The Short Things

There are a lack of small things in my media diet.  I would dearly love more five-minute podcasts.  I’m sure they’re harder to monetise – some podcasts seem to take five minutes just listing and talking-up their sponsors.  And, yes, podcasts fill an important role in extensive, unbounded and deep conversation not limited by standard programming slots.  But innovation comes in the short things too.  Maybe it doesn’t need to be a novel or six hours of audio or 45 minutes on YouTube.  It can be a novella, a pamphlet, a clip or a five-minute podcast too.  Find the shape that the piece actually fits, rather than the shape the current culture expects it to be. You might be more likely to finish it. Hell, I might be more likely to finish it.

Brought to you by the older gentleman who recently got sent a book that appears to be five fucking inches thick.

 

READING: New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future – James Bridle (UK) (US)

 

Amazon Echo Spot – Jeff Bezos Finally Invades My House

So Jeff Bezos, that iguana-chewing bastard, finally got me.  I have an Amazon microphone product in my house.  Specifically, the Echo Spot.

I’d considered other Echo devices before, but they were either too big or not functional enough or otherwise just didn’t seem to fit into my life and needs.

The first thing to note about the Echo Spot is that the camera can be disabled, and the second is that there’s a hard button on top to kill the microphones.

Sadly, you cannot yet invent a new wakeword-name for the device, so I still cannot call a home computing device “Zen” and have it answer back. You get a choice of four, and so I selected “Echo.”  “Echo, play Berlin Community Radio.”  It just does it.  No settings, no farting around with installing TuneIn Radio or even voice-training the device. You can add Skills with the phone app, which doesn’t seem to be a well-populated or well-designed ecosystem.  But Alexa, as a voice UI system, works so much better than Siri for me that I was actually quite shocked.

It’s interesting to think of it as a microphone connected to a network of Amazon server farms.  Talking to a machine-learning-leveraged spreadsheet with your name on it.

The Spot takes up a space on my shelf roughly analogous to a coffee mug or old-style alarm clock. The circular screen amuses me, because, in the science fiction tv shows I grew up with, videophones were always circular for some reason. (And this does have vide0-calling function, hence the camera.) I can stream tv through this thing, which, to me, is funny as all hell.

It is, for me, a surprisingly useful little thing for a lot of the side actions I’d usually have to shift focus for. I’d like the screen to be a little more customisable for glanceable information, and at least some human attempt to curate the Skills ecosystem, but, for me, this is the Echo device that justifies the Echo strategy.

Amazon Echo Spot (UK) (US)

 

The Book Of Joan: A Fable Of The End

“Men are among the loneliest creatures. They lose their mothers and cannot carry children, and have nothing to comfort themselves with but their vestigial cockular appendages. This is perhaps the reason they move ever warward when they are not moving fuckward.”

THE BOOK OF JOAN by Lidia Yuknavitch is a science fiction story about women. Women who love, women who hate, women who kill, women who destroy. It’s a story about what happens after the end of the world, where (another) other-humanly elite has gone to orbit to live out sexless, loveless lives of bizarre art and ritual.

Christine Pizan, a denizen of the orbiting station that may be all that’s left of the human race, is an artist of skin.  Through a braille-like process of branding and skin grafts, she wears stories on her skin.  She is the Book of Joan — Joan being Joan of Dirt, the superhuman child soldier who fought the good fight down below and was burned at the stake for it. The term used for Joan‘s superhuman condition is engenderine – from engender, whose more archaic definition is “to cause to be born.”

Any book that starts with a quote from Doris Lessing’s mighty SHIKASTA has me on its side.

The medieval writer Christine de Pizan’s last work was an eulogy of Joan of Arc.

The station is run by a mad misogynist called Jean de Men.  De Pizan’s intellectual status in her time was partly made by her dissection of the misogynist writer Jean de Meun. Not being a student of the period, these are things I learned after reading the bookJoan of Dirt is an obvious avatar of Joan of Arc, but I didn’t know the rest. It didn’t make the bookany less fascinating to me.

The hunger for love replaced the hunger for god or science. The hunger for love became an opiate. In a world that had lost its ability to procreate, the story of love became paramount. “It was a wish like the moth’s wish for flame. It was a wish to fuck the sun. To be burned alive inside a story where our bodies could still want and do what bodies want to do.”

It’s not a happy book, I warn you.  There are moments of joy that blaze through it, but, contra to the first quote above, it’s a book about war and women, and birth and the earth. It’s a huge fable about the end of the world, told with pieces of history. It is ambitious, frequently beautiful, and weirdly haunting.

