Category Archives: Infinite Book Pile

Murakami Murakami Murakami

Cover of "After Dark"
Cover of After Dark

I’m in the midst of a Haruki Murakami binge. I finished Norwegian Wood a few days ago, and had to go right back to the beginning and start reading it again. I’m tearing through After Dark, and have Sputnik Sweetheart at the top of the ‘To Be Read’ stack.

(The ‘To Be Read’ stack lives by my bed. It’s actually more like seven or eight stacks. If I kept all the books that need attention in one stack, it would be taller than I am and present a genuine health and safety risk. I also have a ‘To Be Read queue for e-books.)

My Murakmi love began around 2006 when I plucked a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from the shelves of the Piccadilly Waterstones in London. It’s very rare that I buy a book ‘cold’, most of my reading follows the trail of authors related to or influenced by other authors I’m interested in, and these days my schedule of reviewing. So to pick up a book by an author I had not even heard of, having no idea what to expect, was unusual. I was likely influenced by my love of Banana Yoshimoto (whose short story collection Lizard I read half a dozen times in my late teens).

I didn’t entirely understand Wind-Up Bird at first. I knew what happened. I knew I was powerfully affected by it. But I didn’t understand why. The story of Wind-Up Bird, which follows the journey Toru Okada as he loses first his job, then his cat, then his wife, would have strange resonance’s with my own life over the next few years. Murakami has a uniquely accurate bead on the lives of young men, and the growing-up process we go through to reach true adulthood.

All of Murakami’s novels are bildungsroman, or ‘formation novels’, in which a variety of young male protagonists, generally in their late teens / twenties / early thirties experience emotional trauma which then drives them towards true adulthood. In Norwegian Wood it is the loss of a first love that drives the story of Toru Watanabe, as he is torn between a profoundly damaging emotional entanglement with his first lover, and the hope of a future life offered by another young woman. Murakami’s protagonists, talking in the first person, are terrifyingly ignorant of their own vulnerability. There is a chilling edge to Murakami’s narrative, as he shows his chracters placing their trust in friends and lovers, but leaves open the possibility that they are being manipulated and betrayed even as they are being helped.

It’s that utter moral uncertainty that raises Murakami’s novels to greatness, along with his breathtaking exploration of the edges of the metaphysical. As his young characters are broken by loss and grief, Murakami shows how certainty and reality collapse in states of great emotion. In the most subtle and oblique ways Murakami is a fantasist, twisting strange eruptions of the weird and unreal in to his work to explore the inner lives of his characters. It’s as though his writing sits eternally on the border between the real and mundane and the fantastic and numinous, with every part of his story slipping freely between the two.

My latest Murakami binge has been set off by the release of the film of Norwegian Wood. Which I can now watch, having decided there was no way I wanted to spoil the book by watching the film first. Here is the trailer. If it catches your attention, but you have not read Murakami yet, I suggest you do so immediately.

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Thoughts on The Lifecycle of Software Objects

There is an intelligent question at the heart of Ted Chiang’s new novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. The story is set in a near future, where online virtual worlds have grown to such levels of sophistication that they are able to support genetic programmes which can imitate the behaviour of life. Initially marketed as digital pets, it quickly becomes apparent that these software objects are far more lifelike than their creators intended. The novella follows the progress of the lifeforms and their carers over the formative years of the new lifeforms, if lifeforms they really are.

Artificial Intelligence is one of the more familiar tropes of Science Fiction, and one that has made it into the popular imagination through films like Bladerunner, Terminator and The Matrix. The machines are alive, and they’re coming to get us. How the machines come to life is less often explored.  Often they are constructed, manufactured as full adult intelligences rolling from assembly lines. Or they are emergent, ghosts arising from the complexity of the machine and information systems. But they are rarely nurtured. Why would they be? A machine body does not need to be grown like a biological body, so why would a machine mind, or even a machine consciousness?

In The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang asks, what if Artificial Intelligence can only be created through nurture? What if an infant AI requires all the same care, protection and love as an infant human? Can such an AI still be considered a machine, or would it be owed all the same rights and privileges as a human?

It’s a question that allows Chiang to explore not just the moral consequences of AI, but more broadly the question of consciousness. Of all the unanswered questions in science, consciousness is among the most intransigent. Whilst our knowledge of the brain has advanced in leaps and bounds, it has brought us no closer to really understanding the fundamental nature of consciousness. Is consciousness merely a product of the brain? If so, what is it’s physical process? Is it rooted on the quantum level, in which case is it even attached to the human body? Or is, as the Buddhists claim, consciousness a universal quality that simply arises through the human form?

