Category: Books

Mutant Thoughts (iii)

Another long hiatus and, what can I tell you, I might’ve been AWOL from this blog, but I’ve been up to my naughty bits in new writing.

I’m talking about over one hundred and twenty (120) pages of prose since June and my next poetry collection, The Definition of Melancholy (publication date May, 2022), now boasts over ninety (90) poems, and still going strong.

Not only has my blogging suffered during this creative binge, but I’ve also been doing damn little reading (no way I’ll reach my goal of 100 books this year).

Had to go ahead and reorder additional copies of my Notebooks 2010 – 2020 from my printer; many, many thanks to the folks who’ve picked up a copy and seem to love that odd, wee tome. It has done surprisingly well and I couldn’t be happier with its reception.

So on the professional front I guess you can say that all is well.

On the personal front, well, the recent surge in COVID cases in the province pushed back elective surgeries for months so I’m probably not looking at the second hip replacement until Spring, 2022. Just gonna have to tough it out ’til then. I’m doing all right, managed to keep up with the yard work this summer and can still limp around on my errands. A lot of folks are in worse shape than me and I can only empathize with what they’re going through as we wait for the surgical wards to come back on line.

I intend to spend the Fall & Winter getting down as many words on paper as I possibly can. Once they carve into my hip I’ll have to focus on pain management and rehab, which can tend to play hell with your creativity. Must try to read more, as well, my to-be-read pile has attained almost K2-like dimensions. New Colson Whitehead and Jim Shepard books out…and that fat history of the Ottoman Empire has been staring me down for the past week.

Have also been feeling the urge to descend to my basement lab and slap some paint on canvases, see how much more damage I can do to the legacy of visual art. And maybe it’s time I hauled my MIDI keyboard upstairs, produced an hour or so of noise and mayhem to unleash on unsuspecting listeners on BandCamp.

Watched Rose Glass’s “St. Maud” with Sherron last week and (shudder), boy, that finale is just…well…it’s…it’s…

You have to see if for yourself.

But, be warned: it’ll take an awful big bite out of you.

Looking forward to seeing “Dune” at our local theater as a birthday treat, but going in with pretty low expectations. I’m usually underwhelmed by Denis Villeneuve’s films. Nice to look at but they don’t move me emotionally. But “Dune”…shit…that’s half art, half spectacle. Gotta see it BIG.

Enough for now. I close with an image of an oak leaf from our back yard.

This. This is how I’m feeling these days.

FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM by Aaron Bastani (Review)

FALC:cover

I don’t review a lot of stuff these days (although I do keep a regular book journal). However, after reading Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism I felt compelled to respond, at length, to his vision of the bright, shining near future that awaits us thanks to new technologies, robots, and limitless leisure time.

* * * *

First of all, does anybody else have a problem with the words “luxury” and “communism” appearing in such close proximity? Aren’t they understood to be practically, y’know, oxymorons?

Not according to Aaron Bastani.

Looking through his rose-colored glasses, he sees the future as a time of abundance, thanks to the mining of asteroids in near earth orbit and virtually free services like health care and housing. It is technology that will finally liberate our species from the onerous yoke of work, robots doing most of our jobs, humans enjoying lives of leisure…

I consider myself something of a student of history and try as I might, I can’t recall a single human society, from pre-history to the present, where someone didn’t get a larger slice of the pie due to their size, strength, ferocity, intelligence, wealth, connections, etc. In times of abundance, the ruling clique simply takes more. In times of want, they give up the least.

I wouldn’t call Bastani’s book non-fiction, more like science fiction.

In describing a near future utopia brought about by technological advances, he is employing wishful thinking—I don’t trust machines (or billionaires) to save us and, frankly, we don’t need more luxury on this godforsaken planet, we need less.

In light of the most recent IPCC report on the climate (and its ominous-sounding references to “Code Red”), Fully Automated seems even more far-fetched and fanciful. It will be decades before we can mine asteroids or store limitless amounts of data on a strand of DNA. I see no political will anywhere for building affordable housing or offering free health care or university tuition—hell, we can’t even get our governments, liberal or conservative, to get behind a liveable minimum wage.

