I have been reviewing books for nearly four decades – starting in this very magazine – and over the years I have encountered some real stinkers. But this is the first time I can recall being reluctant to pick up the book because of actual physical nausea. Intellectual nausea I’ve had plenty of times. Give me a 900-page book of magical realism and that’s what I’ll get. But this time it metastasised into real queasiness. I’ll explain why. (Well, that is my job.)
The odd thing is, Benny the Blue Whale starts amusingly enough. Andy Stanton, a writer of chidren’s books, had been both intrigued and alarmed by the rise of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence tool that can be instructed, with an absolute minimum of technical knowledge, to produce prose – and poetry, if you can call it that – in whichever style you like. What the program behind it does is comb the entire internet for examples, and then, in a few seconds, regurgitate something loosely approximating to what you asked for.
Stanton had the idea of playing with ChatGPT to see what it came up with. At first he asked it to ‘generate 100 names for a very smelly animal’ or ‘write an essay about getting a haircut’; but the command he finally settled on, and which has resulted in the book under review, was: ‘Tell me a story about a blue whale with a tiny penis.’ So far, so puerile; and, indeed, so amusing. The two go hand in hand, especially when you want to make an unthinking technology look foolish, as when a child types the numbers 5318008 into a calculator, turns it upside down and informs the rest of the class that it has spelled out the word ‘Boobies’.