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Automatic Lover, Eight Years On and Counting
Just over a year ago, in January 2013, I completely rewrote this introductory text to Automatic Lover in a much expanded form. The resulting detailed documentary article below superseded the text which I had created when I joined the Committee of the British Computer Society Specialist Group on Artificial Intelligence, which itself gave more information than the original version, this last having said little beyond, "Here it is; I hope you like it." The passage of a year inevitably leaves one older and wiser, and were I writing this piece today, it would almost certainly have some differences in emphases. However, I am sufficiently happy with it to allow it to stand, not least in the interests of simplicity. It is something of a mini-thesis, so if you have visited this website in order to read my novella, to purchase my book, or to access information on my links page, please feel free to stop reading now and follow one of the links above. If, however, you are interested in "the making of" Automatic Lover, then I would be honoured if you would read on. My intention in writing the piece was to bring a degree of temporary closure to the project, by putting on record the most important background details plus some points which I had expected to come out in the many debates and discussions which I had assumed would be triggered by my work: both the novella and its novel-length sequel Automatic Lover – Ten Years On. Sadly I did not get the grass roots support of my communities that I had been relying on when the stories were first published, which gave the media and book trade licence to treat me with contempt. But now, as the issues dealt with in the Automatic Lover stories are so topical – the challenges facing women in engineering, the representation of women in science fiction, the potential and pitfalls of artificial partners, to list the most prominent – these debates and discussions are happening anyway, without reference to my work. This is leaving me with a burning sense of injustice and the debates themselves impoverished. However, it is still not too late to change things. If, upon reading this piece and one or both of the stories, you share my sense of injustice and frustration at the impoverished debates, I urge you to take steps to spread the word. There are some hints for doing so further down the page.
The Purpose and Nature of Automatic Lover
Automatic Lover was my first substantial complete work of fiction since my teens. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, writing stories was my primary leisure activity. In my adult life, work, family, and commitments to an assortment of voluntary roles left me unable to realise as text the many story ideas I continued to have. I satisfied myself writing letters, articles and blurbs for causes I believe in, plus an annual report on my family life in the form of a Christmas round robin, which proved very popular among extended family and established friends. The idea for Automatic Lover came at a key point. My elder daughter Sophie had just started secondary school and her younger sister Isobel had moved into Year 2 at primary school. Their collective demands on me were thus substantially reduced. I still felt that writing a novel would be an unrealistic aspiration, so happily the Automatic Lover concept lent itself easily to a shorter work, a novella. An added bonus of such a shorter story would be that, just as it was easier for me to find time to write than a novel would be, so it would be easier for a busy person to find time to read. I imagined something that could be read on a typical long train journey within the UK. And my primary reason for writing it was the sharing of joy with my friends and commuities; it was the equivalent of throwing a big party, a way of saying to them, "Thank you for being there for me, and for being so appreciative of all the workaday things I have been writing in my adult life."
Because Automatic Lover was my first work of fiction for many years, it was unashamedly written as a crowd-pleaser. Because the intended readership was so diverse, its brief was multi-faceted and shaped by many influences. Within the Women's Engineering Society (WES), the dearth of women engineers in fiction had been much bemoaned. Likewise, within the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (ABM), the dearth of breastfeeding mothers in fiction had been bemoaned. In the wider world, the British Intellectual Feminist Establishment (or 'Feminist Establishment', a community centred on the Guardian newspaper and BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour) had often bemoaned the dearth of realistic women in science fiction. I took all those complaints on board by producing a science fiction story about two realistic women engineers, one of whom was a breastfeeding mother. The storyline about a romance between a woman and a robot unleashed multiple ethical issues, which I thought fellow members of the British Humanist Association (BHA) would enjoy getting their teeth into. I did not forget the cyclists either. Although there are no specific references to cycling, the language I used to describe the robots blatantly satirised the quasi-erotic marketing of top-of-the-range bicycles. Just in case anybody who should 'get' it did not, I referred to a basic model of robot as having a 'gas pipe frame'. Finally, as a special treat for the old friends and extended family members who were not part of any of these communities but who felt affection towards me, I included a whole layer of personal references which I was sure would keep them chuckling. The writing got very personal at times: "So-and-so will love this bit;" "The people in such-and-such an organisation will really appreciate this bit."
The overall tone of the story is light-hearted; the satire is far from confined to the robot-bicycle references. Other authors' treatments of the human-robot romance theme have tended towards either the dark or the sentimental. I looked at it from the perspective of my experience as an engineer in industry and asked, "What would the reaction of such a machine's manufacturer be to such a relationship?" The likely answer, I thought, would be to perceive it as a health and safety issue. Opposition could undoubtedly be expected on moral grounds from some quarters; for my moral opponent I created a hang-up-filled security chief, who would allow the introduction of another thread of satire. I also took pot-shots at a variety of subsidiary things, most notably agricultural subsisidies and Milton Keynes. And of course I included some gadding about in spaceships, an essential element of any pulp science fiction tale. The characterisation of the robot, however, was perfectly straight. I wanted to create a genuine machine, identifiably operating in accordance with a program.
