Mark Twain's new novel?

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Today's Non Sequitur:

So of course I gave GPT-4 this prompt: "Based on Mark Twain's writings, sketch the plot for a new novel by him."

I suspect that I'm not the first person to ask this question, because GPT-4's answer began streaming out instantly:

Title: "Driftwood: An American Journey"

Part I: The Innocent Boyhood

Our story begins in the small, rustic town of Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi river. Our young, mischievous protagonist, Caleb "Cal" Whitman, is known for his adventurous spirit and witty charm. His constant companions, the rambunctious Tom and the wise and resilient orphaned girl, Isabel, join him in his daring escapades. Cal's innocence is punctuated by his nascent romantic feelings for Isabel, and a rivalry with the town bully, Jack Harper.

Part II: The Call to Adventure

After an incident where the friends discover an old, hidden map in the town's library, they set out on a river adventure to uncover a forgotten Civil War treasure. As they sneak out of their town, Cal's twin brother, Elijah, who's more practical and focused, accidentally stumbles upon them and is forced to join the quest. They travel down the Mississippi on a makeshift raft, encountering colorful characters, learning about life, friendship, and the realities of the world.

Part III: Cruel Realities

Their journey takes a dark turn when they reach New Orleans and encounter a corrupt businessman, Beauregard "Beau" Lancaster, who learns about their map. He frames them for theft, leading to Elijah's arrest, while Cal and the others escape. They must now not only find the treasure to save Elijah but also navigate the treacherous underbelly of New Orleans, testing their friendship and resilience.

Part IV: The Battle of Wits

Beau, desperate to get the treasure, employs devious tactics to force the truth out of Elijah. Meanwhile, Cal and his friends, using their wit and courage, manage to gather allies, including a group of local street children and a retired soldier who has a personal vendetta against Beau. They manage to break Elijah out and devise a plan to outsmart Beau.

Part V: The Final Showdown

The final confrontation happens on a sinking riverboat casino, where Cal and his friends match wits with Beau. The events unfold rapidly, leading to a thrilling chase and a battle for the treasure. Eventually, Cal and his friends, with their newfound allies, manage to defeat Beau.

Part VI: Homecoming

Returning to Hannibal, they find their town threatened by an impending industrial project spearheaded by Beau's associates. Using the treasure, they manage to save their town and Elijah's name is cleared. The adventure has brought changes: Cal, Tom, Isabel, and Elijah aren't the same children who set out on a raft down the Mississippi. They have grown, learned valuable lessons, and formed bonds that would last a lifetime. Cal and Isabel's feelings for each other have deepened, hinting at a future relationship. The novel ends with a sense of completion, yet with a door left ajar for more adventures.

"Driftwood: An American Journey" would capture Mark Twain's familiar themes of childhood, adventure, and social criticism while introducing a fresh perspective on the age-old tale of good versus evil, innocence versus corruption, and the transformative power of friendship.


  1. Mark P said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    Interesting, but it sounds to me more like the plot of an Indiana-Jones-as-a-boy movie.

  2. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 10:26 am

    I suspect that I'm not the first person to ask this question, because GPT-4's answer began streaming out instantly:

    I'm puzzled by this, since (unless I've seriously misunderstood how LLMs work) the model is static once it's been trained; it doesn't learn anything further from its conversations with users. So there'd be no reason to expect it to answer more quickly the second time. It's not like the model needs time to plot out the whole story before answering; in all cases it's just putting one word after another based on the previous content of that conversation.

    Also it seems like it would be a serious breach of privacy to allow the content of User A's conversation to influence the content of User B's.

    (Of course it's also possible that there's a joke here that I'm just not getting.)

  3. STW said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 10:44 am

    As an aside, Library of America has Mark Twain's complete works in seven volumes. I respect those as the accepted canon.

  4. Richard Hershberger said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 11:58 am

    @STW: Does it include "1601"?

  5. DaveK said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 2:22 pm

    I’d be interested in seeing a sample chapter, to see if GPT could actually imitate Twain’s style.

  6. Olaf Zimmermann said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 2:34 pm

    Hello Central!

  7. Chas Belov said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 6:33 pm

    @DaveK: I've several times asked ChatGPT to restate the answer to a question (such as what happens to leftover produce once a farmers' market reaches end of day) in the style of Mark Twain (or Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickenson or Jane Austin) and it produces amusing results which do seem to reproduce the styles of the respective authors. But there's no real life to it and I soon got tired of that recreation.

  8. Brett said,

    July 27, 2023 @ 10:06 pm

    While mostly it seemed like a shockingly derivative pastiche of Twain, I was also struck by the appearance of a "riverboat casino." While floating casinos are certainly not a brand-new thing, their prominence (compared to casinos on land) really only dates to the late twentieth century, when they were developed as a way of skirting laws and regulations against most types of gambling. Of course, talking about a "riverboat" is a natural part of a Twain pastiche, but apparently in GPT-4's training data, "casino" follows "riverboat" sufficiently frequently that the engine somewhat anachronistically inserted it.

  9. DG said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 10:32 am

    > I'm puzzled by this, since (unless I've seriously misunderstood how LLMs work) the model is static once it's been trained; it doesn't learn anything further from its conversations with users.

    It very likely has a basic cache in front of the model.

  10. Rodger C said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 10:32 am

    "[W]hat happens to leftover produce once a farmers' market reaches end of day" sounds to me like a question for H. P. Lovecraft.

  11. Michael said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 5:01 pm

    Brett's assertion is an interesting one, but I can tell you as a viewer of old movies that the concept dates back at least to the 1940s or 30s, and to my memory, was often depicted even then as something that took place in the 19th c. See, eg: "The Naughty Nineties" starring Abbott and Costello and "Jitterbugs" starring Laurel and Hardy.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    July 28, 2023 @ 6:55 pm

    @Brett: It's true that riverboat casinos are a late-20th-century development, but riverboat gambling goes back well into the 19th century — see e.g. this book, based on the memoirs of George Devol, "Forty years a gambler on the Mississippi", published in 1887.

  13. Bloix said,

    July 30, 2023 @ 10:32 pm

    But the memoir you cite never uses the term "riverboat gambler" or indeed "riverboat." It does use "river boat" twice – once in reference to a boat on the Red River, and once to a boat on the Hudson – but the big Mississippi sidewheelers are always called steamboats or steamers. The author colorfully describes rooms filled with unceasing cardplaying on the Mississippi boats, but he doesn't call the players "riverboat gamblers." Similarly, Life on the Mississippi uses steamboat, never riverboat. And anngram reveals that the word riverboat barely existed before the 1920s. There are earlier references to "river boats" plying rivers all around the world but the term doesn't seem to have been applied to the sidewheeled Mississippi passenger vessels until the early 20th century.

  14. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    July 31, 2023 @ 11:09 am

    Somebody wants to know about a gambler? For a taste of your whiskey
    I'll give you some advice.

    (Cf. Rogers, K., "Canicular Funicular Aleatory Hortatory Investigations", United Artists©, 1978).

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