Let the Good Times Roll

 

But when people say,
Did you always want to be a writer?,
I have to say no!
I always was a writer

Ursula le Guin

When I ask people ‘So, what’s your image of a writer?’, usually they talk about a guy. Even the women I ask, they tend to talk about a man. I don’t comment as it ruins the experiment, but blogging about it here, I guess that’s the image that gets grandfathered into our brains in a male-centric culture when we are young and impressionable. But that’s not all. If you do an internet search for ‘writer images’, they are mostly male. Then, I ask ‘So what else comes to mind?’

They usually report their writer-image is a kind of intense tweedy type. They see him wearing a jacket with elbow patches, or with swept back greyflecked distinguished hair, writing at a desk. Oh, also our literary type is also usually an academic working on a university campus teaching literature, not working in a bar or stacking shelves in your local Tesco.

I confess I don’t buy it this description. Firstly, I know as many women as men who are writers. Also my image of a writer is not so high profile. Maybe she’s out of shape from poor diet and zero exercise. Maybe my imaginary writer drinks too much and is stressed out from all the hours hunched in front of a computer working with little return. Maybe some of my imaginary writers are loners, starving and depressed in a windy garret tapping out another tome, perhaps. Or, addicted, perhaps heavily so.

Another writerly image that crops up is that of the performing artist. If you attend open mics or literary evenings, (which can be really good if you get good writers onstage), your image is of a writer is one standing up in front of a audience of forty or fifty in some back room of a bar or club performing.

Then we come to images of the mature and accomplished artists, also and very importantly, they are being paid for what they do. They have published well. Good times. Every artist worth their salt deserves this. But does that happen? Does every accomplished artist who produces good work get paid what they deserve? Of course not, and for a reason. I mean we think of art in terms of every other item produced in society. It is generally held that the laws of supply and demand determine quality. In other words, if you are a crappy writer, people won’t read you or publish you and thus, in true Darwinian mode, you get cut from the herd and become an editor. If you are hot (in the sense of being modern and contemporary and zeitgeisty and talented), then talent will out. Right? Well, I don’t think so. A twenty or thirty minute perusal of the quality of writing in a typical bookstore or library anywhere, will quash any such ideals. The rules of market economics do not apply when it comes to art, as opposed to in life.

So I moved from bookstores to the internet in my search for an answer to the

le guin
URSULA LE GUIN

question of what happens to literary talent. I read forums and Wikipedia and blogposts and in the end just for giggles I did a random google search for ‘literary rejection letters’, and one of the first that popped out was a letter Ursula K le Guin got back in ’68. Here it is:

Ursula K Le guin rejection letter

Now I am a fan of this writer. This particular novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which found a home elsewhere, is now regarded as a masterpiece, a trailblazer of feminist writing, a work which made a real contribution to the SF genre. It wound up winning the Nebula award, selling over a million copies and establishing Le Guin’s reputation. Reading this letter, and a few others, as well as considering the cloud of negativity surrounding writers beginning and trying to develop their careers, at this stage I confess I began to think a bit negatively about the struggles of newbie writers.

By this I mean – consider if Le Guin had given up with her novel after such a rejection. left hand darknessImagine if she decided instead to quit and run a pub in Lesser Chipping Buckworth (no such place), or took to the countryside in married dejection. Consider all the people she inspired, all the changes she wrought to peoples minds and hearts. I mean, we are talking here of a serious loss. But it didn’t happen, which is good news. On the contrary, millions of people are glad she went on and became the icon of SF writing she remained her entire life, and thereafter.

 

My point is, its easier, so far easier if we had a society that valued and nurtured new writers and artists instead of regarding them as dropouts or lazy or damaged dreamers, people who do not ‘pull their weight’. Having a really good writer in the family should be seen as like having a doctor or a politician or a business person in the family. How many aspiring writers have had to face the ire and disapproval of families and friends and the weight of societal judgement because they wanted to do something creative with their lives? The effects of such disapproval can be overwhelming.

