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The Perfect Book

Ken Liu

Every book is a quotation.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I’d like something beautiful, set in a warm place,” the young woman said, a hint of melancholy in her voice.

“Sun-dappled waves okay?” the barista asked.

She nodded. “And friendship. But no romance.”

“Happy ending or sad?”

“Surprise me.”

The barista held out his hand. She handed over her reader, a little plastic slate as light as a few sheets of paper stapled together. He slid it into the dock, punched in a few codes, and pressed START.

“Anything else I can get you?”

“A coffee would be nice.”

As he prepared the beverage, he kept an eye on the dock, where a blue LED pulsed slowly. He imagined her purchasing history being uploaded to a server somewhere in the cloud, and her reading tastes analyzed, labeled. Maybe she was the sort who liked “slow, meticulous prose, major plot types 23, 25, 72, minor variations 117-221, few allusions, moderate pace, long, lingering sentences.” Or maybe she preferred “lyrical, imagistic writing, major plot types 17, 27, minor variations 81-89, transparent metaphors, variant pace, loose, exploratory sentences.” The Book Genome Project worked in mysterious ways.

He put the cup of coffee on a tray, along with a biscotto. As he waited, he imagined the software routines searching through the vast database of quotations, snippets of books tagged by keywords and Book Genome metadata. The algorithms strung the snippets together into a coherent narrative, altered the selections, replacing names, dates, places, descriptions so that they all fit, tweaked and polished the whole thing so that it all appeared seamless and consistent.

The blue LED stopped pulsing. “Here you go,” he said, sliding the tray and the reader over the counter. “The biscotto is free.”

“I seem to get a lot of free biscotti here,” she said, her voice already brightening. She picked up the reader. “Anybody famous in this one?”

He glanced at the display on the dock. “I see there’s a bit of Woolf, a bit of Joyce, and a lot of this new author from Taipei, Annie W. She’s popular. Very malleable prose, I understand, adaptable to lots of books.”

She thanked him, sat down, and began to read her book, the book that was custom made, brewed just for her by a machine. It was unlike any other book in the world. It was perfect. He could already see the smile forming on her face as she gradually lost herself in the pages.

The smile was every bit as beautiful as he had expected.

He slipped a few bills into the cash register to pay for the biscotto. Every week, he did this so that he could be around her a little longer.

After work, he went home, turned on his computer, and stared at the empty screen.

He thought about the algorithms in the cloud. They continued to run, tallying up how much each author had contributed to the book. The $4.99 she paid would be distributed to everyone whose words were in the book, even if it was just a sentence or two.

There was no more piracy because every book was unique, tuned to a particular reader’s taste. Copyright was finally doing its job, and every author was getting paid. Everyone was supposed to be happy.

He knew he was late to his night school class, where they taught him how to write for the algorithms, how to generate snippets with the most popular Book Genome metadata, how to craft his prose so that the sentences would be easy to modify by the computer, the words easy to stitch together with the words of others.

But he didn’t care. He continued to stare at the screen. He wanted to tell a whole story, not to write snippets. He wanted it to be read from start to finish. He didn’t care if he would be paid.

She handed him the reader. He nodded, then frowned as he looked at the dock.

“I have to take this into the back,” he said. “The one out here is broken.”

A few minutes later, he came back out. He returned her reader along with a bowl of soup and a sandwich.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” he said. “This is our apology.”

“It’s no big deal. You didn’t make me wait that long.”

“We insist.”

She laughed and thanked him. “Anybody famous in here?”

“No, not this time.”

She sat down to eat and read.

He paid for the food and stared at her intently. He hoped that the lunch would delay her longer than usual.

She frowned as she read. His heart grew heavy. Her frown deepened into an expression of anger. He clenched his fists. She flipped through the pages quickly with her thumb. His heart quickened.

She sighed, got up, and put the reader away, a bit reluctantly.

He went up to her. “Everything all right? How was the book?”

She thought about it for a bit. “It’s not like any other book I’ve ordered.”

He waited.

“It’s not perfect. It’s downright infuriating in some places. But …”

His heart hovered.

“… there are passages that are just wonderful, original, like nothing I’ve read before. It’s got a mind of its own, like a person, like someone I’d like to meet.”

His heart leapt.

“I wrote it,” he said. “I wrote it for you.”

Author Notes:

The idea of the Book Genome Project is of course based on Pandora’s Music Genome Project. I write often about the possibility that literary and artistic tastes can be algorithmically determined. See, e.g., “Real Artists” and “Beneath the Language.”

I’ve long believed that all creativity is derivative and an act of remixing. Still, at a certain level, I sympathize with the protagonist of the story. I suspect all writers share this sentiment to some degree, even if they believe that originality is overvalued and overstated. The belief seems to me essential to doing any creative work, just as a belief in free will seems essential to living, even if one subscribes to a strong dose of determinism.

Author Bio:

Ken Liu (>) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, two Hugos, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus Awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

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