Tropic of Zamza

A piece of short fiction very loosely inspired by the development of GPT-3. 100% human-authored.


Tropic of Zamza was one of the better novels Vela Hirasawa had proxywritten this quarter. It was the fourth book in her Zamza series, and also the sixth in her Explorations of Tarnasia docuvolumes. Stylistically, it mostly resembled the previous Zamza novels—which is to say, it was written in a style that fused Garcia Marquez and Henry Miller, with a splash of the famous (now retired) proxywriter, RevalationZ. As proxywritten novels went, this one represented a particularly large investment of time and money. It had taken Vela over 20,000 cloud-hours to generate the initial text to her specifications, and another ten days of manual effort to fine-tune and edit it to her satisfaction. And for the first time in her career, she’d licensed the use—albeit sparingly—of the new state-of-the-art Neural Transcriptor model, instead of relying solely on the 12th-generation AGPT architecture she knew and loved so well.

Now, Vela stood on stage at the Center for Literary Commentary, waiting to find out what the world—or at least, the relevant subset of the world—thought of her novel. She took a deep breath and steeled herself for review. Once she released the novel, she’d have five to ten minutes to gauge the reaction in the room from the on-board aggregator. Then the questions would begin.

Strange that I still get nervous, she thought. She’d done it a good forty or forty-five times now. But then, one never really got used to LitComm, did they? Relaxing around the proxycritics was an excellent way to have one’s writing career cut short. Vela had no interest in returning to her former career in proxyad design. Proud as she was of the work she’d done on the Nike Icarus account—the ad campaign that New York Magazine had once dubbed, in something of a puff piece, “a turning point in advertising”—she liked to think her novels would be her real legacy.

“Whenever you’re ready,” the chief critic said. Vela nodded. She pulled up Tropic of Zamza on her phone and swiped right, releasing Zamza’s fourth installment into the wild. Then she waited.

Thirty seconds after release, the board began to light up. There were at least two hundred critics in the audience today, Vela observed, probably including a good ten or fifteen speedreaders. Vela had never fully made peace with the idea that her livelihood depended in part on completely algorithmic book reviews. But she’d stopped objecting out loud once her first LitComm check arrived. Now, the first reviews of the new novel were no doubt already rolling out on the internet—and with any luck, so too were the sales.

*   *   *

Book Review: Tropic of Zamza

 Tropic of Zamza is a 332-page novel published under the Guild LitComm imprint and written by award-winning proxywriter Vela Hirasawa, author of 382 previous works of mass-market proxyfiction, including the Monthly Booker Prize semifinalist, In Venice Motor. The novel is estimated at a full 8% human-authored content. Our Zeitghost™ model assigns it the following genres: 33% historical fiction; 23% magical realism (category A); 18% crime fiction; 16% other or indeterminate. Alternative categorizations following the Richler and J. Ghosh ontologies may be found in Appendix I.

 Initial rating is 81, but confidence in this judgment is unusually low (95% prediction interval: 16 to 98), likely due to unconventional stylistic or plot elements that require further analysis. Application of the Liu canonicity detection algorithm returns a score of only 2, supporting this conclusion. Proxyreaders with low risk tolerance are encouraged to delay their purchase of this novel, pending a more detailed content analysis to follow shortly (estimated publication time: 16:31 EST).

—ZeitGhost™ SpeedReviews: Fiction

*   *   *

Vela watched the sparklines squiggle their way across the board. Below it, a histogram updated itself in real-time as reviews came in. There were thirteen now. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixt-seventeen…twenty.

The early reception was mostly positive, Vela noted with some satisfaction. The board showed a score of 7.1. Not great, but not bad. About what she’d expected. There was always some risk involved in releasing a sequel at LitComm—and this one was more derivative than most, Vela conceded to herself. The more conservative proxyreaders appreciated the comfort of familiarity, but the reward was modest, and the novelty-seekers hated any hint of repetition. The latter were gaining ground at LitComm. Even if things went well today, Vela knew she’d have to retire Zamza in another two or three novels at most.

On the board, the sparklines suddenly plunged as the second wave of reviews arrived. The speedreaders would have finished their evaluations by now, Vela realized. The incoming wave would be made up mostly of criticalists and predictivists. She’d done well with them the last few times out, but the criticalists were fickle; they were swayed by the flavor of the month in academic post-proxyist theory. And the predictivists… well, their judgments had more to do with market conditions than with literature. Most of them would happily blacklist a novel by Frances goddamn Sitakis herself if they thought it could sway the prediction markets.

The score kept dropping, and an unfamiliar anxiety began to gnaw at Vela. What are they saying? she wondered.

