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mariaI’ve just noticed my novel “Between The Tides” popping up for sale on various strange websites, adult sites, the sites you hesitate to click on, so I refrained from further investigation. It used to happen a lot with Amazon too, my stuff getting stolen and sold by pirates. The first couple of times this misappropriation and misrepresentation bothered me deeply. It used to feel like a violation.

It’s my business if I decide to give away a novel I’ve spent years writing, quite another if some n’er-do-well cuts and pastes it and charges $5 for the download, but for all of that it concerns me less nowadays, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway. I hasten to add “Between the Tides” is not an “Adult” novel. It’s a contemporary literary romance, so anyone paying their $5 and expecting pornographic rumpy pumpy are going to be disappointed.

Technology opens up all manner of possibilities, not all of them for the better. The Internet enables many, like me, a means of self expression, changing the definition of what publishing actually is, and I count this on the plus side. But on the other there’s a million new ways of exploiting the innocent, of scamming them, hurting them, even enabling new forms of global warfare with whole nations trying to shut down each other’s essential infrastructures, like electricity or air-traffic control. And its effect on global politics is only just becoming apparent, sophisticated algorithms undermining the democratic process and swaying election results in favour of the plutocratic moneyed minority.

I’ve always been a progressive when it comes to technology, but some of the visionaries driving it now are clearly nuts, also unfortunately incredibly rich and powerful. Technology changes lives, brings about revolutions in the way we live and work. These revolutions used to take centuries to come about, then it was decades, now it’s down to a few years. The pace of change is accelerating, and some visionaries, real live CEOs of Silicon Valley companies, extrapolate a future where the time for change is compressed to zero. They call it the Singularity, and it’s at this point everything happens at once.

Really, forget religion, the techno-visionaries are quite evangelical about it. The Singularity is analogous to the Second Coming, or the End Times, or the Rapture. It’s at this point, they tell us, machines will become conscious beings in their own right, and we will have achieved immortality by virtue of the ability to “upload” our minds into vast computational matrixes, like in some hyper-realistic massive multi-player online role playing game.

But given the darker side of technology, is this something we really want? I’ve only to watch my kids playing GTA to know it’s the last place I’d want to be trapped for eternity. Or perhaps, given the inevitable commercialisation of the meta-verse, our immortality could only be guaranteed provided we obtained and maintained sufficient in-game credit, and when we ran out, we could be deleted. Thought you’d be safe from market forces when you died? No way, the visionaries are working on ways of it chasing you into the afterlife.

Certainly our machines are changing how we live at an ever accelerating pace. Meanwhile we remain essentially the same beings that walked the planet two thousand years ago. Whether or not you believe it’s possible to preserve your essential thinking being by uploading it to a computer depends on how you imagine consciousness coming about in the first place. There’s the mechanistic view, that the brain is a computer made of meat, so as soon as we can make a computer as complex as that, Bob’s your uncle. But I’ve never been of that view, so I’m able to rest a little easier that my afterlife will not be spent avoiding evil bastards in a GTA heaven or keeping up the payments on my immortality.

In the matrix, there’s nothing I can do to stop the bad guy from stealing the book I’ve written, but he cannot steal the one I’m writing nor, more crucially, my reasons for writing it. Such a thing transcends the mechanistic world view, a world view that’s a century out of date, yet still cleaved to by the technocracy with all the zealotry of an Evangelical Preacher. The technocracy long ago deconstructed heaven and transcended God with their own omnipotence, but what they’re offering in its place now makes less sense for being all the more transparently absurd, and for the simple fact that machines do not come for free, that those who own them are paid by those who do not. Bear this in mind and our relationship with machines will remain balanced, and correct. Forget it, and the machine will eat your brain long before you get the chance to upload it.