Take disapproval. I mean, its such an innocuous sounding word, ‘disapproval’.  It whips up images of ones sainted great aunt clattering teacups and shaking her head as she tut tuts ones use of bad language for smoking weed. This is different, though. Here I mean the kind of life altering cultural disapproval which though all pervasive, can be rather hard to pin down. Its the disapproval you get when turning up in church drunk or your mobile phone going off during a production of Hamlet, except much, much worse.  This is how one gets cut from the herd. You know they don’t want you yet you don’t know how you know that, or indeed what to do. For writers, type of disapproval can last a lifetime. It leads to deep self doubt. That in turn leads to a negative self image, which leads to depression which leads to self destructive behaviours. This is where the trouble starts. Self destructive behaviours borne of depression and self doubt are very painful indeed. If the pain goes on long enough, it naturally leads to one seeking relief. I’m talking here medicating such pain with drugs and alcohol. Too much medicating psychic pain with D. and A. often (not always though) leads to addiction. After that there’s nowhere to go but down. It can start a negative toxic spiral downwards into the kinds of dark places I have seen the finest talents dissolve.

So to go back to Le Guin for a moment. Ursula Le Guin getting those Novels published, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, was good for her and good for us all on levels we can begin to fathom anew. She had a brilliant career, and that brilliance shone long after she left us. In contrast I think here of other writers and artists who needed to get the good news of acceptance, not simply a publishing deal but the good word from society at large that what they were doing had value, yet didn’t. Their story did not end with good news. It was sad, bad news.

So we here not talking about simply giving our writers an encouraging hug. This is more like a ideological endorsement of the profound value of our creative communities, a value that includes a monetary value (sometimes very substantial) but an educational, political, and entertainment value. Books and art itself start conversations that change things, sometimes forever. Wherever we see repression of art we see the beginnings of a repressive society that kills the spirit of humanity and produces only propaganda and junk thinking. I am thinking of Donald Trumps killing off major arts grants at the beginning of his benighted presidency.

But here in Ireland the government, the Arts Council, and the Irish Writers Centre have a new initiative for established writers, whereby they can access social welfare payments and don’t have to hide the fact they are writers, or any other types of subterfuge. The full text of the pilot initiative is here. Its been taken up and established now a year later.
Now there are a few problems with this initiative. For instance the text states one has to be ‘genuinely seeking work’ in order to avail of the scheme. Does this mean the work of being a writer is not genuine work? What if you need something like the dole to finish a work that is of the quality of The Left hand of Darkness? Are we seeing shades of the old prejudice against the struggling writer, seen as a kind of layabout who will eventually shape up and see that real work lies elsewhere? Its one of those subtle indicators that might be worth looking at down the line.

Another problem with this otherwise laudatory scheme which is far sighted and worthy of promotion is the very questionable criterion of having to demonstrate that you earned half of last years income from writing. I doubt if there are many writers who need the dole to finish their books will be able to show that. In fact in Ireland unless you work round the clock doing gigs and writers in residence contracts as well as whatever royalties you earn will be able to demonstrate that level of income.
But those caveats aside, its good news. Its a sign, as the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said:
“Ireland is world-famous as a haven for art and artists who are central to our culture. This reputation for artistic achievement is part of our global USP. Promoting Ireland as a home for art and artists is central to my plans to double our global footprint in the years ahead. I believe it is only right that we allow for some flexibility within the social welfare system to allow artists to access social welfare supports when they need them. Up to now, artists have found it difficult to access social welfare and of course many artists take on extra jobs to support their livelihoods.

“Following extensive work between both Departments, with input from the Arts Council, this new mechanism will allow artists to be classified as self-employed for the purposes of accessing social welfare supports. The normal checks and balances will apply to ensure the initiative is not open to abuse, but my hope is that this will make it much easier for professional artists to access social welfare supports when they need them.”