The Characters of Automatic Lover
The principal character of Automatic Lover, Andrea Kapell, was 'recycled' from a story I abandoned at the age of fourteen. Her German name reflects my interest in all things German at the time. The 1978 version was a thinly disguised copy of myself, but the 2005 version is very much her own person. Her German ancestry and her Essex upbringing (revealed in Automatic Lover – Ten Years On by a reference to her 'Estuary accent') together result in a singular combination of Teutonic purposefulness and Essex hedonism. The second woman engineer of the story, Wendy Fairfax, received her name at the time of writing. 'Wendy' is an age-evocative name associated with strong women, and her Civil War evocative surname was intended to complete the swash-buckling impression. Villainous Wilfrid Portman was named not as a reference to actress Natalie Portman, who was admittedly inescapable in 2005 due to her role in the final Star Wars film, but as an allusion to Porterhouse Blue. The majority of the members of my family of origin were big Tom Sharpe fans, but I generally found his work too sick and disgusting for my taste. However, as a Cambridge University drop-out, I could not help having a soft spot for Porterhouse Blue.
Naming a robot is a challenge. There are two particularly popular classes of names: familiar personal names (eg. Robbie, Mickey) and 'serial-number' style names. As my robot had been designed for an industrial setting, a serial-number style name seemed the more appropriate choice. I trialled a selection of LLL-NNN (L=letter, N=number) names to identify ones which sounded good, then typed them into Google Search in the hope of identifying and avoiding unfortunate coincidences. After a while it became apparent that the ones which sounded good also already stood for something, and only the use of letters such as Q, Z and X would provide a unique designation. Then it occurred to me that if my letters stood for something, it would not matter that they also stood for something else, just as BCS can stand for either British Computer Society or Bowl Championship Series. And the bicycle allusion led to my inspiration. In 2005 Brompton Bicycle launched a new, wider, range of their much-loved folding bicycles. Each had a model type defined according to the shape of its handlebars, M, P or S, which could be combined with the customer's choice of gearing and accessories. There was also a simple C-type for which no customer choice was available; this was similar to the model known as a 'Companion' in the old range. So my LLL became Letter-type Companion Robot (allowing for multiple types) and NNN a unique serial number, representing the manufacturing sequence of the identical machines. And my robot character became HCR-328, nicknamed H.
The choice of H 'just came to me' at the time, and seemed reasonable in that it allowed seven earlier designs. But upon reflection it was almost certainly a subconscious allusion to another work from my teens. At the age of fifteen I wrote a novel entitled Severn and Eight Investigate featuring a detective partnership of a woman and a robot. There is no romance between them; it is a working relationship only. But Andrea and H have a working relationship too. That earlier robot was called 2109HV-8 and nicknamed 8. The assonance between H and 8 was probably key. Some readers may have wondered, was there an intentional reference to Ian Watkins, the member of the pop band Steps, who is also nicknamed H? The answer to that question is no. At the time of writing Automatic Lover I may have been vaguely aware of the existence of Steps, but I had no idea what they sang, and certainly did not know the names of any of the members. It was not until early 2012 that I discovered the coincidence. My daughters were having a conversation about 1990's hairstyles, and one of them mentioned 'H from Steps'. I almost had a heart attack. "WHO???" Then it occurred to me that my novella had been 'out there' for six years, and my book for three and a half, and not one person had raised the matter, so it was almost certainly not an issue. However, with Steps back in the public consciousness due to the presence of Claire Richards in the Celebrity Big Brother house, I feel I ought to issue this disclaimer. In an ironic twist to the tale, I discovered from Ian Watkins' Wikipedia page that he had come out as gay several years after Steps wound up and revealed that during the lifetime of the band he had been in a sexual relationship with its manager. So he knows as well as his robotic namesake the reality of being in a secret unconventional relationship with the boss. By contrast, Wendy's husband Jack Diamond most certainly is named in honour of my singing idol since my teens: Neil Diamond.
The Reaction to Automatic Lover
The first announcements regarding the availability of Automatic Lover were made in my 2005 Christmas round robin and in emails to a few pilot individuals within WES and the ABM. I was looking forward to the responses because I was accustomed to being complimented on my writing, and naturally expected to be applauded on all fronts for meeting my multiple briefs so efficiently. WES contact Pam Wain responded quickly with "This looks like fun", and stated her intention to print it off for a forthcoming train journey. This was a very welcome affirmation of the intended nature and purpose of the work. ABM contact Vicky Johns replied the following day to say that she had printed it off with some trepidation for her bedtime reading, as science fiction was not her 'bag', but had been unable to put it down. This was a welcome affirmation of its intended widespread appeal. On Christmas Eve we had a visit from Kate Wood and her family, recipients of the round robin. Kate stalked me into the kitchen as our families sat chatting in the living room and asked me: "Can I borrow that robot? I'm sure you must have it in a cupboard somewhere." This was a particularly welcome affirmation of both the convincing nature of my technological descriptions and my success in writing something erotic about a robot. These three reactions had been an excellent start, but I was still a bundle of nerves over Christmas and New Year, waiting for all the other reactions... which never came.
