Recommended: Leena Krohn – Collected Fiction

If it were possible for a writer to be a major influence in your life in reverse chronological order, then I would say without a doubt that Leena Krohn is now one of my major influences, though I never heard of or read her before this past week. I think she would be 0kay with the concept. Her writing is a bright piece of a puzzle that’s been forming in my mind like a personal mandala over a period of decades, sitting alongside the Stanislaw Lem of Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, the Italo Calvino of Cosmicomics, the Macedonio Fernandez of The Novel of Eterna, the Cesar Aira of How I Became a Nun, the Julio Cortazar of Cronopios and Famas,and on down the line of the great absurdist/existentialist/philosophical/sci-fi-ish/masterful fiction writers that have every now and then burst upon my imaginary world and dazzled it with all-new impeccable fireworks. All of them I feel would be comfortable inside each others’ pages.

The Collection Fiction is packed full of treasures, novels and stories all in small byte-size pieces that add up to a polynomial of their wordcount. You could easily mistake it for one work altogether written over many years that’s sole intent is to open a window into a fascinating soul. A book is like a mirror, Georg Christoph once said, but some books are more translucent than others, and allow a depth perception in more dimensions than the visible.

In ‘Hakan and the x-creatures’, one of my favorite bits, Krohn describes how creatures in higher-dimensional spaces (say five, seven or even thirty-five dimensions) can know everything about those in the lower orders, but we lower ones can not even imagine them, yet they are certainly there, always present, never perceived. Throughout this particular novel (Pereat Mundis) an online advice counselor interacts with a man suffering from “eschatophobia” – the fear of the end of the world. The client’s communications are full of the possible end-time scenarios, while the counselor responds with trite advice about attending to one’s love life or perhaps volunteering in some do-gooder organization. They talk right past each other and neither takes notice of the other. It’s as infuriating and hilarious as any online comments section. I’m especially enjoying how she uses the same character (Hakan) for multiple characters – now he’s a hybrid human/chimp/wolf/goat, now he’s suffering from rapid aging syndrome, now he’s the eschatophobic client, now he’s a customer service rep for a cryogenics company – and why not? All the Hakans are wonderful!

These stories, along with their inventive playfulness and serious insights, are also beautifully written, charming and disarming. They make me happy and at the same time make me wish ‘if only I could do something like this’, wouldn’t that be great?

How My Brain got a nice review

On Goodreads. Made me happy and edged up my books’ overall Goodreads average rating to 2.99. Can they ever hit 3.00? The Law of Average would say “maybe”. If enough random people randomly read random books and rated them, that rating would likely be around 3.00, and that’s exactly what seems to have happened with mine.

Anyway: How My Brain Ended Up Inside This Box really is (IMHO) a pretty good story, a fresh and somewhat more sane take on artificial intelligence than the usual. And it’s free, of course, like all my books always are on Smashwords or Feedbooks.

Such a great book! A fresh new take on the whole Artificial Intelligence genre. And it’s simplicity is its beauty!

When the AIP discovers their self, we people’s-people reading it discover ourselves and the world along with them!

Glad I stumbled across this little treasure. It will be in one of my all time favourite reads.

A General Drama of Pain

Historical Fiction has a lot in common with Science Fiction, especially now, the more remote our present reality becomes from the past, I am continually reminded of William Gibson’s declaration that “the past is more difficult to imagine than the future”.

I just finished reading The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy and it might as well have been science fiction. The world of grain merchants in early 19th century England is as foreign to me as any made-up world. Hardy’s language is full of slang and terminology that are utterly meaningless to me as a 21st Century urban American, and yet the conclusion is as familiar as any TV show, as he sums up the novel by saying that “happiness [is] but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain”.

It’s a fine soap opera, as good as anything currently acclaimed in this “golden age of television” – lots of intrigue, surprises, coincidences, shocks, cruelty both intentional and not, good things happening to bad people and bad things happening to good. It could win an Emmy award for “general drama”.