And, in the meantime, we’ll be dealing with a climate catastrophe: drought and severe weather phenomena, refugees in the hundreds of millions, flooding, famine, mass deaths from heat waves and newer and even more deadly pandemics as we continue to trespass in remote areas we don’t belong.

Under such stressful circumstances will workable societies and infrastructure still exist, will we have the capacity or, yes, luxury to conceive of space travel when the bonds that hold civilization together are loosening, the world coming apart at the seams?

We know that capitalism is eminently adaptable, able to contort itself into new configurations if it means justifying its survival, but even getting it to embrace a $15 minimum wage or support the notion of a Universal Basic Income is like trying to pry food away from a T-Rex.

It isn’t part of its mentality to throw around “free money” or have governments providing anything but the most basic services to citizens. Oligarchs and their cover organizations have spent billions in “dark money” to secure legislators who are hostile to “big” (i.e. effective) government, doing their best to discredit democratic institutions in the eyes of an increasingly cynical and disconnected electorate.

What major party or serious contender for power is out there agitating for Universal Basic Services for every citizen? Who is going to have the courage and chutzpah to “switch off the privatization and out-sourcing machine”, institute a “One Planet Tax” and impose the rest of  Bastani’s progressive and expensive agenda in a world bought and paid for by minions of neoliberalism?

To be fair, the book does have its moments. For instance, Bastani is proficient at providing short, snappy definitions:

Capitalism is described as “a machine designed to extract maximum value to shareholders at the expense of workers and service users”.

Privatization: “is not about improving outcomes or services, but pursuing a political agenda which redistributes wealth from the majority of society to a small elite”.

Neoliberalism: “reduces the capacity of public bodies to spend money while simultaneously intensifying social problems like homelessness and poverty. This means the only options to respond…are increasingly market-oriented”.

And, finally: “A green politics of ecology without the red politics of shared wealth will fail to command popular support”.

I also agree with Bastani’s insistence that we should replace the GDP, not with an “Abundance Index”, as he suggests, but something that measures the physical, mental and spiritual health of our citizenry, a Happiness Scale (“decommodify happiness” should be a meme passed on like a secret password, embroidered on t-shirts, stamped on buttons).

But those occasional gems don’t detract from this book’s wrong-headedness and sheer hubris:

“Our technology is already making us gods, so we might as well get good at it.”

“Under Fully Automated Luxury Communism we can lead lives equivalent to today’s billionaires…”

It sings the praises of technology but expresses little interest in human nature and our somewhat spotty historical record when it comes to slavery, exploitation, genocide, conflicts over resource scarcity, etc. Even so-called “free societies” have been built on the fruits of cheap labor and menial servitude.

Bastani posits a positive, hopeful future based on the most specious evidence while blithely ignoring crises that represent an existential threat to our species and are far more present and pressing than he seems willing to acknowledge.

Humans have never lived “wisely and agreeably and well” (quoting John Maynard Keynes) and we’ve never existed in a jobless, leisure society where our basic needs are met and I don’t believe we ever will.

If there is wealth, the priest-kings and charismatic leaders will use dogma and jingoism to take more than their fair share. If we complain, they will employ lethal force to terrify and constrain us. What else is new?

Capitalism might be flexible and self-replicating, but it will also fight fiercely for its survival, its ability to continue exploiting the many in favor of the few, chewing up more and more of our precious ecosystem, its greed barely held in check by weak laws, compromised lawmakers and a distracted populace.

Bastani feels that through some magical influx of abundance, capitalism will become a victim of its own success and be transformed into an economic system that better serves the common good.

I wish that were the case but fear his timeline renders his solutions, fanciful or not, moot. Our plight as a species must take precedence over capitalist wet dreams. We need to act today to save our living, breathing planet, not wait decades for dubious technological fixes.

And I shouldn’t have to say this but the solution won’t come from without, but within.