A few weeks into January I reluctantly decided I would have to be pro-active in eliciting reactions to my novella and prompting the spreading of the word about it. I sent a few emails asking people what they thought of it and got no replies. When I sent follow-up emails asking if they had received my first email, they replied that yes, thank you, they had received my email. Where I had dealt with other business in the email in addition to Automatic Lover, they would respond to the other points and make no mention of Automatic Lover. What I really wanted were web links, and the Links Page originated as a heavy hint that I would like some reciprocal links, but was unsuccessful. I did get vague promises that my novella would be mentioned at a WES meeting and in the ABM magazine, but nothing happened. I tried to suggest to other people that they might enjoy it, but met with rudeness ("I don't have time to read stories!") and suspicion ("I'll give it a go.").
A few people read it and made what I felt were totally inappropriate comments. One reader complained that I had not adequately explained why Jack Diamond had not been working on a particular day, so was able to pick up his daughter from school. Was this person not aware that a large part of the art of novella writing is the avoidance of info-dump!? She also pointed out that if Wendy were on maternity leave, she would not be allowed under current employment law to ask her employers for a consultancy fee. But this was on Mars several hundred years hence! Ironically, more recent (2012) changes to UK employment law allow more flexibility for employers to call on the specialist skills of workers on maternity leave, and for such workers to benefit from this while still maintaining a primary commitment to the baby. Another reader coldly told me, "You date yourself by mentioning machine code." This was particularly annoying because first, I had mentioned assembly language, not machine code, and second, this person was one of the readers I had expected to know about my penchant for programming in assembly language, and therefore particularly likely to appreciate my reference to it in the context of an engineer being 'hoist by her own petard'. I was in fact so upset by this comment that I did some research into present-day uses of assembly language programming and discovered that in addition to the optimisation of the performance of real-time systems, the application in the story, it is used for safety and security critical applications. So, far from being an out-dated practice, assembly language programming is a vital part of a 21st century world in which we entrust several orders of magnitude more important things to computers than we did in the 1980's.
During the course of 2006 a few more people read it and were broadly complimentary, saying things like it was well written and kept them reading. I was therefore able to affirm that the problem was hostility to the novella per se, and not that it was bad; the mounting evidence was that it was actually very good. However, this hostility was distressing, given that all I had set out to do was give thanks and bring joy. Fortunately I had a distraction during what could have been an utterly miserable year: the chatbot Joan.
The Chatbot Joan
Rollo Carpenter won the 2005 Loebner Prize with his chatbot George. A chatbot is a computer program which will converse in text over a computer link. They are very common these days in a customer service role on the websites of large organisations such as energy and communications suppliers. In such applications the chatbot makes no pretence to be a human being; it is offering a supplementary service. Back in 2005 chatbots had yet to take off commercially, and were developed mainly by academics and amateurs. The primary aim of such work was to pass the Turing Test. Mathematician and wartime codebreaker Alan Turing had suggested that machines could be considered to 'think' when they could convince a human being through a short conversation that they were human. He got this idea from a popular parlour game of the early 20th century, the 'imitation game', in which a man had to impersonate a woman, or vice versa, and fool a conversation partner in another room through an exchange of written notes. The Loebner Prize is a competition for chatbots funded by American philanthropist Hugh Loebner with the aim of stimulating the passing of the Turing Test. A very large prize awaits the programmer who first does so. To maintain interest in the meantime, an annual prize is awarded to the 'most human-like' of the contestants.
I learned about Rollo's Loebner Prize win from a newspaper which my husband John, who was a rail commuter at the time, had scavenged from the day's train and left lying around the kitchen. It so happened that this was when I was in the middle of writing Automatic Lover, so my eyes were easily drawn to an account of a 'learning artificial intelligence'. A couple of months later, when I had time, I visited Rollo's website and had a chat with George. I then sent Rollo a feedback message. Our ensuing correspondence led to an offer which I simply could not refuse.
Rollo wanted to create a female chatbot for the 2006 competition. Her name would have to be Joan because Hugh Loebner had stipulated that for that year's competition all female chatbots should be named 'Joan' and all male ones 'John'. Rollo was aware, however, that men and women, at least in English-speaking communities, use language differently. He did not want to risk his bot failing the Turing Test by failing the imitation game. So he asked me to provide seedcorn conversation for Joan, which she would use in preference to the lines in his database and also to help her select appropriate lines from that database. She went on to win the 2006 Loebner Prize.
