Patti Smith, Trains of Creativity, and the Little Things We Notice

I’ve been reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and I don’t want it to end. I’m not sure what it is that I find so spellbinding about her writing, but it was the same with M Train when I read that last year. Like a pair of comfortable boots, I’d live in them I could.

M Train begins with the line: “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” And you may be fooled into thinking it is a book about nothing. Patti talks in streams about coffee, cafes, wandering, memories, books, waiting, superstition and coincidence with little linearity or focus. But in showing us what her down time looks like, she shows us the profound. Poetic vision isn’t some gift radioed in from another world; it’s in the everyday, in the gaps between ego events. Our art is in the little things we notice when we think we’re doing nothing. And sometimes there is no point, no single focus of meaning. Sometimes the only thing we need to take away from an experience is our own natural response.

“Life is at the bottom of things and belief is at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”

For me, M Train was itself on a trajectory of synchronicity. It was exactly a year on from writing Mind in the Gap (which has a main character called M and a string of wacky experiences on trains) that I noticed it, and I was still at a bit of a loss as to what I would do next. I’d been playing about with some ideas, redrafting an old novel, but nothing seemed to gel. Then, somewhere between the lines of Patti Smith’s nothing, I started thinking about my own nothing. And, from a stream of consciousness style notebook I kept on a trip to London, I got a good start on the novella that is to become Endless Circles. Something comes from nothing.

Continue reading “Patti Smith, Trains of Creativity, and the Little Things We Notice”

Writers on Lockdown: Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett is an Arthur C Clarke award winning science fiction author. He’s published six (soon to be seven) novels and dozens of short stories, often focusing on ‘inner’ as opposed to ‘outer’ space. I caught up with him to chat about isolation, metaphysics, and tribalism in modern society.


Hi Chris, welcome to Writers on Lockdown! So, how are you faring in these strange times? Is isolation a help or a hindrance to your writing process?

I’ve been having difficulty moving my writing forward this last couple of months, but this often happens – I simply dry up and can’t seem to write anything – and it may have nothing to do with the lockdown. However I do think my ability to concentrate (never brilliant to be honest) is worse than usual.  

When the real world is stranger and more engrossing than usual – and I am finding it engrossing – it is perhaps harder to focus on imagined worlds? 

In my life generally, I’d say I am finding the lockdown more interesting than distressing. I’m used to spending a lot of time by myself at home, and in some ways the lockdown is providing a stimulus for me to find ways of keeping more in touch with some people than I usually would, which is nice.  

I have a little granddaughter – she is 13 months old – and I’m very sad not to be able to spend time with her, as the plan had been (until this happened) that I would be looking after her for one day a week.

I’ve heard from several writers that their creativity is at a low point. I wonder if being engrossed in new situations is all part of ‘refilling the well’ of inspiration. Do you think we’ll see a different kind of fiction emerge on the other side of this?

I think that’s exactly right about ‘refilling the well’. We have to stock up on life in order to have anything to write about.  And none of us have had many experiences which are completely comparable to this one. (In fact a lot of writers have had pretty quiet lives generally, I suspect). I’m sure new kinds of fiction will come out of this, but I really don’t know what. This virus has changed life for everyone, but in so many different ways.  

I wanted to talk in particular about your recent novel, Beneath the World, a Sea, which is full of strong, surreal imagery, questions of the unconscious and philosophy of mind. When so many science fiction writers are focused on future technology, what made you turn inwards and address the nature of consciousness?

Continue reading “Writers on Lockdown: Chris Beckett”

Writers on Lockdown: Logan Ryan Smith

Logan Ryan Smith writes dark, disorientating, and highly imaginative streams of consciousness with a unique sense of humour and madness. In the third of this new series, I caught up with him to talk about isolation, the flow of writing, and the unreliable narrator.


Hi Logan, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!

Hi, C.R. Thanks for the invite to participate. Very happy to be a part of this.

How are you faring in these strange times, is isolation a help or a hindrance to your creative process?

Outside of the occasional moment of being overwhelmed emotionally by the terror and beauty of a whole planet trying to achieve something together, in unison, not only for themselves, but for their families, neighbors, and those workers out in public selflessly providing essential services for the rest of us, I guess you could say I’m doing quite well, actually. As I’m betting you’ll hear from most writers, I’m not incredibly social. I’m not antisocial, but the things writers like doing (reading and writing) are things done in isolation already, so it’s not a huge disruption to my life. And I’m in isolation with my favorite people, my family, so why would I complain? So, we’re taking this lockdown very seriously and fortunately they’re like me — not super social. I guess we were all homebodies to begin with, so we’re not dealing with the same stress as those that have a real need to be out and about with bunches of people. So it goes.