THE BOOK OF JOAN, Lidia Yuknavitch (UK) (US)

Singing Infections And Old Martian Dreams

Truth is stranger than fiction and the universe is stranger than we can imagine but bacteria communicate through chemicals which means they have a form of language that we can one day learn so that we can speak to bacteria and teach them songs.

Somewhere in a twenty-year-old notebook I have a story about a tech billionaire who throws half his vast fortune at a fast-tracked forty-year plan to get a working Martian colony going because he wanted a notional granddaughter to email him on his 80th birthday from a .mars account. It amuses me to note that Elon Musk founded SpaceX 15 years ago.  Pointless to write the story now.  I just need to live another 25 years to see how it ends.

Perhaps an innumerable vastness of bacteria on the Martian regolith will sing “Starman” as the first colony ship lands.

 

RECENTLY READ: VOID BLACK SHADOW, Corey J White (UK) (US)

22C And The End Of The Future

I attended a talk the other week about the future of spaceflight.  One guy gave a long presentation about how Gerard O’Neill’s plans for orbiting space colonies from 1972 are now ripe to be actioned.  A guy in the audience – the “I don’t really have a question” type who realises he has a captive audience for his own statement — explained that sixty-four of the spent engine tanks floating between here and the moon could be recovered, linked up into a torus and spun at 2 rpm.  My friend Rachel Armstrong, floating genuinely new ideas about synthetic biology engineering and microbiome management in space, cut something of a lonely figure amongst the retrofutures.

I grew up with the O’Neil “Island One” stuff. Those are lovely stories, and there was fun art made of them.  But I am again reminded – I mentioned this somewhere the other day, too — of Bill Gibson’s recent observation that in the 20th Century we could talk of nothing but “life in the 21st Century” and here in the 21C we seem to have trouble of conceiving of anything past the end of next week, let alone the 22nd Century.  22C.

Sometimes I think there’s a mass conclusion that we shouldn’t be thinking about 22C because We’re Living In The Future and it should All Be Happening Now.  I think the future needs to be constantly invented and drawn down to us.  (Which phrase has just made me think of “Drawing Down The Moon.”)

22C should be a badge of honour for futures speculation, perhaps.

 

READING: New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future – James Bridle (UK) (US)

 

Biophotonic Fiction: THE SMOKE by Simon Ings

‘If bugs in a jar reproduce once every minute, and by midnight the jar is full, at what time is the jar half-full?’ This Stella had remembered. Familiar enough as I was with theriddle, it still took me an incredulous moment, a split-second of scepticism, before I confirmed the answer in all its enormity: ‘At one minute to midnight the jar is still only half-full.’

THE SMOKE, by Simon Ings, is a surrealist alternate history the likes of which I haven’t seen in some while, if ever. It is truly off its trolley, but written with superb control. There is a strain of alternate history that imagines the futures of things that weren’t true but were believed to be.  My own AETHERIC MECHANICS did some of that.  Ings goes off with Alexander Gurwitsch and his biophotonic rays and morphogenetic field theory. A world in which World War 2 didn’t happen, Gurwitsch’s theories are carried by the Jewish Bund to a Russian homeland and developed to the point where the people of the Bund speciate.

This is where the book begins to get uncomfortably tricky. The Bund become a global elite, playing on the readers’ conceptions of Silicon Valley techno-elites but also unavoidably raising the murky ghosts of Jewish world order paranoid delusions and racisms. They’ve speciated – they’re not homo sapiens any more, they’re more than human.

And, at its heart, this is a book about a love affair between a normal, “unaccomodated” man and a woman of the Bund.

But everything wrapped around that broken heart is… well, I’m having to rush this newsletter out, so let’s just say “mad.”  The protagonist is from the North of England, and what follows is the part that seemed to confuse a lot of reviewers.  The book, when in London, appears to be roughly contemporary.  (Though there are clues that it could be the1970s.)  But in the North of England, well, it’s grim oop north, and there are steam engines, and no televisions, and tin baths by the fire.  Time is broken. Something happened to the world and now it’s in splinters.

The clue is that one of the characters is developing a tv show that is literally Gerry Anderson’s UFO, which made me laugh a lot. But it’s called D.A.R.E., like Dan Dare. (Which ties into the subplot about the British Space Force launching their first interplanetary rocket, which is a Project Orion nuclear pulse propulsion job.)  These are late entries in the legends of Britain, simple futures from this tired old island. (Which, it turns out, is the point.) There are other legends of Britain here, or things that feel like it – a biophotonic experiment during World War 1 leads to a race of “sub-men” who embody thedark mischief of pixies, Puck and spriggans.

