Category Archives: News

After living fiction-free for almost twenty years, I’m writing a new novel.

How I lost my faith in fiction

Somewhere in the late 1990s, I lost my faith in fiction. By then I’d published two novels, written two more, and had been an avid reader and writer all my life. But then, somewhere in the text-based virtual world of LambdaMOO, where you can be anything you want to be, and where all you need is imagination and the ability to type into a monochrome screen, yes, somewhere in there, I stopped enjoying fiction. After all, I was spending my days in a place so rich and strange that it was infinitely more creative and absorbing than Real Life, or so I thought at the time.  Why bother picking up a novel? So, I stopped reading made-up stories, and I stopped writing them.

A year or two before this, I’d finished a novel about life at LambdaMOO, ‘The [+]Net[+] of Desire’,  but my agent couldn’t find a publisher for it. One editor said it just didn’t ring true, and I guess in the pre-Tinder era of 1996 it probably didn’t, but in fact a lot of it reflected the real experience of many people I knew.  Anyway, I put the manuscript in a box under my bed, and wrote ‘Hello World: travels in virtuality’ instead. It was a memoir/travelogue of cyberspace, and as a non-fiction book it allowed me to be as real as I liked, which suited me just fine.

I wrote more books, but still couldn’t face the idea of a made-up story which required a pact of suspension of the reader’s disbelief. Every now and then I’d pick up a novel, or start reading a short story in a magazine, but I’d soon lose interest.

However, in recent years, that interest has been creeping back. In 2009 I read a couple of old science fiction novels as research for ‘Technobiophilia’, and was thrilled to get that feeling of not wanting to put the book down. It was so good to have it back! I dipped in more and more, but still couldn’t countenance writing any fiction myself.

How I started writing fiction again

And then it happened. Last September, in Santa Monica, sitting in the Barnes and Noble Starbucks at the corner of 3rd Street Promenade and Wilshire, I suddenly felt empowered. I had been rather miserable, desperate to write about that very coffee shop, but reluctant to describe it through my eyes. I wanted to see it from someone else’s perspective. And as I sat at a table in the corner sipping a non-fat latte and hopelessly scrawling in my notebook, I realised there was nothing else for it. I needed to make something up. Someone. I needed to make someone up.

That’s what I’ve been doing for the last nine months – trying to write a novel.  As befits the horrendous mind-twisting confusion of Trump and Brexit, its very tentative working title is ‘What’s Going On?’

What the novel might be about

It’s about many things I’ve never looked at before. Right now, the whole manuscript is a giant sponge for dozens of ideas which I’m regularly squeezing in an attempt to make some kind of soggy sense of the whole mess.  What does Brexit/Trump mean? Where are we now? Where will we be? Why is it happening? What’s going on?  Instead of directing energy at the obvious train-wreck around us, is it more important to pay attention to invisible undercurrents we don’t yet understand?

The process is going to take a while because I’m mostly exploring subjects I know nothing about. I’m also trying to shrug off my internal academic who keeps trying to shut me down by whining ‘but where’s the evidence?’ Guys, I think we’re way past evidence.  Right now, I’m looking at intuition, emotion, and all kinds of unexpected stuff.  I’ve no idea where I’m going but, in case you’re interested,  here are some of the people and topics I’m following and thinking about:

  • Douglas Rushkoff hosts Team Human. a challenging podcast which roams far and wide. Set aside a quiet hour and pick a conversation. You will need your whole brain for this.  Plus, Team Human is coming to London on 9th July with Douglas, Pat Cadigan, and Rupert Sheldrake. I’m going along. Maybe see you there? 
  • Some years ago I went to a conference at Dartington College in Devon, England. Someone gave a talk about their artwork, and part of it involved haunting images of deer passing between trees as if they were in a liminal real/not real space. The artists spoke about the subtle world. I’ve never forgotten the magic or intensity of it.  I’m trying to learn to see the subtle world for myself.
  • Mycelium, trees, networks. Check out the fascinating Paul Stamets  who says “I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven, biologically successful model. The Earth invented the computer Internet for its own benefit, and we now, being the top organism on this planet, are trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.” Paul Stamets TED Talk
  • This April I went on a Deep Time Dive led by Andy Raingold.  Billed as a “sensory exploration of deep time which combines science, imagination, meditation, movement and nature connection”,  it’s not how I usually spend my Saturdays, but I enjoyed Qi Gong under a spreading tree in the rain before we began wandering blindfolded and hypnotised by history, as Andy led us all the way back to the Big Bang, then forward to the present.  We meditated a little, and wandered to distant parts of the property to set our intentions. The hard-boiled academic inside me was screaming but I refused to listen. I wanted to just go with the flow, and I’m pleased I did. It was very memorable and, I think, gently beneficial. It’s repeated in October, should it appeal to you.
  • I’m collecting webcam videos, mostly of animals. (#mprracoon was an unexpected bonus this week!) I’m not sure where this is going. Time will tell.
  • I’ve been gazing out of my window at the Isle of Wight, a few miles across the bay, and listening to this haunting piece of radio Under The Water
  • Finally,  I’ve chosen this image for today’s blog post because it resembles my novel in its current state. I can’t explain why, but there it is.
NASA image
Vegetation in the city of Bam is green and stone-covered desert has various tones of gray. Image credit: NASA/JPL/ESA

