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In EXIT STRATEGIES: Hannu Rajaniemi

4 Feb

What if your books could read you? Hannu Rajaniemi explores the next step in literary evolution


“I caught a glimpse of the future of books while reading Iain Banks’s The Crow Road for the second time.

The first time I read it was in Finland, in 1998. It made an even stronger impression on me than my first Banks, the exuberant space opera Consider Phlebas. I had barely dipped a toe into the rushing stream of my twenties – the same age as the hapless protagonist Prentice – and I was dealing with university, unrequited love and the infinite awkwardness of early adulthood. The Crow Road assured me it was all going to be okay: a bit messy, with cruel twists and the occasional lightning strike, but basically okay. Even if the same end, the crow road – a Glasgow expression for death – waited for us all.

When I returned to it, nearly fifteen years later, I found a different book. I had lived in Scotland for more than a decade. The imaginary town of Gallanach came alive with association and memory. I could see the clouds over Stornoway. I could smell the heather in the castle ruins. I got the sex jokes. The wonderful strangeness and smallness of humanity, explained in Banks’s gentle voice, rang truer than before. The book had changed with me.

So what was the book? What was The Crow Road if it could change so much between readings, in a way that was almost quantum-mechanical, observer-dependent? Where was its eternal bookness if Banks’s stream of consciousness on its pages was like the river of Heraclitus, into which no one can step twice?

Of course, this question applies to books in general. And the ongoing transformation of books from stacks of bound paper into digital objects is forcing us to rethink what a book really is, and what it could become.”

Read “On crows, roads and the future of books” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)


3 Feb

Adam Roberts reflects on the accomplishments of Iain Banks, our generation’s only utopian writer

“To quote T S Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (a work from which Iain Banks took titles for not one but two of his science-fiction novels), April is the cruellest month. In April 2013, Banks announced his cancer diagnosis to the world. At that point we thought he had a year, at least. The announcement of his death on 9 June 2013 blindsided us. We all thought we had longer.

Any death diminishes us all, but the death of a science fiction writer has a unique poignancy all of its own, I’ve always thought. I suppose it is because SF is so prominently the idiom of the future, and death is so grievously the eradication of precisely that possibility. The announcement of his diagnosis prompted a huge public outpouring of good feeling, which genuinely touched him. The good feeling has continued after his death. He was SF’s Big Yellow Taxi, and too few of us knew what we’d got til it had gone.”

Read “The sanity of Iain M. Banks” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)

In EXIT STRATEGIES: Simon Barraclough

30 Jan

Fourteen micro-poems tell the story of the universe


In a parallel universe
Bruno and Turing
have no need
of pardoning.
But we’re stuck in
this one.

Read “From big bang to heat death” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)


29 Jan

Stuart Clark explores astronomy’s love of the invisible

“For a science based on observation, it is remarkable how often astronomy has invented invisible things to get itself out of trouble. Whenever its theories are at odds with reality, a little mathematical snake oil can usually be relied upon to make things slip together more comfortably.

“The snag is that the astronomers then have to say what this invisible mathematical thing is in reality. Perhaps it is an unseen planet tugging at the others to draw them off course, or a sea of particles designed to carry light like waves on an ocean. And once they have decided what the invisible thing is, astronomers then have to invent something that will find some evidence for it. That’s when life becomes really tricky…”

Read “The measure of dreams” in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1). Follow these links to buy your copy now:

– Kindle: UK | US
– Google Play: DRM free ePub
– Zinio for: Apple / Android / PC / Mac
– Nook: UK | US

(Exit strategies is available to buy from all local Amazon sites. Just search for “Arc 2.1”)

We’re reading THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers

28 Jan

Becky Hogge considers a broad-brush satire of social-media capitalism

Hamish Hamilton, HB £18.99 / Knopf, HB $27.95 

In what has swiftly become a time-worn tradition, Dave Eggers’ techno-capitalist dystopia The Circle opens with a tour of the campus. And the campus of the Circle, Eggers’ post-Google/Facebook/Twitter hybrid, makes the last time we looked round the real-life Googleplex, watching Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in The Internship, feel like a tour of the offices of a public utility firm.

Which is, coincidentally, where Mae Holland, the novel’s protagonist, has just arrived from: she has been languishing amid burlap and her boss’s halitosis since graduating from $250,000-worth of liberal arts education. Having called in a favour from college friend Annie (whose swift rise through the ranks to the company’s management team of self-styled cultural revolutionaries is never really explained) Mae finds herself in a workplace furnished with yoga studios, cooking schools, kennels, organic vegetable gardens, mini golf, a vintage pinball arcade and an indoor badminton court that keeps a former world champion on retainer.

