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Sci-Fi Publishers Are Bracing For An AI Battle

It began with a tweet of a bar graph depicting a sharp rise in the month of February: Neil Clarke, the publisher and editor in chief of the science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld, had plotted out the publication’s past few years of plagiarized and spammy submissions. Until late 2022, the bars are barely visible, but in the past few months—and especially this month—the numbers climb dramatically, mostly due to AI-generated content. Clarke wrote a post laying out the situation entitled “A Concerning Trend.” Five days and a massive amount of online chatter later, Clarkesworld announced it’s closing submissions for now.

Clarke says they’ve seen this problem growing for a while, but they took the time to analyze the data before talking about it publicly. “The reason we’re getting these is a lot of the side-hustle community,” he says. “‘Make money using ChatGPT.’ They’re not science fiction writers—they’re not even writers, for the most part. They’re just people who are trying to make some money on some of these things, and they’re following people who make it sound like they know what they’re doing.” He adds that having seen some of the how-to videos in question, “There’s no way what they’re hawking is going to work.”

Clarkesworld has been publishing for nearly two decades, and while many sci-fi and fantasy (SFF) magazines have specific submission periods, the publication normally keeps submissions open year-round. As with its peers—and unlike some publications in the literary fiction space—there is no fee to submit your work. Clarke cites the SFF community’s dedication to Yog’s Law, a maxim coined by the writer James D. Macdonald that states, “Money should flow toward the author.” This openness is important to Clarkesworld: “We’re a wide market,” Clarke says. “We want to pull in from all over the world, and all types of voices.” But a commitment to receptiveness also means that fighting off AI spam can’t just mean putting up additional barriers to entry.

“We’re going to reopen—we have no choice,” Clarke says. “But we’re taking the stance that it’s going to be trial and error.” A computer scientist by training and the developer of the site, Clarke stresses that he’s not going to explain the exact technicalities of those trials—why give spammers a step-by-step guide?—but the changes will be small and targeted at the trends they’ve observed in their data collection. “As far as I’m concerned, what we’re dealing with is a scenario not unlike the battle over malware, credit card fraud, denial of service attacks,” he says. “It’s all the same sort of thing. You have to find a way to manage working in a world where these things exist.”

The Clarkesworld situation has been a subject of fascination far outside the SFF sphere: Clarke jokes about the robot in their logo, and the irony of a science fiction magazine falling victim to AI. But amongst many writers—both in SFF and more broadly—there’s been a sense of hopelessness, that the inevitability of AI-dominated art-creation is finally coming to pass. Even though the US Copyright Office recently rejected the claim of an AI-generated comic book, anxiety about what AI is going to mean for an already financially precarious industry is palpable.

Clarke thinks writers are right to worry, but right now that worry is about the volume of garbage clogging up an already oversaturated space. “This is not a quality problem—it’s a quantity problem,” he says. “We’re being drowned; they’re being shouted out. And for a new writer right now, I really feel bad for them because this is going to be a problem. The number of markets that will take the shortcut to avoid this problem is not zero, and every one of those that happens is a harm to them. So they do have reason to be distraught.”