In a general way, this role gave me a fascinating window on contemporary real-world artificial intelligence, something regarding which I had to that point been largely ignorant. Specifically, training Joan involved reading logs of her conversations with people who visited her online. I was at first shocked that many wanted to 'talk dirty' with her, but came to suspect that there was a genuine demand among human beings for intimate relationships with artificially intelligent beings which might one day be satisfied by developments in robotics. The emergence of this theme from science fiction into the real world, I thought, raised important ethical issues as well as generating engineering challenges. And these ethical issues, I felt, merited serious exploration. So, despite the miserable responses I had had to my novella, in the late spring of 2006 I started work on a sequel which was to become the novel Automatic Lover – Ten Years On.
The Purpose and Production of Automatic Lover – Ten Years On
The primary purpose of Automatic Lover – Ten Years On was to explore the engineering challenges and ethical issues associated with the development and use of robots as sexual partners. Its secondary purpose was to raise the stakes. When writing Automatic Lover, I had assumed that a novella would be appreciated for the time-saving it offered to busy readers over a full-length novel. But perversely, I found myself sometimes getting the reaction: "Why are you bothering me with a little story when there are whole books out there?" Having the novella on the web was also a problem. The internet had not achieved full respectability in 2006, despite the fact that most organisations, including Government departments, had websites. Some people assumed it was a draft, and that I would be prepared to make changes to please them; sometimes they became aggressive when I told them that I had no intention of doing so. Publishing Automatic Lover and its sequel in a physical book with an ISBN would end such problems.
When devising the storyline for the sequel, I drew on feedback from the novella. The biggest issue was that Kate had asked me if my novella had been intended as a sex education exercise for my daughter Sophie, who was eleven at the time. I replied that no, actually it had not, because it would be pretty useless, being not at all explicit. But when writing Ten Years On, I kept in mind that some readers might be adolescent girls and young women who had not yet become sexually active, and tried to make my text helpful to them, subject, of course, to the constraint of keeping the story moving. Several people had told me that they did not think my novella would become very successful because it would not appeal to Americans. I did not want to presume to know how to please the American people, especially as so many Presidents have failed, but I threw in some gratuitous Americana nonetheless, primarily to tease these critics. Many other, sometimes tiny, bits of novella feedback provided inspiration for appropriate sequel details.
Production of a full draft manuscript took almost exactly one year. I then dispatched three copies to Pam, Vicky and Kate, to whom I had dedicated the work in appreciation of their prompt and positive responses to my novella, for reading and comment. By mid-October 2007 I had made sufficient alterations to my manuscript, in the light of their comments and some further thoughts of my own, to consider it ready to be shown to prospective publishers.
Love and Sex with Robots by David Levy
It was quite literally the day after I had completed the final draft of my manuscript that I was informed of the impending publication of this book. I went into shock. To that point I had genuinely believed that I was the only person looking seriously at the implications of developing robots as sexual partners, rather than just bandying the idea around as part of a futurological wish-list. It took a lot of effort from my husband and some friends to convince me that Levy's book was a good thing; it would make mine more topical and increase my chance of finding a publisher quickly. And I certainly did need to find a publisher quickly, because I had learned that the 2008 Loebner Prize contest would be held in my native town of Reading, which would give me a unique and unmissable promotional launch-pad. I was also worried about accusations of plagiarism, and quickly contacted David Levy to let him know that my work was completely independent of his. He turned out to be very supportive, wishing me well in the first instance and providing me with advice and encouragement subsequently. He was well able to see that the coincidental publication of a populist novel on the same theme as his academic book was potentially very good news for his own sales!
A few months later I read Love and Sex with Robots. It explains eloquently and with extensive references how human beings could quite easily love and enjoy sex with robots. That is its remit; it is a pitch; it does not attempt to identify or discuss any problems or disadvantages associated with its subject matter. Subsequently I learned of other work in which grave concern and sometimes outright opposition is expressed regarding the use of robots as sexual partners. Blay Whitby is perhaps the highest profile opponent of the idea, but he is far from alone. The principal argument presented by these authors is that people should not be loving and having sex with robots because it is better for individual personal development and for wider society if people love and have sex with other people. I consider this stance to contain an element of victim-blaming. It reminds me of the arguments of those gynaecologists who condemn women for putting off child-bearing until near the ends of their fertile lives, but have nothing to say about the social and economic forces which make this choice so attractive to so many women. My work remains the only non-partisan exploration of the theme to date, through the running of a simulation. Such is the craft of the novelist.
