Back at the beginning of the summer, I went to Hoxton to meet a couple of friends for afternoon beers and a chinwag. On the way, I saw the Google Streetview car passing up and down the street; much as I suspected at the time, it has temporarily immortalised me, trapped me in a freeze-frame of congealed sunshine and the magical digital time-amber of the intermatubez.

I’m actually quite chuffed, though I couldn’t tell you why. Let’s put it down to shallowness and move on, eh?

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Amphetamine Fugue #3

His history be the hallowe’en of her. “T is down, pumpkin.” Pumpkin scene flickers, checked to his wobbly cardboard killing-jar Oxfam? Every Oxfam?

T spins, unfocused, shitty again. Pavement. It’s a heard object, really arch, dears — sucking a brickwork road, we’re the end of pavement. And air in the world harrassed his public clinic, mad with that library hunger, her light, and shrill pistols end Benji fitfully, loud bitten in the awful window. Heard of the specimen; says nymphoid’s best is back in straight pockets, but together: speed.

Too straight, everything is clear: impatience shopfront, clinic maybe. But still the woman is clear, or just unfocused, too loud a photoshopped corner in the scene. Happens she takes people, wobbly. But you, cardboard, she told you: “guy, say sucking pockets,” heard behind him, nestling in her freezeframe. Manages the newspaper, palm coming to a stalled nothing. Leap.

Go big, solution: shoplifting really sucking now, sucking air, worrying, strangled — that type reminds her, something that stretches Benji to clear, pistol cardboard, world, speed, dears, bag, scene, in, tied out. Told to leap back, moving down Palmeston, air supposed where things of air might think: public speed.

Her Matrix straight unfocused, benches grinding, shrill imagining haunted the back expression: keep windows clear of clinic-think. Down pistols, unfocused, then be clear, expression back to pavement — just pavement? Dears, the shoplifting flickered, they’d say “maybe” to type; go the clinic.

All of history cartoonish, why and away? Crowbar. She happens. Not today, pumpkin; sci-fi clear, but no black-out. Leap the strangled history you call photoshopped, crusty expression for his dear object: speed.

They know, shoved onto a moving pavement. Down, away, pumpkin-seeing-the-pavement! Newspapers still spin her away, we leap anyway: it’s the throb of my pinning her here, supposed solution, spins, grinding awful impatience. All afraid, looking the best — why noticing? Speed.

Nothing spins repeated, used sci-fi hide; Saj trodden down, probably worrying. Think. Typed the library — speed, her hands like Oxfam? She stalled, takes out time. End mad, maybe — and why type, awful clear, like Oxfam? That’s once herself, guy, before T stalled, coping high to the end, her pistols, guy: she, she the awful speed.

Like wordless toenails, only anyway: coming back by, she’s made of something again. Go T, unfocused; buy back, be loud.

From the dissertation-in-progress; an experiment with using automated cut-up engines to recreate the narrative disorientation of severe CNS-stimulant withdrawal. Methodology: write scene, leaving gap for fugue; paste entire scene into cut-up engine; retrieve results, cull, kill and splice, repunctuate; paste results back into cut-up engine, repeat process (as many iterations as you want, or until you get a batch that seems to sing without being prompted; chop into paragraphs, tease out emergent themes and riffs; condense down; display to a baffled public who’ve already heard of Burroughs, thankyouverymuch.

Notes from Babylondon

Everyone was so pleased when I announced completion of my first draft that their responses have totally crashed Twitter, apparently. Ahem.


I’m no expert, but that’s looking like pretty bad news. It didn’t take long for spectacular un-graceful failure states like this to disappear behind web2.0’s equivalent of the hold music, our old friend Fail-whale. Where’s he today, huh?

(Just occurred to me that half the problem is probably down to millions of people hitting refresh or their devices hammering the APIs. I’ll bet there’s some wailing and hair-tearing in that datacenter right now. Or has it gone down under the weight of some 9-11 grade Bad News Item?)

