What’s on our shelves: Benny the Blue Whale: A Descent into Story, Language and the Madness of ChatGPT by Andy Stanton

3rd April 2024 | PTFS-Europe

Andy Stanton is a British children’s author, best known for his Mr. Gum series. In late 2022 a friend introduced Stanton to ChatGPT, and he was instantly hooked. He decided to experiment with co-creating a book with AI, (the ‘magic what happened next machine’). Thus begins the story of Benny the Blue Whale.

What follows is an often hilarious but increasingly philosophical contemplation of story-making, language, and iterative conversations with a malleable yet fallible large language model.

The early stages of the experiment involve Stanton learning how to engineer his prompts – a process he likens to a comedy improvisation exercise (“Yes – and…?”) before he becomes more confident in how to phrase prompts to achieve his preferred results.

What emerges is the surreal story of a complex underwater landscape, populated by strange characters, including a Shark chief of police called Lena (who worships a picture of the Jaws Police Chief Martin Brody), mermaid barmaids, a mis-remembering judge, a fast food kingpin. And of course, the eponymous Benny.

Often, Stanton is frustrated with ChatGPT’s inability to ‘remember’ characters, character traits or past events. He encounters occasional prudishness (“I am unable to generate inappropriate content”) and a refusal to follow instructions as he seeks to cajole the plot along. Occasionally he is disappointed by ‘lazy’ narrative decisions and the AI’s determination to deliver an upbeat ending. Sometimes he is thrilled by the sheer ‘brilliance’ of the turns in the plot, the suggested names of characters or a section of surreal dialogue.

Throughout he is guided by his own understanding of the creative writing process – the desire to craft a ‘narrative diamond’ that satisfies the reader and author alike. The book is structured to include the story of Benny along with the author’s commentary on the process. I listened to the audiobook, which is read by the author and Nish Kumar.

Reader beware: This is definitely not a children’s book. There are many mentions of ‘appendages’ and other body parts and bodily functions in the story, as well as some epic swearing. Do not listen to the audiobook when travelling on crowded public transport or waiting at pedestrian crossings – your laugh out loud reactions might alarm others.

Val Skelton, Administrator – PTFS EuropeFront cover of Benny the Blue Whale


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