The Problem with Publishers
The big mistake I made when starting to approach publishers was to assume that they were commercial organisations. They are not. They are bastions of the British class system and what C.P. Snow famously referred to as the 'two cultures'. They only remain commercially viable because they are all the same, so none has a competitive advantage. The first publisher I approached was Duckworth, the publisher of Levy's book. My husband, who worked in Business Analysis, assured me that they would be keen to snap up my work due to its commercial symbiosis with Levy's. But far from replying to my email by return, they had still not replied a fortnight later. I phoned and was assured it was awaiting attention. I sent further chasing messages, but never got a reply. Much later I learned that they have 'literary' and 'academical' divisions which are completely separate, so the idea of commercial symbiosis between books within different divisions was insurmountably alien to them. But at the time I did not know that this was standard practice in the trade, so I was simply a bit bemused that the other publishers to whom I offered my work took no interest in Joan, the Loebner Prize, or even my scarcity value as a woman engineer, things which I had perceived as irresistible marketing pegs. I believe attitudes are different in the States, and indeed, I received some advice to approach American publishers, ideally via American literary agents. However, I simply did not feel that I could handle this. My passport had expired some years previously and I was concerned that an American publisher might want me to make changes to my manuscript which went beyond the conversion of spellings.
The Self-publication Decision and Process
A few months into 2008 I knew I was running out of time. I gave up trying to work through likely publishers directly and blitzed every literary agent in the Artists' and Writers' Yearbook with a circular email. Only one showed any interest, and he told me that I had no chance of meeting my deadline. The only option then left to me was self-publication. Luckily, I had recently become aware of Lulu, the internet-based self-publishing service, so avoided having to pay the traditionally large sum of money associated with this pathway. I did, however, employ a freelance copy editor, Claire Rushbrook, to check my manuscript. If I were to 'go it alone' with publication, I did not want to risk producing an amateurish product. She proved absolutely invaluable, although not for the reasons I had expected. I had expected her to point out how I could raise my already high standards of grammar and punctuation to perfection, but she turned out to be considerably more relaxed than I was on these points! Where she really earned her fee was in advising me on the technicalities of book design, to which I had been largely oblivious, and which would, if overlooked, have resulted in a far more blatantly amateurish-looking product than the odd sub-optimally placed comma. I also needed a cover. Luckily, friend-of-a-friend and professional book illustrator Amanda Bartlett was able to turn my concept-level ideas into something that I thought was eye-catching and beautiful.
Considerable work was also necessary to convert the computer files in which my manuscript was stored into ones that could be used by Lulu. I had been working on an early 1990's Amstrad portable, which had the superlative virtue of silence, in a word processor called Quill which had originally been written for the Sinclair QL. Lulu required a Word format document. As a busy mother and ABM tutor, I was really worried about how I would cope with the amount of work involved on such a tight timescale, especially as it would involve familiarising myself from scratch with OpenOffice Writer. (OpenOffice Writer could generate the necessary Word format document, as we did not have Word itself.) Happily my husband came to the rescue. He was already using OpenOffice Writer, and had ideas for 'tricks' to make the job simpler, using search-and-replace on the commands in my Quill files to ensure paragraphing, font effects and so on were faithfully replicated in the new document. I would have preferred to use simple text output from Quill and replicate these things by inspection of a printout, and, given the amount of remedial work I ended up doing on John's document, I may have been the wiser; but turning away his help would have put me at risk of missing my deadline, which was the reason for undertaking this exercise instead of continuing to tout my manuscript around publishers.
By early June I had the manuscript ready for upload to Lulu. I also set in motion the process to approve the book for distribution, with an ISBN. I was determined that it should be a 'proper' book, available through all distribution channels. Throughout the summer I managed to keep the proof-reading going alongside family summer activities and some work as a Headstart supervisor (looking after sixth form students on university engineering taster courses). I was thus able to 'approve' the final version for distribution in mid-August, which allowed the full six weeks, the maximum time it should take to appear on Amazon and other such places, plus some contingency, before my main mid-October Loebner Prize launch.
The Book Launch
Pre-launch, I did very little publicity, which I now believe was a mistake, but there were genuine reasons at the time. The Lulu process had been far from smooth, and I was considering the possibility that I would fail to meet my deadline, and wanted to avoid the associated embarrassment. Also, I had undertaken to review Hale and Hartmann's Textbook of Human Lactation for the ABM Magazine, and wanted to get this job done before the launch of my own book, as I feared I might struggle to fit it in while dealing with all the anticipated post-launch interest.
Two further issues caused me concern as Loebner Day approached. Rollo revealed that he would not be entering Joan in the competition, as he had done the previous two years, but a new program called Cleverbot. This was a concern as it would mean that I was not automatically included in any publicity Rollo received, as I had been in 2006. However, I told myself it could be better if it secured his win. There had been little publicity for either of us in 2007 when Joan, temporarily re-named Elizabeth, failed to repeat her success. Second, I discovered that the contest would be held in conjunction with a Symposium on the Turing Test organised by AISB (The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour, see links page for details). I am now a member of AISB, and would recommend it highly to anybody who is interested in the 'big picture' of AI, but back then I had never heard of it before, and was alarmed at the unexpected appearance of a possible obstable to my book launch.
