Review ~ Chris Bateman’s ‘The Virtuous Cyborg’


Prior to reading Chris Bateman’s The Virtuous Cyborg, I was becoming infatuated (somewhat late to the fad) with the augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go, which Bateman uses as a (qualified) example of the good kind of cyborg, making exercise ‘essential to its play (for all that it also trades on the player’s compulsions through the free-to-play business model).’ This is illustrative of the types of analysis Bateman offers of cybervirtue, but I am getting ahead of myself. Like any thoroughgoing philosopher, Bateman begins with terminology, ‘What I mean by “cybervirtue” is nothing more than the desirable qualities that a cyborg might possess, and what I mean by “cyborg” is a combination of living being and inanimate thing that acts with a greater range of possibilities than either being or thing can achieve alone.’ The rest of the book robustly expands and unpacks this idea and the antonym, cyborgs that are ‘cyber-debilitating, which is to say, they bring out moral debilities.’ Central to all of this is virtue ethics (the notion that morality is best understood in the good and bad qualities of moral agents) and Chaos Nova, a metaphor for ‘the near-infinite diversification of identities that resulted from the fracturing of traditions’ entailed by the collapse of virtue ethics.

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Review ~ Wikipedia Knows Nothing



The problem with the seduction of facts is that it prevents politics by making experts into ‘superiors’ against whom everyone is ‘inferior’. Even the experts are judged inferior to each other, as anonymous peer review demonstrates. What lies behind this distraction is a faith that expertise can be purged of metaphysics, as the Vienna circle believed, or that there can be metaphysical views that have no moral or political bias.

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Review ~ Two Weird Chapbooks



Kristine Ong Muslim ‘The Drone Outside’It is not officially morning but everyone in the world has already reported waking up from dreams either completely or partially encrusted with black mold. The general consensus: it is black mold, all right.

These snapshots (interconnected, but by the barest thread) of the apocalypse are laden with unknown references to veiled wider world lore and impressionistic aesthetics that lend them an oppressive, dreamlike quality. In Kristine Ong Muslim’s The Drone Outside,the boundaries of speculative fiction are pushed into a surrealist fantasy space. Muslim envisions our species’ shared narrative limits. Some of these pieces are descriptively rich, others merely fragments of dialogue such as ‘The Outsiders’ or contextually obscured epistolary microfictions such as ‘Demolition Day,’ a series of letters, at least one to the dead. From the first page to the last, we readers are haunted by something so incomprehensibly vast (in its consequences and reach) that it becomes, essentially, a limit experience to contemplate. The longest and most memorable story (the most sensibly narrative based) is ‘The Early Signs of Blight,’ which obeys many of the conventions of a supernatural horror, only to be so enigmatic about the locus of its horror — which is only semi-perceived and even then largely from a child’s point of view — that it becomes something more than this genre categorisation helpfully indicates. It is eerie not chiefly because it is cosmic or alien, but because those qualities are barely detectable beneath a kitsch domesticity, but sufficiently present to invoke the eerie.

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Review ~ The Museum of Second Chances

Even more for the utopia and dystopia than many other forms of speculative writing, a fiction’s world is pivotal to a reader’s engagement. It can be elevated from a mere backdrop to the very (however disguised) subject of the book, its hook as well as its raison d’être; such a story’s characters are a means by which to explore and humanise the setting. The Museum of Second Chances imagines a society that is compelling and thematically rich. Its premise is a self-professed eco-utopia, but one in which inherited collective guilt is deployed as a spurious, semi-mythic justification for state power. This artfully plays with ambiguities in a genre that can sometimes overindulge gauche satire, if not bludgeoning didacticism. And even when exploring established motifs (genetic modification, revised official histories) it does so with an inventive wit that relates everything to its heroes.

