We are busy working on a print edition of our first journal, Dreams, which will be available exclusively on our website and in the Book Nook. We have an awesome line-up of writers, poets, and artists. Another thing to look out for in November!
Kell wiped red paint from her hand onto a boor-tree-fiber towel and studied her creation. The crimson streaks glowed in the diffuse light from her bedroom window. All one color, an entire tube of alizarin used on one small paint board. The paint’s thickness determined the darkness or lightness. No recognizable figure graced the image, but the strokes suggested movement. An arm flung wide. A tapered back arched in dance. Transition from standing to leaping.
She frowned at her work. It wasn’t good enough.
She went to the window, wishing it were safe to go outside. Beyond the glass, rain dripped from curling fronds. Acidic slime, an oocyte that lived everywhere on this planet, dropped in sloppy masses from the branches of the treelike organisms in Kell’s neighborhood. She let her faint reflection fill her field of view and disappear as she pressed her nose to the cold glass. Her breath made a misty circle. Stories of going outside to play filled her head, tales she’d heard since infancy. All the classic stories came from Earth, the broken place that could only support a few thousand souls now, in cities that shielded their residents from the weather extremes wrought by global warming.
Here, on Kell’s home planet, children didn’t play outside. The oocytes would melt your dermis. The warnings echoed like a hiss, first as the voices of the adults around you and then from the mire of your own brain, never to be erased: The oocytes’ll burn your skin. They’ll eat you to the bone.Continue reading “Flash Showcase: Acid to the Bone by A.J. Van Belle”
I’ve been reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and I don’t want it to end. I’m not sure what it is that I find so spellbinding about her writing, but it was the same with M Train when I read that last year. Like a pair of comfortable boots, I’d live in them I could.
M Train begins with the line: “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” And you may be fooled into thinking it is a book about nothing. Patti talks in streams about coffee, cafes, wandering, memories, books, waiting, superstition and coincidence with little linearity or focus. But in showing us what her down time looks like, she shows us the profound. Poetic vision isn’t some gift radioed in from another world; it’s in the everyday, in the gaps between ego events. Our art is in the little things we notice when we think we’re doing nothing. And sometimes there is no point, no single focus of meaning. Sometimes the only thing we need to take away from an experience is our own natural response.
“Life is at the bottom of things and belief is at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”
For me, M Train was itself on a trajectory of synchronicity. It was exactly a year on from writing Mind in the Gap (which has a main character called M and a string of wacky experiences on trains) that I noticed it, and I was still at a bit of a loss as to what I would do next. I’d been playing about with some ideas, redrafting an old novel, but nothing seemed to gel. Then, somewhere between the lines of Patti Smith’s nothing, I started thinking about my own nothing. And, from a stream of consciousness style notebook I kept on a trip to London, I got a good start on the novella that is to become Endless Circles. Something comes from nothing.Continue reading “Patti Smith, Trains of Creativity, and the Little Things We Notice”
I love the shape of words when they are under the spell of a poet. Every word fights for its place on the page and only the most potent survive. Perhaps better than reading poetry, though, is hearing it performed. There is passion in its delivery; rhythm and reason and life transferred directly from the poet’s body unto their congregation.
Good poetry conveys visceral knowledge that we all share deep down whether we realise it or not. It summons something common to have yet rare to behold, and teases it up towards the surface. It taps into a stream most of us have paved over with asphalt, and brings forth the purity of spring water. The taste will be bitter for some, but that’s on us and our tainted expectations of what truth should taste like. Extreme impacts like violence and drugs are as much a part of the human experience as love and security.
I used to write poetry to explore things I could understand in no other terms. I mythologised myself. Put my deepest feelings into symbol and code. And only my mind was the key that would translate the true meaning. My rhythm and reason and life. I made only one copy of each poem, typed out on an old-fashioned typewriter complete with overtyped errors and emphasis thumped into the paper by my strongest fingertips. Those poems were stolen one day, by a man who wanted my heart in a box. Perhaps, in a sense, he got what he craved.