Of course, the really scary thing is how much I feel its absence, leering at me out of my second monitor. The cyborg’s augmentations fail; what does he do next? Life as cliché cyberpunk101 vignette.


protag. rolls cigarette, thinks nihilistic thoughts, hates on traffic hovercars armed kid gangs on scooters the gov’t.

Maybe he edits a magazine – yeah, a zine, but it’s IN CYBERSPACE! [need good neologism for this, something really cool-sounding] So he broods, writes his zine thing; he’s not found much time for it since he got his new implant. What next?

** Get milk, bacon. CAT FOOD Email [redacted] about that bloody invoice they got a month ago

So, yeah. Sure is warm today.

Thought occurs: make periodic catastrophic failure a feature of Twitter. Every three months, complete reset, all old tweets killed off, all connections erased; only your handle remains the same (though you can change it, if you like). Be interesting to see which were the people of your follows and followers would find themselves following again the soonest, wouldn’t it?

Update, 17:51GMT – Twitter appears to have reappeared, though it’s still struggling under the wave of returning users. No cataclysm tweets… but then I guess you can’t livetweet a cataclysm for long, right?

So, anyway, first draft – complete! Not the first draft of my dissertation, though. Oh no. Totally different project. Pitched an article on Nordic larp to Rhizome back in May and got it accepted, foolishly overlooking the fact that I had a rather big project to be going on with already (in the form of said dissertation) plus my day job (which has kinda taken a backseat for the last fortnight, so to speak). Worse still I had to ask for two extensions on the deadline, partly because it rapidly became a huge fascinating monster of a thing, and partly because my time-management skillset has been tested to destruction. I’ve not touched my dissertation in the last week.

But now it’s [edit for clarity: the Nordic larp piece, not my dissertation] in first draft form, all 11.5kilowords of it, sat in the editor’s inbox… and the editor is going on holiday for a fortnight starting tomorrow, so I get to let it simmer until then, while I get back to, erm, all the stuff I’m meant to be doing right now.

First draft of a non-fiction piece is always a sweet moment, because that’s the hard pushing done, the baby delivered into the waiting arms of the doctor/editor, who takes it off to be examined… and then returns, solicitous above a steely core, to discuss which organs and appendages need to be surgically removed before it can be seen in public.

What would we do without them? Hug your editor today! Or buy them a coffee, maybe. Not everyone is digging on random hugs. Or coffee, for that matter.


Postscript – it’s none other than Bruce Sterling, ladies and gents, reproducing a string of sullen tweets I sent from the bowels of Tuesday’s London heatwave as… prophecy? Poetry? I dunno. I’m just amazed he noticed; to my shame, I totally failed to mention drones. But then again, I doubt they’re deployed around here; Chelsea comes with its own brands of privacies and surveillances, and it’d take a long time to get the locals hungry enough to riot. Selah.

In a fit of total vanity, I’m gonna embed those tweets below. Wouldn’t put it past CondeNast to just disappear Chairman Bruce’s blog one day, and I am passing proud of these. I do all my best poetry when surly, y’know. *flounces off*


Two things happen in the middle of big projects, I’ve noticed.

One of them is the mid-project motivational slump: that period where you hate the project, can’t see any point in completing the project other than to demostrate your incompetence and hubris to the world at large, and can’t imagine why you chose to start the project when you could have written, oh, I don’t know, a nice conventional linear narrative about competent Anglophone spacemen bringing civilisation to someone in sore need of it, goshdamn. The project taunts you. Touching it blackens your fingers, like an old fireplace in a foreclosed cottage.

(There’s a dissertation update, for them as was lookin’.)

The second is what I’m starting to think of as conceptual accretion. In the early phases of any project, you’re getting your sources and inspirations in order, keeping them together in a big tank somewhere, sloshing around near the front of your brain, to see what happens when you smoosh ’em and smash ’em together. Some of those ideas and facts and twistings might merge or mix, and you start getting a nice solid bolus of… shit, I don’t even know what this precursor material is called, but I can tell you mine comes in boluses, and you keep building them up and compacting them down with more layers of material, like one of those ice-cored snowballs they warned you about at primary school after that boy lost his sight in one eye, until suddenly some certain mass or density is achieved, and criticality occurs.

