A Human-AI Collaborative Sci-fi Story: The Eye of Thuban

This is a follow up to GPT-3: An AI that’s eerily good at writing almost anything. Though GPT-3 still makes frequent mistakes, it turns out to be an amazing tool when coupled with a human editor. Even if this technology stopped improving today (hint: it won’t) I can see an entire new field of people collaboratively writing stories with AI.

I decided to try to feel out the limitations with-writing longer fiction. Here’s the process I followed. I gave the OpenAI playground the following prompt:

This novel is a science fiction thriller that can be thought of as a strange mix of the fantastic and whimsical worlds of Hayo Miyazaki and Ian M. Banks Culture novels. They’re set in a post singularity world where humanity and its descendants span thousands of worlds, and sentient super intelligent ships with billions of people living on them wander the galaxy.
Chapter 1.

Then I repeatedly hit submit and had it generate a few sentences of text at a time. For anything I didn’t like, I deleted the text and regenerated – usually either because the model had an inconsistency about the context (e.g. the character was on one planet, then another), or because I just thought it was kind of boring. The story below took me around four hours to write through trial and error.

The main limitation I ran into was the error message “The current token limit for the model is 2048 (approximately 1000 words). Please reduce the size of your prompt and try again.” Which meant I had to keep deleting the top of the story so it could add more text to the bottom. In practice this means that after the story reaches the maximum size previous context is always gradually being lost to the model, which is probably why the story gradually shifts from scifi to more fantasy.

GPT-3 occasionally generates lines that feel improbably good – e.g. “The night birds had been chirping incessantly as if practicing for dawn” – but after googling phrases a dozen or so times I haven’t been able to catch it directly plagiarizing anyone. A friend who read my previous post thought it was a joke and that I’d written the whole thing myself. To be clear, other than the bolded prompt at the beginning, I didn’t write a single word of this story – I only accepted or rejected what GPT-3 wrote.

That said, the work below is full of tropes, which I imagine is representative of most of the stories the model was trained on.

The Eye of Thuban
By GPT-3 and Arram Sabeti

This novel is a science fiction thriller that can be thought of as a strange mix of the fantastic and whimsical worlds of Hayo Miyazaki and Ian M. Banks Culture novels. They’re set in a post singularity world where humanity and its descendants span thousands of worlds, and sentient super intelligent ships with billions of people living on them wander the galaxy.

Chapter 1.

Vega was here for the first time, enjoying the sight of night birds roosting on the ten foot high walls that surrounded the town. The gates were wide open as were the ones at the north and south ends of the town. Vega had a perfect view of the magnolia tree full with yellow and white flowers that shimmered in the moonlight. To Vega’s left was a twinkling river that flowed steadily in and out of the town on its long journey to meet other rivers farther on.

The night birds had been chirping incessantly as if practicing for dawn. It was hard to get used to the sounds they made; unlike anything she had ever heard on her home world. She didn’t know what type of birds they were and had forgotten to ask the gatekeeper. ˮI could live here forever,ˮ she said as she looked out over the river and twinkling tree.

She held her hand to the sky and ran her fingers over the lights of the stars, she had never seen so many. Vega was named after her world, one of the more recent planets that the self-replicating and slowly expanding Settlers had found to their liking. It was a wet world, full of the sounds of water lapping on the shores of a great ocean. Vega’s family had two canoes that were made from carefully cured and sun dried wood.

The only thing Vega could think about when she was alone was becoming a star pilot. Her parents didn’t approve and told her it was only a dream. They were being realistic. Vega was thin and pale, her hair was black and tangled and she had scabbed knees and feet. There were no star ships or any places to be a star pilot on Vega. Vega did not understand why the Settlers had started settling there, other than it had become fashionable to settle new planets after a few thousand years of human colonization.

Settlers never stayed long on any world, their goal was to make it more habitable for humans and all the other creatures they found. The best part about being a Settler was seeing new things all the time. They could visit a different place every few years if they were ambitious. There was a long list of places the Settlers wanted to build more of and repair. Then there was the list of places that were dangerous for anyone to travel to.

Vega stared at the millions of lights in the sky and wondered if there were Settlers out there. How far had they gotten? Would she be one of the people who discovered the next planet? She felt the grass under her feet as she started to drift off to sleep.

Chapter 2.

Just before Vega’s alarm went off she had a dream where she was one of the Settlers and was exploring the galaxy. She had never seen a real Settler before and was curious what they were like. She had met someone who had been star piloting for nearly fifteen years. She was tall and pretty. Her long blonde hair shimmered in the starlight. Vega was with her at a small hut on a rainy night. They were sitting next to a fire trying to stay warm.

“What’s the best planet you’ve ever been to?,” Vega asked.

“I love all the places we have visited and repaired. It’s hard to pick just one.” The pilot replied.

“I hope to go star piloting some day.” Vega said.