As for the creative process, I guess it has stymied it. I usually take a break after releasing a new book, but I likely would have begun a new one by now had this whole thing not happened. I am fine with (some) isolation, but I actually do a lot of my writing out of the house. That’s mostly due to not having any kind of writing studio in our house, which means the kids would be asking every five seconds what I’m doing, what my book is about, and if they can help me write it. But when I say, “Sure. Tell me how many S’s there are in ‘occasional.’ I can’t remember,” they just give me blank expressions and start hitting the keyboard, laughing madly like a couple tiny maniacs. It’s frightening. You should see it.  That said, even if I get my writing studio with a door that locks (we’re going to try to convert the garage during this time of lockdown), the six-year-old is already a master lock-picker. So we’ll see how that goes.

Aside from needing space, I’m also not the type to write when my mind is completely occupied by something other than the thing I’m writing at the moment. I turn on the news every morning, hoping against hope that the death and infection rates are slowing, and as yet, it seems to only be increasing. Hard for me to think about my next book when that’s how the day starts. Then of course there’s getting used to working from home. So, sitting all day in the house on the computer for the day job makes it a little daunting. I mean, to basically “clock out” of the day job without having gone anywhere and then to simply “clock in” to the writing job is an abrupt change in gears and I’m much better working when there’s more of a transition from one thing to the next. I hate abruptly changing gears.

All THAT said, the itch to write is a lifelong affliction, and that has returned. I’m ready to get rolling. What that will likely do is inspire me to get to work converting the garage ASAP. So, long story short, this whole crisis has affected me by inspiring me to do some home renovation. Who’d a thunk it?

Continue reading “Writers on Lockdown: Logan Ryan Smith”

Writers on Lockdown: Gavin Jefferson

Gavin Jefferson is a multi-genre author, spanning time travel, fantasy, humour, and the paranormal. In the second of this new series of interviews, I caught up with him to chat about isolation, trigger warnings, categorisation, and the impact of comic books on his work.


Hi Gavin, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!

Thanks for having me, I love this idea! 

So, how’s this crazy situation been for you so far – do you find isolation a help or a hindrance as a writer?

I find it okay, to be honest. Although I work in an office full of people in my day job, I tend to live there in my own world, with over-ear headphones and music. You might say that I’ve been prepping myself for this for quite some time, ha ha! 

I tend to do most of my writing on my lunch breaks or late at night, so because I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to work from home, I’m getting roughly the same amount of writing done. One thing I didn’t expect from the lockdown is how it has made me look at my work in a different light.

Really? In what way?

Well, it’s forced me to consider theme and story setups more. I’m a firm believer in trigger warnings, but I never really considered pandemics as triggering events. I know, for me at least, I don’t want to read anything relating to that right now. And I don’t think I’ll want to in the near future, either. To think I intended to reread Station Eleven this year, too.

Take The Surrogate, for instance. That’s the story of the world’s last obese man. The way I eradicated obesity in that book was to have the worldwide governments band together secretly and have them release a virus into their respective drinking water sources, altering everyone’s genetics. It felt like something only bigger people, like me, might be offended by. And, to be honest, I thought the presence of that potential trigger would be clear from the synopsis. But, the virus idea… I hadn’t even considered it. I put a tweet out prior to the lockdown telling people not to read the book, or to take care with it if they did. The last thing I want is to upset people. I mean, it’ll happen whether I want it to or not, I guess. But, I’d rather present the warnings upfront and have a clear conscience about it than not.

I jokingly said that there would be an influx of pandemic-related fiction over the next decade, but now that I think of it, there probably will be, right? This’ll be taught in schools, at the very least.

Continue reading “Writers on Lockdown: Gavin Jefferson”

Writers on Lockdown: Kenny Mooney

Kenny Mooney’s books are experimental, ‘unapologetically nihilistic’ prose poems that skillfully thrust the reader into new perspectives. In the first of a new series of interviews, I caught up with him to chat about isolation, writing style, philosophical influence, and the importance of ambiguity in literature.


Hi Kenny, welcome to Writers on Lockdown!

Thank you for having me!

So how are you faring in these strange times – is isolation beneficial to your creative process or a hindrance?

The isolation isn’t a problem for me. I’m an introverted, fairly anti-social person, so being told to stay indoors and not socialise is basically my life. I’m amused at how many people, mostly those I work with, have been going on about how they don’t know how they’re going to manage, and it’s been about a week. I imagine them already chewing their fingernails down. These will be the fucking idiots buying all the food in the supermarkets. 