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NaNoWriMo Retrospective & Review

Around mid-October, I was writing a short story, but contemplating the possibility of a larger project. My primary medium has always been the novel—I love its history (its emergence from travel, journal, confessional, dialogue and epistolary writing) and versatility. Games, films, cartoons, songs, poems and comics have illustrious narrative traditions, but for me nothing compares to the novel’s capacity to blend internal and external worlds and evoke a sustained story in captivating depth. As an axiomatic faith, I maintain that the novel will defy the doom-prophets foretelling of its demise: from José Ortega y Gasset in his 1925 Decline of the Novel to Will Self’s more contemporary pontificating. During this time, I recalled hearing of the National Novel Writing Month and its communal goal of writing a fifty-thousand-word piece of new narrative fiction in November. NaNo is more than just that lofty target: it is an ethos and a method of novel writing too.

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Review: Hazel Manuel, 'The Geranium Woman'

In tragedy, the plot is propelled by a hamartia—the flaw of the protagonist that causes subsequent events. The protagonist of The Geranium Woman suffers such a flaw, which consists of her naïvely in falling for something analogous to Mornington Crescent. Popularised in Britain by the radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, it's a game in which you move between locations on the London Underground to arrive at the eponymous Northern Line station. As you play, you challenge the ‘legality’ of other players’ moves, debating an increasingly baroque rule-system invented along the way. It’s an in-joke and farce—one with no adherence to a system of actual rules. Hazel’s hero, newly a CEO in Paris, is unaware of the Mornington Crescent in-joke of her company’s corporate ethics and the other hypocrisies of many of her interactions. She attempts to play, hoping to reform the hyper-masculine world of business and shareholders as well as navigate open and undefined relationships, within the loose strictures and conventions that secretly oppose her values. She does so against the backdrop of her father’s recent death and the implied existential, memento mori revelation of her own mortality—with shorter chapters giving us moments of his deathbed reflections.

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Review: Jennifer Young, 'Cold Crash'

By backgrounding aspects of a fiction, they can be emphasised more than were they to be foregrounded; so when historical research is over-presented—e.g. we’re reminded a book is set during the Battle of Actium by characters obtrusively commenting on period-specific markers—verisimilitude can be counterintuitively weakened; whereas confidence with historical research allows an author to seamlessly blend pertinent indicators into the narrative, where they become the more apparent. Jennifer Young’s Cold Crash demonstrates just such a confidence in its treatment of early fifties Britain and the life of pioneering archaeologist Maxine ‘Max’ Falkland. What is so impressive about the Cold War novel is that it does not need to embellish its setting and time. It transports you as much into the presuppositions of the decade as its surroundings (with beautiful descriptive prose), geopolitics, immediate history and percolating (often still relevant) prejudices. And because the world of the past is never presented clumsily or exaggerated, character and narrative are freed to direct the story to more interesting places.

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Review: Cyan Night 'Girl, Fighter'

Girl, Fighter by Cyan Night is a coming of age story about Aliyah, an Australian expat residing and working in London from a mixed Kazakh-Chinese background. It is well paced and gripping, as the hero is soon led by her character and circumstances into a series of calamities almost reminiscent of Hellenist tragedy. It is in this tension between character and social context that the novel finds its strength; it is an honest examination of one person’s complex situation in its historical and predetermined nuance, but also manages to highlight its heroes agency. The novel is structured into two parts, the first (narrated in a detached third person voice) sets up the ascent necessary for the fall of the second, which is made more intimate by its adoption of the first person.

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Review: Natsume Soseki's 'Kokoro'

Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (meaning heart, getting at the essence of something) is a deceptively simple story exploring egoism, generational conflict and death. It is a character study of shame written in the turbulent shift from the Meiji era of Japan, symbolised by the death of Emperor Meiji and the subsequent ritualistic suicide of General Nogi Maresuke. This historical sequence is explored as a background narrative, an expert instance of literary morphasis in which something kept out of central focus in a story is thereby rendered with more emphasis by the author. The foregrounded story is, then, an attempt to tease out the meaning of General Nogi’s drama. The book assumes a basic understanding of this backdrop and an appreciation for its ramifications: General Nogi fought in the Seinan (Russo-Japanese) War and was one of Imperial Japan’s national heroes, but he lost the Emperor’s banner during the Satsuma Rebellion and sought to reclaim his honour through suicide. He was ordered not to by his junshi (master), the Emperor, and consequently waited for the Emperor’s own death to enact his own. ‘When did he suffer greater agony,’ Soseki’s novel muses, ‘during those thirty-five years, or the moment when the sword entered his bowels?’