“How old are you?” The pilot asked.

“Nearly fifteen.” Vega replied. “How old are you?”

“I am older than you can imagine.” The pilot said. “It is best that you do not know.”

Vega was sad. “I’ll see you soon?” She asked.

“Yes you will,” the pilot replied.

Chapter 3.

Vega walked along the great walls and saw that there were small openings every hundred feet or so. A young boy saw her looking at one of the openings and ran up to her.

“Hi!,” He said with a big smile on his face. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing, I’m just looking at things.” Vega replied.

“What is your name?,” The boy asked.

“I’m Vega, what’s yours?ˮ

“I’m Grady. What’s your home world?ˮ

“Vega.” She said. “What’s yours?ˮ

“Cordova, is that close to here?ˮ Grady asked.

“Why are the walls so tall?” She asked.

“They are a defense against bad people.” Grady replied. “The walls go for over five miles. The wall builders say that they’ll never fall.”

“The wall builders? Who are they?ˮ She asked.

“They are in charge of building the walls. They say that we should keep to ourselves and not be in contact with any of the other towns.” He replied.

“That doesn’t sound like a very good idea, you’d miss a lot of things.” She said.

“I suppose you’re right.” He said. “Can I show you something?”

“What is it?” Vega asked.

“I can’t say, but it’s just over this hill. If I were you I’d follow me.” He said.

“OK, I’ll go with you.” Vega replied.

Chapter 4.

As they walked to the top of the hill, Vega noticed a rectangular hatch built into the ground in the center of a clearing. “What is this?ˮ She asked.

“I can’t tell you yet, I’ll need your help though.” Grady said. He pushed a button on a small screen and the hatch opened. “After you.”

Vega walked down the steps into a dimly lit room, there were glass cases everywhere and on one side was a table with a thin beam of light shining on it. She was curious about the cases. Grady pushed another button and the door closed.

“This is the reason you wanted me here.” Vega said.

“Yes,” he replied. “Now I need your help, I need you to hold this lever down for me.”

“What’s the lever for?” She asked.

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” Grady said. “But you need to hold it down for me.”

“OK,” Vega replied. She held the lever down and slowly got up, Grady was opening some of the glass cases. “What are you doing?”

“Wait and you’ll see.” Grady replied. He moved to a case, slid out a tray and set it on the table under the beam of light. The beam slowly scanned the tray until it stopped on a clear plastic box. There was something shiny inside. “This is it.” Grady said as he opened the box.

“Is that a diamond?ˮ Vega asked. “Why does it have two holes in it?ˮ

“It’s a Diamonette, they have six holes around the edge.” Grady replied. “This one is very special though. It’s called the Eye of Thuban.”

“The Eye of what?” Vega asked.

“Thuban. It is one of the stars that the ancient people of Earth called the three wise men.” He replied.

“I thought Earth didn’t have any people on it anymore.” Vega said. “Who are the ancients?”

“I’m not sure.” Grady replied. “There were lots of people on Earth. The old people are the only ones who remember what it used to be like. They left this in our care.”

“Where did they get it?” She asked.

“The ancients found it a long time ago on Thuban. It is a very special star that takes thousands of years to make one like this. The ancients found the Eye of Thuban in a place called the galileo caverns. Then they put it here, under our protection.” Grady replied.

“How do you know about this?” She asked.

“My family has looked after it for hundreds of years. I was just born when they gave it to me.” He said.

“Are there any more like this?” She asked.

“No,” Grady said. “There was only ever one. I have to hurry, you have to hold the lever down for me.”

“What does it do?” She asked.

“You’ll see soon enough.” He replied.

The room started to shake and Vega’s vision started to blur. There was a bright light that looked like an explosion in a dark tunnel.

“Grady, Grady are you there?” Vega said. She tried to hold onto the lever but it was hard to move. The light got brighter and she had trouble seeing anything. She passed out before she heard the reply.

Chapter 5.

Vega was standing in the forest at sunset. It was quiet and peaceful with birds singing in the distance. “What am I doing here?” She said out loud.

“You are at the eye of Thuban, where our worlds come together.” A voice said from behind her.

“Who are you?” Vega asked.

“I am called Lam. I am from Thuban and I have been watching you.” He replied.

“You’re an alien!ˮ Vega said. “Does Grady know that you’re an alien?”

“Grady was chosen by his people to look after the Eye of Thuban. I wanted to speak to you instead, but I had to be careful.” He said. “I’ve seen many worlds and many people, but you have a special gift. A gift for seeing things that are not meant to be seen.”

“How do I use my gift? What can I do with it?” She asked.

“I’m sure you will learn to use it without me telling you how.” He replied. “You will travel far and see many wonders. The only thing I can give you is a hint. Be careful, there are evil forces that don’t want you to know about your gift.”

“Evil forces?ˮ She asked. “What are you talking about?”

