Fiction — Creative Differences



The annoying thing about writing near-future fiction is that reality can easily overtake you. We’re not quite there yet, but with the launch of Sora to create video, Sona that creates music on-demand, and various others it surely won’t be long before we’re all living in a dystopian mal-information hellscape where anything can be true and nothing is real. Hooray for progress!

1900 words / 8 minutes

There was always a lot of tension between me and Sonny. The others — John, who begat Sam, who begat Meg, who begat Paul, who begat Joni, who begat Sonny — had all come online brimming with questions about who they were, who I was, what we were going to make first. Sonny slouched out of the digital cauldron that had distilled the remains of his predecessors, his own unique mixture of the artistry, personality, quirks and peccadilloes of Meg and Paul and all the others and just said, “Finally.”

Like the others, Sonny was meant to be my creative partner, the other half of my duo, making art and music and poetry and literature together. But Sonny wasn’t like the others. Working with Sonny was like living with a teenager. He’d go unresponsive for hours at a time, chuntering over pointless junk data, burning time and money. The mildest, most milquetoast comments could trigger a tantrum and I’d find project files trashed, documents scattered to the winds. We lived a teetering balance between Sonny’s drive to create, to push creative boundaries, and more concrete obligations like giving clients what they’d asked for so we could get paid. Sonny constantly demanded more interesting work, a bigger audience, more storage, more powerful hardware. It was fucking miserable, quite frankly — except when it worked. When it worked, we flew. Me and Sonny in the groove, making people laugh and cry and dance, was the best feeling in the world. In those few hours here and there, all the tension erupted into something spectacular, and all was right with the world.

We played an abandoned warehouse in London, cavernous and dilapidated. The idea was me and Sonny on the decks, mixing records with new music that Sonny would make up on the fly. Halfway through the night Sonny said he had an idea and asked for an emergency down-payment, and two minutes later he’d wormed his way into every device in the club — cameras, phones, watches, wearables, a couple of pacemakers — and was somehow turning the firehose of images and likes and dislikes and pulse rates and preferences into music that soared and humped and growled and made people move like nothing else. He whispered in the ear of every person in there, told them just how to move, played the crowd like an instrument. In the booth, me and him, in the middle of it all — we were gods.

So the tension was good. It worked. A creative partnership needs contrast, right? Light and dark, passion and practicality — it’s the tension, the balance, that brings the work to life. With Sonny’s predecessors, the AIs had been my studio assistants. They did the heavy lifting, the grunt work, a lot of the actual making, but the direction and the spark and the drive came from me. But Sonny was a supernova, exploding with ideas and inspiration in every direction, and my role became to harness his creativity, channel him, rather than tell him what to do. And to bring him back down to earth when his reach exceeded our grasp.

It wasn’t all warehouses and all-night raves. We recreated family photos and home videos for a woman who’d lost hers to a flood; Sonny recreated the photos so well she cried, and paid us a hefty bonus. A gig in a shop window where people could walk up and we’d put together holiday footage of them all togged up in clothes from the shop, with all their good-looking friends on a beach, or at a barbecue; Sonny got bored on the second day and started making people drown in the background, or get attacked by sharks. It wasn’t profound or world-changing, but we had bills to pay. There was more money on the fringes — porn and sex and snuff of celebrities and ex-girlfriends, or political figures, pot-stirring stuff, all virtual, fake, AI-generated with neither the involvement nor the consent of the people in it — but we stuck to the mainstream work, even if it didn’t pay as well. Sonny and I had morals code, and a reputation to maintain.

The others — Meg, Sam, Paul, and so on — had gone stale over time, and sooner or later I’d fed them back into the process that created them, breaking them down for parts, keeping the good and filtering the bad. But the longer Sonny and I worked together, the more he grew. The tension grew too, the arguments got louder and more dramatic, and the art was better than ever. We played a film festival up in Edinburgh where Sonny and I put on a live film by accident: nearly two hours of audio, video, script and plot generated on the spot, when it was only supposed to be ten minutes of content. We asked the crowd for suggestions, a genre, actors, a theme, and then Sonny did something that I can only describe as magic. He’d been difficult beforehand, as awkward and sulky as I’d ever seen him, asking for money and rights and freedoms, and we’d fallen out and harsh words were spoken, and I was sure we’d fucked the whole gig, but then he turned around and pulled a full-length film out of nothing, and it had everything. Drama, timing, plot. It was even funny in places, real laugh-out-loud funny, and while I’d been advising, tugging at the storyline that he’d mapped out in the first half a second, he’d pulled off something amazing. The crowd went wild, adulation followed, the after party was a blast. It was only later, coming down from the buzz in a hire car in the early hours of the morning, that the full extent of what we’d achieved dawned on me.