 

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pygmalion cycleThere was an article on the radio this morning saying that girls as young as 14 are now having cosmetic surgery in order to boost their self esteem. I find myself wondering about what model of so called bodily perfection they are comparing themselves with at so young an age but I suspect I need look no further than the nearest glossy magazine, or a pop video on you-tube. I’m also wondering if us guys are at fault for having too narrow a definition of what the ideal female should look like, and being too immature in our regurgitation of that stereotype across these various media. It’s more complex than that of course, as the editors of magazines read by young women tend to be themselves young women, but there’s definitely something in the machine that’s driven by the myth of male desire.

I keep returning to the story of Pygmalion – not the musical thing with Rex Harrison, but the original myth of the sculptor who ignored women as they really were, in favour of chiseling out his ideal in the shape of his muse, the heavenly Galatea. In some versions of this myth, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, and the goddess, Aphrodite, taking pity on the guy, has Galatea come to life and fall in love with him. Thus the myth concludes, Hollywood fashion, in happy-ever-after style. But myths have layers to them, and the myth of Pygmalion can be peeled back to reveal something much darker and which I think helps to shine some light on the calamitous objectification of women.

In the darker myth, Pygmalion is a fool in thrall to the idealised form of his own soul-image, to the extent that he rejects the human reality – reality being the natural variety in the form of the human female, and he rejects it because he finds it imperfect. There’s nothing innocent about this foolishness. Pygmalion knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he wants; he’s a material man, imposing his misguided rules of measure upon the female body. With his rule, he measures out the proportions, and with his chisel he gives form to the awesomely beautiful creature, Galatea. But that Aphrodite then grants Pygmalion his wish, that Galatea should come alive, is not a blessing – it is Aphrodite’s curse, and her most severe punishment for Pygmalion’s stupidity.

Aphrodite, being goddess of love, beauty and procreation, knows a thing or two about relationships; she can see where Pygmalion is heading, and is offended by his rejection of her sisters in flesh, so she gives him a good shove to get him going in the direction of his misguided desires. The shape of physical womanhood that comes to life in Galatea may conform to the mythical ideal, but her expression is disturbingly blank because she has no soul. And she has no soul because she lacks the thing Pygmalion is least interested in: her humanness. Aphrodite has set him up with a robot.

Pygmalion may think he knows what he wants, shunning the awkward fleshly diversity of the human female in favour of the statuesque Galatea, but his quest has led him into an empty place, one of soulless, mechanical rumpy pumpy, a place where you just know he’s going to die a lonely and unfulfilled old man.

The Pre Raphaelite artist Burne Jones captures this story in a series of paintings which hang in the Birmingham city gallery, images that have haunted me for a long time. Looking at his depiction of Galatea we are also reminded of how much the “ideal” in feminine proportion has changed. The “hot babe” of the Victorian era was apparently smaller chested and fuller hipped than she would be allowed get away with now. She’s also significantly more “nude” without her modern splattering of tattoos. She would not pass muster in the lad mags of today, except as an unfortunate example of that most appalling fashion faux-pas: the wrongly proportioned woman.

The latter day Pygmalion, sculptor of the female form, lives on in the machinery of “emotive images” – the print media, the movie industry, and that black-sheep, rarely talked about in polite circles, but of tremendous influence: the porn industry. These are the sculptors responsible for dictating the shape of the women that men are supposed to want to have sex with, all in spite of the protestations of Aphrodite. This works both ways then; the damage of faulty thinking is inflicted not only on women but on men too. Pygmalion, in modern guise, is telling women that unless they fit the mythical contemporary pattern of size, shape and weight, men will not find them attractive, and is telling men that unless they achieve the prize of congress with that Galatean robot, he’s a worthless loser with the street credibility of a squashed gnat.

How do we stop the girls from making themselves ill, worrying over their weight, and the size of their boobs? And how do we convince the guys they may just be passing up on the perfect relationship by not even second glancing a woman, because she looks nothing like what he’s seen on the cover of a glossy magazine? It’s a complex business, one that plumbs the depths of the human psyche, and of course there are no easy answers. But at some point a guy has to wake up and realise the look in a woman’s eye when she looks at him is of far more significance than her cup size. And a girl has to realise that a guy who pulls a face at her muffin-top really isn’t the sort of guy worth hanging around with. It’s just a pity the machinery of image has become so dumb, so all pervasive, and there’s something in us that renders all of us so vulnerable to it.