The only really significant thing we can say about consciousness is that we do not know. And given that lack of knowledge, many of our most fundamental moral assumptions come in to question. Chiang has a startling capacity to challenge those assumptions in the most direct and economical of ways. If the AI of the story are really only software objects, then why is it so horrific to learn that hacker groups have developed torture programmes for them? Or that software objects that are ‘hothoused’ and grown without human contact become autistic or even psychotic? Why should we care about these software objects, more than say an iPhone app or the latest distro of Linux?

Towards the end of the novella Chiang states his thesis as ‘experience is algorithmically incompressible’. Experience is the only source of intelligence. In order for Artificial Intelligence to exist it must live and experience, fully and completely, so that we can no longer truly consider it as artificial. In the end, we care about the software objects of Chiang’s novella because they have shared our experience. Whether they share our form or not, whether they are truly alive or not, the software objects are part of the human experience, so in some way human.

It’s an interesting thesis because it removes AI from the realm of sci-fi fantasy, and places it firmly in the bounds of very real probability. Chiang so skilfully explores his thesis in relation to the dynamics of the software development industry, consumer culture, capitalist economics and human nature, that after finishing the 30,000 word novella it’s difficult to imagine that some form of Chiang’s scenario will not emerge sooner rather than later. It’s both a hopeful and a horrifying prospect. Hopeful because any new emergence of life in to the world brings immense hope for the future. Horrifying because if The Lifecycle of Software Objects illustrates anything, it is the immense human capacity to abuse and damage consciousness that arises in any form, even its own.

Why is literature so miserable?

Between reviewing, critiquing, research and work commitments, it seems like I rarely get to read a book just because I want to. But every now and again I get the desire to read something purely for pleasure. And quite often when that happens, I want to read a book that I might loosely describe as ‘happy’ or ‘warm’. Something with a sense of humour, an intriguing plot, deep characters and most of all a positive worldview. But I still want all those literary qualities I generally demand of a good book.

(It has just been pointed out to me that I am basically describing a grown-up, literary version of Sesame Street, which may very well be true.)

Maybe I am hard to please (actually there is no maybe about it, I am incredibly hard to please) but ‘warm’ books of this kind are hard to find. It’s not that there aren’t great books in the world, but so many of them tend towards the maudlin, negative, pessimistic and downright miserable.

Why?

Is it something in the lives of great prose writers? Are they fundamentally sad people who express that in their work? Or do we think that to say something profound we must adopt a cynicical worldview? Or is it in the nature of good fiction, that its internality leads inevitably to a certain misery? Or do we simply live in a terrible world about which it is impossible to say anything both meaningful and cheerful?

In other places less angst ridden…

Jeffrey Ford has a blog. Go and read it.

Some people won Nebula Awards, and John Scalzi is the new president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Kraken by China Mieville

China Miéville has a passion for London. The multi-award winning author has reflected the city’s surreal side in Un Lun Dun, set it to a drum’n’bass beat in King Rat, and inundated it with vampire imagoes in The Tain. Now, in his new novel, Miéville threatens to destroy the nation’s capital entirely in the tentacled embrace of a giant squid. And while Miéville is far from the first novelist to threaten to obliterate London, he may win the prize for having the most fun along the way.

Read more at The Guardian

Shadows and Fairies

I had a little book shopping spree this evening. Jeffrey Ford’s World Fantasy award winning The Shadow Year and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphans Tale – Volume 1. I have read Jeffrey Ford’s short fiction and I’m excited to read him at novel length. Cat Valente has impressed me with her online serial novel, although I’ve followed it only sporadically. This makes up for all the books I resisted buying in San Jose.

Speaking of Cat Valente and her serial novel, the last chapter of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland has been posted.

Rachel Swirsky impresses with A Memory of Wind on Tor.com. I find the illustration quite beautiful.

The Tomes of San Francisco

So I did a bit of book shopping whilst is SF at the wonderful Borderlands. If you happen to be near enough to shop there at any time please do so. Empty your wallet in support of our much needed specialist genre stores, and get great books in return!

On the flight out I read the mildly disappointing first Harry Potter. Yes, it was fun and frothy. But bottom line it is the story of a boy whose problem is that he is both ordinary and poor, with the soultion being he is actualy rich and the single most special boy in the world. Those of us who grew up ordinary and poor, only to discover we were actualy ordinary and poor say boo! Down with potter! Continue reading The Tomes of San Francisco

Mirrorshades

John Klima sticks his neck out and nominates his top 10 most influential SF / F anthologies over at Tor.com. It’s a list that makes me want to read more, as do the the comments. But I was surprised to see my most influential anthology went entirely unmentioned…

Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology was the book that woke me up to what science fiction could be. I would guess that like many readers I found it in the wake of reading Neuromancer. As unique and startling as that novel was, without seeing the diversity of writing in the Bruce sterling edited anthology I might not have grasped what SF short fiction was really capable of.