I wonder, do poems expire? Once on paper in their complete form do they begin to rot without the vital life force of their creators’ key? Perhaps that’s why so many great works are printed on limited runs and cannot always be bought via the usual channels. Perhaps the words leave the pages behind and sink back into the ground, dissolving completely: eternally free now their job is done. Or perhaps they live on in their human hosts, kept close to the chest, ready to re-emerge in alternative configurations in some other place and time.
Technology in the Gap
This is the first in a little series of posts about the real-life developments in technology that led to the bizarre extrapolated versions in my new book, Mind in the Gap. In this one, I share some of my research on the possibilities of creating art directly from the brain.
SQUID is a real device used to detect minute changes in electromagnetic fields, including those in the brain. It stands for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, and has been used in science fiction for years, most memorably in William Gibson’s novels as a way to read-out information stored in neural circuitry.
The current method for brain imaging, Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), has limitations in that it is blind to detailed and direct neuronal activity. SQUID is one of the developments being investigated as a replacement for the future.
I used this idea in my story Frankie. I wanted to show such technology becoming so canonical and safe that it was used in a socio-commercial setting as opposed to only in medicine. I created an alternate reality where people no longer carry around mobile devices to interact with the world, but instead wear headpieces that continually read and output brain signals (and actually look like a squids!).
Scientists in a Kyoto laboratory have been working on a project that uses AI to analyse data collected during fMRI scans, and to interpret them into visual representations of what the individual was imagining at the time from a database of photographs. They call it Deep Image Reconstruction. Artist Pierre Huyghe worked with this recently by asking volunteers to imagine things he described, and then getting the AI to create a visual from their brain signals.
“If I tell you to think of an apple, the apple you think of will not be the same apple I think of,” he told The Guardian. It is one subjective impression (quale) informing another, which is then interpreted by an artificial intelligence. The resulting images are far from accurate according to those involved; they look nightmarish, fleshy and deformed (see the image above). They are uncanny: somehow recognisable to us but just strange enough that we know they can’t be real. You can read the whole article here.
I like to imagine these are the kind of images AI could think up independently in the future if we tried to simulate human perception. Would these grotesque mashed up images define us as a species in the mind of a robot? And I’m not even going to get into the possibilities of AI becoming capable of spontaneously reading our minds. I’ll save that for when I come to post about the horrors of my story One…
Painting with Thoughts
For several years we have been able use a brain-computer interface to command painting software: painting pictures with our thoughts, choosing colours and placement based on the way we focus our attention. It has been used to help people who don’t have use of their motor functions, and is hoped to even become an effective communication channel for people suffering locked-in syndrome.
Some say we can also use brain painting as a meditative therapy of sorts. If we ‘map’ our thought patterns and create a visual representation of what altering that would look like. It’s a bit like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a visual aid and creative output, and I’d be very interested to see whether this is proven effective in the future.
Do Androids Dream?
A type of AI called a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) has filters capable of abstracting out aspects of images in layers. This has been used in various experiments. For example, we know that CNN can produce new images that combine the ‘content’ of one existing image and the ‘style’ of another – think of the filters you have on your phone.
Google’s DeepDream uses a CNN to find and enhance patterns in images via algorithmic Pareidolia to produce psychedelic, over-processed images (pictured above) These experiments with neural nets are already evolving at pace. Artwork created by CNN is selling for thousands of dollars, and is informing the way virtual and augmented reality develops.
In Frankie, I combined the general ‘output’ ideas of Deep Image Reconstruction, CNN and Brain Painting with the ‘input’ of advanced brain scans at neuronal level. I imagined a little piece of worn tech taking minute signals from the brain, that could output them instantly onto the surfaces around us to create a sort of communal psychedelic wonderland. I thought about what it could be like if certain skilled individuals were able to build the output images up in layers to create hologram-like objects for as long as concentration would allow. My nameless protagonist lives in a world where this is what memes have become.
Being a lover of psychology, I then began to wonder: what, then, might happen if the headpieces could take readings from the subconscious mind to show us things we didn’t realise we were thinking? It could tell us ‘You share an exciting chemistry with that person over there,’ or ‘you are harbouring deep-set doubts about this.’ And what if those thoughts in the subconscious weren’t intermittent, but ever-present in the background, and ever-growing? You’ll have to read Frankie to find out!
