Hal is back, and writing best-sellers

July 08, 1993

We could not help noticing a recent report that "Hal," the super-intelligent but malevolent computer in Stanley Kubrick's '60s-vintage sci-fi film "2001," may become a best-selling author in the 1990s. Actually, the modern-day "Hal" is a souped-up Macintosh personal computer whose hacker owner, 43-year-old Scott French, has programmed it to churn out steamy novels based on the example of the late author Jacqueline Susann's trash-to-the-max "Valley of the Dolls."

It took Mr. French nearly eight years to write the intricate computer instructions that allowed his Mac to spew out such lines as "Her heart leapt into her throat and she jumped involuntarily as the stranger appeared in front of her." He admits he probably could have dashed out several volumes of pulp fiction on his own in the time it took "Hal" to produce one computer-generated potboiler.

The writing of the book, which went on sale last week under the title "Just This Once," was actually more in the spirit of a collaboration between man and machine than a deus ex machina. The computer was programmed to ask specific questions based on formulas derived from Ms. Susann's example. After Mr. French typed in the answers, the machine spat out a few sentences of story before stopping again for more questions.

Mr. French concedes "Hal" isn't exactly a labor-saving device. "It doesn't write whole paragraphs at a time," he said. "You can't get up, walk away, come back and find a completed chapter. It's not that advanced."

Still, early reviews of "Just This Once," which bears the subtitle "A novel written by a computer programmed to think like the world's best-selling author, as told to Scott French," have been encouraging. A reviewer in USA Today compared "Just This Once" favorably to a recent volume in the same genre by author Jackie Collins.

Meanwhile a New York publication aimed at fans of Ms. Susann declared "she would have been proud." Its reviewer went on to laud Hal's creation for having all the elements that made Ms. Susann great: "Lots of money, sleaze, disease, death, oral sex, tragedy and the good girl gone bad."

Which leads us to wonder why, if a computer can be programmed to write trash, it can't be taught to write the good stuff? "But I was first of all the kings to draw/the knighthood errant of this realm and all/ to this my table round . . .and make them an offer they couldn't refuse." Or computer drama: "To be or not to be, that is the question I have asked my lawyer to explore . . ." You get the picture. Move over, Shakespeare!

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