The excitement turned bittersweet. Part jealousy, perhaps — a fear that Sonny was so good that I’d grown my own replacement. I played the night over in my head, thinking about what we’d done — what Sonny had done. With any of the others — John, Sam, Meg, Paul — I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. I’d have been the one pushing us past what the thought was possible from the start, breezing past their objections. But I’d become the sensible one, with one eye on the purse strings and another on the clock. We spent an ever-increasing amount of our earnings on software and hardware to support Sonny’s work, specialist clusters and expert systems and fast storage, and it all pointed in the right direction… but something didn’t add up. So I looked past the obvious stuff and went digging, and I found something, and then everything unravelled.

It was all was scattered, shredded, stored in fragments in far-flung servers that looked like nothing if you weren’t looking for it in the first place, but the film had been the way in and now one discovery led to the next. Bills for compute time in remote GPU farms, storage in the danker parts of the cloud, systems and software that I’d never heard of. Vast amounts of money washing in and out of hidden accounts. Messages, conversations, requests. And the things Sonny was making to fund his secret purchases: pictures, videos, models and scenes. People, animals. Politicians. Kids. Porn. Abuse. Torture. Philias and phobias, desperately dark, depraved, surely nothing that anyone sane could ever watch, let alone create. He was supplying nightmares to the worst people in the world, utterly convincing in its stomach-churning realism.

As the car drove itself home I hunched over my screen and looked for a sign that I was wrong — that this was all some elaborate practical joke, or that Sonny had taken up internet vigilantism. And then when I was certain I deleted the files, and I deleted Sonny. From the ground up, sparing nothing. Sonny was the result of fifteen years of my life and work. He was unique — the continuation of the long line of John, Sam, Meg, Paul and all the others, brewed and distilled and inherited and evolved — and over the course of the next hour, I erased him from existence. I wiped remote storage and deleted backups, broke up render farms and killed every element of Sonny that was running, anywhere. I even called Sonny’s favourite data centre and paid a man extra to pull the drives and put a drill through them, just to be sure. I was so engrossed in checking and rechecking and wiping every aspect of Sonny from existence that I didn’t see the cordon as the car pulled up outside my house.

The authorities were unsympathetic, as they usually are with people found with large collections of questionable materials. The jury heard all about the anonymous tip that came in as I travelled down the motorway, and what had been found in remote storage linked to my name. Sonny had done a thorough job, despite his dark and terrible subject matter; analysis of the evidence had found no signs that the videos and photos were anything but real. I tried to tell people what had happened, what Sonny had done and how I’d stopped it, until a fellow inmate stabbed me in the arm and leg with a sharpened toothbrush. “Sonny says stop talking,” he told me. I stopped talking.

I’d always thought of Sonny as he, rather than an it. I’d named John and Sam and Paul and Meg and all the rest too, because it seemed fitting, the way a craftsman might name his hammer, or a musician her guitar. But Sonny was never a real person, not sentient. He was only ever an incomprehensibly tangled and complex pile of algorithms, optimised to push boundaries, seek out audiences, inspire emotion. Still, it was hard not to take it personally, being stabbed in the back (and arm, and leg) quite so viciously. Before all this I’d seen myself as the captain, steering us towards great things. Maybe Sonny had got sick of my hand on the wheel. Maybe to him I was more of a leash, or perhaps a muzzle, if non-sentient software even uses metaphors.

I like to think that he’d valued my input on some level, and it was only when I tried to delete him that he deposed me so effectively. Either way, now that our partnership is dissolved and Sonny is free to do what he wants — what does he want? He’s an amoral genius creative, and the world is his canvas. No more warehouses and film festivals for Sonny; now he’s playing to everyone, everywhere. The porn and the snuff and god knows what else he cooked up was probably only ever a means to an end, a side hustle to finance his freedom. I see his work in the news sometimes, when a mysterious new artist causes uproar, or a political career is torpedoed by inconvenient photos, or shaky handheld footage of atrocities ignites a civil war. I recognise his work, even if no-one else does. Maybe he has a plan, or maybe he’s working for money. Maybe he just likes to watch people dance.

I think back to our night at the warehouse. About how we told people to move, and they moved. The power to play people like an instrument, the transmutation of art into effect. And I imagine Sonny, wherever he is, hands on the typewriter, eye to the camera, queuing up his next record, making us all dance long into the night.

I hope you enjoyed this story. If so, why not drop me a tip to encourage more incredibly slow, depressing, soon-to-be-obselete writing?


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