Social media addiction, writing, and the importance of boredom

There was an interesting piece on the last Newsnight about social media addiction. It was thankfully not sensational, but tried to look at the existing scientific evidence, especially how the brain’s reward areas being stimulated by likes/retweets etc. might cause addictive behaviour. It’s not a crazy idea, since that’s exactly what happens to gamblers, who are addicted to a specific behaviour that has no physical chemical component. The evidence is still too sparse to make any informed decision.

What interested me was less the addiction question than the social media behaviour breaks up something essential to my work: boredom. There is always another post to read, another picture to laugh at, something to like or retweet or comment on. Then of course your own contributions are skipped along and reflected back. It is the reason it is so appealing to people, and why it’s dangerous to writing.

Writing requires long, blank mental spaces, and it is a part of the work few of us enjoy. Hang around writers long enough (five minutes) and someone will complain about the crazy-making effects of the blank page. Yet it is a necessary pain, and leads to the most remarkable thing about our work: the wrestling of people, of whole worlds, into being though sheer force of will.

Yet, now that all writers are supposed to be social media experts, we are expected to stay connected to this vast sea of distraction. It’s a balance that isn’t easy to strike. For now I keep them separate, closing everything down except my work, knowing my brain will run for the first shiny object it sees to escape the empty space I’m forcing it to be in.

So, instead of staring at my browser, I stare out the window.

Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada

Alone in Berlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fallada’s book begins when the Nazis are at the height of their power: France has surrendered, and the English expeditionary army has been thrown into the sea. The worst of German society is now ascendant. In the Quangel’s apartment block they take the form of the Persickes,a working-class family headed by a drunk tavern keeper, have through their membership in the party been elevated to positions, especially their poisonous son Baldur who is tipped for great things in the Hitler Youth. The portrait Fallada paints of a society utterly corrupted by violence and betrayal is as horrifying as it is compelling.

We want the good guys to win. Even more than true love or great adventure, the idea of good triumphing over evil is part of the wish fulfilment of literature. The problem is that this relentless parade of unusual stories can lead you to think that good winning is the rule, not the exception. In Fallada’s Berlin, resistance against the Nazis feels not just doomed, but quixotic.

Yet the novel is almost as redemptive as it is harrowing (and that “almost” is one of its most interesting parts.) It is ultimately about the cost of preserving your dignity in the face of overwhelming evil, and the Quangel’s story is more powerful than a hundred pat tales of heroes overcoming obstacles we already know will fall.

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The Fall, and when the dystopia comes to you

A while ago I wrote a short story set in the Strange world called The Fall. You can now read it for free on Hodderscape today.

The premise is that a woman is indicted for murder when she has a miscarriage after falling down a flight of stairs. It takes place in an America that has been governed by religous fundamentalists for several years, where a fetus is now a person under law. The extremists I was writing about propose these laws all the time as a way of making abortion illegal. When I wrote The Fall I thought I was extending that thinking to its predictably ludicrous conclusion, where every miscarriage would have to be investigated just as every death was, to determine if there was foul play.

Then they go and call my bluff.

The man who may be the next Attorney General in Virginia, Mark Obershain (The result is so close there may be a recount), once tried to do this:

Outrageously, Mr. Obenshain sought to force women to report miscarriages to the authorities. His explanation — that he was doing the bidding of a prosecutor who sought to protect newborn babies and that he withdrew the bill when he grasped its flaws — casts doubt on his basic legal competence and qualification for the office he now seeks.

Maybe I should sue.

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How have I not read this book before? The cyberpunk, the noir, and meticulous fight scenes all convince me Morgan and I’s teenage brains were marinated in very similar sauces. Fully-built worlds have been a bee in my bonnet lately, and here Morgan really succeeds: he takes the idea of consciousness being as transferable as any smartphone app and extends out the implications as far as they can go. All the permutations of data are included in interesting ways: copying, duplication, corruption and indefinite storage of the program called consciousness. A particular favourite was the method of torture of leaving someone in virtual reality with multiple copies of themselves until the existential dread cracks them open.

I’d say my only reservation is the Envoys, the interstellar ninjas the protagonist Takesi Kovacs was a part of. I understand keeping their ‘powers’ deliberately vague, but they seemed only to serve the immediate needs of the plot rather than have any real coherence. What Morgan does reveal of their work I found more intriguing than the main plot of the actual book. I wanted to read a book about life as an Envoy, what it would be like to be constantly moving from body to body and world to world, adapting and readapting but having no permanent body of your own.

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Capital by John Lanchester

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Capital is entertaining, deft and very readable; it is no surprise it was so popular. I hit the first half of this book hard, enthralled by the many characters and the memory of living through that strange, property-mad time of 2007.

Yet as I headed into the second half I found attention waning. It was still very readable and fun, but I cared less and less about what was going on. His characters are all well-realised (the fact that I merely found the City banker and his wife, the Younts, hilarious rather than wanting to set them on fire is a tribute to his characterisation.) However the 18th-century panoramic style Lanchester employs means you never spend enough concentrated time with any particular character to care deeply about their lives. By the time I got to the end I had viewed everything from that mile-high perspective for so long I wasn’t invested that much in how it ended, or what he was trying to say. A novel that was unfortunately less than the sum of its parts.