From hallways boasting artworks salvaged from the firesales of the old elite, to the year-long waiting list for household-name rock stars to play the company’s cafeteria for free (Annie: “Oh god, we don’t pay them”), Eggers has the satire turned up to eleven. But Mae doesn’t notice. By the end of her first day

“…her home town, and the rest of California, the rest of America, seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth.

But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?”

Utopias are just dystopias waiting to happen: the system that underpins the Circle’s riches begins to reveal itself near the end of Mae’s first month, when she is hauled in front of HR. Does she have a problem with her self-esteem? Does she have something to hide? Why, in short, does nobody know about the fact she’s into kayaking?

It seems Mae has been ambling around the Circle’s campus not realising it’s built on Passion, Participation and Transparency. Her Participation Rank is slumming it in the bottom 10,000s, and this is mostly because Mae insists on having a father with MS, and on enjoying solo kayaking around San Francisco Bay, without telling anybody in her digital social circle, and consequently, without leaving an auditable, saleable digital vapour trail The Circle can monetise (“kayaking is a three-billion-dollar industry”).

For the sake of her friend Annie – and for her father, whose health the Circle has just agreed to fully insure – Mae resolves to improve her PartiRank (geddit?) and thus keep her job. So begins Mae’s descent, as her quest for ultimate transparency begins to hollow her out on the inside, and her mind is replaced bit by bit by the Circle’s ideology.

Mae’s journey into madness is as convincing as Alice’s in Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, with the twist being this time it is not the ideas of the radical left that act as the bait for Mae’s previously aimless anxieties, but their noughties grandchild, “information wants to be free”.

And Mae is not the only one. The services the Circle offers the outside world are barely elaborated upon. We learn early on that most of the money comes from TruYou, which takes the sloppy diversity of the old web and moulds it into a Unified Operating System, “one button for the rest of your life online”. The rest (DIY video streaming using devices so small you barely notice them, embeddable microchips for your toddler) are thinly veiled plot devices. It is the campus which stands for what we imagine the Circle’s appeal to be in the wider world: abundance, where everything is ludicrously attractive, endless and free. And just as similar services in our life today have encouraged us to give away more than we might tell our own mothers to companies with IPOs that are global news events, so the Circler lifestyle takes Mae over to a dark side of deep disclosure.

The gradual replacement of her character with an ideology is the thread to keep reading The Circle for, although lesser minds (mine included) will also continue turning the pages to see whether the enigmatic love interest really does turn out to be the company’s equally enigmatic founder (spoiler: he does) and if Checkov’s loaded hand job in act 1 surfaces in act 3 (spoiler: it doesn’t).

Anyone who suggests that this level of hammy-ness undermines comparisons drawn between The Circle and 1984 should reread their Orwell. The Circle stands up against the best political satire. The only question left open is whether any of us can prevent its narrative becoming our own, before the circle closes.


M John Harrison discovers the secrets of science communication in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1), out now.

Also on the blog: Adam Greenfield takes apart the smart city (from Tim Maughan in New York).

We’re reading THE JG BALLARD BOOK, edited by Rick McGrath

27 Jan

Tom Hunter enters the weird world of Ballard fandom.

PPB, £19.99

For the vast duration of his career, author J.G. Ballard would repeatedly deny the existence of anything so mundane as an archive of his writing materials: “There are no Ballard archives. I never keep letters, reviews, research materials. Every page is a fresh start.”

Never trust a writer, of course, especially one whose personal mythology so often threatened to eclipse his fictional output, and indeed at the end of his career a small but valuable stash of novel manuscripts and cheap notepads were duly brought to the surface and donated to the safekeeping of the British Library.

Walk through the library today and, past the Shakespeare folios and notebooks of Jane Austen, you might be lucky enough to turn a corner and find the first pages of Ballard’s classic techno-nightmare Crash framed amongst the exhibits, the blue biro of his scrawled annotations revising line-by-line the precise angle of attack of hoodlum scientist Vaughan and his final staged collision/copulation with the limousine of the film actress Elizabeth Taylor.

The reveal of an “official” archive was most likely received as a mixed blessing by Ballard’s enduring fanbase. Even as you signed up for a reader pass. you secretly hoped his previous denials would prove true, adding further fuel to the myth.

Indeed, is there any other author of the 20th and early 21st Century whose body of work has inspired the same obsessional and influential fanbase as Ballard’s?

Enter The JG Ballard Book, the latest entry into the ever-multiplying library of the Ballardosphere, and something of a unique oddity amongst a profusion of critical texts, interview compilations and the occasional hack biography.