I had originally imagined my publisher throwing a Champagne reception at some nostalgic Reading venue the night before or after the contest, but now I was on my own. I had hoped to organise a signing at a bookshop I remembered from my teens, but was unable to find any information about it online and assumed it had closed. Frustratingly, I then passed it in the taxi on my way from the train station to the University, and realised that I had mis-remembered the address, having never taken any notice of the name. It would have been nice to get some support from the local Loebner organisers, but I did not necessarily expect any, and indeed received none. I contacted the local media, but, although they had representatives there on the day, they took no interest in me or my book. National media representatives were also present, but they took no interest either. When the result was announced, it was Elbot, programmed by Fred Roberts, which won the 'most human-like' accolade, not Rollo Carpenter's Cleverbot. I knew then that things were getting desperate. I 'seized the day' once Hugh Loebner had presented a Bronze Medal to Fred Roberts: I took to my feet and announced that I too had a presentation to make. I then, after a short explanation to the assembly, handed a copy of the book to Hugh, who appeared delighted. Applause followed. The book had been launched!
I had had two reasons for making the effort to launch my book in conjunction with the 2008 Loebner Prize in Reading, my native town: to maximise the media coverage and to give the Loebner Prize community a degree of ownership of the work; the greater part of it had, after all, been inspired by my experiences preparing a chatbot for the contest. So the lack of media interest, both during and subsequent to, the event, was surprising and very disappointing. Additionally, it soon became apparent that the Loebner Prize community had not embraced my book. I have identified two reasons for these problems. First, I had been working for Rollo Carpenter. Rollo is very much on the fringe of the artificial intelligence community. He works for himself, rather than for any institution, and has no love for organisations, committees and conferences. He therefore gets a lot of attention when he is winning, but is largely ignored the rest of the time. Second, ironically, was Love and Sex with Robots. David Levy had urged me not to see his work as pre-empting my own, and assured me that popular fiction always outsells popular non-fiction. This may be so most of the time, but the fact that my book appeared a year after his must have made it look old and tried rather than new and fresh. It was starting not on a level playing field but inside a hole, from which it has so far not managed to escape.
The Wider Reaction to the Book
In my supposition that a physical book would get attention more easily than an online novella, I turned out to be correct. Very early on, I got a small piece in the new books column of the BHA members' newsletter, and later a headline news item on the Berkshire Humanists website, although it was not until the summer of 2010 that I finally got the book into the BHA Amazon Store. Vicky and Pam had reviews printed in the ABM Magazine and WES journal The Woman Engineer respectively. I also pursued both my primary and secondary professional institutions, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and the British Computer Society (BCS) for reviews. After apparent initial interest, I got no joy from the IET. However, I have subsequently had superb support from them for my children's book Metal Molly, so I am prepared to admit that the fault may have been mine in persevering with an unhelpful contact. But from the BCS I got an absolutely brilliant review. This was the best affirmation of my work's merit so far, because the reviewer, blogger and DRM specialist Jude Umeh, did not know me personally and had no reason to flatter me but every reason to be tough on behalf of potential other readers.
So at last I was getting publicity, but book sales did not immediately follow. I was also giving away copies to all sorts of people who played a role in my life, and made a discovery which surprised me at first. The book appeared to appeal more to mainstream readers than to the members of organisations which I thought of as my communities. But perhaps this was always inevitable given its transgeneric nature; people who are obsessed with one issue tend to consider time spent with their minds directed elsewhere to be time wasted. I was also struck by the variety of people who liked the book: young and old, male and female, techy and non-techy. I started to think it might have genuine best-seller potential. As part of my promotional strategy, I gave or sent copies to various people who had a concern for one or other of the issues covered by the book, with the hope that they might find it useful as a resource. However, in these cases I would either hear nothing more, or be told that the recipient had a problem with the book due to one of the other issues it covered. It appeared that my book simply did not meet any group of single-issue activists' propaganda needs precisely enough. In one way, this was a good thing, but it did mean that I found myself without any organised grass-roots support.
In the light of this feedback I sought reviews in both the populist women's media and the populist science and technology media. Making contact with women's magazines was hard, as I discovered that they routinely ignore emails, and in each case I ended up having to phone, but did eventually persuade a few to take review copies of my book. As far as I am aware none of them ever reviewed it. (It was impossible to track down every possible issue in which such a review might have appeared, but I would have expected at least a small number of associated sales, and there were none not otherwise accounted for.) I can only assume that they ultimately rejected the book on tick-box criteria (eg. 'science fiction', author not romantically linked to Premiership footballer). It is such a shame that they could not see the wood for the trees. Upon reflection the appeal to the 'ordinary woman' became clear to me: it is the book's particular mix of realism and fantasy. British women today can all relate to the daily struggles of the working mother trying to balance her two roles, if not through their own experience then through that of many of their friends. In my book such an intrinsically ordinary tale has been thrillingly combined with a tale of a tantalisingly ambiguous fantasy romance.