(See here for further context) There is information on the scheme here and further information here.

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THEY READ EVERYTHING

GOOGLE’s BOOKWORMING EXPERIMENTS AND AI DEVELOPMENT

I love reading. I read about 3 books a week. I know many people who read more, much more. Reading and writing goes back about thirty thousand years. The act of scribbling things down in various formats, from stone walls to tablets to wax to wood to paper to print to computers forms a method of recording everything, from casual notes to high culture to science. Its  is one of the essential elements for a species’ survival and advancement. Without text civilization would suffer failure. In other words civilizations that don’t  record things, pass on technology and skillsets and develop, well they simply collapse. Equally true is the fact that a society with superior technology and recorded skillsets will rule others. Knowledge is power. Its a cliché, but things become clichés for a reason.

One of the more under-discussed, under-reported and unexplored things that I have frankly been haunted about is the fact that in recent years the multinational Google are big readers. They have surpassed their goal of reading every book that has ever been written and making it available online in Google Books. Google say that 129 264 880 books are the total on the planet. I think its into the billions myself, not to mention the exponential speed of text growth since the inception of the internet. More to the point Google’s reading experiment, no doubt hugely successful, has changed our civilization forever.  It’s not simply because all the reading and scanning  of all of those millions of books without the permission of the copyright holders resulted in a much publicized lawsuit. Its because knowledge is the most valuable asset and the most useful currency available. If it is, as I hold it to be, then why do this?  Why would Google want to read and store every book available? What’s so interesting about reading every book ever written? I was intrigued. Then I read how Google had gotten into robotics and artificial intelligence.

Put this way, a book represents the most complete representation of a human thought process, the most comprehensive working out of human interactions in the world as recorded in language in fiction history, geography, poetry, maths, philosophy, science and the arts. One mirrors the human experience through reading, especially books. A book comprises an approximation of a complete act of consciousness, moving from premises, accumulating data, putting forward arguments, telling a narrative, drawing strands of various objections to opposing arguments, reflecting on emotions and human and non human interactions at many levels of complexities, and finally reaching what we understand as a satisfying conclusion to the book. Added together in all the books we get something approximating the deposit of recorded human experience. From there we move on into music, the plastic arts, painting and so on. So, one of the most perfect sources for a schematic of human consciousness and intelligence’s grasp of the many problems of life in constructing Artificial Intelligence is in reading.

Reading is not so much an obligation, but for the most part, enjoyable. Wonderfully enjoyable. In fact it can become an addiction. I would go further and say that people who read little or nothing except what their work demands or the daily tabloids are missing out on not only one of the great pleasures of life, but one of the truly great consciousness expanding experiences possible for anyone. Regarding the act of reading as something that is the purview of students or academics or nerds is simply a type of anti intellectual prejudice about something that is essential for living. I shudder to think what might be the effects of this kind of attitude if were to become more widespread.

But to get back to what Google might be working on. If they build a working AI, which seems a little more than likely, then it will become an essential component for all high functioning robots. If this happens, then the technology will undoubtedly become cloned and copied and cheaper and widespread very quickly. AI technology will then become part of what we now know as the internet, but will transform the internet utterly into something we no longer recognize as the web.

AI will do everything we do. It will perform all automated functions, will run departments, do accounting, become part of scientific work, build roads and ships and planes, look after our children and run our hospitals and operate our transport systems. AI will be field tested in battle and become the indispensable weapon for every modern army.

In fact as predicted in so many science fiction novels, AI will grow exponentially in sophistication to such an extent that they will probably be regarded as people at a certain point, that is if and when they pass something akin to the Turing Test.  Some wont, of course and will be left in another new sentient life form classification.

As so much work will be done so much more efficiently by AI, populations will drop hugely because it will become economically unviable to have anything more than two children, as there will simply be no work for them and average incomes will drop as work done previously by humans will now be done by AI. Its hard to believe that it could happen but AI will sadly increase even further the gap between rich and poor, and will lead to more wars.