I make it sound like a mess, I know, because it’s hard to get your arms around the whole thing, especially without spoiling it.  I will say that the book is structured so carefully that it all holds together.  A lot of questions it raises go unanswered, and you may find yourself thinking about them for a long time after you finish the book.  But it also feels complete.

(I also have to note that there’s a syntactical trick, a switch between second and first person, that made me curse in admiration at Ing’s wit and sleight of hand.)

It’s a difficult, twisty book.  But it’s that kind of book I love – the sort that has five other books jammed into it. It is deeply strange, with a strong sense of the wyrd, and yet at times feels powerfully grounded in real life.  THE SMOKE is a singular, uncompromising achievement.

THE SMOKE, Simon Ings  (UK) (US)

 

(Taken from the most recent edition of my newsletter, which you can subscribe to here)

 

New Phone Who Dis

 

In which I realise while travelling that 1) the new phone did not copy over my WordPress app login details 2)  the password is somehow nowhere on my phone and in fact tacked up to my office wall.

Reading this Buzzfeed story on “influencers” and it occurs to me that a snafu like the one above would cost these poor bastards thousands.

As someone who invented a variant on professional bloggers in science fiction in the 1990s, I feel terrible that these people have fallen into a future that is not only just partially built and tested (like all futures) but barely even sketched out, even by the early warning stations of sf and speculative design.  I worry that there’s a 21 year old guy out there with a phone in one hand and the Snap Spectacles he borrowed money for in the other hand, wondering what the fuck happened to the future he secured a loan on.  But, you know, these days, I worry for everybody.

Just read: THE SMOKE, Simon Ings  (UK) (US)

Fifty

Yeah, I turned fifty last week.  Might as well memorialise it here in my journal.  Below is the photo I took that day as I walked into town for a glass of wine and a stop at the food hall.  Which, I guess, looks as bleak as most of the photos I take.  But the air was crisp and clean, and the sky was nigh cloudless and the sun was bright and hard.  Reminded of that line (and many others) from Cohen’s “Tower Of Song” –  standing by the window, where the light is strong.  It’s a song I identify with more and more as I age.  Or, at least, understand more.

Fifty doesn’t feel too bad.  Although I feel compelled to mention the extremely mild barely-there recurring headache I’ve had for a couple of weeks, to strike that doomy foreshadowing note if it turns out to be a brain tumour.

See?  I can still make jokes.  Not dead yet.

Or, as the other guy said “Well… yes, and here we go again.”

 

BLACK EDGE

BLACK EDGE, by Sheelah Kolhatkar, is the story of Steve Cohen, financial wizard and insider-trading pirate, his weird life and the strange, damaged people who fell into his wake because of the riches he brought with him.  And the fucked-up financial policing system in America.

Ever watch that show BILLIONS?  You know, the one which opened with Paul Giamatti being pissed on by his dominatrix?  This is the real story.  It is both less lurid – no obvious piss play — and more fucked up.  Yes, it’s fun to see Paul Giamatti looking for new things to shout at while Damien Lewis smiles his weird little smile, but there is nothing in that show like the howling human void that is trader Matthew Martoma, whose story becomes the centre stone of this carefully assembled liar’s house.

With clear explanations of the financial shenanigans for people like me who are all but mathematically bind, and exquisite pen-portraits of all the characters involved  – the brief sketch of the demented informant known as “Winnie The Pooh” was an especial favourite — BLACK EDGE manages to be entertaining as well as rich and, of course, quite chilling. Totally recommended.

BLACK EDGE, Sheelah Kolhatkar 

 

REQUIREMENTS 18feb18

  • Figuring out a way to make LinkedIn rebuild and expand my network and contacts list, i.e. the only thing it was ever good for
  • Learning how to see the future again
  • A Hunter satchel from Peg & Awl.  (I don’t require one, but they look awfully nice, and I don’t currently have a good day bag)
  • I need to get my schedule to land so that I can plan some travel. Europe is calling.
  • Batching my email, probably. I’m at Inbox 39, which, for me, is criminal. I need to get back on my shit with replying and dealing with stuff and setting reminders.  This year started so fast that I didn’t have the usual few weeks in January to review my habits, practise and mechanics.
  • Hammer a fucking earphone jack into this stupid fucking new iPhone I had to get because an audio device without an earphone jack is like a car without fucking doors
  • also maybe work on my blood pressure some more