At this point, any new idea you encounter may well be sucked into the project by the increasingly powerful gravity well focussed on your original idea-bolus. The first few days of this phenomenon are deceptively heartening, as they offer what seem to be new angles on the original target, but after a little while you end up with an accretion disk of rubble the size of a solar system orbiting around an idea so dense and obsessed upon that it is obscured by its own singularity, which not even the light of your own thoughts able to escape unscathed.


Come to think of it, Thing Two may well explain Thing One.

It’s what we point to when we say “good”

OK, philosophy-of-literature time. Good buddy and shiny-domed death metal maven Ian Sales has an irate post reiterating his belief that the quality of any piece of literature can be assessed objectively. Go read it, it’s pretty brief. (Unlike this thing.)

So, my instinctive response to this statement is always “NO WAI!!”, but I figured it’s high time I figured out why. Postmodernism – which I’ve always viewed as a lens for examining the mechanics of culture, rather than as an ideological standpoint on how things should work – is a big part of it. Also, reading Zen & The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance at a formative age left me with an awestruck fear of the utter hollowness of the word “quality”: like “love”, we say it all the time, but we don’t know what we mean when we say it. Or rather, we know what we mean when we say it, but the assumption that everyone – or indeed anyone – else understands it to mean the same thing is demonstrated to be false countless times every single day. I’m not going to reiterate Pirsig’s assaults on quality here, because that would be counterproductive; suffice to say that if you can’t furnish a universally acceptable definition of a property, then you can’t even begin to defend an objective measure of that property. First principles, innit?

But I’m going to continue anyway, because it seems to me that the text of Ian’s complaint reveals that he’s not actually claiming what he thinks he’s claiming. So, let’s go piece by piece.

If there is no such thing as good – because if it’s entirely subjective and personal, then it’s completely useless as a descriptive term – then how do editors choose which books to publish, how do judges choose which books to give prizes to, how do academics chose which books to study? And why don’t they all choose completely different books?

Now, Ian undermines his own argument here by including the counterargument as a throw-away: yes, “good” is completely useless as a descriptive term. It’s an emotional term, a relational term. Goodness is not an intrinsic property. Goodness is bestowed by the speaker. To argue otherwise is to make a case for a higher being, some deity or demiurge, capricious and inscrutable, that bestows the phlogiston of goodness upon some objects or phenomena, but not upon others; and to make the further case that you can somehow divine the presence of this mystical property, despite lacking a testable methodology for the process.

So how do editors, prize juries and academics choose good books? I submit that they make choices based on their own tastes, and apply – after the fact, and largely subconsciously – retroactive reasoning to justify that taste. That reasoning is informed by unending projects of canon-building and reconstruction; it’s informed by the opinions of others interested in the same field (those opinions being modified by existing biases toward their holders in the assessor), and a variable degree of willingness (or, in some cases, puckish intent) to hold a contrary opinion for its own sake.

And why don’t they all choose different books? Why, but they do – look at the different sorts of fiction published by, for example, Gollancz and Baen, two popular and respected genre publishing houses. If there was an objective measure for quality, then every publishing house in the business would be in a bidding war over the single current best-book-on-the-market. If there were an objective good, an objective best, then we would not observe the spectacular diversity of form and style that pertains to almost every field of the arts, fiction writing included.

They can do all this because the quality of a book can be determined objectively. It is not an exact science, and it is subject to changes in taste and/or re-evaluation in light of changes in attitudes and sensibilities.