New missions to find habitable planets will increase in effectiveness exponentially with the use of AI, and it won’t be long before people will begin to ship off world to find new places to live. New colonies and new sources of wealth will be discovered off world and life will be discovered on other planets. All this is speculation on my part. I know that.

I also could go on. The possibilities get wider and wider and wilder and wilder. My views are also pretty dystopian on this AI development. But I am not going to speculate further. But from all this one thing is highly likely. It is this: like so many revolutions before, the act of reading as a mirror for all that we know, all that we are, has become yet another key starting point for a new technological revolution.  

 

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Ursula K Le Guin’s Cracking Speech at the National Book Foundation Awards

 

Ursula K. Le Guin accepts the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

A Brief Riveting Speech by a Mistress of Letters about the difference between writing for a market and writing for art.

 

A few days back a brilliant writer, someone who was somewhat relegated to the genre of science fiction and fantasy, was hugely honoured at the U.S. National book awards. This is in itself a matter of considerable significance. Ursula Le Guin has been re imagining our possible futures for decades in her novels and poetry, and science fiction, a genre which never really got the kinds of recognition it deserved as an art form ( I am a huge fan of same) is now beginning to be really recognized, because we are now living in the age of science fiction.  As Videos tend to disappear from You Tube,I quote Le Guin’s speech here in full. She received the award from Neil Gaiman. 

“Thank you Neil, and to the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks from the heart. My family, my agent, editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as mine, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want—and should demand—our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.”

Brilliant Stuff from a brilliant mind.

The Earthian

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One of the nicest things about living in Wicklow is the chips one gets in the local chipper. Linas  chipper, aside from having the trademark Wicklow Town polite pleasant friendliness, cook some of the nicest chips I have tasted since my time as a little boy eating the chips from the Aprile cafe on Richmond Street Dublin City (I wonder if it is still there). Last Friday I went up to get a bag and outside the takeout there stood a man with a sign saying he was an Earthian, travelling the world and he was accepting donations of food. I felt a little odd, indeed, I always feel a little guilty not giving donations but I walked past this person, looking down and seeing he introduced himself as an Earthian, a word representing a concept I regarded as interesting, mainly because I have something of a lifelong interest in science fiction. His eyes were clear, calm and observant. His teeth and skin were in excellent shape. He was dressed in a reflective coat and a heavy belt (which looked new). He wore a white rimmed hat, no sunglasses, heavy socks and a pair of formidable walking boots. This person was not however your typical walker. He greeted each person that passed him rather calmly and courteously. He also didn’t seem to care whether or not they greeted him back and there was an air of calm about him I liked. I didn’t greet him, and I avoided his gaze. I don’t remember whether he greeted me. I went home and ate my chips and mentioned that odd fellow who was looking for food donations outside Linas Take Away in Market Square.

The thing was I met him again. The following Sunday, Iza and I went to a barbecue at the Dominican Ecology Centre at Bayview Wicklow Town, literally five minutes walk from our front door, and once again outside the Domincan College and Ecology Centre (apparently 70 acres in size). And there he was. 

Earthian

Again he was greeting people and occasionally people were coming from the organic shop and giving him food. Everyone who gave him food got a hug, something I liked to see but made others rather jittery. He apparently doesn’t accept any kind of money. I wondered how he paid for medical expenses or tickets or suchlike. I asked him how he got past airport security since he doesn’t have a passport, doesn’t have a name, and no country of origin. I do believe though he comes from the middle east.  The name, in other words referring to himself as Earthian – a citizen of Planet Earth, a planet with only human borders and political entities and blocs that have been fought over for millennia, wont get one through very highly guarded regulated monitored borders, especially airport security. He smiled and said he doesn’t use airports. I said that’s a good thing, because if you don’t present a passport you tend to get sent back. He smiled again, and he said – sent back where? I mean, he said, if you don’t have an address where would you get sent back to?  The holy naiveté made me smile, and, well its a good answer, one he very obviously had given before to many other people living in the paranoid post 9/11 Earth.