Isolation definitely benefits my creative process though. I’m not the kind of person who can write around other people, I need a totally separate space that I can control and manage. Not that I’ve been writing very much lately, but when I do, having somewhere away from other people is certainly required. I guess because this whole situation isn’t actually that much different to my normal life, for me, I don’t feel as compelled to take advantage of the lockdown and do something creative.

I think pressure to be productive can have a negative effect on output for creatives. Would you agree?

I would definitely agree, at least for me. Different people respond to different stimuli, but in my experience, pressure is not a great way to encourage creativity. And I think that can often be part of the problem for writers, and other artists. We put ourselves under so much pressure to reach some arbitrary level, be it a particular word count, or to be original or funny, experimental, or whatever. I think if people just relaxed and let the work be itself, to arrive in its own way, they’d be happier, and maybe more productive. But who knows. I’m wary of giving or listening to writing advice. Do whatever works for you.

Continue reading “Writers on Lockdown: Kenny Mooney”

Telepathic AI, Neuronal Art and Squids, Everywhere!

Pierre Huyghe Image from The guardian

Technology in the Gap

This is the first in a little series of posts about the real-life developments in technology that led to the bizarre extrapolated versions in my new book, Mind in the Gap. In this one, I share some of my research on the possibilities of creating art directly from the brain.

Squids, Everywhere

SQUID is a real device used to detect minute changes in electromagnetic fields, including those in the brain. It stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, and has been used in science fiction for years, most memorably in William Gibson’s novels as a way to read-out information stored in neural circuitry.

The current method for brain imaging, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), has limitations in that it is blind to detailed and direct neuronal activity. SQUID is one of the developments being investigated as a replacement for the future.

I used this idea in my story Frankie. I wanted to show such technology becoming so canonical and safe that it was used in a socio-commercial setting as opposed to only in medicine. I created an alternate reality where people no longer carry around mobile devices to interact with the world, but instead wear headpieces that continually read and output brain signals (and actually look like a squids!).

Telepathic AI

Scientists in a Kyoto laboratory have been working on a project that uses AI to analyse data collected during fMRI scans, and to interpret them into visual representations of what the individual was imagining at the time from a database of photographs. They call it Deep Image Reconstruction. Artist Pierre Huyghe worked with this recently by asking volunteers to imagine things he described, and then getting the AI to create a visual from their brain signals.

“If I tell you to think of an apple, the apple you think of will not be the same apple I think of,” he told The Guardian. It is one subjective impression (quale) informing another, which is then interpreted by an artificial intelligence. The resulting images are far from accurate according to those involved; they look nightmarish, fleshy and deformed (see the image above). They are uncanny: somehow recognisable to us but just strange enough that we know they can’t be real. You can read the whole article here.

I like to imagine these are the kind of images AI could think up independently in the future if we tried to simulate human perception. Would these grotesque mashed up images define us as a species in the mind of a robot? And I’m not even going to get into the possibilities of AI becoming capable of spontaneously reading our minds. I’ll save that for when I come to post about the horrors of my story One…

Painting with Thoughts

For several years we have been able use a brain-computer interface to command painting software: painting pictures with our thoughts, choosing colours and placement based on the way we focus our attention. It has been used to help people who don’t have use of their motor functions, and is hoped to even become an effective communication channel for people suffering locked-in syndrome.

Some say we can also use brain painting as a meditative therapy of sorts. If we ‘map’ our thought patterns and create a visual representation of what altering that would look like. It’s a bit like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a visual aid and creative output, and I’d be very interested to see whether this is proven effective in the future.

image

Do Androids Dream?

A type of AI called a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) has filters capable of abstracting out aspects of images in layers. This has been used in various experiments. For example, we know that CNN can produce new images that combine the ‘content’ of one existing image and the ‘style’ of another – think of the filters you have on your phone.

Google’s DeepDream uses a CNN to find and enhance patterns in images via algorithmic Pareidolia to produce psychedelic, over-processed images (pictured above) These experiments with neural nets are already evolving at pace. Artwork created by CNN is selling for thousands of dollars, and is informing the way virtual and augmented reality develops.

Frankie

In Frankie, I combined the general ‘output’ ideas of Deep Image Reconstruction, CNN and Brain Painting with the ‘input’ of advanced brain scans at neuronal level. I imagined a little piece of worn tech taking minute signals from the brain, that could output them instantly onto the surfaces around us to create a sort of communal psychedelic wonderland. I thought about what it could be like if certain skilled individuals were able to build the output images up in layers to create hologram-like objects for as long as concentration would allow. My nameless protagonist lives in a world where this is what memes have become.