It starts with us. Speaking and acting collectively. Reforming when possible, revolting when necessary. Putting aside our differences, shouting in one voice, a deafening, prolonged clamor that can’t be, won’t be ignored. Demanding a sustainable, equitable, ethical future, one worth the blood, sweat and tears that will undoubtedly be shed in the course of bringing it to fruition.

Heat wave

Mutant Thoughts (ii)

This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.

It’s been a long time since we last touched base and, as always, the fault is mine. I’m a lousy friend, a terrible correspondent, constantly getting sucked up into a project and completely forgetting those nearest and dearest me.

I fully admit it: I am a selfish, thoughtless bastard.

But I’ve been working and so that erases all sins, all culpability. A brand new, 40-page story under my belt, plus a number of solid poems, ideas bouncing around in my skull like pingpong balls in a dryer. So no apologies: as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to my writing, the ends always justify the means.

* * * * * * *

  • Our thirty-first anniversary yesterday. Sherron and I half a country apart but still talked on the big day, and I sent her a couple of poems, as well (what can I tell you? I’m an old school romantic). We have an amazing relationship, a partnership of equals. She keeps me honest and human—without her I’d be much more nihilistic and misanthropic (believe it or not). Friend, lover and comrade. To the end.
  • More fun on Twitter this past week: some twerp who writes urban dragon novels putting me in my place because I dared offer a few words of advice to a fellow colleague. He had posted about doing research for his next book, I responded with my thoughts and he told me not to attempt to communicate with higher order beings such as himself. And remember, folks: he writes books about dragons.
  • The great “de-cluttering” continues, as we divest this house of decades of accumulated stuff. This has been in the works ever since we started renos in late spring. Boxes and boxes of books and VHS tapes hurled out the door. Old clothes, crap we haven’t used in years, taking up space, gathering dust. No more. And not a single regret, only relief, the house seeming lighter since we started the process.
  • My mantra this week: “What does it cost me to be tolerant?”
  • There’s a possibility (however slight) that my second hip surgery might happen in September. Inconvenient, since we’ll also have another grandchild arriving around that same time but, damnit, just to be able to walk normally again…won’t believe it until I get the call to report for pre-op. Then the game is on.
  • Hoping that the forecast is right and we’ll get some decent rain in the next few hours. Like a lot of North America, it has been a hot, dry summer on the Canadian prairies, the skies reeking of burning boreal forests. Dystopia is here, folks, the future you refused to believe in banging on your door.
  • Finished two great books in the past month: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future and The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens. Movies that impressed me: Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire”.
  • That’s it for now–hopefully it won’t be a month before you hear from me again. But, in the meantime: let’s be civil to each other, shall we? At least try it…and see what happens.

My new office space (and a new beginning)

Yes, can’t hold back any longer. The second floor renovations almost done, the restored hardwood floor an enormous improvement over the ancient, dusty, shag carpet that once covered it (said aged, toxic carpet being one of the suspected “hot zones” for the initial onset of COVID-19, report from the CDC still pending).

My office is now up and running, stocked with some new book cases, hundreds of volumes surrounding me…and yet there seems to be more space than ever, each square foot fully utilized. Gone is the clutter and torn, sagging posters. Even minimized my display of toys and miniatures. This is the space of a grown, mature artist, not a terminal juvenile (that stuff goes down to my “man cave” in the basement). 

Here are some pictures to show you what we’ve done. First a “Before” shot, once the carpet had been ripped up and the office virtually emptied out:

Now here’s a couple of pictures taken this morning:

Just looking at these snaps has my left hand twitching in anticipation of some serious writing. I’m talking about a binge that leaves me emotionally and physically mangled (ah, the good old days). Imagine having a space completely designed around your wishes and specifications. It’s a dream come true. The beautiful little touches that make it completely mine—

Including, as a grand finale, one wall that my wife and I layered with papier mache…incorporating fragments torn from an old, tattered copy of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I had lying around.

I call it the “Joyce Wall” and a closeup looks like this:

Work on the upper floor still isn’t complete—there’s scraping and crack-filling and painting…and then all the furniture has to be put back in the proper rooms. It’s been a process but we’re getting there.

My new creative play area excites me beyond belief. There’s a sense that my career and approach to writing are getting a reboot, a fresh beginning, distant, unexplored horizons beckoning.

What dreams may yet come

NOTEBOOKS: 2010 – 2020 (The Cover Reveal!)

Here it is, ladies and gents.

Chris Kent’s rendition of the cover for Black Dog Press’ 15th book, a collection of my jottings and authorial asides we’ve dubbed Notebooks: 2010 -2020.

Official release date mid-April, but you can buy it right now from either Smashwords or Kindle.

A poem for “wannabe” writers & other miscreants

An Intimation of True Genius

Before I sit down and write my masterpiece

I think I’ll take a few minutes and go over my notes

check my sources and of course compose a brief 

biography of the author who despite his apparent 

lack of credentials has achieved true greatness with

his soon-to-be completed debut novel a sensation on 

all seven continents endorsed by the glitterati honors and

prizes pouring in optioned by Hollywood dining with

royalty hobnobbing alongside jetsetters existing in

a social whirlwind object of adoration and naked envy

topping every bestseller list appearing on all the right

programs lionized by my peers no limit to my reach and

power once I finally find the time to buy pen and paper

take a seat at my humble desk and commence work on what

will undoubtedly become a pillar of the Western canon

my much-anticipated long-awaited magnum opus

the only story left untold

*******************************

The context of this poem:

I don’t know how many of my fellow scribblers have been annoyed by some arsehole you encounter—perhaps after a reading or literary gathering—who assures you that they’ve got a great book idea and “one day” hope to have occasion to commit it to paper. Or a total tool who, upon hearing you’re an author, gets very excited because “I’ve had some amazing things happen to me, you should write them down, I bet it would be a bestseller”.

If you’ve had a similar experience, you have my permission to print this poem and carry it around in your wallet, to hand out whenever you come across one of these utter, contemptible fuckwits. That ought to shut them up.

“Mutant Thoughts (I)”

This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.

  • Recently received a note from an Italian digital musician wishing to use images from one of my strange, short films to accompany a piece of music he’s been composing. Why not?
  • Things like that happen every so often. Like the two individuals (one from Hong Kong, the other the Netherlands) who contacted me seeking permission to include my photos of the “cut-up” method for inclusion in a scholarly book or as part of a presentation at an academic conference. Happy to oblige…always in the hope that exposure in different venues will help draw attention to my literary work (well, a fella can dream, can’t he).
  • Some good, smart discussions on Twitter lately regarding books, writing process, films, politics, etc. (Shout out to Shaun Hamill, Steve Savile, Geoff Andrew, among others.) The trolls seem to have gone into hiding for the time being, leaving room for rational discourse. A refreshing development.
  • How do my fellow progressives feel about the first month of Joe Biden’s presidency? Anyone who was expecting massive policy changes, a sudden lurch to the Left, an administration to rival FDR’s is either soft in the head or has only just awakened after a fifty-year coma. “Meet the new Boss/Same as the old Boss.”
  • Go out today and either buy or borrow a good book. Just this once treat your frontal lobes and higher brain functions with the respect they deserve. Enough with the empty-headed, escapist fare. Remember: you are what you read.
  • The fact that Justin Trudeau and his cabinet declined to join the rest of their parliamentary colleagues in a motion condemning the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese shows just how morally bankrupt and hypocritical the Liberal Party of Canada has become. An absolutely disgraceful display.
  • We’ve signed up for a three-month tryout of the MUBI movie-streaming service. Great selection of cinema from around the world…but the goddamn thing keeps freezing and buffering, even during a 15-minute short film. I’ve contacted them and they’ve reached out, trying to effect a fix but so far, no good. And if they don’t solve the problem soon, hasta la vista MUBI!
  • Is it just me? It seems like my fingernails and toe nails are growing at an accelerated rate during this extended lockdown. Please apprise if something similar is happening to you.
  • Sherron keeps trying to get me to explore the wonders and benefits of kimchi…but I still recoil from the stuff. It looks like the material that gets caught in our kitchen drain; it may be a miracle food for some, but my rising gorge says otherwise.
  • Back to the Big City (Saskatoon) soon to check the state of my new hip. Hopefully will have a bit of extra time for a side trip to Peryton Books and, later, some tasty ethnic cuisine before heading back on the road.
  • Making excellent progress on what will be my next Black Dog Press release, Notebooks: 2010-2020. Printed up a draft and will give it to Sherron for proofing in about a week-ten days. And then final tinkering and polishing. Still anticipating an early May release date (perhaps even sooner, but don’t you dare quote me on that).
  • Listening to a couple of newish Bob Mould CDs in my office the past few days. Ol’ Bob still rocks, the spirit of Husker Du lives on!
  • These days half the time when the landline in our house rings it’s either a “robocall” or a scammer. This is what our society has been reduced to.
  • One Twitter post in particular caught my eye the other day. A high school student was seeking advice on how to publish their book. Excuse me? Isn’t this a case of putting the cart before the horse? How about learning the rudiments of grammar and syntax first, gaining a basic understanding of language or, like, paying your fucking dues? We don’t need more books published, we need to identify and weed out the absolute shit that’s already being churned out at an accelerating pace. Most of it produced/excreted by sub-literate tits with no notion of just how terrible they really are. Sorry, kid, you won’t be getting any help from me.
  • I’ll close this first installment with an appropriate quote from Aldous Huxley: “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.” Yep, that about sums it up. See you next time!
Photo: Sherron Burns