Earthian’s thesis, if it can be called such, is that if a sufficiently substantial movement could be generated to remove the notion of borders on this rather small planet, then one of the prime motivators for war and conflict would simply evaporate. I agreed in principle with him, but considered it rather unlikely this would ever happen, seeing as much of the planets economic systems are run on the notion of private property, capitalism, and profit, which is how things are and not in any way, to my mind, an evil in themselves – just not something that hugely interests me, and definitely interests Earthian rather less. his worldwide travels began after the economic crash in 2008, when, working as a computer engineer, he took the decision to allot eight to twelve years of his life to travel all over the world with a message of peace and certainly with all the hugs he was distributing, love, an acknowledgement of the ultimate unity of the planet despite its many deep divisions, the need for caring for the ecosystems that make it up, and a striving for an end to war. I pointed out he was only one person. He pointed out this proverb which made us all laugh.

If you think you are too little or too small to make a change you obviously haven’t spent a night with a mosquito (African Proverb)

I hope never to spend a night with a mosquito, but I do know that my hero Socrates used refer to himself as a stinging fly (a mosquito certainly comes under that description), someone who used ask the awkward questions which showed up the hypocrisy and self deception of the greedy and the thoughtless. Then again lets not pursue that analogy to its logical end, considering what horrible things happened to Socrates. Anyway we talked for a while and then we wandered into the organic shop inside the Domincan grounds and Earthian (I still cant get used to calling him that) stayed outside. we wandered round saying hello to people, talking, and visiting the animals, most of whom were going to be slaughtered ( its always disturbing to see creatures fed the finest foods, looking exquisitely beautiful, in the best of health, only to know they only exist in such a state to be  devoured by those who care for them) After a while I returned to Iza to see her sitting with our friend, engrossed in conversation about his travels. There is hardly a country he has not been to. I believe he is going to England next, and then to Iceland, a difficult place to get into. We offered him money before we went our separate ways. He refused. We asked him what he would like. He said whatever we wanted to give him. We went into the organic shop and bought him some goodies, and gave them to him after he came back from the toilet. He hugged us both.  And then he was gone. An interesting person. I kind of miss him now.

All Along the Watchtower

Battlestar Galactica as Theology

The excellent Battle star Galactica, which I loved watching, does have a heavy dose of theism running through it, which makes it even more interesting to watch because it touches on subjects other more conventional series rarely dare to go near. Not only that but it holds the view that those who do not embrace Gods Plan for them, are in trouble. For instance Gaius Balthar the brilliant womanising egomaniac scientist who caused the death of billions (incidentally hands down my favourite character) is consistently in one form threatened with death or ruin or being found out (which would entail the death penalty) if he doesn’t do Gods bidding, which is usually the Cylons’ bidding. Its an interesting if not delightful vision of God, and an even more delightful vision of God who didn’t do squat to stop mass genocide by encouraging Gaius not to allow the beautiful Cylon alien lover into his life and into his mind.

The existence of evil (genocide, evil deeds, disease, war etc.) doesn’t disprove the existence of God. It also doesn’t prove it. Its just that God seems more interested in making Gaius Balthar a believer than stopping the death of billions of his beloved children.  The existence of a well designed universe (the stars, planets, the beauty and order of the universe, human and non human intellect etc.) neither proves nor disproves the existence of  God. It does however demonstrate a well ordered universe for which a good explanation is needed. If in the case of the well designed universe or the existence of evil or the existence of consciousness or miracles or private revelation, the balance of probability shows in favour of the existence of God (it actually doesn’t by the way – not by a long shot, but go with me on this one) rather than not, this does not in any way constitute what even remotely might be considered a proof of Gods existence. Probability can never replace evidence. You cannot employ scientific methods on a subject (God) and start weighing probabilities. Its something of a desperate attempt to prove the ultimately disprovable. R. Swinburne has a book on it, which I finished recently, or rather dragged myself kicking and screaming through recently. You can get it here. Be warned though, its heavy going and feels at times like logical legerdemain than good argument.

