Margaret Atwood Reviews a “Margaret Atwood” Story by AI

Plus a poem that a chatbot took ten seconds to write

A photo of Margaret Atwood at The Guardian Hay Festival in 2006 speaking in front of a large projection of her face.
Jeff Morgan / Alamy

Much handwringing is going on among writers about the impending terrors of generative AI and their potentially predatory behaviour. They’re being trained on our pirated books, say the writers, and they don’t chew their food. How can they, since they’re being force-fed every last bit of verbiage their proprietors can filch? Will they just gobble us up like great white sharks, burping out an endless stream of teeth, bones, and ersatz fictions claiming to be by us? Will they infiltrate themselves into us like the emotionless pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and eat us from the inside out, transforming us into fakes of ourselves and giving pink flowers a bad name?

Are they malevolent aliens, or are they more like human criminals? They certainly can’t be depended on to tell the truth, except maybe about things like airline schedules. But can they write convincing Harlequin Romance novels? Will the real Harlequin Romance writers be done out of their jobs?

AI chatbots cannot dress up in period costume. Or not yet. There’s that.

Will they write political speeches? That’s more than likely. Some of them are already hard at it. But will they ever be able to come up with new catchphrases, such as “I did nothing wrong” and “I alone can fix it”? Oh. Sorry. Not so new.

Take heart! Not all is gloom! So far, generative AI chatbots don’t seem able to reflect on what they’re saying, though that in itself wouldn’t differentiate them from some actual human beings. Also, they’re bad at verbal texture, and they have a poor grasp of metaphor and sometimes even of punctuation. Well, they’re learning from us, so why wouldn’t that be true?

You’re still worried, young author? You doubt my word? Here are a couple of recent literary attempts by AI chatbots that ought to reassure you.

The first is a poem, requested by one of the board members of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory—PIBO—which counts and evaluates the health of migratory species on an island in Lake Erie. The bird banders and volunteers often have to wade through knee-deep mud and contend with chiggers, mosquitoes, and biting flies. They don’t wear gloves—they need a fine and gentle touch to handle small birds—or insect repellant, as that could be toxic. Let’s just say they suffer so that you can continue to enjoy birdsong.

Here is the request made to the chatbot, followed by the result:

“Give me a poem using PIBO and the important work it does as the subject.” It took ten seconds. “And now . . . including mosquitoes, chiggers, stable flies and mud”:

Upon Pelee Island, where the migrators roam,
There exists a sanctuary, a cherished home.
PIBO stands strong, in this nature’s canvas,
Guarding avian secrets, amidst the wilderness vast.

Dawn lights up the skies, warblers sing their tune,
While mosquitoes buzz and chiggers commune.
Stable flies flutter, adding to the whirl,
In this muddy haven, life’s mysteries unfurl.

With gentle hands, they band and observe,
Each bird, each flight path, each graceful curve.
Their research, a beacon through the migration night,
Guiding safely, each feathered flight.

Tales of epic journeys, of tempests braved,
By our avian kin, by PIBO saved.
And amidst the insects’ dance and the fertile mud,
Echoes the rhythm of life’s ceaseless flood.

Through the digital window, the world looks on,
As PIBO’s mission is daily drawn.
From this mud-rich base, to lands afar,
Spread the lessons of life, each under a star.

Thus stands PIBO, on Pelee’s serene coast,
A sentinel of the skies, humanity’s boast.
Among mosquitoes, chiggers, and stable flies’ hum,
Sings the profound mission, of the noble PIBO’s drum.

You see what I mean about the punctuation? I might note as well that Pelee Island is not exactly a “wilderness vast”—see map, a thing the chatbot evidently did not do—and that the idea of chiggers communing in your armpits, though whimsical, is not observant of their social habits, which are nul. Nor do stable flies flutter, unless by happy chance you’ve smacked one of them and it’s not dead yet.

