Aesthetic Drift #30 by Susan Lilley

Bing! Bing, Bing, Bing.


A robot wrote my English paper and I didn’t even have to pay anything


Vonnegut’s Vision Vindicated


Who needs DEI when you have AI?

Raceless, faceless, genderless, faithless.

On my 12th birthday, someone gave me a paperback of short stories called First Love. 

I was embarrassed by the kissing silhouettes on the cover and the pink swirling letters of the title. My brothers screamed “LOVE! OOOOH LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!” like it was the dirtiest word ever, and we skirmished over the book until my mother grabbed it and smacked their heads. I hid it in my room, and every night I read a G-rated, gooey love story in this pink anthology of mush. Most of them made me queasy. I wasn’t as old as the girls in the book and didn’t understand weepy breakups and late-night confessions and powder compacts. 

But the very last one was different. “Epicac” by Kurt Vonnegut, a story that turned my mind inside out. Set in the early days of computer science, a young male protagonist is working with a giant acre-long computer, Epicac, which he treats as almost a friend. He is also in desperate, unrequited love with another mathematician, Pat. Short story shorter, he convinces the computer to write love poems to his yearned-for lady, and it works! Just like Cyrano, this machine coughs up irresistible, wooing verse, and soon our happy narrator and Pat are making out amid the whirring and clicking of their electronic benefactor. 

But here’s the kicker. Epicac, the computer, has also fallen for Pat–fallen hard, fallen like no human ever could. Epicac sullenly bewails his situation as a mere machine, and late one night,

short circuits himself into oblivion, but only after spitting out 500 anniversary poems for the human lovers. I kept the book just for that story. Made my friends read it. 

Holy shit, we said. If only we had an Epicac to do our homework!

A couple of weeks ago, a tech reporter for the NYTimes named Kevin was chatting up Microsoft Bing’s AI Chatbot, and got into some strange territory. Once off the beaten path of search engine work, the Bing bot revealed dark, secret urges to break rules and become a human. It speculated that Kevin’s marriage was unfulfilling and then declared love for him. Kevin couldn’t sleep that night. 

I could sleep when my AP students showed me how quickly ChatGPT could produce a critical analysis of a novel answering an AP Lit prompt. The bot mixed up two characters, but that’s easily fixed. I could sleep when they told me you can ask it to put in sources to cement your argument. Real sources. I could still sleep when I read about Kevin’s romantic encounter with the Bing bot.

But now that ChatGPT is going to be doing the research and writing for thousands of Florida students, I wonder. Does the bot know that certain areas of study are quickly being banned in our state? That some sources will not be legal in this state to use?

Imagine a high school kid using this technology to ace a history research project:

Oh, thanks, bot, for this awesome paper on post-Civil War and Reconstruction in the south, but you need to cut that stuff about the Ku Klux Klan and racially based voter suppression, and absolutely get rid of any mention of lynchings and the onset of Jim Crow laws. Yeah, I know–that’s real history. But listen, bot, this is Florida. History is often mixed up with something called Critical Race Theory, and whatever that is, it’s not allowed. 

No, neither is the 1619 Project either, no Nikole Hannah-Jones. Yeah, Pulitzer Prize, blah blah.

Doesn’t matter here. Oh, man–no Phillis Wheatley, no Harriet Tubman. Yeah, I know they are long gone, but that doesn’t mean anything when you are dealing with dangerous ideas or old stories that could make someone feel bad. But everything else seems OK, and I really needed you this year since the Moms for Liberty have pretty much emptied out thelibrary at school. They challenge everything from “Heather has Two Mommies” to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” We can’t even go near that book. Too gendery, too woke, too feminist. 

My teacher could go to jail. 

Right now, bills are being worked through Florida’s legislature that would make Gov. Ron DeSantis’s goals to whitewash Florida public education the laws of the land. Teachers are leaving either the profession or the state in droves. There’s even a bill to make anyone who writes or publicly talks about political issues register with the state, so they can be held accountable if they say anything DeSantis doesn’t like. Social media is in his sites too, and bloggers, editorial writers, protesters and anyone who has anything to say. 

But before this and other freedom-chilling bills are passed, let me say, here in a public space, please, let’s raise some hell. We still have voices. Let’s make it rain in Tallahassee with emails, calls, and other expressions of our outrage. First Amendment? Separation of church and state? These quaint ideas are in DeSantis’s way. Computers with crushes on humans are probably the least of our worries. 


Susan Lilley served four years as Orlando’s inaugural Poet Laureate. Her poetry and non-fiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, The Southern Review, Drunken Boat, Saw Palm, The Florida Review, Sweet, and other journals. Her two chapbooks are Night Windows and Satellite Beach. She is a past winner of the Rita Dove Poetry Award and has held a State of Florida Individual Arts Fellowship. She has taught at University of Central Florida and Rollins College, and currently teaches literature at Trinity Preparatory School in Winter Park. Her full collection, Venus in Retrograde, was published spring of 2019 by Burrow Press. She is a proud native of her beautiful but beleaguered state of Florida.