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If you’ve already read Mind in the Gap, have you seen the Connections and Easter Eggs page? People are starting to add their theories and findings, and I’d love you to join in. If you haven’t read it yet, you can check out the blurb or pick up a signed copy here. It’s also available as an ebook on Kindle or as a paperback from anywhere that sells books. Thank you!
I went to see the Abstract Expressionism exhibition that is currently showing at the Royal Academy of Arts. I find art exhibitions great for putting musings into perspective, and I have a particular love for abstract works because they offer something that bit more open to interpretation. Out of habit perhaps, I take a sketchbook with me. It’s what I was taught to do in art class, but I never really understood what I was supposed to be drawing. You see, my art is depictions of things that are inside, never objects from the exterior world, and I struggle to feel creative when sketching from life. But I do want to get that response down, that raw inspiration and mental illumination that happens when I react to a piece of artwork. So this time I spontaneously decided to make a written response to what I was seeing, and I did this without reading the accompanying information bites until afterwards to prevent my thoughts being influenced by ‘what you are supposed to think’. Here are some of the things I wrote.
Creative folk bounce in and out of one another’s lives: sometimes collaborating, sometimes revelling in symbiosis, and sometimes breaking one another’s hearts to discover new building materials.
And so, when Claude left Nancy, there came to be a trail of red paint on the carpet from the kitchen to the front porch, all the way out to where his beat-up hatchback had once stayed. Artists don’t like to walk around the outside of houses. Given the option of using a path or pulling waves through the floorboards to walk upon, they’ll go for impact every time. Luckily Nancy, being a musician, decided she quite liked the sound of the stain once it had soaked in. When she put her ear to it, it sung in mysterious tones; like sunlight hitting the moon. All through the winter she hummed along, accompanied by the new rhythm of her aching heart.
She was still humming it when she met Terence by the pond the following March. He was photographing the surface of the water: not the water itself, he stressed, just the surface. He was endlessly fascinated by surfaces of all natures, and fancied if their essences could only be isolated then our understanding of beauty would improve threefold.
Terence moved in with Nancy the very next week, and he covered her walls with home-developed photographs in black and white. Images of pavements overlapped with images of skin overlapped with images of the sea; all of them, he claimed, depicted something identical. He stuck them over, under and around the curly letters Stephanie had written a year before, making a brand new dancing visual poetry of the house. Nancy had a different tune then, and she hummed it with her fingers upon ivory keys. It still had remnants of the dried red paint, but this time against a quickened heartbeat, and with a distinctive smattering of surface qualia.
Fragments of Perception and Other Stories is available now in paperback and ebook! Visit my books page to find out how to get your copy.
You dragged me from the water for the third time that day with a look of determination on your face. A look which seemed to be new, even to you. This whole charade was driving you into uncharted territories; testing your endurance. I slumped myself down next to a rock, feeling nothing but raw. My senses were protesting at the stimulation they were expected to process. Not this again. The world was an inconvenience. I was sick from the things I once loved. We were way beyond reassurances by then, and there were no more words you could say to me. So instead you paced back and forth with your hands in your hair and your eyes to the sky.
What happens when things have fallen apart about as far as they ever could? Entropy take me.
Then you gathered a bunch of sticks, much faster than I could comprehend, and right there in front of me you started a fire. My tired eyes were some way comforted by the sight of colour, my worn and crumbled body warmed by the flame. In the crackle of the wood I heard you promise that you would find me a desert in which to dwell if that is what it would take to keep me from the waters edge.
We sat there for some hours in silence: I as a pile of stones and you as a boat. I fell asleep, and you took me home.
Broken Sleep came up as a recommended read for me, presumably due to Bruce Bauman’s association with one of my favourite authors Steve Erickson. It is described as an experimental, kaleidoscopic epic, encompassing art, madness, philosophy and identity, which sounds like exactly the kind of book I enjoy.