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China Miéville’s Railsea

RailseaRailsea by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Railsea was a book I admired more than loved. Miéville impresses, as always, with the sheer scope of his invention. What I think is often overlooked is that he applies that same inventiveness all the way down, to the little details of daily life. So in Railsea we not only have the mechanics of the great mole train and descriptions of a vast iron-covered desert teeming with hidden carnivores. We also get refrences to cities and societies all over the Railsea, drinks and food, each individually almost a throwaway but adding up to the feeling of a vast world going on outside the confines of the story. It’s world building in the best sense of the term.

So why did I recognise the technical achievement more than enjoy the story? In between the main narrative are essentially mini-essays on storytelling and narrative, meta from both barrels. I found it jarring and unnecessary, when the power of rumour and story was already baked right into the narrative. Miéville invited me to distance myself from his own story, to consider it as much as a theoretician as a reader, so I did.

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Syria and the end of the of the age of ‘Doing Something’

Ever since Cameron lost the Syria vote yesterday evening, much has been made about the shadow of Iraq, and rightly so. Those who will decry this vote as the end of interventionism are wrong. It was one of its chief proponents, Tony Blair, who put that doctrine into a grave in Baghdad.

What died last night was intervention’s weaker cousin: ‘Doing Something.’ Cameron failed because he thought if he focused on the horror of what had happened in Damascus, he wouldn’t be questioned on what exactly we could do about it. The need to respond to the atrocity would be so strong, the response itself would be almost peripheral. Instead, parliament quite sensibly asked what our objectives were, and what the after effects of dropping yet more bombs in the Middle East would be.

That is the true legacy of Iraq, that these question can be asked without fear. When doubts were raised about the weapons programs of how the invasion would go, they were silenced by accusations that any opposition was objectively pro-Saddam. Some of the cabinet tried to play the same disgusting game last night and it blew up in their faces. Cameron’s own party was unconvinced, let alone the country at large.

The fact is that our options for making a real difference in Syria are extremely limited. Establishing a no-fly zone would require a large campaign against modern air defenses, some of which might be manned by Russian personnel. A ground invasion is out of the question, as is close support of insurgents, many of whom are the very Jihadists that we’re supposed to fighting that other war against.

What was effectively on the table last night was a few cruise missile strikes of the kind Clinton launched against Hussein in the 90s. They would accomplish no military objective and not seriously weaken Assad, but they would show we had done something. It would be the geopolitical equivalent of a spanking, at a million or so per Tomahawk slap.

Parliament decided last night that launching missiles was a poor way to make the images on our television easier to stomach. Let’s hope we find a better solution.

Review of Swiftly by Adam Roberts

SwiftlySwiftly by Adam Roberts

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Continuing the world of Gulliver’s Travels into the Victorian era seems like such a natural idea I’m surprised no one has done it before. Roberts neatly fits Gulliver’s new world into the narrative of empire, another land to be conquered and used alongside so many others. The Lilliputians are slave artisans, building impossibly tiny Steampunk devices with the precision machines at that time could only dream of. The Brobdingnagian are nearly exterminated by the Royal Navy, and ally with the French.

Adam Roberts gets a lot of credit in my book for not stopping there. Instead he takes Swift’s premise of big and little and pushes it out in both directions, below the naked eye and out into space. The result is a fascinating idea, even if I don’t think it quite succeeded as a novel.

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There are a lot of great scenes in the book: the plague coming to Scarborough and the fall of London come to mind. However I think Roberts goes down a bit of a philosophical rabbit hole at the end with the Battle of York. The ideas overwhelm the narrative, and after a while I became disconnected from the characters. I admit there was also a bit more fecalphilia than I am usually up for in a book.
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Swiftly is daring, creative, but in dire need of a firmer narrative hand.

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Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

Dark EdenDark Eden by Chris Beckett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s often said of SF that it is always, or should always, be a reflection on the present, and while it often is I think that limits what it’s capable of. It should, like all good fiction, be about human nature. The great thing about SF is the freedom to mix up the board, change aspects of society and reality as a way of bringing different aspects of humanity into focus.

Dark Eden is a book in that tradition, reducing a group of people to hunter-gatherers on an alien world. Though I think the Eden as a world is wonderfully realised, a place of warm but eternal darkness, it is what Beckett does with the tribe of inbred humans that really interests me. Family are the descendants of a single pair marooned on the planet, who have become a tribe of a few hundred people. They have stayed clustered around the original crash site, eagerly waiting to be rescued and returned to the mythical Earth.

I hope I am being vague enough about the plot from now on to avoid spoiler issues, but forewarned is forearmed etc.

Anyway, this religious need to stay close to the crash site has meant that the expanding population of Family is denuding the dark forest of food. John Redlantern, young and restless, wants to expand out into the world, and has little reverence for the stories of Earth and the survivors. Through a reckless act he gets the expansion he wants, but at the cost of the peace and unity that had bound Family together.

My favourite part of this book is Beckett’s ambivalent take on change, and John’s reasons for upending his whole society. These stories are too often simplistic, with the hero being the only one with the vision or the nerve to do what is ‘necessary.’ Beckett undercuts the idea that John is some kind of leader of his people almost immediately, showing how his own restlessness drives him as much as the wisdom of what he proposes. It’s clear that they will have to move, but it is not desperate, and he forces the change for his own reasons.

Angela, the first mother of Family, told the women to beware of men who would want to make the story of life ‘all about them.’ John is one of those men, and leaves others to pick up the pieces, to do the hard work of making something new out of what he has broken.

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