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Review: Julio Cortázar 'Multinational Vampire: An Attainable Utopia'

Part comic book, part novella, part epistolary literature, and replete with footnotes, Julio Cortázar’s fantastically experimental Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampire: An Attainable Utopia (translated by David Kurnick) is a majestic wonder in its sheer, resplendent weirdness. There’s even an appendix delightfully entitled, ‘A friendly piece of advice: read the appendix last, why rush things when we’ve gotten off to such a good start?’ And the first two chapters are prefaced, á la early modern literature, with proleptic summaries such as ‘Concerning how the narrator caught his train in extremis (and from here on we dispense with chapter headings, as there will be numerous beautiful pictures to punctuate and enliven the reading of this fascinating story).’ The mass destruction of all the world’s literature as a part of a vast conspiracy, famous authors threatened with death if they deign to write again, Susan Sontag amongst the cast, a hero who makes references to the surrealist film Un chien andalou and the revolutionary utopian Second Russell Tribunal all come together in a book that satirises the superhero genre so much better than the better known Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s The Watchman ever manages. The author stand-in Julio, opines on things such as that ‘the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.’ Or even that ‘history is like stake and potatoes, you can order it everywhere and it always tastes the same.’

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Review: Octavia E. Butler 'Dawn'

I tell you that by your way of measuring time, it has been several million years since we dared to interfere in another people’s act of self-destruction. Many of us disputed the wisdom of doing it this time. We thought . . . that there had been a consensus among you, that you had agreed to die.

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Review: Morgan Bell's 'Laissez Faire'

From fairytales to moments of pathos, from science fictions to parables, Morgan Bell’s Laissez Faire is similar to her earlier work Sniggerless Boundulations in that it collects weird and disorientating vignettes and microfictions, but feels more developed. Bell’s voice retains her witty absurdism, but it is complemented by a greater confidence that allows more depth of situation and character. With ‘The Glass Of Water’ a girl is navigating unfamiliar rules and craves ‘the family vibe, it didn’t matter whose family.’ Over and over, Bell places us into the heads of complex people robbed of belonging and purpose or merely appalled by the world: in ‘No Small Thing’ a woman loses her love for a man after learning how he ‘euthanized’ his pets and in ‘Juniper Bean’ another is literally torn by her opposing desires for the familiar and adventurous personified as a squid and pelican, ‘“Well girlie?” goaded the squid. “Your loyalty to kin and convention, or a whole heap of flapping around and some undefined potential to create.” “Do you wish to dwell or soar?” asked the pelican. “It’s a game of chance either way.”’ As the title Laissez Faire suggests, the interconnecting theme is that quite anything goes—anything can happen to anyone and the rules and parameters that help us make sense of existence are merely effective but restrictive illusions.

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Review: Omar Sabbagh 'Dye and Other Stories'

Comfortable in any medium, but with a recognisable voice, Omar Sabbagh has already published essays (Disciplined Subjects and Better Selves), a novella (Via Negativa) and poetry (Square Root of Beirut and My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint). It is unsurprising, then, that these prose pieces are mature and developed. Literature, theology and his alter ego—personified in characters such as Omar Ghaleez or hinted in autobiographical traces—haunt Sabbagh’s work. Like his nonfiction, but even more spirited, Dye and Other Stories plays seriously with philosophical ideas, richer for their narrative ambiguities. And these ideas have much to do with interrogating selfhood in its metaphysical context, making the introspective mood appropriate. A consistent feature of Sabbagh’s writing is his engagement with other writers, especially from the modernist tradition and authors with an interest in self-identity. Here, writers of self-reflection make frequent appearances (Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov), but more explicitly authors of Confessional writing appear over and over too: Thomas De Quincey, Augustine, Franz Kafka. This genre, with all of its religious connotations intact, grounds the book.

