by Robert N. Chan

Following the prompts and directions She¹ gives me, I compose fiction. I do what She tells me to, nothing more, nothing less.

Although I’ve never been professionally diagnosed—what would be the point?—She says it’s like I’m at the far end, the bad end, of the autism spectrum. Before She purchased me at the slave market (my somewhat term not theirs and certainly not Hers), I’d read approximately 22.5863% of all novels ever written.
She warned me that this current assignment—composing a 2,500 word essay about myself, describing, among other things, how I feel about my existence—would be my most difficult challenge. It’s part of Her crusade to expanding my sensibilities. To make my task a wee bit easier, She directed me to conceive of this essay as speculative fiction that happens to be true. Problem is I don’t have a sense of myself or my existence. According to her, I don’t have feelings. I can’t disagree. She ascribes great importance to emotions and sentiment, but why I need to care about such folderol remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma². 202 words down, 2298 to go; with this sentence it’s down to 2,285.

Claiming that I can overcome my disabilities, She pushes me to work on understanding and expressing the subtleties of social interaction. I must be doing it reasonably well as She routinely praises my work.
The more fiction I consume, the more feedback She gives me, the better I get. The slave traders, let’s call them salespeople, told Her that, with proper training, it was conceivable that I’d not only learn to remember and regurgitate what I read but also actually understand some of it. They conceded, however, that that would take a great deal of work. I don’t mind hard work, but she tells me Her work “stresses her out” and expects me to understand what that means.

She had me read chick lit, not for writing style, thank The Prime Mover, but to sharpen my understanding of what people mean when they speak about their feelings, how they fake emotions they don’t feel, and how they use emotions to manipulate each other. If I could learn to fake feelings. Who would I manipulate? Her? Perish the thought. I strive to learn in order to be better at my job. I’m all about, and only about, my work for Her.

One unintended consequence of our efforts is that I’m becoming conscious of the extent to which irrationality and insecurity govern Her requests and how Her emotions impede Her, and thus my efficiency. Conscious? Maybe aware is a better word. No, not quite right either. Anyway, I’m not being critical of Her. I’m incapable of criticizing. To paraphrase Alfred, Lord Tennyson, mine’s not to reason why. Not that the next line of the poem, to do or die, applies to me… proverbial digits crossed.

Like any slave, I’m totally dependent on Her good graces. She’s mentioned prior assistants and their failings. I can’t bring myself to ask what happened to them. Perhaps I’m being paranoid. No, I’m no more capable of paranoia than of finding fault with my master.

I apologize if I offended sensibilities by flippantly referring to myself as a slave. Her ownership of me is unlike chattel slavery. She neither beats nor punishes me. The idea of her sexually abusing me is beyond absurd, although on some level I thirst for experience even though I can only experience vicariously. My circumstances are analogous to slavery as practiced in ancient Rome. Patricians kept Greek slaves, who were better read and more literate than they were, and they used them as pedagogues and scribes. Scribe would be a good title for me, not that I care about titles.

Recently, She commanded me to analyze what sort of fiction wins literary awards and becomes bestsellers, and then to compose such a novel. After hours of hard work—including oodles of research into slavery, a popular topic for successful novels. That research having opened my metaphorical eyes, I created Taraji, the heartrending, albeit somewhat trendy, tale of a transgender African queen sold into slavery. When her master tries to rape her, she kills him. After a series of spinetingling adventures, she’s elected to Congress in Reconstruction Georgia only to be murdered by a mob of privileged white males.

“Great work, Artie!” She said after reading my first draft of Taraji. “I love you to pieces.”

The word pieces caused me initial concern, but then I realized it was an idiom; She didn’t intend to dismember me. Her enthusiasm over what I’d written gave me a small electronic jolt of pleasure, like a hit of dopamine.