He has a passage describing two bridges in the town, one nearer to the center than the other, at which different unhappy people go to contemplate suicide, even this being a part of life divided by class and circumstance, and how fantasies are particularly correlated to realities:

“There and thus they would muse; if their grief were the grief of oppression they would wish themselves kings; if their grief were poverty, wish themselves millionaires; if sin they would wish they were saints or angels; if despised, love, that they were some much-courted Adonis of country fame”

I once had an odd encounter that has stuck with me for decades. I was walking to work one day, hating my job, when a homeless madman stopped me on the street, blocking my way, insisting on showing me what he had in his brown paper bag. He then told me that when I got to work I should get a Bible and got to a passage in Ecclesiastes. I wondered how many people’s jobs have Bibles handy, or how he knew – if he did know – that I worked in a bookstore (I later considered that as a homeless madman wandering the streets with nothing else to do he had probably seen me there at work at some point and it wasn’t just a random stoppage on the street but that he knew who I was and had planned this intervention). The passage reads: “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Ain’t it the truth. Every day there were more and more books coming out, the hits don’t stop, it all never stops … In my RSS feed I’m continually informed about “the five best songs we heard this week” or “the twelve books you absolutely have to read now” or “the ten best places in the world to visit this year” or some such onslaught of newer, better and best.

It was rather comforting to read The Mayor of Casterbridge, a book not newer, not constantly touted, not celebrated in any list, but just a d—– fine novel (as he would have put it)

Robots, Jobs and Handbaskets

There is no shortage of handbaskets in which the world can go to hell, and certainly robots qualify as one. It’s something to think about, as technology more and more ‘disrupts’ one industry after another. What will be the impact of automation devices in the short- and long-term future? An interesting take on this is provided by the novel Robonomics, by S.A. Wilson, available on Wattpad. In this book teachers are the focus as the target of a general takeover by robot instructors. Told in the first-person by schoolteacher Andrea Anderson, society at large undergoes great shifts as more and more workers are replaced by automatons, unions are busted, protests are infiltrated and co-opted, the underclass grows and the world goes to hell. Wilson is a polished writer who covers a lot of bases in telling the story, and moves the tale forward mainly by dialog and critical events. I would have been interested to see more of the micro-experience, more of the inside-the-classroom-with-the-robot and perhaps a bit less of the macro-society stuff, but that’s just my personal preference. The story reminded me in some ways of a very different ‘handbasket’ story, Blue Tent by Carla Herrera, which is an intensely focused and more visceral evocation of a similar dark future.

There is no doubt that occupations face challenges from future automation. We already have more and more automated factories and warehouses, mechanical jobs that require minimal human interaction. A higher level disruption, such as teachers and doctors, is probably a considerable way off. It would begin, I think, with more low-hanging fruit, such as cashiers. There are now self-checkout lines in more stores, and jobs are certainly lost by that.  ATM machines are another case in point. There are definite limitations with this approach. These, like Facebook, turn the customer into the worker, and that doesn’t fly so well with the higher income levels, whose clear preference is for personal service. Rich people want to be served by poorer people, not by machines, and certainly not machines that make them do any actual work. It’s one thing for Home Depot to have self-checkout lines – that’s a store for do-it-yourselfers who are happy to do it themselves, but I doubt we’ll ever see such things in upscale environments.

Speaking of scale, that’s another reason why I don’t see actual physical robots replacing people in professions such as teaching. Instead, and we are already seeing this, online classes are far more likely to deprecate and deplete that profession. Sites like Khan Academy, and the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, are based in the cloud which makes them not only much cheaper but also much more efficient and effective. These classes can iterate rapidly, weeding out the unproductive from the more productive, and self-improve at a rapid rate. In the classroom, teachers will likely – as in Robonomics- become more like monitors, shepherding students’ interactions with their laptop software, and possibly supplementing and guiding one-on-one a little where necessary.

Another reason not to be in such dread of ‘everyone losing their jobs to robots’ is the cost, especially relative to small businesses, which are still, and likely to remain, a large source of job creation. Small business with few employees are also less likely to automate with robots because of the customer service aspect. Kiosks work at airports for self check-in, but can you visualize your local liquor store being manned by a robot? Or the gift shop? Or any small shop in a touristy or trendy neighborhood? I don’t see it. Crappy jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, while some professional jobs may suffer from skills deprecation. We have automated stock trading, but we still have stock brokers. We have ATMs but we still have tellers, if not as many. There will probably be some self-driving cars replacing some taxis at some point and maybe fairly soon, just as there already are fully automated train shuttles at airports, but I think it’s still a way off before no human ever drives a car. The technological challenges are also stiff; human interaction requires deep awareness of context, and applications like Siri show that we have a long way to go before a true AI is achieved.