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smutOh dear! It seems a lot of us indy authors have been writing smutty books! We publish them online, where they eventually find their way to other websites run by the likes of W H Smith, Barnes and Noble and Amazon, all keen to cut themselves in on a slice of the burgeoning self-published e-book market, not realising of course the depth of our depravity. I mean we’re talking seriously smutty stuff here, stuff that’s potentially in breach of the obscene publications act, and that’s bad. Link across to Feedbooks’ new releases page here and see what I mean, but take care – you need an open mind. I’m not saying there’s anything illegal here, and without wading through, it would be hard to say anyway, but it looks like no one’s been checking.

One might think the big boys could tell the dodgy stuff apart from the non-dodgy by the titles and the cover art, but that needs a pair of eyeballs and they cost money. W H Smiths’ website was offline today while they went through with a fine toothed comb, lest the men from the anti-dirty-mack brigade came calling. Embarrassing indeed! And oh, how we self-publishers have been pilloried in the press – not like those squeaky clean authors who are published properly and don’t sell smut – well except for all those posh looking S+M titles you can now buy in supermarkets.

The unfortunate thing in all of this is that for indy authors our distribution to the wider world may come under threat – the staid material being banned as well, simply because we’re all tarred with the same brush, all of us branded as potential pornographers. For myself I’m not too bothered – the majority of my downloads are from Feedbooks or Smashwords directly, while anything of mine you find on Amazon has been pirated.

But joking aside, it’s always troubled me, the visibility of this kind of material on websites like Feedbooks and Smashwords. I don’t consider myself a prude, but there’s a time and a place, and the breakfast table is not it. I’m fine with any kind of sex, am known to have written the occasional sex scene myself, and that’s okay if it’s depicted as part of a loving relationship, isn’t the whole reason for the story, and isn’t so in your face it makes you queasy – like at breakfast time. Breakfast time is when I’m going online to check on my downloads. And that’s where I often find my stories nestled between a display of pert bosoms and bums, and my rather staid titles buffeted by the ill winds of barely disguised incest, rape and torture.

This kind of material has always been available of course to those who know where to seek it out. But there’s a time and a place, gentlemen! While we’re not going to stop the writing of prurient material – and nor should we – I think we do need a return to a sense of what’s for decent display, and what’s not. We need to be able to shunt it by consensus to an area where kids aren’t going to find it. In the absence of any self regulation, I’d like to see a smut-buster button on websites like Feedbooks and Smashwords, where voters can open the trapdoor and drop these titles into a special kind of smut dungeon – a place where you can go if you want to and seek this material out, but one from where these works can no longer escape into the wider world of polite society, or poke me in the eye over breakfast.

I recognise this is a futile hope. The West is becoming ever more immune to the casual depiction of barbaric, sexualised and violent imagery. My sons play a popular video game where there’s more effing and blinding than at a hairy bikers convention, where blowing people’s heads off is par for the course and they have cuts scenes depicting graphic sexual acts. My pop-eyed complaints are met with the suggestion that I should chill out, that it’s only a game. But no, sorry. I will not chill out. It’s on our TV screens every night, it’s in our video games, and in our self published ebooks. The Romans watched en-masse as human beings were torn apart by wild animals, and apparently enjoyed it. Disgusting, you might say, but how different are we? What excuse is it to say well, it’s only fantasy?

We think our world into being every second of every day. And I don’t want to live in that kind of world. It’s a brutalising tide we’re all surfing, one I’m resisting by not partaking. I never buy a DVD if it has a weapon on the cover – you should try it: it’s impossible. I’m tired of violent and abusive storylines being presented as an exploration of topical “issues”.

And I’m sorry my dear fellow Indy authors, I know we don’t have a monopoly on this kind of thing, but I’m also tired of all that smut.

To the dungeon with you.

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