools.
In fact, there is at least one passage (possibly others) in one of his books, where he essentially predicts much of this technology. From a Reddit thread:
As someone rightly points out in the Reddit thread, that last line reads like a prompt someone might put into Midjourney or Stable Diffusion!
Lastly, and this one gets somewhat more mystical: it’s possible that Philip K. DIck believed that he WAS in communication with some kind of actual cosmic version of AI, which he explores in multiple novels such as VALIS & Radio Free Albemuth, and I believe extensively in his Exegesis, which I’ve never read in its entirety.
In RFA, he posits that the “AI voice” that’s communicating with him in his meta-fictional but also possibly real life world could have been a great distance away from earth:
It certainly was a loss as far as I was concerned, now that I had heard the mild voice of the AI system as it relayed information to me and accepted questions in response. Were I never to hear it again I would remember that sound the rest of my life. It was far off; whenever I queried it, there was a measurable lag before it responded. I wondered how many stars away it lay: deep in the heavens, perhaps, and perhaps serving many worlds.
Already the AI voice had saved my life once, by taking over and guiding me in the face of imminent police arrest. The only fear I had now was loss of contact.
The AI voice, I soon understood, possessed the capacity to educate and inform human beings on a sublim inal level, during times when they were relaxed in contem plation or in outright sleep. But this was not enough; on waking, the humans generally overrode these quiet promptings, which they correctly identified with the voice of conscience, and went their own way
In fact, he gets even closer to describing “latent space” in his Exegesis here:
[53:H-6] This is an info retrieval system, in which many narratives are stored together but only activated when the AI voice reads one of them aloud; but in written info form, all of them are latently there. Thus each space-time world contains all the other worlds as info (but unread).
LA Review of Books also has a quote from him where he’s back-tracking on the ontological nature of the so-called “AI voice,” something he commonly did – inventing many parallel possible sci fi explanations for things he experienced.
The AI voice [i.e., VALIS] is a special kind of hallucination: one of wish-fulfillment and need, due to loneliness: emotional starvation and grief and ill-use. I just can’t endure life without that lonely voice guiding me, so I regress…. The AI voice is my imaginary playmate, my sister, evolved out of childhood…. I was so unhappy and afraid; like R. Crumb, so behind the 8 ball, so filled with anticipatory dread.
Well, damn it — I don’t regret it. It made a barren, fearful life meaningful and bearable….
To my eyes, this is exactly what people are seeking in chatbots, to fill this overarching loneliness everyone feels, to make it all mean something in the end. Whether he got that in a cosmic chatbot or in an invented voice in his head, dude certainly was honest enough with himself to know what was up.
There’s no doubt in my mind that he would have been all over generative AI tools.