NEW YORK — Question: What do you get when you program a supercharged computer with the glitter, glamour, drugs and sex from the campy prose of a Jacqueline Susann work?
Answer: A microchip off the old block called "Just This Once," a megabyte-size bodice-ripping potboiler subtitled as a novel written by a computer programmed to think like the world's best-selling author.
The book, a high-tech collaboration of man and machine, comes to us as told to Scott French, a 43-year-old fan of Susann and self-taught computer programmer.
The prose is generated by an Apple Macintosh computer endowed with artificial intelligence, a program that tries to think like a human being. French calls his literary computer Hal, after the computer of "2001: A Space Odyssey." He is pictured with his arm around Hal on the book's back cover.
"I was really intrigued with taking cutting-edge technology and applying it to something that would be entertaining and fun," French said.
Working with a machine presented special problems.
"There were times in the beginning when I wasn't sure who was in charge--me or the computer. There were times we battled, times we didn't agree. It doesn't get writer's block, but it can bomb or crash," French said.
"On the other hand, it never asked for a raise or posed contractual problems."
The computer's software is the kind used to track missile trajectories and help intelligence experts predict how dictators may respond in certain situations.
Into that technology, French fed material from "Valley of the Dolls" and "Once Is Not Enough"--two of the most popular novels by Susann, who died in 1974. Susann's writing achieved cult status but also took a trashing from reviewers.
A computer does not actually understand words, of course, but it can approximate a writer's style. In the case of Susann, her linear and formulaic writing--with its use of multiple adjectives, the way it mixed narrative and dialogue, and the frequency at which a character might have sex or ingest cocaine--was perfect for the computer.
French worked out an agreement with Susann's estate to avoid copyright infringements. But he painstakingly supervised the writing to make sure that no more than two of Ms. Susann's words appeared in a row.
"The computer program wrote 50% of it. Everything from plot, scene, sex acts and when a character might try to steal a lover," French said. "I did 25% of it, and we did 25% together."
The author did not just press the start button and wait for a book to come out.
Rather, the computer would pose questions, which French would answer, and several sentences would come out at a time.
"The technology is just not to the point where you can walk away and let it run," French said.
To disarm doubters who might think French did all of the writing himself, French kept extensive notes and documented his technological achievement with videotapes.
"It took eight years to write. Let's be honest: If I had written it myself, it would have taken me eight months," French said.
The book is published by Carol Publishing Group's Birch Lane Press. The initial run of 15,000 books in hardcover, priced at $18.95 each, has been increased as word of the project has spread.
"It may not be Pulitzer Prize material. But it's a pretty good book. It's not just a bunch of words strung together," said Carol publisher Steven Schragis. "It's the cleanest manuscript we've ever gotten. Not one word was changed in the editing."
Early reviews indicate "Just This Once" may have cash register appeal.
The Dead Jackie Susann Quarterly, a New York City publication for the author's fans, said: "It truly captured Jackie's style of almost freakishly unrelated adjectives strung before nouns to create sketches of people and place that both hold your attention and question how this woman ever sold a book.
"She would be proud. Lots of money, sleaze, Hollywood, disease, death, oral sex, tragedy and the good girl gone bad."
Novelist Thomas Gifford reviewed "Just This Once" with Jackie Collins' new "Amercian Star" for USA Today. Wrote Gifford: "If you do like this stuff, you'd be much, much better off with the one written by the computer."