Being a lover of psychology, I then began to wonder: what, then, might happen if the headpieces could take readings from the subconscious mind to show us things we didn’t realise we were thinking? It could tell us ‘You share an exciting chemistry with that person over there,’ or ‘you are harbouring deep-set doubts about this.’ And what if those thoughts in the subconscious weren’t intermittent, but ever-present in the background, and ever-growing? You’ll have to read Frankie to find out!

* * *

If you’ve already read Mind in the Gap, have you seen the Connections and Easter Eggs page? People are starting to add their theories and findings, and I’d love you to join in. If you haven’t read it yet, you can check out the blurb or pick up a signed copy here. It’s also available as an ebook on Kindle or as a paperback from anywhere that sells books. Thank you!

WTF and Other Stars

“Every man and every woman is a star.” ~ Aleister Crowley

In this famous statement from The Book of the Law, Crowley meant that every individual is the centre of the universe to themselves; their own God and an equal element of the cosmos. In the commentary, he went on to describe how an atom of carbon may pass through myriad phases ‘appearing as chalk, chloroform, sugar, sap, brain and blood, not recognizable as “itself” the black amorphous solid, but recoverable as such, unchanged by its adventures.” The implication, I think, is that this is also what happens to consciousness.

In Mapmakers, the fifth story of Mind in the Gap, Maisie borrows from Crowley by saying that “every man and woman has their own orbit and their own constellation of meaningful events.” In Winter Triangle, the people of Origin take this idea more literally, naming their people of underground significance after the most prominent stars in particular asterisms. Then the stars surface again in The Fold when Georgie says ‘My mother always told me people are like stars. They have a light inside, and you can tell if something’s amiss by the way they shine.’

In the course of researching for the book, I learned some fascinating things about particular stars, which I applied in metaphor for the way my characters were acting. I thought I’d share some of them with you. Continue reading “WTF and Other Stars”

The Soldier, the Hunchback, and the Master of Meditation

!?

In his humorous essay Liber CLVIII, Aleister Crowley refers to the exclamation point and the question mark as the Soldier and the Hunchback due to their shapes. The question mark is symbolic of doubt and enquiry; the exclamation point of startling revelation. As we progress along our chosen path of thinking and learning, we continuously meet doubts followed by revelations that in turn lead us to new doubts. What is this? A-ha! But then, what is this? It is the rhythm of science and the curious mind.

It is also the spirit of my stories: both Fragments of Perception and Mind in the Gap are streams of questions and revelations. Often everything is called into question for the character as the walls of their assumptions come tumbling down, but it is rare that I would leave them without an ‘a-ha’ moment, a revelation, or a point at which they begin to understand the world again in a new pattern. It is also rare for me to leave it without a further question or doubt for the reader… Continue reading “The Soldier, the Hunchback, and the Master of Meditation”

Author Interview – Stephen Oram

 

Stephen Oram 4M - Copy

Stephen Oram is one of my favourite contemporary authors. His debut novel, Quantum Confessions, had a significant influence on me; in fact, it was the book that inspired me to start writing my own. His work primarily examines the way our society works, and how it could be affected by technological developments in the near-future. Stephen works closely with future thinkers and scientists, most notably as part of the European Human Brain Project, and extrapolates their research into accessible, thought-provoking narratives. There is often a dystopian feel there, a warning perhaps, which is all the more poignant once you realise how close to reality some of the ideas really are. Recently, I was lucky enough to be selected to share some of my flash fiction at an event he curates for Virtual Futures, and he kindly agreed to let me interview him for the Orchid’s Lantern blog. I hope you enjoy reading his well-considered answers as much as I did. Continue reading “Author Interview – Stephen Oram”

Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons

A great write-up of the second Near-Future Fictions event of the year, which featured my brand new story The Test.

Extruded Bodies & Phantom Flesh by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures’ March 2018 Near Future FictionsSalon explored the theme of Virtual Persons

Virtual Futures grew out of a series of conferences in the mid-90s that sought to develop a new discipline that would confront the technologisation of culture. Its latest incarnation is a regular ‘Salon’, where philosophical, scientific and creative thinkers combine discussion, performance and fiction to explore current and potential technological extensions of the human condition.

The Near Future Fictions Salons place science fiction centre stage, with previous guest participants including Alan Moore, Pat Cadigan, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and Geoff Ryman.

Monday’s event explored the theme of ‘Virtual Persons’:

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona – but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? [from http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk]

Opening keynote by performance artist…

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