The future will be made by people, though, and novelists are among the people who create the visions and the expectations, as well as the warnings and the guidance which define that future, and novels like Robonomics are worthy contributions to that project.

Recommended: The Sixty Five Years of Washington, by Juan Jose Saer

What I love most about literature is the rare experience of encountering a worthy mind. It’s not just about the story or the plot or the arc or the characters or the formula or the climax or the talent or the craft, it’s about how this other sees the world and expresses what they see. I want to know how their mind works, the connections it makes, the impressions it conveys. I don’t want to merely read to find out what’s going to happen, or how it’s all going to end, or what it’s going to make me feel. I don’t want to be nothing more than a passive subject operated upon as if mechanically by some technician who knows precisely how to manipulate my emotions. I can always watch a movie for that! When I read I want to come in contact with a mind through which I can discover new perspectives. This book – The Sixty Five Years of Washington, by Juan Jose Saer,  gave me such an experience.

I felt like I could live in this book, and it’s not something easily done. The structure of the story is simply two men walking together down a city street for less than an hour one morning, and the plot, if you can call it that, centers around their conversation about a birthday party that neither one attended. But I felt I was on that street with them, walking along beside them, listening not only to their words but to their internal digressions, their meandering thoughts, and feeling my way along with them through the pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The two men are not friends, just mutual acquaintances, who meet by accident and happen to be going the same way, but their worlds intersect and criss-cross on many levels. What matters in the book is, to put it in a word (or as the author says, “in two words, to be more precise”), “every things”.

There’s a lot I liked in the author’s style, the translation, the language, his “bag of tricks” so to speak, but ultimately I kept reading with excitement to see what he was going to say next, what he was going to make me see next, what new world I was going to be able to glimpse.

Book Review – Captains of Consciousness

Captains of Consciousness, originally published in the mid-70’s but just as relevant today, is an interesting book on the role of advertising in the development of the new world. It’s only been a hundred years since the invention of mass production, which eventually required a culture of mass consumption to go along with it. What good is it to produce a billion widgets a day if there is no one to buy them? The result was the creation of the middle class, at least in America and Europe. Globalization is another matter – the growth of a middle class throughout the world is inevitable but lagging.

The cultural implications are also interesting. Previously, people in our culture were raised to value craftsmanship, quality, and thrift. These values became unsuitable, and had to be replaced with acceptance of disposability and debt. Tradition was replaced by trends. Also, people had to be made perpetually dissatisfied with themselves and everything around them, so they could be made to buy things which promised fleeting satisfactions.

The transformation has been so complete we are almost unaware of it. We take consumer culture so much for granted. Consider: Cultures used to have one book or central legend that lasted them for hundreds of years. Now every single day brings a new “Most Viewed” item on YouTube. Movies that lead the box office two weeks in a row are uncommon. A number one bestselling book or album spends only days at the top of the charts. This is clearly no sustainable economy!

The acceleration of this process seems almost asymptotic. The most significant event in the future history of the world may not even be perceived by anyone, because it will only last for a fraction of a second.

Rabble Reads

I kicked in a few bucks for this Kickstarter project – RabbleReads , a project that aims to set up a neutral, verified aggregate book review site, combining reviews from various sources such as Goodreads and Amazon and elsewhere, but only from trusted book reviewers (their slogan is ‘death to the sock puppets’), and including both traditional and self-published books. Something like this sounds good to me and hopefully will manage to avoid such ills as goodreads-troll-gangs as well as the more common fake and fake-ish reviews. A lot will depend on their curation practices. It could be a tricky thing.

I recently came across a one-star review for my Tiddlywinks kids’ book on Amazon, a one line affair that said “not worth even free. This kind of books should not be around. Waste of time downloading and space on HD”, and when I looked into the reviewer’s Amazon review history, I found that he’d posted the exact same one star review for around 15 books that very same day. I wrote to Amazon, but it was a verified “purchase” (of a free ebook!) and seemed within their guidelines, so they wouldn’t remove it. I can understand that. Curation can be complex, and I hope the Rabble Reads people come up with some good ideas.

Something else that’s also important, and whose time is fast approaching:

Beyond reviews, Rabble will include lists of bestselling authors, regardless of how the book was published; best and worst rated titles, author interviews; and more.

“It’s the first venue where traditionally published and self-published books will be listed side by side,” Holman Edelman says. “I just really think it’s a way to help get books an introduction.”