The second sentence here completely undermines the first. If assessing a book’s quality is not an exact science, then it is by definition not objective. If the definition of quality “is subject to changes… or re-evaluation”, then it is by definition not objective. From good ol’ Wikipedia (which, for the sake of gratuitous po-mo snark, I should point out is not a truly objective source, but – or so I’d argue – good enough for purpose here):

A proposition is generally considered to be objectively true when its truth conditions are met and are “mind-independent”—that is, not met by the judgment of a conscious entity or subject.

So, if we could develop a computer program or some sort of manual checklist by which the goodness or quality of a book might be assessed, and have that test agree faultlessly with the opinion of every single person who had ever read the book in question, then we’d have a good case for an objective measure of goodness.

But that’s a project doomed to fail, and not for any reason related to the difficulty of the programming. On the contrary: it falls over because it relies on a unanimous agreement among readers. If quality is truly objective, then it should be self-evident to anyone with the capacity to perceive it. Compare to an objective property, like, I dunno, blueness*: a thing that is blue, that possesses an intrinsic blueness, will be perceived as blue by all who behold it. By way of contrast, I defy you to find a book that would be rated as “good” by every single person who read it, over a realistically-sized sample of readers. Never going to happen. Subjective, you see.

Now, if you want to make an argument that not every reader is qualified to assess the goodness of a book, well, I have some sympathies with that… but it completely undermines this whole “goodness can be measured objectively” thing. So I put it to Ian that he’s not making the argument that he thinks he is.

If good is subjective, then awards are completely pointless.

Well, I’m glad to see we agree on something! (Though I’d make the statement more precise by saying “Best [X]” awards are completely pointless as generators of answers to the question they pose, whereas they have a wider set of implicit subcultural and social functions which they evidently achieve quite well.) As measures of quality, awards are only as reliable as their voters… and the above is a very strange defence statement from someone whose regular carping about award shortlists I greatly enjoy. You can’t have your cake and eat it; if awards sometimes – heck, ever – fail to recognise this objective property of goodness and laud a bad book (or even an indifferent or flawed book), then not all voters or jury members are recognising goodness when they see it… which means goodness is being determined subjectively within the system in question.

This is, of course, a microcosm of the actual book marketplace, which frequently sees bestsellers made of books which have been scorched with the universal opprobrium of almost every critic capable of typing a coherent sentence. If there’s an objective goodness to a book, how come some many people not only loved The Da Vinci Code, but adamantly defend their love of it from those who would (quite rightly) point out that its prose is dreadful, its tropes hackneyed, its appeal based largely on seductively specious conspiracy theories?

The defence could be made that those readers – or the voters in our imaginary award – simply don’t have the right checklist or program with which to detect goodness. And I’d agree – to a greater or lesser extent – with that defence, too… while pointing out that it reframes goodness not as an objective property, but as a property that can only be properly assessed by those with access to a specific set of knowledge. This is intrinsically an elitist argument.

And that’s fine: people who work with literature are surely more knowledgeable about it than those who do not; the reader who reads fifty books a year has a more informed opinion than does the person who reads just one. I give greater weight to the opinion of a working mechanic on what car to buy than I do to the opinion of a florist on the same matter. But if you then argue that only the expert opinions have any value at all, you’re silencing a huge swathe of voices, rebuilding the ivory tower. And that’s one of my core arguments in favour of subjective quality: it means I can have my opinion – and argue passionately in defence of it, with all the knowledge I’ve picked up along the way, if the desire takes me to do so – without denying anyone else that same right, and without anyone else being able to deny it to me. Which brings us to:

And studying literature, well, that’s a complete waste of time too. After all, how can you be an expert in a topic in which one individual’s value judgment is worth exactly the same another person’s? There’d be no such thing as an expert. All books would have exactly the same artistic value.

Well, no. There is a canon of literature considered to be great, but that canon, as Ian himself pointed out earlier, is in a state of continual (if at times glacially slow) flux, as critics and academics return to obscure oddities from the past to place them on fresh pedestals, toppling a few dusty statues of last year’s heroes in the process. This is subjective consensus generation in action! (The final interview in Delany’s About Writing goes into glorious and intimate detail on the mechanics of canon formation, and it’s his cogent arguments there that I’m making a rough hash of here.)

