ROBOT E Howard
Summary: I forced an AI to read Robert E Howard stories, and then write its own.
A few weeks ago, those of you who follow @StoryHackMag on twitter have seen a few posts about me using an AI text-generation tool to generate some fiction based on the works of Robert E Howard. Sometimes the AI spits out bizarre nonsense, but sometimes it creates some amusing stuff, like the following poem-
— KATHULOS OF EGYPT
“And whither the stars turn,
Stumbling drunkenly on shores,
As the sea draws near,
Death lies dead.”
Because I’ve used a heap of now public domain works by REH to train the AI, I’ve nicknamed my copy “ROBOT E Howard.”
Samples of ROBOT E Howard’s writing
I have actually trained 4 “voices” for Robot E Howard.
- “Conan,” using all of the public domain Conan stories.
- “Steve,” using all of the public domain boxing stories about Sailor Steve Costigan.
- “Weird,” using a bunch of the public domain horror and weird stories of various chracters, including Conrad and Kirowan, Steve Harrison, etc.
- “Award Bait,” which is not based on writings from Robert E. Howard at all, but instead the 10 most recent Hugo award-winning short stories whose text is publicly available.
If you look at snippets of what is generated, they are quite often highly suggestive of a larger story, unfortunatley, Robot E Howard is not much of a plotter, and the more text you generate, the more wildly it wanders.
… “As turbulent as a realm as that,” broke in Conan.
“No,” broke in Natohk. “Civilized men can and will rise only when there is unrest.”
“And they will rise. Oh, Conan, we are in the grip of some dire terror!” The king’s iron lips quivered with an ague. “Yet we are not afraid! What has become of you? Have you found yourself in the grip of some sort of nightmare? What peril have you encountered? What peril have you encountered, oh king, of all thieves and scourghers, who could have laid the earth in your teeth before your horse had a chance to pluck and rip you from the planet at last?” …
Weird / Horror
Snippet #1 This is by far the darkest sentiment bit that was generated in my trials.
“As I thought, no harm could be written on this paper,” she muttered. “I suppose the executors of the estate will kick in—or rather, what will be the living descendants of the dead men be—in a most grisly fashion—and there will be no death to them, to my family.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits as she stared at the man; her dark eyes seemed to glimmer through the dust.
“You will do as I asked?” he said awkwardly, turning pale.
“As I said, I will kick this dead man’s head off.” And she screamed, clung to him, sobbing hysterically. “It’s not me. I want your forgiveness, sob,” she faltered.
“I want you to do as I asked, sobbing. I’ll live, or I’ll kill you myself!”
“I’ll kick this dead man’s head off!”
The head was gone and the dark, claw-like hand that held it up was gone.
Snippet #2 – This one had a strong body-swap-time-travel thing going on.
NOW I look out over the ancient dreaming downs and the hills and deep forests beyond and I ponder. Somehow, that blow from that ancient accursed mallet knocked me back into another age and another life. While I was Aryara I had no cognizance of any other life. It was no dream; it was a stray bit of reality wherein I, Aryara, once lived and died, and back into which I was snatched across the voids of time and space by a chance blow. Time and times are but cogwheels, unmatched, grinding on oblivious to one another. Occasionally—oh, very rarely!—the cogs fit; the pieces of the plot snap together momentarily and give men faint glimpses beyond the veil of this everyday blindness we call reality.
I am John O’Donnel and I was Aryara. Aryara, who dreamed dreams of war-glory and hunt-glory and feast-glory and who died on a red heap of his victims in some lost age. But in what age and where?
The last I can answer for you. Mountains and rivers change their contours; the landscapes alter; but the downs least of all. I look out upon them now and I remember them, not only with John O’Donnel’s eyes, but with the eyes of Aryara. They are but little changed. Only the great forest has shrunk and dwindled and in many, many places vanished utterly. But here on these very downs Aryara lived and fought and loved and in yonder forest he died. Kirowan was wrong. The little, fierce, dark Picts were not the first men in the Isles. There were beings before them—aye, the Children of the Night. Legends—why, the Children were not unknown to us when we came into what is now the isle of Britain. We had encountered them before, ages before. Already we had our myths of them. But we found them in Britain. Nor had the Picts totally exterminated them.
Nor had the Picts, as so many believe, preceded us by many centuries. We drove them before us as we came, in that long drift from the East. I, Aryara, knew old men who had marched on that century-long trek; who had been borne in the arms of yellow- haired women over countless miles of forest and plain, and who as youths had walked in the vanguard of the invaders.
As to the age—or the nature—of the thing—I cannot say. But I, Aryara, was surely an Aryan and my people were Aryans. The Celts were before us and the Persians came later. But they were Aryans like us, light-eyed and tall and blond. We fought them, for the reason that the various drifts of Aryans have always fought each other, just as the Achaeans fought the Dorians, just as the Aryan people fought the Dorians, just as the Celts and Germans cut each other’s throats; aye, just as the Hellenes and the Persians, who were once one people and of the same drift, split in two different ways on the long trek and centuries later met and flooded Greece and Asia with blood.
Now understand, all this I know as I was Aryara, was wronged by the many centuries of my race, and now I am, Aryara, and I am John O’Donnel. The reason for my jest with the Picts and the Celts was simple; they did not want my help; they knew more about me than I cared to learn. They had seen and identified me—knew me instantly that I was O’Donnel.
Oddly enough, in the multiple snippets I generated, there wasn’t really much fighting going on.
“You may be tempted to do his bidding,” she said. “But I’ll tell you, so you won’t get no false ideas. I ain’t puttin’ my map on any of his works. I’ll tell you frankly that when I got the map from John Bain, I didn’t expect him to let it go without my knowing it was a secret.”
“But it’s a lot of work,” I said, and she scowled slightly. “I dunno what you could do if you didn’t know already. What’s more, it means you’re outa luck.”
“I’ll tell you,” she said, “because I think it might be a good idea to ask her what you’re thinkin’ about.”
“Is she afraid you’ll squeal?” I asked mildly.
She looked kind of frightened.
“Well,” I said, “all I know is that she keeps a date with Mushy Hansen, see? And he likes her.”
Somehow, a large chunk of what was generated with the “Award Bait” settings was in the second person. I guess sometime recently there was a story written that way. I don’t know, I didn’t read them as I imported. The following is from the brilliant story titled, “To your brain:”
White berry sauce and a pinch of sesame oil fill your mouth. When you get the bartender’s attention, you grin and take notice.
The three of you are stood up in a row, face to face.
“Cheer up,” DarAnne says. “Cheer up, ladies.”
You feel a little panicked, but recognize that bartender is waiting for you. A skinny black guy stands out at the Hey U.S.A. bar. It’s funny. Under this light, in this crowd, thousands of white ladies could see themselves on a winter morning.
The bartender calls last call, and you realize the bartender is waiting. You drink your beer alone, wait a reasonable amount of time, and leave.
White puffs of smoke signals flicker up, up and away beyond your far shoulder.
“So what do you really think?”
“I think I really need this job.”
It’s a pretty fun toy, even if it is not exactly like finding a lost Solomon Kane manuscript. On my podcast, you can hear a full-length story generated by ROBOT E Howard. About 3,000 words, anyway. And then I'ml labeling this experiment a huge success and be ready to move on.