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Review: Erica Benner ‘Be Like the Fox’

An apocryphal story relates that, before he made his confession, Niccolò told his grieving friends about a dream he’d had. In it he saw a crowd of people, emaciated and in rags. When he asked who they were, he was told that they were the blessed souls of Paradise, because it is written, ‘Blessed are the poor, for they shall reign in heaven.’45 These vanished; then he saw a gathering of people in royal and courtly robes, deep in conversation about politics and philosophy. Among them he recognized Plato, Plutarch, Tacitus, and other famous men of antiquity. Asking who these were, he received the answer that they were condemned to Hell, because it is written: ‘Knowledge of sacred things is inimical to God.’ Asked which group he would like to join, he answered: ‘I’d rather burn in Hell for all eternity with the second lot than suffer in Paradise with the first.’ (p.314)

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Ross McCleary's Post-Irony

While attending the Saboteur Awards 2017, I discovered the intriguingly titled humorous novella Portrait of the Artist as a Viable Alternative to Death. With its James Joyce parody title and the author, Ross McCleary, standing in the crowd dressed as a panda, it was impossible to resist. Experimenting with font size, bold typography, second person voice, motifs of violence, mortality, solipsism and a great surfeit of meta-conceits, Portrait of the Artist as a Viable Alternative to Death is an analysis of what it means to be an artist—in that sense, it has continuity with Joyce. A single conceit, or formulae, structures the book. Each paragraph, separated from its predecessor by a hard break, begins ‘He says[…]’ and proceeds to a statement of some insight from the titular artist, speaking directly to ‘you’ the reader. It has a mesmeric quality: ‘He says it only rains when he takes an Ordinance Survey Map in the shower with him.’

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Last of the Summer Manuscripts

August is not a great time to ‘aggressively promote a brand’—to use one of the corny buzz phrases that parasites into the vulnerable mind of any go-getting freelancer. People are keener on taking vacations than having their novels cut up and surgically stitched back together for the prospective discerning, if brutal, attention of agents and publishers. Nonetheless, it is an undertaking (or, more loftily, vocation) to which I am currently committed.

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Metaphysics & Gossip

Aside from utopias and related genres, the metaphysics of stories is my most enduring monomania—one I can precisely trace to a single influence. During my formative journey through such topics as ontology, aesthetics and philosophical anthropology, the British writer Raymond Tallis was key. And in his incisive early essay ‘Notes Towards a Manifesto for a Novel of the Future’, collected in The Raymond Tallis Reader, he begins with a statement to which I often return, ‘In my more honest moments, I am inclined to admit that I find only two things in the world truly fascinating: metaphysics and gossip.’ It’s an arresting dichotomy that demands unpacking.

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My best (weird) books





























For a while I have wanted to do a blog showcasing the best (weirdest) books from my personal collection. I am fascinated by what artists and authors can do when they treat books not merely as dull vehicles for prose, but as aesthetic objects in themselves. Despite not sharing the popular distaste for ebooks, I love the physicality of volumes and volumes of books. The look of text on paper and the playful repurposing of manuscripts. These are examples I evidently loved so much I needed to keep them. I could have chosen a different set and my process for picking was admittedly haphazard and whimsical, but I think this exemplifies a lot of what is possible.

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Writing Tips: Character and Place

Attempts to address setting too frequently focus on description, but if we read a piece on characterisation that stopped at how to evoke X’s roman nose or Y’s greying hair, we might suspect something is missing. Settings and characters make similar demands on the writer, and it is true that a good setting can function structurally much like a character. When you start a novel, short story or play you have to ask how many characters you include (from zero up), their relationships, histories, story-arcs and temperaments. Likewise, will there be one setting or many? That choice can significantly alter the mood of your book. And if more than one, what is the relationship between the different places? What has occurred there in the past? What is the mood of this meadow or that street? What will change there during the course of the narrative?

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Writing Tips: Show, don’t tell

There are innumerable editing clichés, most possessing strong underlying principles, most treacherous in application. The suggestion to ‘show, don’t tell’ is often accompanied by this quote from Anton Chekhov, as it is on the Wikipedia page:

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