MotherJones MJ93: Hacking in the valley of the dolls

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Just This Once is a new novel about sex, drugs, and power, with an odd author’s credit. Instead of “By Scott French” it reads: “As told to Scott French.” French is a Northern California writer, computer buff, and fan of Jacqueline Susann, whose Valley of the Dolls is the best- selling American novel of all time. Using his Macintosh IIcx computer and an artificial-intelligence program, French claims to have created a novel such as Susann would have written were she still alive. Just This Once is “the first novel,” he says, “ever written by a computer.”

Over several years, French analyzed the components that created Susann’s specific style. He then supplied the computer with a basic plot, scenes, and characters. “I wrote several thousand rules to describe my characters,” says French, “and then as the plot developed the computer told me what Ms. Susann would likely have written under the circumstances were the story hers.”

There have been grumblings from the inheritors of Susann’s estate, who apparently want part of the proceeds from Just This Once, but French and his publisher Steven Schragis are confident that they are on solid legal ground. “My book,” French insists, “does not duplicate Susann’s writing. It is simply and magically reminiscent of America’s most popular novelist.”

French’s Mac is still humming. When asked about his next project, he grins and says, “I really enjoy Tom Clancy’s work.”

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