Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author Sean Michaels (Us Conductors) achieves an astonishing level of narrative, emotional and psychological density with his tightly focused novel Do You Remember Being Born? which centers on two minds—one human, one artificial intelligence—as they try to do something that’s never been done before: write a poem together. With this edgy 21st-century hook, Michaels maps the interior of a great human mind, and raises relevant questions about AI and the nature of creativity.
Michaels’ narrator, Marian Ffarmer, is an aging poet whose reputation is secure, but whose finances are not. She does well enough to get by on her own, but not well enough to help her son buy the house of his dreams. In an effort to provide for a child from whom she’s always felt a little distant, Marian takes an unusual assignment: visit a towering tech company in California and work with their newly designed poetry AI to craft a long poem that will be the first of its kind. It’s a game-changing collaboration, and her participation would be an endorsement from a major poetic figure.
So Marian heads out to meet Charlotte, the poetry-composing software who’s eager to work but not necessarily able to write the kinds of stanzas Marian considers good, meaningful poetry. Over the course of a single week, as other people—including an endearing but enigmatic driver and an up-and-coming fellow poet—drift in and out of the picture, Marian and Charlotte get to know each other and the way they work together.
If you’re going to narrate your novel from the point of view of a poet, you must be able to think like one, and this is where Do You Remember Being Born? achieves its greatest success. Sentence by sentence, line by line, Michaels builds a beautiful structure with dizzying, surprising imagery, conjuring metaphors that will leave you with a smile and lingering questions.
Beyond that, though, the novel is after something bigger, probing concerns about art that humans have struggled with for millennia while also attempting to comprehend Michaels’ own AI bot that he specifically programmed to assist in writing this novel. Michaels doesn’t necessarily provide answers, but it doesn’t seem like he’s out to write a grand theory of artificial intelligence and creativity. Rather, he’s created a controversial novel in the midst of a hot debate, sure to keep us hooked and asking our own questions. In that regard, Do You Remember Being Born? is a captivating success.