A request. If you’re aware of any links, books, films, conversations, stories, lectures, or anything else that might contribute in some way to the stew of my novel, please let me know. I’d appreciate it. Thanks.

That’s enough for now.  My main news is that there’s a novel on the way, it will be both technobiophilic and transliterate, and it will take a while.

RIP John Perry Barlow. The rancher who made cyberspace his territory.

John Perry Barlow has died, age 70. When I was writing Technobiophilia I often referred to his ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’, written in 1996. Mentions of his contribution to the development of the idea of ‘cyberspace’ are scattered throughout the book, but here’s an excerpt about the way it became a foundational narrative not just for the internet, but for the United States. It’s followed by the 1996 Declaration in its entirety.

Have we created ‘a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace’? Your thoughts are welcome.

Cyberspace as a foundational narrative

‘Cyberspace did not appear … from nowhere,’ wrote the London-based Islamic scholar Ziauddin Sardar in 1995. It was ’the conscious reflection of the deepest desires, aspirations, experiential yearning and spiritual angst of Western man’. He saw it as ‘the American Dream writ large’, marking the dawn of a new ‘American civilisation’.

It was also a reflection of the need for a foundational story with which to understand the new world of the internet. Historian David Nye explains that in the early days of colonisation there were no technological creation stories, but after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 the former colonies began to re-imagine themselves as a self-created community and it was then that technology became an important part of the national narrative. Two hundred years later when the frontier re-opened in the form of cyberspace, that foundational narrative would weave itself back in and battles over territory were inevitable.

One of those leading the way was John Perry Barlow, born in Sublette County, a former fur-trading community in a sparsely-populated area of Wyoming, who later became a California adoptee. He might be the only countercultural internet pioneer who was also a cattle rancher, a career he combined with writing lyrics for The Grateful Dead and being an advocate for internet freedom through the Electronic Frontier Foundation. No one, writes Andrew Kirk, better captures the world of hybrid politics, technophilia, environmentalism and western regionalism than Barlow. He was also responsible for coining the term ‘electronic frontier’ and for being the first person to migrate the term ‘cyberspace’ from Gibson’s cyberpunk writings and apply it to virtual space. ‘Imagine discovering a continent so vast that it may have no end to its dimensions’, he wrote ‘Imagine a new world with more resources than all our future greed might exhaust, more opportunities than there will ever be entrepreneurs enough to exploit, and a peculiar kind of real estate that expands with development.’ Cyberspace, in its present condition, he believed, ‘has a lot in common with the 19th Century West. It is vast, unmapped, culturally and legally ambiguous, verbally terse (unless you happen to be a court stenographer), hard to get around in, and up for grabs. Large institutions already claim to own the place, but most of the actual natives are solitary and independent, sometimes to the point of sociopathy. It is, of course, a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and new ideas about liberty.’

Passionately protective of this new territory, he was infuriated by the 1996 Communications Decency Act which embodied a first attempt to regulate pornographic material on the internet. Emailing from a fastness somewhere in Switzerland, he dashed off the lengthy ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’ which seized the opportunity to declare the freedoms which seemed to be ‘natural’ to the internet. ‘Our identities have no bodies,’ he wrote, ‘so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge’. And ‘We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth’, a world where ‘anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity’. Most importantly, Barlow stressed what many at the time saw as the trump card of life in cyberspace: ‘Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.’

From Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace, Sue Thomas, Bloomsbury, 2013. See book for references.

Continue reading RIP John Perry Barlow. The rancher who made cyberspace his territory.

OrchGard – a community digital orchard/garden funded by @natyouthagency

This month, The Environment Now, managed by the National Youth Agency, gave a total of £70,000 worth of funding to green tech projects. They’re all very interesting – check them out – but OrchGard especially caught my eye because it chimes with the growing interest in bringing nature and technology closer together.

Developed by Joshua Dean, OrchGard will be a community digital orchard/garden that will use the latest technology to keep the fully automated orchard as productive as possible. The project will be based at the YMCA Humber in Grimsby.  It aims to increase social cohesion as well as create awareness for the environment through shared medium of digital technologies. No more details as yet but follow  @YMCAHumber for news.

I love this idea and wish it well on its growing journey!