‘There are many dimensions of ‘reality’ we don’t understand. Odd things occur that can’t be explained. That does not make you a candidate for a mental breakdown. I believe in what can be proved and I’m agnostic on what cannot be disproved. I do not subscribe to past life memories, extraterrestrials, time travel, ESP, or any other speculative sci-fi concoctions. That doesn’t rule them out for eternity. It rules them out for now. There’s more in here – he pointed to his head and then to the heavens – than there is out there.”
It is written from three different perspectives; two of which are first person an one is third. Salome Savant is a sex-obsessed artist who has been in and out of psychiatric care for most of her life; Moses Teumer is the son she believes was stillborn, who is now seeking a bone marrow transplant from his biological family; and Ambitious Mindswallow is bassist for rock superstars The Insatiables and a close friend of Salome’s beloved son Alchemy.
Despite the head-jumping, this isn’t at all difficult to follow. The characters are colourful and relatable (with the possible exception of Alchemy the rock star who can do no wrong), so the technique succeeds in giving a multi-faceted view of events. I don’t consider it to do anything ground-breaking in terms of style though, and its tendency towards anecdote over immersing the reader in a scene is a little disappointing. The character back stories are interesting for sure, but I was expecting a gripping plot to be laid over them and unfortunately that never comes.
Strangely, Broken Sleep as a title seems to have very little to do with the content; the Savant family do share a tendency to slip into daydreams and sleep poorly, but this is alluded to only sporadically and I didn’t consider it a key part of the story.
Politics, art, medicine, corruption, the press, the music industry, insanity, and family life are all incorporated into Broken Sleep. The multiple points of view enable us to see each of these from hugely varying perspectives, which is a big task to take on as a writer. For example we are shown the formation of a left-wing political party beside the musings of a former Nazi officer with no regrets. Elsewhere, we observe someone who does not believe in time living every moment to the full, beside someone who is running out of time but never using what he has to make it count.
The problem perhaps is that the themes are too broad to be meaningful in any one area. It almost has something to say about nature vs nurture, and it almost has something to say about the impact of personal relationships vs the impact of politics on our lives and our sense of control: but not quite.
“Inside every human, without exception, resides the essence of what moralists call evil. Herbert Spencer, in classic English linguistic perfidy, declared this drive to be ‘survival of the fittest’. I witnessed this exhibition of spirit by the delighted participation of women and children in acts of murder and debauchery. This empowering drive to vanquish and control is encoded in our blood and far outweighs courage or human generosity, or, for Christ’s sake, loving the enemy.”
What it does manage to demonstrate, I think, is how subjective life is. Everyone thinks their own logic is perfectly defensible, and everyone thinks they are the ones who need to wake others up to truth. Everyone tries to protect their loved ones in the best way they can, and everyone is torn apart by being lied to and having their worldview turned upside down.
‘Reason is powerless to repair the ruptured heart.’
I did enjoy Broken Sleep on the whole. Although it is hard to justify the length (620 pages), it is a straightforward read with short chapters, and I kept turning the pages once I’d picked it up. It’s just unfortunate there is very little in the way of suspense, or even open questions to make the reader desperate to go back for more.
“I love the sculptures are they yours?”
Wow. This is why Emily was special. Not one other person had noticed my sculptures and I had put a lot of effort into them. I buzzed with excitement.
“You look beautiful.”
She had always glowed at my compliments, but refused to take them. “Still a charmer, hey? I know you say that to all the girls.”
“Of course, but it’s true with you.”
How could I make her see I meant it? I wanted to ask her if she still felt the chemistry between us.
“It’s still there isn’t it?”
“It’ll always be there,” she assured me.
I watched her deep purple lips as she said it, banking the moment and the words into permanent memory. Her hair was caught in her earring, an oversized pewter black rose, and I reached to untangle it for her. She stiffened and looked nervously towards the door. The door through which her new boyfriend would soon emerge and crush all my hopes of getting her back.
I took a bathroom cubicle shortly after that, where I could let my pure panic out by punching the cistern until I bled. Things started getting weird then, and I don’t know, maybe I blacked out for a little while because what I remember next is very loud and very close and tequila
and tequila Continue reading “Hearts Can’t Catch”