Red Star, Winter Orbit still rates for me as one of Gibson’s strongest stories (alongside Hinterlands). But Tom Maddox Snake-Eyes sticks in my memory as the epitomy of cyberpunk, and a major influence over my story They Leave Him No Voice (workshopped at Clarion and awaiting re-write). Contributions from Greg Bear and Pat Cadigan also rocked my adolescent world, but it was James Patrick Kelly’s Solstice that really blew my mind. I remember that story pretty much scene for scene, despite not having read it for at least a decade. Meeting Jim at Clarion was totally awe inspiring as a consequence.

I can see my old battered copy of Mirrorshades on the shelf from where I am writing this. Its been a while, I think its time to go and read it again.

mirrorshades

Far Eastern tales of whimsy and malice

I’ve been avidly reading (and listening) to Eugie Foster’s perfectly formed fairy tales in short story form since I started reviewing for The Fix (which Eugie edits). They have appeared in some of my favourite venues including the Drabblecast and Realms of Fantasy (sadly no longer with us). Now they have been collected together in Returning My Sister’s Face: and other far eastern tales of whimsy and malice. Should anyone feel like buying me a present, this comes high on the list. If you don’t like me enough to do that, then go and buy yourself a copy as quick as you can. I know one of my fellow Clarion grads in particular who will appreciate Eugie Foster’s writing (you know who you are).

Join the Gene Wolfe book club

Need more intellectual roughage in your post Christamas cultural diet? Well John Klima may just have the answer.

Not satisfied with reading an entre 53 books last year, Mr Klima has set himself the task of reading all 12 books of The Solar Cycle by Gene Wolfe. And you can join him in his endeavour over at the Gene Wolfe book club. In Klima’s words, ‘These books are dense and complicated and full of mysteries and things to discover’, exactly what I need in this new year.

I’ve been fascinated by Wolfe as one of a group of writers who have colonised the Dying Earth genre, following in the footsteps of the legendary Jack Vance. I attempted to tackle The Book of the New Sun by Wolfe about two years ago. I found it tough going but images from it have lingered in my imagination ever since. Quite coincidentaly I picked it up again last night, determined to finally conquer the tome! And now here comes the perfect opportunity. I’m heading to the club to sign up now.

Holy Cow…where did all these books come from?

Its been ages since I updated my progress working through the infinite pile of books beside my bed, so here goes a brief round-up of the last three months.

Firstly, I read something like 120 short stories in various states of completition at Clarion. They were the greatest leaning resource for me as a writer I’ve ever had access to. Reading work in prgress, from seventeen writers who all had the potential to make an impact in speculative fiction, was much like being exposed to cutting edge scientific research.

Continue reading Holy Cow…where did all these books come from?

Aber Reads

The locals call Aberystwyth, the almost capital of Wales, simply Aber. It makes sense, its a mouthfull of constanants.

Its an odd almost capital. Twelve thousands residents, seven thousands students. Some tourists and caravan parks. More than a few hippies and a sprinkling of writers, if you can seperate the two. I like it. I want to move.

My second trip to Aber and I wanted to get some reading done. Its a town that suits fantasy. High cliffs. Long grey beaches. Sea gulls the size of labradors. I took some books with me but was also lured in by the Waterstones 3 for 2. A mistake.

The Merlin Codex is one of those sophisticated fantasy novels I’ve been meaning to read. I keep picking it up off the book shelf the putting it back. I’ve read the prologue six or seven times so this week I read the rest. Its very evocative. Intense prose. Packed with dark imigiary. But where are the characters? Merlin, Jason, Medea and other figures from the Greek / Celtic mythic melange author Robert Holdstock mixes are there, but in name only. Perhaps its the fantasy iotself that overweighs the chracters, but facinating as the book was I couldn’t really get absorbed into it. Maybe it was just me.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss wasn’t me. This book seems to fulfill all the worst accusations levelled at fantasy blockbusters. Perhaps that isn’t entirely fair. Rothfuss is trying to write the kid of gritty, low fantasy that George R R Martin has popularised. Writers like Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch and many more have followed down this path, none very successfully IMHO. These books are very, very ambitious. Dozens of lead characters with hundreds more in support. Numerous intertwining plotlines. Massive themes unfolding accross a vast imagined world. It takes a massive amounts of skill and craft to write this kind of books, and with the exception of Martin, few of the writers attempting it are good enough. The Name of the Wind typifies this for me. It has grand ambition but the basics of good storytelling and character bulding are’t there.Thats a great disappointment because I really want a book to get lost in, but The Name of the Winde surely is not it.

My Clarion reading continued with Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman and Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link. Interesting to read these two short story collections intertwined with each other. there are a lot of commonalities. Gaiman’s writing is more diverse, whilst links has the edge in intensity. I could sit and read the Gaiman collection straight through, but Link’s is more a thing to read over time.  I also read through some more James Patrick Kelly, which reminded me that I wat to catch up with some more hard-SF. Its two weeks to Clarion now. I’m excited in ways I can’t express.