And while I can’t speak for everyone, for me the value of studying literature is not so much to seek for an objective truth (which is arguably the demesne of science), but to develop a theory and defend it against attack, or modify it in light of new discoveries. Literature, and the study of literature, is a perpetual discourse, a rambling debate upon which no one (hopefully) will ever call time. It’s not the winning, in other words, not the being the rightest, but the taking part. (Yes, I’m being thoroughly idealistic here. After having been warned about the travails of academia over the long term, I’m trying to enjoy my naivete while it lasts.)

OK, then: having, I believe, successfully demonstrated that the objectively-assessed goodness Ian makes claims for cannot actually exist, I want to see if I can tease out what I think he’s really chasing after – because it’s something I, as a fellow writer, am also chasing.

… there are certain key indicators in fiction which can be used to determine the quality of that piece of fiction. It’s what makes one writer more talented, more skilled than another writer. It’s what makes one story worthy of study and another not worth giving away for free.


… everyone seems to agree that the following do indeed indicate that a piece of fiction is bad: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, clumsy prose, tin-earred dialogue, lack of rigour, graceless info-dumping, unoriginality, bad research…

There’s an implicit bias in these statements which, when made explicit, turns them into perfectly reasonable and logical statements. That bias is Ian’s perspective as a writer – and not just a writer, but a writer embedded in a community of other writers, critics and literary demagogues.

If “everybody” agreed that clumsy prose and tone-deaf dialogue made for bad fiction, I submit that Ian wouldn’t get much mileage out of his (agreeably entertaining) trolling of Asimov fanpersons! Furthermore, Asimov has his defenders inside the circle as well as outside of it, and their positions might be paraphrased by saying that the value of Asimov’s works are as an important nexus of development in the history of a particular genre. Asimov’s work would likely be bounced by publishers nowadays for being hackneyed and poorly-written, but there was demonstrably a time when that was not so.

So goodness must be a moving target; quality evolves, iterating through countless new attempts by writers and critics to pin down and define “good” writing. Every book written is an attempt to contribute to this evolution, and critical discourse combines with commercial success (or lack thereof) to act as the evolutionary pressures acting upon it.

Ian tweeted to me earlier that “it’s important to me to know how to improve my craft”, and that’s a goal I fully sympathise with; I am trying to do the same. But here again is that schism between the way a writer perceives a book and the way someone who reads for pure pleasure perceives it.

The reader is interested in the affect of the writing as an end unto itself; it matters to them that it succeeds in entertaining (or scaring or enlightening or sensawundering) them, but they are indifferent to how or why that affect is produced. The writer, however, wants to know how that affect is produced, in order that they might replicate the technique (or perhaps avoid it).

By way of analogy: a PC owner doesn’t care about how the code of a program is put together, so long as the software does what they want it to do. But a programmer cares very much about how the results were achieved: could it have been done more elegantly, using less CPU cycles, more function objects, less loops, so on and so forth? The craftsperson’s attitude will always be different to the consumer’s. That’s what makes them a craftsperson – what makes them an artist.

So, to wrap up something that’s already waaaaaay lobger than I meant it to be, here’s a declaration of my own for everyone to kick around:

“Quality or goodness in art is inherently subjective; furthermore, any art for which there can be defined a demonstrable objective measure of quality immediately ceases to become art, and becomes mere engineering. Corollary: much engineering is not actually pure engineering, because its praxis incorporates the subjective value-judgements of its practitioners, predominantly in terms of aesthetics but sometimes also in philosophy or methodology; as such, many if not most good engineers are also, in some respects, artists.”

Discuss. 🙂

[ * – I’m pretty sure there are arguments to be made that blueness isn’t a truly objective property, being a function of our senses and hence fallible. But when you start going in that direction, you can end up saying that even the existence or being of a thing is not objective, and that way lies madness, solipsism or a career in high finance. Philosophy is fun! ]

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …