Re-establishing the run

And a cyberpunk sale!

It has been slightly over a month since the last newsletter, which ruins my fairly remarkable (for me) streak of consistency.

Everything got very busy (work, non-work projects, life), and, I’m sad to say, self-indulgent weekly rambles wound up being deprioritised. But that’s the easy excuse.

The real reason is, I’m sorry to say, writer’s block.

You know that thing where you have a thing you really need to say, but you can’t figure out how to say it exactly? And it leads, of course, to that spiralling ARGH of why isn’t this just coming OUT right? 

This is a routine occurance for me. I write all the time - for work, for non-work, with life - and getting stuck is a thing that happens. Without going Hallmarkian about it, the trick is getting unstuck. And I’m actually pretty good at that. Well, normally.

My normal tactic is to write it - write anything about the idea. Get something down, sleep on it, and revisit later. The act of forcibly-induced wording pushes the ol’ thinkhole into production. I can edit later, and turn the anything into a passably good thing.

If that doesn’t work, well… I then write something else entirely. That’s what the Drafts folder is for: half-exercised, half-exorcised ideas. Most of which will never come to fruition, but some of which can be resucitated at a later point.

In this case, the whole system collapsed.

My first idea was, essentially, the capstone to my newsletter series on the Chiefs’ remarkable playoff run, and the emotional journey that comes from winning the Superbowl and then having the victory parade interrupted by a mass shooting.

I’m not big or brave enough to tackle the topic of ‘guns in America’, but there was (is) something so savage about that emotional rug-pull that I need to get it down on paper. Talking about guns is, and should be, 99% talking about dead people. But I want to talk about the seemingly frivolous 1% that means we can’t have nice things any more. Kansas City was lucky - in many ways - to not have a mass shooting at any of the previous three victory parades since 2015. And we will never be able to celebrate in the same way again going forwards.

It feels immensely silly to whine about parades when guns do far more visceral, physical harm, but - there you go. There’s something in that. Even writing around that idea is hard, and I’m struggling to revisit my gelatanious mass of a first draft.

My second idea is a long-overdue write-up of my talk about a proposed new pace/scale model and the internet’s ‘Porn Layer’, which is a lot more fun, but it is bogged down - as all talk-to-email translations are - in trying to turn a presentation into a coherent long-form piece.

I’m now relying on the most basic behavioural theory emergency tactic: I will write and send any ol’ ramble because it reinvigorates my capability to do so.

In football, there’s the idea of establishing the run: keep pushing the damn ball forward on the ground. It is a hard, boring way of gaining yardage, but keeps control of the ball and sets you up to pass on later downs. Some upcoming, unspecified week, I’ll chuck the long bomb. But this week, I’m matriculating the ball down the field.

To compound the indignity, here’s a sales pitch.

The Big Book of Cyberpunk is currently on sale on Amazon, the world’s most cyberpunk book retail platform. $22 is a steal! That’s basically 20 cents/story - and throwing the introductions in for free!

I have no idea how long this sale will last, but if you’re based outside of the UK and were waiting for a copy to fill your shelf, now’s a good time. (If you’re inside the UK, you may want to hold on for the sexy two-volume hardcover edition for the British market - coming in May!)

What I’m reading (offline):

I’m still merrily clearing a decade of TBRs in one of my oddest reading ‘challenges’ to date. Recent explorations:

T. Kingfisher’s Paladin’s Faith (2024) - I reread the first three in the ‘Saint of Steel’ series and then moved on to this, the fourth. I really like the Paladin books. Each is an individual adventure featuring a paladin of a dead god, finding a way to heal (spiritually, emotionally) through relationships with friends, loved ones, society. Previous instalments have included a classic dungeon crawl and an urban-fantasy-type mystery, all interlinked by a greater meta-plot about the god’s death. They are genuinely great, and I recommend them a lot. That said, and I’m sorry to say it, but book four is a mess. I hate to guess at these things, but it feels a lot like two books got squashed together. There are two separate-but-unequal relationship storylines, a mahoosive plot-pivot in the middle, erratically-paced romance(s), and, ultimately, zero progression of the meta storyline. The world-building is particularly great in this one, but that alone isn’t enough to justify the 500+ pages. All the things that I like about the series are scattered about in here somewhere, and but buried in a case of ‘middle volume’ syndrome. Or, as epic fantasy fans tend to call things it: ‘the slog’.