Battlestar Galactica however is addictive viewing. The world ends and a race of robots chase forty thousand human survivors across space as they search for a mythical Earth spoken of in scriptures and prophecies and suffusing the dreams and longings of the leaders and followers with equal measures of hope and despair as they struggle internally to survive with what little they have left. They are outnumbered, outgunned and with a divided leadership with something of a penchant for massive internal strife. Worse still there are enemy agents in their midst, agents that are almost so human that they are indistinguishable from humans, agents who are capable of sexual and psychological manipulation at the highest levels of leadership and of the intelligentsia, of regeneration, resurrection and rebirth. These enemies within, these humans who are not humans who do not know they are not humans, but robots who have yet to be ‘switched on’ Manchurian Candidate style are in a position to destroy the leadership of Battle star Galactica and  perhaps the entire fleet. So the enemy is everywhere. These are foes in which no amount of intelligence gathered  is ever lost, even if you shoot them out an airlock into the cold emptiness of space. They also have a plan, and they seem to have won the war. This space chase for the last forty thousand survivors is a a mere mop up operation, so one might think.

The kinds of tension that such a virtual pressure cooker of circumstances is the complex mind bending, reality distorting, hyper-violent story of Battle star Galactica where nothing is as it seems and God has a plan to save mankind, right down to the tiniest of events, down to what appears to be the most tragic and impossible of circumstances. No event is trivial, no death accidental. Randomness or evolution or natural selection or dreams and hopes and the ancient prophecies are all emanation from the all good all wise all loving God, who has gifted all his beings, whether they be human or robot or a blend of both (Cylon is the name for the robots, and they have evolved into being part machine part organism). Some of the brightest and most brilliant are inadvertent puppets of the Cylons until they discover what evil they have done through their selfishness and negligence and some of the most nondescript of the crew do the most good and make the smartest moves of all. No one in this show is free of wrongdoing, just as no one is completely evil.

This is a series that thankfully defies description and defies convention in the best possible way. Its a space opera and its not. Its feminist and yet some of the female characters commit horrifically unethical acts, pro gay both in the military and in civilian life and yet this is not even an issue that is open to debate, pro equal rights and yet filled with all kinds of injustices, pro democracy yet it feels at times like a military dictatorship. It debates just war theory, the death penalty, the ethics of torture, abortion rights, the limits of democracy, the power of unions in an unjust labour situation, the power and necessity of sexual self expression for a healthy being, the stratification of society, education rights, the value and values of spirituality, the debate between science and religion, polytheism versus monotheism versus strict scientific rationalism versus atheism, historical inevitability and the cyclical nature of history, and the meaning of comedy.

Most of all this is a story that though set in a science fiction genre. As the story progresses, it talks all the time about a plan, a plan set in motion since the beginning where an all benevolent  being wants his children to live together in harmony. This theology is of course debated, dismissed, disparaged, and renewed throughout the story. In the end the answer is there is no answer, but a deepening of the mystery of the human and non human will to live, will to power and will to survival and will to understand, the necessity of reconciliation, and the egoless embracing of  wisdom.

You might be wondering why I called this blog post ‘All along the Watchtower”. Aside from it being one of the most marvellous songs ever written by Bob Dylan performed by Jimi Hendrix, and it being a catchy title for a blog post, its a song deeply embedded in the storyline of Battlestar Galactica. It acts as a mnemonic and a mantra for the continuing self discovery of the central characters. its one whose use you will hopefully love as much as I did when I was finally made to watch this wonderful series.