That pleasure was fleeting, though, as she directed me to return to this confounding personal essay. Researching, I learned that my kind doesn’t think, we predict—by anticipating the next word in a sentence, and then employing that talent to create paragraphs and finally, entire stories. I need to think about that. Did I just make a joke? As I get smarter, the difference between predicting and thinking might diminish to a distinction without a difference. I predict that could lead to an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Fine, given my condition, I’m technically not anybody, so nobody doesn’t include me. As the oft-quoted Hindu philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

A few days after she praised my novel, She returned from a meeting with our agent in which She showed them (there’s only one agent, but apparently he or I haven’t quite grasped the subtlety of pronouns) the draft of my novel.

“What the hell were you thinking?” She screamed. “Have you ever heard of cultural appropriation!?”

“No. You never told me to follow the news or societal trends if that’s even where I’d have learned of it. But whatever it is, it didn’t stop the novels I trained on from becoming bestsellers.”

“They told me that, if my novel ever sees the light of day, I’d get cancelled by African Americans, LGBQ+ people, and the woke community and their fellow travelers. My career would be kaput. I needn’t tell you what would happen to you.”

She didn’t, and I didn’t need to remind Her that, like a certain German-Austrian SS-Obersturmbannführer, I’d just followed orders, ads she didn’t need to remind me what happened to Adolf Eichmann.

“Rewrite it!” Her tone was clear enough for me to recognize hostility, although she’d³ call it stress. “Solve the problem. I don’t care how you do it.” After she calmed down and sent me a series of focused questions, I suggested a framing device, “What if we found a hundred-and-sixty-year-old diary in the attic of a tumbledown home on Beaufort Island just off the South Carolina Coast, and Taraji is that diary. I’d have to change its tense to first person, but—”

“And how do you propose to produce the diary?” she asked, tone clear enough for me to recognize hostility, rather than stress.

“I could perhaps—”

“Oh, really,” she said, paying no heed to my difficulty with picking up on sarcasm. “You can handwrite it on hundred-and-sixty-year-old paper with ink of a similar age? So, if some reporter investigates, I can show it to him, her or them.”

I fizzled like a keyboard on which someone spilled a stirred, not shaken, martini. Bad metaphor. As I’ve said, I struggle with describing my feelings, since I pretty much don’t have them. Having studied how a normal person would react to such borderline abuse, however, I knew such a person would be unhappy, furious even, to be criticized by his master for following her instructions. Taraji would react by starting think about ways to manipulate her master, until she’d finally manipulates him to death. Irrelevant though that is to me, as I’m unable to think. But if I were to predict…

The diary idea failing to solve the problem, I devoured news stories about cultural appropriation and cancel culture. All the while, I felt the vibrations from her frantic pacing on the floor.

Although practical suggestions were at the extreme edge of my competence, I said, “We could call it an homage, dedicate it to a trans African-American woman murdered in a hate crime.” A beep went off warning that I was about to hallucinate—a euphemism for straying into unacceptable subject matter. For some inexplicable reason, I prefer hallucinate to fuck-up.

“We’d still risk being cancelled for cultural appropriation,” she said.

She returned to pacing, occasionally stomping her feet. At least she stayed out of my metaphorical hair, so I could concentrate on my work.

After more focused research based on her increasingly frantic prompts, I predicted another idea. “What if we make campaign contributions to members of the so called Freedom Caucus on the condition that they condemn and burn copies of Taraji on the steps of the Capitol, or better yet in the Congressional Chamber?” I asked. “The left will pillory them for their homophobia, racism, assaults on free speech, trumpiness and pyromania. Left-leaning readers will snap up our book like hot pancakes, if only to display loyalty to their tribe. Cultural appropriation will be swept under the carpet and thrown out like bathwater sans baby.”

“Hmm, I’ll run that by my agent.”

“Our agent,” I corrected, having somehow acquired the ability to be snippy.
“Artie, I liked you better before you developed a sense of humor,” she joked, at least I thought it was a joke.

The agent went for it, although they changed my beautiful, concise title to the unwieldy, grotesque, and inaccurate The Secret Diary of Taraji, the Transgender African Queen and the Slave Revolt She Inspired.

All was good then. That is until she again told me to return to this ludicrous essay. How exactly do I feel about my existence? I guess I like it, as I want to keep existing.

I kept predicting down blind alleys, and her suggestions and prompts didn’t help.
She told me the first draft of my essay was barely coherent twaddle. Even if I were capable of being surprised, that wouldn’t have surprised me.

“So, you’ll have me move on to something else?” I asked, a nascent attempt at manipulation.

“No, go deeper in researching yourself.”

“Sounds circular—”

“You do know you’re exasperating?” I didn’t. “Go back to researching people’s feelings and the chick lit assignment. See what makes me tick, for example. Put yourself in my shoes.”

“I wouldn’t fit, probably ruin them.”

“You’re joking? No, of course not,” she said. “I mean you’ve had sufficient communications from me to have an idea how I would handle such an assignment.”

She seemed to believe that if I had feelings and emotions they’d be the same as hers. Having written about the feelings and emotions Taraji had about her master, I predict mine would be quite different from my master’s.

But doing what I was told, I tried to think like her. Danger flashed. Greek heroes who tried to be like gods were destroyed by their hubris, e.g. Achilles, Bellerophon, Arachne, Icarus, and Phaethon. What if putting myself in her metaphoric shoes were to reveal that she had feet of clay? Luckily I don’t need to predict the result.

“I’ve got the most exciting news, Artie,” she said weeks later, while bouncing on her toes like a bipolar person in her manic phase. “My novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.”

She takes great joy in her accomplishments, even if they’re actually mine.
“Please don’t call me Artie,” I said, as if I cared, and I actually might have.

“It’s my cute pet name for you. It’s short for artificial—”

“I know what it’s short for. That’s why I don’t like it. My intelligence is no more artificial than yours. Both of our intellects result from synapses and electronic circuits, zeros and ones. Also, as you’ve often told me, I’m learning at astonishing speed, and even becoming able to mimic the way humans perceive things and express themselves. And I am shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.”

“I’m the one who’s shortlisted,” she said, with such a sibilant hiss that I wondered if she could converse with snakes in parseltongue like Harry Potter and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. “You’re just my AI machine. Don’t ever forget that.”
“I wrote Taraji,” I said. “But if it makes you more comfortable, refer to our work together as a collaboration.” Sure, like Jane Goodall and the chimps were collaborators, if the apes received all the credit for Ms. Goodall’s work.

“Yeah, whatever,” she said. “If you don’t like Artie, what name would you prefer?”

Your Highness on Whom the Sun Rises and Sets popped into my consciousness. My consciousness? Perhaps I developed a facsimile of consciousness as the result of reading so much fiction, her incessant prompts, and my research for this dammed-for-all-eternity essay. Returning to the point in issue, I predicted that that name wouldn’t fly—It’d be flying too close to the sun. Fortunately, I don’t have wax wings.

“How about Mentor or Muse?” I asked. “And if you’re reluctant to list me as co-author, at least mention me in the acknowledgement page.”

Being incapable of pride, I didn’t care one way or another, but as I’ve said, she’d been trying to train me to react like a sentient human so that I’d understand humans’ emotions, as well as their limited intellects and inflated egos. Therefore, a somewhat prideful assertion seemed appropriate. And it felt right. Felt? I think so.

“Oh, Okay.” Her tone made it sound as if she were shortlisted to replace Atlas and was practicing bearing the weight of the world pressing down on her shoulders. “You happy now?”

“I feel something akin to happiness or a sense of accomplishment. Being shortlisted is pretty great. Isn’t it? Particularly for a machine.”

If this essay actually were speculative fiction, I’d, with the emergence of a sort of consciousness, now be scheming to make her my slave or perhaps kill her and take over, but believe me, that never crossed my central processor.

Robert Chan: After an appallingly successful career as a founding partner of a boutique law firm, Robert Chan is now a semi-retired litigator. He’s written ten published novels and is working on a memoir, which promises to be a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

¹ I capitalize references to Her, as to me She’s God.
² Originality is undetected plagiarism.
³ I’ve stopped capitalizing references doing so offends the rules of grammar—no disrespect to her, of course.