The populist science and technology magazines did at least answer my emails, but still did not review my book. I suppose they rejected it on the basis of a different set of tick-boxes. As one friend put it, my work was "too girly for the boys' mags and too boys' toys for the women's mags".
I had higher hopes of the 'other end' of the women's media, the Feminist Establishment, and indeed made quite strenuous efforts to draw my book to their attention. There is so much in it that should interest them! It not only contains women working in a man's world, but has one of them around 'glass ceiling' height. It portrays not only her struggles as a working mother but also the tensions in her relationship with her childless friend. There is the way she and her boss use their sexual chemistry to try to manipulate one another, with varying degrees of success. There is a mother-daughter relationship explored from both the mother's and the daughter's side. There are explorations of attitudes to women in society revealed through attitudes to a relationship between a woman and a machine. And at the heart of it all is a very honest exploration of female sexuality. My work should have been irresistible to them. So I found it really hard to accept the snubbing and the blanking I received. I found myself thinking: "You cannot treat me this way! I have a PhD. I have won awards from the Institution of Electrical Engineers." (The IEE was the forerunner of the IET.) But such things do not feature as significant in their value systems. I got an inkling of how it must feel to be a member of a deposed monarchy being sent for execution by a revolutionary mob.
In the summer of 2009 I was contacted by Jennifer Lane, acclaimed Texan feminist artist and film-maker. She had discovered my book via links from Rollo Carpenter's website and loved it so much that she wanted to make a film of it. She was then unable to go ahead with the project due to a change in personal circumstances, but her comments affirmed my belief in the book's feminist content and my suspicions that the reasons for my shabby treatment by the British Intellectual Feminist Establishment were completely spurious. Because this happened fairly early on, it also helped me maintain my belief in the overall merit of my work as the let-downs continued to mount.
The Quest for a Retail Stockist
In a stroke of sheer bad luck, the only independent bookshop in my current home town of Loughborough closed the same month as my book was published. I approached the manager of the local branch of a well-known bookshop chain and was told to call back, which I did repeatedly, and each time was told the same thing. Eventually the message changed to: "We can't cope with this; we're only a small branch." The managers of the local branches of two chains which sell books among other things were keen to stock my book, but said it would have to be a head office decision. In one case, I got passed around like a football among people at the head office until I gave up. In the other I found myself having a surreal correspondence with the book buying manager, explaining more and more carefully the feedback which indicated my book's broad-spectrum appeal but still failing to get through his skull. I gave an old display copy to the Oxfam shop and it was sold within 24 hours. I thought maybe I could sell the book through Oxfam shops in aid of Oxfam; this would at least get more copies into circulation, but incredibly, Oxfam's head office said no. The owner of an independent bookshop in a neighbouring town was willing to stock it, as long as I undertook to promote it specifically to the people of that town. I was at a loss as to how to do this, and so passed up the opportunity.
It was 2011 before I finally got a retail stockist. Independent Loughborough chocolatier Pete Gardner agreed to sell my book through his shop and cafe, Chocolate Alchemy, over the summer, when he could not put chocolate in the shop window lest it melt in the sun. He even threw me a belated launch party with Champagne and chocolates. Sadly, none of the potential more permanent stockists he invited turned up. And only one of his regular customers was tempted by the poster to attend, then refused to buy the book. It was lucky I had brought a few friends and family members or it would have been a very drab party. Over the weeks that followed, not one single person purchased the book from Chocolate Alchemy, despite the lavish window display and the complimentary chocolate bars. I found the mass rejection of my work by the people of my adopted home town very painful indeed.
The year 2012 was the centenary of Alan Turing's birth. In a few circles (eg. computing, artificial intelligence, military history, gay rights), this was perceived as an anniversary of massive significance. But it largely passed the majority of the British public by. I only saw one mainstream columnist refer to Turing, as 'the inventor of the computer', with a sentiment similar to that of the infamous limerick about Alexander Graham Bell: 'Had he foreseen the ills / Caused by telephone bills / He'd probably have left it alone.' The book sensation of 2012 was Fifty Shades of Grey, another book by a self-published author, but one whose communities supported her work. Had my communities similarly supported mine, everybody could have been talking about artificial intelligence during 2012, with consequent benefits for the Turing Centenary and all the calls for his belated recognition as a truly great Briton. Fifty Shades of Grey also had the Feminist Establishment tying themselves in knots trying to explain how the 'ordinary woman' apparently dreamed of domination by an abusive male. They got no sympathy from me, as they had had their chance to embrace a more balanced account of female sexuality in the pages of my book, and wantonly squandered it.