The copy on my desk is the large-format hardcover edition, and first impressions suggest something more akin to the exhibition catalogue of a moderately fashionable contemporary art gallery than either the recently published Extreme Metaphors, a collection of interviews with JGB, or the more modest indie publishing efforts of a typical fanzine. This comparison carries through into the contents, which are made up of fifteen or so assorted interviews, essays, speculations and even spoofs accompanied by full-page photo artworks and blow-ups of original handwritten letters and manuscript annotations.

It’s almost as though Tate Modern or the ICA had embarked down the road towards a radical re-staging of Ballard’s career, only to abandon the project at the last minute, leaving only this alternate history account of a lost exhibition buried in the collective deep-time memory of only the most dedicated or pathological Ballardophiles.

As with Ballard’s own archive the results are mixed, and for every dusty notebook containing the first hints at a potential new novel, there are moments of clumsy dead-ends, strange wrong turns and circular reasoning that might have been better left to history’s cutting room floor, or at least the letters page of a science=fiction convention fanzine. In the end, though, perhaps this adherence to ephemera is both the whole point and the only possible strategy in a post-Ballard world.

Read the introduction to a recovered and reprinted interview from the “one-issue wonder” magazine Repsychling from the mid-1970s. It opens with the story of “collector, archivist and bibliophile” Mike Holliday’s efforts to acquire a copy, once he heard that it contained a previously forgotten Ballard interview. The interview itself is typical Ballard-as-crowd-pleasing-entertainer – stories about arguing with hospital staff over the copyright of his own skull x-rays after a car crash and so on. It’s the introduction – this inadvertent insight into the collector mindset – that proves most revealing. This is after all a book for Ballard fans, more than for casual readers.

Editor Rick McGrath’s own essay – an exploration of Ballard’s Shanghai in search of his old family home and the remains of his prisoner-of-war internment camp – is a romp improved by Ballard’s own encouraging letters and back-of-a-napkin-style memory maps. Ballard’s own summary, that “the Shanghai I knew, along with 31 Amherst Street and Lunghua camp, can only survive inside my head” ultimately renders the project more whimsical than essential.

Still, Ballard interviews in particular are always worth the time, and there are moments when The JG Ballard Book rises above its bricolage editorial approach and becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Read Mike Bonsall’s piece “JG Ballard in the Dissecting Room”, which juxtaposes profoundly anatomical passages of description from Ballard’s novels with illustrations from Cunningham’s Manual of Practical Anatomy, a text Ballard would have been exposed to as part of his medical training. (There are no marginal additions from the man himself on this occasion, although the often indecipherable photosets of his scrawled notebooks and letters elsewhere suggest he would have easily passed the doctors handwriting exam had he chosen to pursue this vocation.)

The pathology of fandom is perhaps most obviously revealed through a predilection for collecting. With that diagnosis in mind, I feel very happy indeed to have been anatomised by The JG Ballard Book, even as I add it to the shelves of my own personal Ballard exhibition.


Claire Dean finds J G Ballard’s brittle disaster novel inspiring real crystal worlds in Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1), out now.

Also on the blog: Georgina Voss wanders in ever-decreasing circles round an empty swimming pool.

We’re reading THE KITSCHIES award shortlists 2014

24 Jan

The Kitschies annual prize for “speculative and fantastic” literature have announced their shortlists for the most “progressive, intelligent and entertaining” fiction of the year with fame, fortune, and lashings of The Kraken Rum awaiting the lucky winners…

This year’s shortlists were selected from a record 234 submissions, coming from over fifty different publishers and imprints.

 The Red Tentacle (Novel), selected by Kate Griffin, Nick Harkaway, Will Hill, Anab Jain and Annabel Wright:

  • Red Doc> by Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon (Jonathan Cape)
  • More Than This by Patrick Ness (Walker)
  • The Machine by James Smythe (HarperCollins / Blue Door)

The Golden Tentacle (Debut), also selected by the above panel:

  • Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)
  • A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock (47 North)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
  • Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Atlantic)

The Inky Tentacle (Cover Art), selected by Craig Kennedy, Sarah Anne Langton, Hazel Thompson and Emma Vieceli.

  • Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill (Gollancz) / Design and illustration by Sinem Erkas
  • The Age Atomic by Adam Christopher (Angry Robot) / Art by Will Staehle
  • Homeland and Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow (Titan)  / Design by Amazing15
  • Stray by Monica Hesse (Hot Key)  / Art by Gianmarco Magnani
  • Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human (Century) / Art by Joey Hi-Fi

The winners will be announced in a ceremony at the Seven Dials Club on 12 February. The winners will receive a total of £2,000 in prize money, as well as one of the prize’s iconic Tentacle trophies and bottles of The Kraken Rum.

Previous winners include Patrick Ness, Lauren Beukes, China Miéville and Nick Harkaway.