R.A. Salvatore’s Canticle and In Sylvan Shadows (1991, 1992) - the first two volumes of a D&D-tie-in quintet featuring a cleric (the world’s least popular RPG class). The most interesting thing is actually Salvatore’s introduction, explaining why and how he tackled the challenge of writing an adventure about, of all things, the group ‘healer’. It is very, very, very D&D tie-in, and… totally fine from that perspective. Between gathering spell components and wall-to-wall combat there’s not much space for character development, whichi a shame, as there’s potential in here. I’m fascinated by SF/F works that explore the idea of faith in a world where gods are tangible and real. Kingfisher, above, does an excellent job of this. I’m not sure this series has the same thematic heft to them, but I’ll give it a pass as due to a very different publishing context.

Adam Roberts’ The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate (2023) - Roberts is one of the best at thoughtful mash-ups, and this Dickensian/Wellsian mystery is a lot of fun. Some of my favourite of Roberts’ books are his most peripatetic (see also: Bete), and this one also had a ‘let’s wander around and see strange and wonderful things’ vibe to it. There’s also a quiet love song to London buried in here, which makes for a welcome, underpinning emotional weight to the stream of charmingly esoteric encounters.

Tessa Bailey’s Too Hot to Handle (2016) - I think… I’m done with Tessa Bailey. I’ve really liked some of her books, but I’ve really disliked many more. I’m afraid the ratio has tipped too far to the latter. Too Hot to Handle is very much two people who have real and serious issues working them out through some pretty aggressive sexual gymnastics. When Bailey works for me, there’s a lighter tone, fewer issues, and less bonkers bedroom activity. When Bailey doesn’t work for me, like this one, everyone is badly broken and the characters go from crying about their dead mum to non-consensual asphyxiation in a manner of pages. Nope.

Sophie Irwin’s A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting (2023) - This is good! Very charming, low-spice, anachronistic, deeply silly Regency about a shamelessly pragmatic (and very funny) heroine and the exasperated Duke that’s roped in to her plans. There’s nothing surprising about it, except that it works so well.

What I’m reading (online):

Ganzeer on ‘the rise of the single-interest American’ is really, really good - starting with Playboy and ending with an empassioned plea for ‘spaces that hold diversified interests’. I absolutely, wholly agree. I’d add that, as a reader, that makes more space for discovery. We need to read interesting people writing interesting things about interesting topics that are new to us. Else we get bubbled.

On that, and my general mantra of ‘I’d rather read interesting things about topics I don’t know anything about than boring things about topics I’m obsessed with’, Places remains one of my absolute favourite online platforms, and a source of infinite inspiration. They’re currently doing a series about the important (philosophical and literal) of repair, which is, I think, immensely… well… interesting. It is also very, very cyberpunk to stop thinking about building a new future in favour of a more practical approach to fixing the present we have. Is it inherently depressing to focus on patching shit up instead of building single-wing spacejets in pill form? Yes. But, as Places’ ‘Repair Manual’ demonstrates, ‘fixing’ is a positive ideological stance in its own right.

Another reason I can’t hit ‘send’ on my piece about the ‘porn layer’ is that new revelations about the enshittification of the internet happen faster than I can link them. In this case, hey, AI-published papers are now turdifying scientific journals, meaning yet another pillar of ‘trust’ is eroding before our very eyes. I was talking with a friend who is a hard-working Goodreads Librarian (one of the many thousands of unpaid volunteers who maintain and quality-check a site owned by a company worth $1.85 trillion dollars). Trying to clean up and tag all the auto-imported book spam from Amazon is like swimming uphill, and that’s not even counting the lack of process for identifying or dealing with generatively-produced titles. So, no, I don’t blame scientific journals, and the peer review process, for not being able to handle AI-written bollocks. It is another way of demontrating that so much of our collective cultural trust relies on quality control that is often adminstered by unpaid volunteers. We don’t have the human-hours in us to check the tide of crap.

Want to feel better about our future after all that? Here’s an interview with the amazing Anab Jain.

Revolutions may be slow, dark and murky, but they are also full of hope.

Anab Jain

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