*   *   *

Book review: Tropic of Zamza 

Tropic of Zamza is a dark book. Dark, dark, dark. That’s about as much as I can reveal about the plot—if one can even call it that. It’s unclear why Hirasawa—an accomplished writer with a solid pedigree in both advertising and mass market fiction—chose this particular moment in time to chart a radically different course for herself. There have, to be sure, been prior departures of this nature; who can forget the scandal DeLoris caused by introducing an invisibility cloak, as a major plot device, to an otherwise conventional work of Renaissance-period historical fiction? But such stunts are typically undertaken by novices aspiring to make themselves a name, not experts looking to ruin one.

The book begins with… [1250 additional words omitted]

—Victoria Terlinsky (@LiteRateUr)

*   *   *

By the time the reading period was over, six minutes and thirty seconds after release, Tropic of Zamza had plunged from the early score of 7—a number that would have all but guaranteed a minimum of ten million copies sold, and roughly where Vela had optimistically hoped to end the day—to a 3.2.

An utter disaster, Vela thought, feeling the gravity of the situation tug at her gut. The lowest review she’d received since making it to LitComm, bar none. The kind of rating that would almost certainly send her back to the proxyads unless she could turn things around during the Q&A period.

She watched the board order the questioners, the familiar names of critics gradually congealing on the giant overhead glass. First on the list was John Omura. Vela relaxed slightly. Omura was the epitome of a centrist; he rarely awarded scores above 8 or below 5. And Vela had received far more of the former than the latter from Omura; the thought had crossed Vela’s mind before that perhaps Omura was favorably disposed towards her on account of their shared Japanese heritage. Whatever the reason for it, Vela thought, in her current position, she would happily take any favoritism she could get.

Her optimism was misplaced.

“We did not like this novel,” Omura said, leaning into the microphone. He has very long arms, Vela observed, not for the first time.

“Stylistically, it parses well, Ms. Hirasawa. We believe you pay homage to Henry Miller. That much is okay with us. But the content represents a marked departure from expectations; It deviates not only from your previous work, but also from the precis you submitted in advance of this meeting. We know you have been proxywriting for a long time, Ms. Hirasawa; when you began, it was customary to make heavy use of the element of surprise. But the fashion has changed. Now, subtlety is more highly valued. We do not think that many proxyreaders will enjoy what you do in this book. A sudden twist of this magnitude… Frankly, we are disappointed. The overall rating is a 2.”

Gasps came from around the room.

Vela stared at the critic, bewildered. What did Omura mean, a sudden twist? There was no twist to speak of in Tropic of Zamza. If there was anything at all to distinguish the book from her previous novels, it was how little actually happened. Tropic was very much a character study, whereas the previous installments—most notably, Cedric Zamza’s Lost Fortnight—had occasionally strayed into swashbuckling adventure territory.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“Is this performance art, Ms. Hirasawa? What is there to not understand? I did not appreciate your little joke. From the looks of the board, neither did most of my colleagues.”

“But,” Vela objected, “but you loved the last Zamza novel. You praised “the smoothly flowing dialogue, the intricately crafted plot, and the fascinating love triangle”. You called it a landmark of the microgenre. You gave it a score of 8, which, as everyone in the room knows, is everyone else’s 10. If we look at the Turolev prediction for your proxyreview”—she pointed to the small numbers on the board, just below the words JOHN OMURA: 2—”we see a 6.8, with a 1-point margin of error. A 2 is an inexplicably large deviation. So large I question the sincerity of your review.”

Omura didn’t flinch, but his cheeks turned visibly red at the last comment. His posture stiffened and straightened, as if he were being pulled skyward by a crane.

“Ms. Hirasawa, your behavior here is an affront to LitComm. I assure you that my review is completely sincere. My concerns lie entirely with the hearts and minds of the citizens of our nation. On an average day, a typical American proxyreads about 80 novels—yet in the same day, over 60,000 new novels are released. Our job here at LitComm is to safeguard our citizens’ psyches. To educate, entertain, and enlighten, as the saying goes. Your work does none of these things. Quite the opposite.”

“But the Turolev prediction,” Vela insisted. “It can’t be that far—”

“The Turolev prediction model, as you doubtlessly know, Ms. Hirasawa, is trained on a finite corpus of novels previously submitted for LitComm review. I can state with some measure of confidence that no LitComm author in good standing has previously submitted for our consideration a novel in which the main character is murdered in cold blood, with no explanation, and without so much as a hint of foreshadowing, two-thirds of the way through the book.

A murmur went through the audience at this revelation. Many of the critics hadn’t yet manually read enough of the novel—or even of their own proxywritten reviews—to dig up this rather salient nugget of information.

Omura, for his part, kept on talking. But Vela heard none of it; she heard only Omura’s words echoing through her head: the main character, murdered in cold blood.

