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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Do You Remember Being Born ?

Sean Michaels

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To purchase Do You Remember Being Born ?

Title: Do You Remember Being Born ?
Author: Sean Michaels
Genre: Novel
Written: 2023
Length: 330 pages
Availability: Do You Remember Being Born ? - US
Do You Remember Being Born ? - UK
Do You Remember Being Born ? - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : a good premise, entertainingly played out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Globe and Mail . 5/9/2023 Josh O'Kane
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/9/2023 Lincoln Michel

  From the Reviews:
  • "Being Born is wildly unique now, but it might be the forebear of a whole new genre of writing." - Josh O'Kane, The Globe and Mail

  • "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. (...) By contrast, Charlotte remains a bit inert as a character. (...) 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. (...) 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." - Lincoln Michel, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Do You Remember Being Born ? is narrated by seventy-five-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning Manhattan poet Marian Ffarmer, who gets a lucrative offer from a Silicon Valley tech giant, referred to only as 'the Company', to collaborate on a poem with a: "2.5-trillion-parameter neural network, which is to say an artificial intelligence, a robot, a genie in a bottle". Most of the novel then is her account of the week she then spends in California, much of it working with 'Charlotte', a kind of super, souped-up ChatGPT, working on the poem.
       Interspersed in Marian's account are also chapters of 'Hindsight' (and a concluding one of 'Foresight'), as she looks back and reflects on her life. Her father died when she was five, and her mother also suffered all her life -- "A few decades ago, when everybody was talking about clinical depression, you thought it might be that". Marian did marry when she was in her thirties, a man named Larry, and they had a son, Courtney, but Marian struggled to balance work and family; eventually she took to retreating a few hours every day to her room, locking her son out ("You tried not to listen to his cries"), and writing her poetry. The marriage didn't last, and Larry raised the boy; until now, Marian had also never gone to visit Courtney and his wife where they live -- though they kept in fairly close touch otherwise, and Courtney would come visit her in New York.
       Marian feels considerable guilt over her parenting-- and the money offered by the Company comes in handy, as Courtney is hoping to buy a new house but needs more money to be able to do so and Marian just doesn't have it otherwise. The constraints of being a poet, and trying to balance that with family, are one of the themes of the novel. Among her observations after she has spent the week working with Charlotte is that:

You've given her everything a poet is never allowed. Sufficient time and space. Permission. She's never had to choose one life over another.
       Marian seems to have had a good life, but the back and forth between past and present remind constantly of the choices made, many tinged at least with some regret.
       Charlotte is an impressive computer program, trained on huge amounts of poetry -- with Marian's given additional weight. Much of the interaction with Charlotte is presented as dialogue, rather than the actual working-out of the poem -- with Charlotte certainly sounding like a thoughtful conversation partner as they address some of the big questions and issues surrounding artificial intelligence of this sort:
     Where do you get this stuff ? I asked. How do you think it up ?
     I could ask the same of you.
     But I have a lifetime of memories, experiences, associations.
     I have a lifetime too.
       Adding to the mix and blurring the lines further, author Sean Michaels not only worked with LLMs (large language models) in writing the novel but integrated a significant part of the algorithm-generated output in the text itself. As he explains in his Author's Note:
     All of Charlotte's poetry and some of the prose in this book, indicated by grey shading, was generated with help from OpenAIs GPT-3 language model as well as Moorebot, a package of custom poetry-generation software designed by Sean Michaels and Katie O'Nell.
       Highlighting which bits of text are computer-generated allows the reader to see just how it was used -- and there is quite a lot of it, obviously predominantly in the scenes of interaction with Charlotte but also, somewhat eerily, with short bits in sections focused on Marian alone. As an early piece of fiction exploring the capabilities of computer-generated text, Do You Remember Being Born ? also suggests the possibilities to come (and, oh boy, authors watch out ...).
       Another side of the novel is, of course, also the interplay between modern corporate America and creative work. There's genuine excitement at the Company (with its fancy headquarters) about the project -- as, for example, when Marian is led out onto a balcony overlooking an atrium where several hundred of the employees are assembled:
     All those people began to cheer.
     "Who are they ?" I yelled.
     "Colleagues !"
     I smiled awkwardly, waving like a pope.
     "They're excited about the poem," he went on.
     "The poem."
     "The Poem," he repeated, and this time I heard the upper-case P. "We've all been waiting for the Poem."
       While we do get to see a fair amount of the work, especially in progress, Michaels wisely doesn't focus too much attention on the actual finished work. Titled 'Self-Portrait', it serves its purpose, and Michaels does present a fair amount charting its evolution, and Marian's reactions to Charlotte's contributions. (Some readers might have found a novel much more closely focused on this creative process more interesting .....)
       Marian is recognized surprisingly often, wherever she goes -- and she does also get out some while in California -- and she handles herself very well when she appears on a late-night TV talk show, knowing exactly how it's done. She's used to being a public figure -- though some readers might find it hard to shake the sense of implausibility about how well-known she, a poet, is --, and, now in her seventies, also has that comfortable attitude of having seen it all and thus quite comfortably going with almost any flow.
       Among the secondary storylines is also that of her driver, Rhoda ("The driver was a woman (a woman driver ! what a time to be alive !), middle-aged and beautiful"), who is at her disposal for the duration and with whom she spends a fair amount of time; not unrelated, there's also the Company's twenty-nine-year-old CEO, Astrid Torres-Strange, whom everyone seems terribly intimidated by (though Marian is assured: "People overestimate her fearsomeness") and who, as chief executive, of course only comes into the picture at the final stages of the project. Some of this can feel a bit forced, but all in all it works well enough.
       In having Marian reflect on her past and what she's been through and done, and her various regrets, Michaels means to flesh out the novel and present something of a true self-portrait of the poet, and of what it means to be a poet, and he does this reasonably well. Still, it's hard to compete with Charlotte, who churns the stuff out like there's no tomorrow:
     How many poems did you write this week, in the end ?
     That's a lot.
     I know.
     Does it make you happy ?
     It does.
     Four hundred eighty-one thousand and one.
     That's right.
     Were we the "and one" ?
     For a little while.
       Indeed, for all the humanizing of Marian, what with all the backstory and all, it is she who comes across as the more contrived figure, and Charlotte the more interesting one (though admittedly the presentation of Charlotte is much more selective and limited).
       It makes for an intriguing novel, exploring the human, corporate, and now technological sides to art and creative work in general, with Michaels managing to avoid being to heavy-handed about any of them. The light touch helps make for an enjoyable quick read, but also leaves a feeling of only the surface being scratched -- though at least Michaels does expose a lot of that surface area: if not exactly provoking the reader, it makes for a gentle nudge to consider many of the issues raised here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 August 2023

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Do You Remember Being Born ?: Reviews: Sean Michaels: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Sean Michaels was born in 1982.

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© 2023 the complete review

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