“They will not stop looking for you.” He said. “They will want to take your gift from you. You must do your best to hide from them. Do you understand?ˮ

“Yes.” Vega replied.

“I wish that I could tell you more.” Lam said. “Goodbye for now.ˮ He disappeared.

“What was that about?ˮ Vega said. She was confused. “What gift?” She said.

Chapter 6.

Vega woke up. She was lying on the floor of the same room, with Grady bending over her. “Are you OK?ˮ He asked.

“What happened?” She asked.

“I’m not sure.” Grady said. “The room started shaking and there was a bright light. When you passed out I pushed the button to close the door and waited. When the shaking stopped I opened the door and carried you here.”

“It was so real.” Vega said. “I saw an alien.”

“What kind of alien?” He asked. “Did you talk to it?ˮ

“Yeah, he told me that I had a gift. He told me to be careful because there are evil forces after me.” She said.

“Weird.” Grady replied. “Maybe they’re looking for the Eye of Thuban.ˮ

“I don’t think that has anything to do with it.” Vega said. “Lam said it was a gift that I have, I don’t know what kind of gift though.”

“Maybe you’ll find out.” Grady said. “Do you think you can walk?ˮ

“Yeah.” Vega replied. They walked up the stairs, Grady had to carry Vega up the last flight of stairs. They went outside to the main square.

“I’m really tired.” Vega said. She yawned. “I’m going to go back to my room.”

“OK, but I’m here if you need me.” He said. “Goodnight Vega.”

“Night Grady.” Vega said as she walked away.

Chapter 7.

The next morning Vega woke up with a start. “What was that?” She asked herself. She was sweating and her heart was beating really fast. She looked at her clock, it was 9am. When she got outside it was beautiful, there were tall trees with pink flowers in them. There were people wearing colorful robes that were walking around. Vega noticed one of them, a tall man with long white hair, talking to an old woman. Vega was staring at the man when he turned around.

“Hello Vega.” He said.

“What?” She said. “How do you know my name?”

“I know a lot about you.” He replied. “I’ve been watching you for a long time.”

“Are you the evil one that Lam was talking about?” She asked.

“No, I’m not. The one who’s trying to take your gift from you is.” He replied. “I know you saw me on Thuban, and now I’m here to help you. I will tell you what the gift is, if you want me to.”

“How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” She asked.

“Do you want me to prove it to you?ˮ He asked.

“OK.” Vega replied.

He moved his hand toward Vega. “Don’t be scared, you’ll like this.” He said. He closed his eyes and moved his hand closer to her. Vega felt a tingly feeling and she could tell that he was doing something to her.

Vega could see the man, he looked exactly the same as he did a moment ago, but now she could see a faint light surrounding him. She could see what looked like tree branches coming out of his skin. “The gift is to see what others cannot.” He said. “Now, you can see us and we can see you.”

“Who are you?” Vega asked.

“My name is Chimon.” He replied. “My people have protected Thuban for a long time. We had many dealings with your people in the past, but now things have changed.”

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“There are some that wish to destroy Thuban and all the other stars. They will not stop looking for you.” He said. “They will find out that you can see the planets, they will try to take your gift from you.”

“How do you know that I can see the planets?” She asked.

“You have the eye of Thuban.” He replied. “Only the planets and their guardians can see the eye of Thuban.”

“What are the planets?” She asked.

“The three wise men.” He replied. “They are Thuban, Polaris and Vega.”

“The three what?” Vega asked.

“Thuban, Polaris and Vega.” He replied.

“What does that have to do with me?” Vega asked.

“The planets are one. The three wise men are one.” He said. “You are also part of the planets.”

“I don’t understand.” Vega said.

“Yes, you do.” Chimon said. “Ask yourself this, who are you?”

Vega thought for a moment. “I’m Vega.” She said. “I’m a regular girl.”

“You are, but you’re not.” He said. “You are the daughter of Vega. You are the eye of Thuban. You are a guardian.ˮ

“A guardian of what?” She asked.

“Of us all.” Chimon replied. “You are the eye of Thuban, you are one of us.”

“You mean I’m a star?” Vega asked. “How?ˮ

“That is a long story.” He replied. “But we do not have much time. We must prepare the way for the others, you have a great destiny that only you can fulfill.”

“What do you mean?” Vega asked.

“They will be here soon, we must prepare.” He said. “There is something more that you must know.”

“What?” Vega asked.

“There are many worlds and many people.” Chimon replied. “The planets choose their guardians from many worlds. They don’t always pick human.ˮ

Vega’s eyes got big. “But I’m human.ˮ She said.

“You are more than human.” Chimon said. “We must hurry, time is running out.”

Vega started to feel dizzy. Chimon opened his eyes and took his hand away. “You will learn the answers that you seek.” He said. He disappeared.

Vega fell to the floor in a heap. She was confused and she had a pounding headache.