Dopamine freight train
On viral creation at the edge of reality
“Waiting for the ghosts” (first night-time walk during Lockdown 4.0)
Greetings from Lockdown 4.0.
I have no earth-shattering pronouncements to make about this state of affairs, just a simple rundown of recent projects. As the memory of last year’s extended shutdown kicks in, and with no immediate end to the current version in sight, I’m trying to escape the debilitating plane of circular time (where nothing ever changes) in order to surf the forward momentum of recent work.
With any luck, I’ll wipeout in a near future of my own design.
The continuity hypothesis
I have finished the manuscript of my new novel.
I’ve been working on it since January 2019, and by the end of that year I had a second draft and was well on the way. Then I realised I had a big problem. The final act was a dog’s breakfast (that’s a technical term we use in Australia to describe a bad draft).
Too ambitious. Too pretentious. Rambling, wordy and unfocused.
In 2020, I tried to fix it, but I couldn’t concentrate.
I knew how the novel ended. I didn’t know how to get there.
A few months ago, for some reason, everything clicked, and suddenly I was riding a dopamine freight train as I made my characters do horrible things to each other.
I’d found the way.
There’s nothing like the rush of racing headlong to the end of ‘the work’. Time accelerates, mocking the treacle-slow years of toil. It’s an irresistible force, a total high.
I’ve always believed writing to be a type of sickness. For ages, you are feverish with half-formed ideas and scenarios, the product of an overheated and negatively toned brain.
Then the fog clears and the work is born. You are cured. Happier, well rested. Head no longer sore. Body healed.
Still, you know the next flu season is just around the corner. And you know you’ll ‘forget’ to take your shots.
Mirrors, mirrors, always mirrors
My new novel imagines a future where a nascent augmented reality network has replaced the internet. Inside that network, hauntings occur and digital ghosts are common. I won’t say more at this early stage.
I need to learn how to pitch the thing, first.
The conceptual seeds can be found in a 2014 piece I wrote called ‘Journey to the Centre of Google Earth’. It’s partly about discovering the reflection of my father, who was snapped in the backyard of my childhood home by the Google Eye and resurrected in Google Street View.
The article is a meditation on digital ghosts:
‘Inside this strange mechanism, I flick a switch and zoom in. I peer into our former backyard and see my father there. I try to move closer but I am repelled by the absolute limits of the zoom function. Dad’s face is blurred but he is walking purposefully. There is no sign of the broken hip that made him reliant on a walking frame, no sign of the dementia that now afflicts him. He is frozen in time-sickness.
As I advance to the next frame, his pixels are squeezed through an interlaced crack in the algorithm.
Everything passes through us now. Electromagnetic waves. Tweets bouncing from mobile phone towers through our bodies. Images of our dead and dying loved ones.
The machine teaches us how to remember.’
—’Journey to the Centre of Google Earth’
My dad passed away the following year, and although the ‘haunted’ storyline of the new novel only came to me in late 2018, obviously it was festering away in the neural depths since I discovered his parallel life.
Even Applied Ballardianism (especially the final, overtly science-fictional chapter) is a reflection of the theme:
‘Something else to note. With implanted memories, we have observed that in some patients there is such resistance to the graft that elements from the real world can bleed in and blend with the implant.’
When AB was published, it was characterised as ‘theory-fiction’, and while I have been reluctant to embrace that label, as I don’t write theory and have no real wish to, the truth is that these days pretty much everything I write is fictional in part or in whole.
Most of the episodes here on Sleepy Brain mine the same obsessions as the new novel. The newsletter settings are different, ostensibly ‘real’ (though semi-fictionalised), but the dynamics are the same.
The warping of reality.
Over the past few years, I’ve been commissioned to write various essays, and sometimes I ask if I can consider the theme via a short story instead. To the credit of my publishers, they agree.
The tendency began with ‘Journey to the Centre of Google Earth’. What was supposed to be a straight report on the app morphed into something else.
Now I can’t escape the insanity of the mirror world.
Each contributor to the edited collection Insufficient Armour was asked to produce a video introduction to their work for screening at the launch. My video, posted here, introduces the themes of my piece, ‘Sentient Glitchglots’, and their genesis: a series of strange interactions I experienced with Twitter spambots in 2016.
I have written a series of short stories that take place in the actual universe of the novel. You may wish to peruse them to gain a flavour of the new work:
‘Shell World Blues’ (published in Plaza Protocol, 2021). About a precarious mission to stay connected in the face of a decaying outside world. It features some characters from the new novel and the tone and style are similar. (Plaza Protocol is a gamified platform collecting artworks and stories about an abandoned mall in Ljubljana. My story was inspired by my 2020 visit to the mall. To find my stuff, you need to navigate a simulation of the mall and locate the token that features a 3D cube.)
‘Love is a Totalitarian State’ (published in Šum journal, 2020). About a person who has augmented reality implants inserted into their eyes. It takes place in the same universe as the novel, but the tone and style are somewhat different.
‘Sentient Glitchglots’ (published in Insufficient Armour, 2020). Theory-fiction in its purest form (also one of the essay commissions that became a short story). It describes the lead-up to the events of the novel, in the guise of an academic research paper produced by a digital-ghost hunter. Although essentially a prequel, the faux-academic style has nothing to do with the novel, which is science fictional, pulpy and written in the first-person present tense.
The manuscript of my new novel is currently in the hands of beta readers. Once their feedback is received and incorporated, I will attempt to sell it.
If I can.
How do you sell a fever dream?
Waiting for the jab
Before ‘Shell World Blues’, Plaza Protocol published my piece, ‘A Secret History of Zones’. It’s based on the talk I gave at Ljubljana’s Fabula Festival in 2020. This piece discusses the zonal obsessions that reoccur in my work, divided like so: Prosthetic Zones, Atemporal Zones, Aesthetic Zones, Micronational Zones, Paradoxical Zones, Alien Zones, Dream Zones. Again, you must find the token to read it. It’s the one boasting four hexagons.
Your narrator (left) at Fabula 2020. With Marko Bauer and Elvia Wilk.
For the landscape design publication, Foreground, I wrote a piece called ‘Learning to Live with Aggressionless Cars’. Considering Ballard, Virilio, Mad Max and The Cars that Ate Paris, it explores the negative future of autonomous vehicles by tracking the aggressive impulses commonly sublimated in the act of driving:
When autonomous vehicles take over the market, will our rewired physiologies go gently into the night? Or will we witness the flowering of strange new mutations and bizarre new psychopathologies—the product of a traumatic untethering from long-held machine fantasies?
—’Learning to Live with Aggressionless Cars’
It’s based on a talk I gave earlier this year to launch Guillermo Fernández-Abascal and Urtzi Grau’s provocative book, Learning to Live Together: Cars, Humans and Cars in Solidarity. The book is about reclaiming urban space in the face of A.I. and near-future tech.
(The bio I included with this piece contains another clue to the beta work: ‘Simon’s forthcoming novel features sentient autonomous cars as central characters.’)
‘Regina’, my body-horror fable, was published in Parasol, and I discussed the story in ‘Slaughterhouse of the Mind’, the last episode of Sleepy Brain. Graham, my publisher at Parasol, said that he thought ‘Regina’ suggested a wider world, as if it was a chapter in a novel that was yet to exist.
I think he’s right, and now I have plans to flesh out ‘Regina’ to book length. I am not done with this world by a long shot.
Flu season, here I come.
In an upcoming issue of Architecture Australia, I have a piece called ‘Recalibrating New Suburbia’. It’s about the potential for the suburbs to be rethought in the wake of Covid and remote working. This will be a special issue of AA that considers the theme more generally, quite timely considering the current lockdown.
In part, I discuss the long-standing war between cyclists and motorists on Australian roads and how designing for new suburbia should revolve around new patterns of mobility.
This was another theme that wormed its way into AB:
‘I talked myself into believing that death was near and became militant about cyclists’ rights. I was dirt in the machine, an antibody racing through the urban bloodstream, squeezing between the cracks in peak-hour traffic, negotiating the Melbourne sprawl with its endless freeways and dual carriageways.’
Also forthcoming is a short, speculative piece analysing the work of a leading architectural firm in England. It’s part of a series of internal documents commissioned to inspire the firm’s working practice.
My piece ties together quantum physics, Blade Runner, conspiracy theory and the ability to hold utopian and dystopian thoughts simultaneously when designing buildings. It’s a type of ‘design fiction’, I guess, or foresight work.
When writing about architecture and urban design, I have always oscillated between utopian and dystopian modes. True to form, ‘Recalibrating New Suburbia’ is the flip side to ‘Regina’.
The latter is a bleak view of suburban life, in which the snobby, alienated inner-city protagonist receives his comeuppance after venturing too far into the edgelands. ‘Recalibrating New Suburbia’ imagines a joyful and fulfilled life set in the very same terrain.
Both pieces are based on the culture shock I experienced when I first moved to Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
Both are true stories.
In March, I appeared on a panel to promote philosopher David Roden’s excellent and brutal body-horror novella Snuff Memories. My ten-minute talk discussed the Cronenbergian and Ballardian implications of David’s work, as well as parallels with the sadomasochistic elements of alien abduction lore.
Below, you can watch me embarrass myself as I ask David whether he’s ever been abducted by aliens. My talk starts at 29:32.
(I’m not embarrassed, really. Among my future projects: the ultimate novel about alien abduction.)
I have made a return to website design, building the Liminal Worlds platform for Bec Lambert, an archaeologist based in England. Bec’s work is a cosmic/occult take on urban archaeology, sharing parallels with David Southwell’s cult Hookland project. It was a pleasure to help realise her beguiling universe.
In my other life as a content strategist, I have been working on a number of interesting assignments. Over the past few months, I have designed a digital comms plan for a higher education regulator and a content marketing approach for an Australian architecture firm.
In my editorial work, I have been assisting a number of writers (some published, some not) with manuscript assessments. I love this type of work. It helps me to stay connected with the writing community but also teaches me so much about the fatal flaws in my own writing.
Please forgive the spam—impecuniousness overcomes modesty—but writing niche books is not all I do. If you’d like to engage my services as a content strategist or editor (even as a web designer), please be in touch. My business site Agents of Content explains more about these offerings.
Of course, I am permanently open to writing commissions.
The fever never truly abates, after all.
Vaccinated, but never immune.
Dear friends, thank you for tuning in. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Sleepy Brain, please consider buying the creator a coffee at Ko-fi. It all helps to keep this and other projects ticking along.