…but, baby, it’s cold outside

A solid week of windchills in excess of forty below.

So, I’ve been hunkered down, editing my Notebooks, prepping for a May release of what will be my fifteenth book.

Fifteen books, not one of them a dog, all of them written out of love for the printed word, rather than for the purpose of fulfilling a contract or meeting some hairy-palmed editor’s neolithic expectations. Let’s see you top that, all you hacks and wannabes.

The editing process is always incredibly intense for me, driving myself nuts finding the exact right word (and, as Don DeLillo insists, “the right sounding word”). 

At the same time I am still not back to 100% from my hip replacement surgery so can’t stay seated for the prolonged periods of time I’m accustomed to—gotta get up frequently to stretch, move about, which, of course, interrupts my train of thought and then it takes me awhile to re-focus on the manuscript. I’m having trouble adapting to the new regime but that’s the reality I have to deal with now, no use bitching about it.

When I’m not editing, I’m reading and some of the excellent books I’ve finished since the beginning of the year include N.K. Jemsin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, The Cold Millions (Jess Walter), The Great Glass Sea (Josh Weil) and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, a stunning exposé of how wealthy special interest groups are undermining democracy.

Movies with Sherron to unwind after a hard day of polishing my book: last night it was “Hud”, a classic starring Paul Newman; other favorites are David Fincher’s “Mank” (best movie of the year so far), Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit”.

I tend to devote the first part of the morning to catching up on Twitter, checking out the headlines and snorting with laughter as I read other writers’ self-congratulatory posts about their latest zombie novel or slasher offering. Sometimes I can’t help firing a comment their way and am always amazed by the sheer vitriol of their replies. The moment you bring up literary standards to these arseholes they completely lose their shit. Their reactions always serve as a reminder that genre people tend to have the smallest brains and thinnest skin.

But once I’ve had my fun it’s back to the business at hand.

Giving myself a deadline/release date is always an effective way of directing my nose to the grindstone. Otherwise I’d drag the process out past the point of sanity.

As I wrote in the introduction to the Notebooks, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would have even the slightest interest in the thoughts and reflections of a cult author with a tiny readership and a marked propensity for misanthropy. 

Nonetheless, come May Notebooks: 2010-2020 will be released into the world and we will just have to wait and see how it’s received.

I’ll probably be posting some teasers in the coming weeks so I hope you’ll pop in for a look.

Have to say, I love having another title in the publishing pipeline. 

It’s not for all tastes but, then again, that pretty well sums up my entire body of work, don’t you think?

After 30+ years, why would I change my approach now?

Photo courtesy Ashley Johnson