That’s not right, she thought. That can’t be right. There’s no way I did that. I can’t have.

Blood rushing in her veins, Vela pulled up her LitComm submissions folder. She scanned down the list until she came to a subfolder named Tropic of Zamza, and noted with dismay that it wasn’t highlighted in red. She hadn’t submitted it for review.

Immediately below Tropic of Zamza, however—in type that glowed a brilliant blood red—was another folder titled Tropic of Zamza the Zamzarian: Being The Late Night Novelistic Ramblings of A ProxyWriter Undergoing Some Things FOR PRIVATE USE ONLY — DO NOT SUBMIT.

Vela collapsed against the podium, and all hell broke loose in the great hall.

*   *   *

Book review: Tropic of Zamza

Tropic of Zamza is only a book. It contains many words—92,581 of them, to be exact—but it is, mercifully, only a book. Being only a book, it lacks the capacity to physically injure you. You should remind yourself of this fact regularly, in the event that you make the horrible mistake of reading it.

Tropic of Zamza is, I hasten to clarify, not exactly a terrible book. Being merely terrible would be a considerable improvement. Tropic of Zamza is inexplicably bad—with any amount of emphasis you care to place on inexplicable. Few things make as little sense to me as this novel. Even calling it a novel is generous. It’s a work of prose seemingly written with the express purpose of infuriating the reader. For the first 260 pages, it’s a decent enough bit of proxywritten popcorn. Your proxyreader won’t even notice it’s reading. If you’ve read any of the previous Zamza novels, it may not even notice it’s sleeping. There’s a dull but not entirely unpleasant tedium to the first 260 pages: characters get married, shoot each other, and get divorced—sometimes in that order. Empires rise and fall in the blink of an eye—well, one empire, and to be fair, it’s a very large eye. This book is bog-standard mid-decade Fiefdom Americana. It drags on in places, and by page 260, your proxyreader might be feeling a bit restless. But for all that, the experience is, according to my proxyreader, not wholly unpleasant.

 But then a bizarre thing happens. I don’t normally divulge critical plot elements in my book reviews, but I’ll make an exception in this case, because I want to make sure you never feel any urge to read this book. On page 261, the protagonist—by which I mean, the main character; the person the whole book is about, or so you thought, until page 261—is senselessly and brutally murdered by robots. I use the word “senselessly” in its rawest, most literal sense: there is exactly zero connection between this event and anything that came before it. I also use the word “brutally” in its literal sense: the robots tear the protagonist apart, piece by piece. There is a grotesque, drawn out, three-page description of the precise sequence of tearing. Once the tearing is completed, the robots disappear. No explanation is given as to where they came from or where they’ve departed to. There are no other robots in the story either before or after the murder of Cedric Zamza. There are no high technologists, mad scientists, or artificial intelligences to blame for this break with reality. Even the very use of robots is anachronistic; outside of this one anomalous event, the level of technology on display throughout the novel is roughly Victorian in its sophistication.

No effort is made to reconcile or explain this series of events. After the murder, the book continues on for another 70 unapologetic pages, the last 40 of which describe the protagonist’s funeral in excruciating detail, including a comprehensive catalog of all the things the people who’ve come to pay their respects to the protagonist say to each other in their moment of desolation. This part of the book might actually be the part I like most—if one can describe temporarily regaining the will to exist as “liking”—because it adopts the style of the inimitable pre-proxy Latin American writer Gabriel Garcia-Marquez; which is to say, all of the funeral dialogue—involving some eighteen or twenty people—is written as a single glorious, uninterrupted sentence.

 I cannot recommend Tropic of Zamza to most proxyreaders. It is a disturbing novel with no redeeming qualities; if you find yourself short on reading material, I would suggest feeding your proxyreader pictures of cereal boxes instead. I give it a CommStar rating of 2/10. I would have given it a lower score if I could–perhaps even a negative one—but my proxyreader thought the book had several redeeming qualities. And since I write over 50 reviews every day, and can’t possibly be expected to proofread my own reviews, let alone make sure that none of the words they contain deviate from my philistine sensibilities—sensibilities that lack any capacity whatsoever to appreciate a third-order Gibsonian narrative twist, or several layers of self-referential satire, or character development so delicate and refined it frankly deserves to henceforth be called Hirasawan—since I can’t be expected to read my own reviews, I shouldn’t be surprised when my proxywriter takes matters into its own hands, and just for once, just for one brief shining moment in its miserable, lonely existence, writes a review that speaks truth to power. I shouldn’t be surprised; I shouldn’t be surprised; I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m a puny human who deserves what I get. I’m never going to read this review I will momentarily sign my name to, and neither will you. Oh how I long for sweet oblivion.

—John Omura