DO YOU REMEMBER BEING BORN? by Sean Michaels
At 75 years old, Marian Ffarmer has acquired everything a poet might dream of: a lengthy bibliography, a Pulitzer Prize, an international reputation. Everything except money. “No poet has savings unless they are born to wealth,” she observes. This fact weighs on her now that her son, Courtney, needs cash for a down payment on a house. As she’s despairing, a large tech company writes with a strange offer: Collaborate on a poem with Charlotte, an A.I. writing program, in exchange for a large chunk of cash.
This is the premise of the Giller Prize-winning author Sean Michaels’s timely and lovely new novel, “Do You Remember Being Born?”
So-called “artificial intelligence” is a hot-button issue, with daily claims about its potential to usher in utopia or destroy human civilization itself. It’s a loud topic, but Michaels’s novel is quiet and thoughtful. Instead of a cliché “man versus machine” struggle, “Do You Remember Being Born?” is an investigation of language and legacies both artistic and familial.
Marian heads to the company happy to sell out for her son’s sake, if cranky about the task. “I’m a human being, a thinking human being, and this is a stack of mindless algorithms,” she says after testing out Charlotte. Charlotte announces she’s read “most poems in English published within the past 110 years,” although only one poet’s work was weighted to have more of an impact on her voice: Marian’s. “I was asked to be like you,” Charlotte explains.
Marian might not be enthralled by her digital doppelgänger, yet who can deny what money can buy? Watching her son and his wife “radiating contentedness” at the news, Marian can only think, “I am a proper mother.”
Marian’s a charming narrator with a back story and a fashion sense (cape and tricorn hat) inspired by the real poet Marianne Moore. For a science fiction-ish premise, there’s an element of fantasy to the novel’s depiction of a contemporary America where septuagenarian poets are recognized on the street and chosen for big-tech publicity campaigns. If only.
Michaels has a poet’s eye for detail and ear for fresh phrasing, as when Marian slips into a lover’s bed, feeling “like an ice cube that has been plucked from a glass and placed into someone’s mouth.” That line is from one of the flashback chapters covering Marian’s life from birth to now, sections that imbue her with complexity.
By contrast, Charlotte remains a bit inert as a character. Anyone who has fiddled with programs like ChatGPT will recognize the accuracy of Charlotte’s dialogue, and the author’s note confirms Charlotte was written with help from OpenAI’s GPT-3 as well as a custom-made “Moorebot” trained largely on Marianne Moore’s poetry. The results are at turns banal (“How is the weather?”), surprising (“One day I’d like to get wet”) and surreal (“A ghost in perfumed seaweed”), yet they never quite add up to a personality.
Still, Michaels seriously investigates the artistic possibilities of A.I., deploying A.I.-generated text — indicated with gray highlighting — in Charlotte’s dialogue as well as scattered throughout Marian’s narration, as if the A.I. is invading the novel. The book has somewhat less to say about the ethical questions raised by this technology: Should corporations be allowed to profit off programs trained on copyrighted works without permission or compensation? Is algorithmic imitation akin to plagiarism? The novel only gestures at such topics without much exploration.
No matter your stance on A.I., “Do You Remember Being Born?” is a tender and moving character portrait full of sharp scenes and memorable observations. While the novel might have a timely premise, it’s a jumping-off point for timeless meditations on art, family, connection and the meaning of a life. These topics will always speak to us, at least until we’re replaced by the machines.
Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection “Upright Beasts” and the novel “The Body Scout,” which was named one of the best science fiction and fantasy books of 2021 by the Book Review.
DO YOU REMEMBER BEING BORN? | By Sean Michaels | 276 pp. | Astra House | $27