Yes, I know. You’ll say that these are minor quibbles, and your Uncle Roger writes doggerel verse like this by the yard and sends it out to you every Christmas. I point out that a chatbot replacing Uncle Roger might very well happen, but, dear published author, it is not yet very likely to replace you.

My second demonstration piece was instigated by The Walrus. Here is the ask, followed by the response:

Prompt: Can you write a dark and dystopian short story in the voice of Margaret Atwood that takes place in Canada?

The Weeping Willows of Winnipeg

Every morning, as the rose-tinted dawn slices the stillness of night, I see the Weeping Willows of Winnipeg. They stand tall yet humbled, their drooping branches laden with the invisible weight of despair. The people here, they too carry an unseen burden. Their weary faces are etched with deep lines, their eyes holding echoes of stories they’re too afraid to tell.

Winnipeg, once a thriving city, is now a desolate ghost town, crippled by the icy grip of the Northern Wastes that have extended their deadly reach. The permafrost that used to recede with the summer sun, now remains a permanent fixture, a chilling symbol of the loss we have borne.

The world changed after the Last Oil Crisis. Our dependence on fossil fuels had been our downfall. Nature, which we had exploited for centuries, took its revenge. Global warming accelerated, the Arctic ice caps melted and the Jet Stream collapsed, plunging Canada into a never-ending winter.

People adapted as best they could. We learned to survive in constant sub-zero temperatures, to huddle together for warmth, to forage for whatever we could eat. We learned to fear the silence, the vast, white stillness that swallowed the sounds of life. We learned to mourn the loss of the sun, the loss of hope.

The government, which we thought was a sturdy lighthouse guiding us through tumultuous waves, collapsed under the weight of its lies and deceit. Anarchy ensued. Gangs roamed the icy streets of Winnipeg, their eyes hollow, hearts even more so. Survival was the only law that mattered now.

I remember the days of warmth, the days of green trees, and blooming flowers. I remember the bubbling laughter of children, the bustling city streets, and the sweet scent of the bakery near our old house. Now, all that remains is the biting chill, the gnawing hunger, and the pervasive fear.

But the Weeping Willows, they keep me going. These ancient trees, they are the last vestige of the world that was. Their slender, weeping branches whisper tales of past springs and hopeful summers. They symbolize resilience, endurance. They are a beacon of hope in a world dominated by despair.

In their quiet lament, I hear a promise. A promise that nature will endure, that it will bounce back, reclaim its rightful place. Every morning, as I watch the dawn illuminate their snow-laden branches, I see a spark of life, a glimpse of the world that once was, and could be again.

The Weeping Willows of Winnipeg stand tall, not in defiance, but in acceptance of the harsh reality, and yet with a quiet assurance of a spring that may return. We must weather this winter of our discontent, like the willows, bending but never breaking. After all, hope is a stubborn thing; it survives even in the darkest of times, it thrives in the coldest of hearts.

When you return from the bathroom, having recovered from your bout of faux norovirus, give yourself a pat on the back. You, dear author, would never write anything so gawd-awful, and neither—unless my brain leaves for another planet—would I. Of course, some of you will make waggish jokes, such as “Sounds like Margaret Atwood to me,” and yes, maybe the bot is onto something with the weary-faced Winnipeggers and their secret stories of terror, no doubt concerning Pierre Poilievre.

But apart from that, gimme a break! If it’s a desolate, perma-frosted ghost town, why haven’t those folks just, you know, moved? And it got cold, but the sun is no longer shining? Really?

As for the weird title, the bot was evidently fed my alliterative children’s stories, such as Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut. It mixes modes, and cannot seem to distinguish between kid’s lit and the grown-up stuff. Ask it to write a children’s story by Anaïs Nin and see what you get.

So sleep well tonight, dear authors. Your vocation is safe from the pod people. At least for now.

The fee for this article has been donated to PIBO, in honour of the partying chiggers and the fluttering stable flies that plague the bird banders. It will buy them some coffee. Since they get up at 5 a.m. to wade through the mud, they always need it.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. She won the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize for her writing and political activism.