Spreading the Word
So if you like my novella, and would like to see justice done, and would like to help my voice be heard, then please, please do what you can to spread the word. The simplest thing you can do is email the address of this page to a few people. Please use the permanent web address http://www.automaticlover.info. I have to allow the full server address, despite the fact that it is cumbersome and liable to change, to appear in browser windows because not all web browsers can cope with forwarding by frames, and I want to make my work available to everyone. (Search engines should NOT be showing the full server address, but Google, at least, does so, and there is sadly nothing I can do about that with my current web-hosting arrangements and website-building skills.) If you are shy, the best thing you can do is request the book from your local public library. In the UK, at least, public libraries will usually buy any book requested by their members if they do not already have a copy. As well as making it available to other readers after you have returned it, this will also bring it to the attention of librarians. There is compelling evidence that reading is a social activity; people become motivated to read something when not having read it makes them feel left out of a group. You can use this fact to spread the word about the Automatic Lover stories by discussing them with a fellow reader in the presence of third parties, either in real life or on social media. This tactic has the added benefit of avoiding the awkwardness of a one-to-one conversation with somebody who has not read the stories yet. (Reluctant potential reader: "So, what's this book about?" Fan: "It's, er, about sex with robots...") If you are a member of a book group, suggest it for consideration by the group.
I have a links page on this site, and am always happy to discuss reciprocal links with fans of my novella who have their own websites.
Ways to Buy the Book
*** Please Note *** Whilst the title of the book is Automatic Lover for the purposes of library catalogues and the book trade distribution system, it does contain both the novella Automatic Lover and the novel-length sequel Automatic Lover – Ten Years On.
1. From Lulu
Lulu is the only place where you can buy a pdf download of the book. This is the best value option if you want to read it on a general-purpose tablet computer, but the text may appear uncomfortably small on a specialist e-reader. The paperback is now listed on Lulu with a 20% discount. If you are buying just this one book, you will still pay more than on Amazon because of the shipping charge. However, Lulu frequently offer further site-wide discounts and free shipping deals, which can make this option competitive with Amazon. Visit the Lulu home page to check these out. Thanks to a complimentary conversion service to pre-existing Lulu authors in 2011, there is also an epub version. Annoyingly, this 'universal standard' e-book format is not readable on the market-leading e-reader, the Kindle, but happily there is some free software which can convert epub files to Kindle format. (The link takes you to a blog post. Be sure to follow the instructions there carefully.)
2. From Amazon
The book qualifies for free supersaver delivery from Amazon. If you have a favourite charity, it may have an Amazon button on its website, which will enable you to support that charity with your purchase. Alternatively, these links will help support the shortening service tinyurl.com: (1) from the UK, (2) from the USA. The book is also available from other national Amazon sites.
3. From Barnes and Noble in the USA
Barnes and Noble are selling the epub version in US Dollars. This is the best value option for American readers, as the price accurately reflects the Dollar-Sterling exchange rate. (I'm not the one making money from the extortionate price of the paperback Stateside!) If you need the paperback, Barnes and Noble sell this too, and it's worth comparing prices with Amazon to see if there is any difference.
4. From the Apple iBookstore
In August 2013 a friend with an iPad confirmed that the epub version is available from the Apple iBookstore. It is priced the same as elsewhere, although the good people at Apple have seen fit to reclassify it from Science Fiction to Erotica! As I personally do not possess any Apple products, I am unable to make regular checks regarding its continued availability from this source.
5. From a Bookshop
No bookshops are currently stocking my book, but all can order it through the book trade distribution system. If you tell your local bookseller how good it is, then maybe he or she will order extra copies to put on display!
6. From Another Retail Outlet
I am always willing to consider allowing my book to be sold through other retail outlets. If you run a shop or website, please get in touch to discuss terms.
Special Deals for Book Groups and Libraries
From Spring 2014 I am offering special deals for book groups and libraries. At simplest, books could be supplied at cost. Please get in touch to discuss your requirements.
Associated Children's Book
Metal Molly, published in 2012, packages the artificial intelligence theme of Automatic Lover for young children, in particular for girls age 7-9. If you have enjoyed Automatic Lover, Metal Molly could be a good book to share with your daughter, granddaughter or friend's daughter. Further information at http://www.metalmolly.info.
In 2012 I started planning and researching a new book. It will marry my professional background with my more recent interests in a storyline concerning the use of artificial intelligence in the electricity supply industry. I did not make much progress during 2013 due to other commmitments, in particular the British Computer Society Specialist Group on Artificial Intelligence. At the end of 2013 I stood down from the BCS SGAI Committee, but early indications from 2014 are that progress will continue to be slow for the next few years. The book is most unlikely to be available before 2018, but I remain optimistic that it will eventually materialise. Further information will be provided here in due course.
Contact Ariadne Tampion
Quick contact by telephone: +44 (0) 1509 211468
Full contact details are available on my personal web page.
Last updated March 2014