Book review: ‘Mumur’ by Will Eaves

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“I cannot help wondering if the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind, and whether that Godelian element of wonder – at something we know we have, but cannot enclose – may be the chief criterion of consciousness.” So opines the narrator early on in the latest terrific book from Will Eaves. Startlingly ambitious in its scope and form, Murmur invites us into a world of philosophical mathematics and artificial intelligence. What’s not to love?

Now when it comes to these topics, Eaves has touched upon these areas before – for instance, within The Inevitable Gift Shop. Yet here in Murmur he explores it with an astute intimacy from the perspective of an avatar, Alex Pryor, a character based on the father of artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

It is not whether or not machines can think that is the main focus here; but rather, a potential inverse of the proposition – whether or not humans think like machines. Murmur is more concerned with the nature of human consciousness, how we come to be – whether we are pre-formed, destined to live pre-determined lives following a set of codes within our basic DNA, or if we are our own programmers (to stick with the computer theme).

As Turing himself argued in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, when asking the question ‘can machines think?’, it is firstly of critical importance to “begin with definitions of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’”. Determining whether or not something possesses artificial intelligence is not based on empirical fact, but rather, decision – the decision of the human beings setting the frames of reference for any AI test (the computer can play chess; can fool a human into believing they are conversing with another human; etc.). That a machine may ‘pass’ such parameters does not necessarily mean they have acquired genuine intelligence. As Noam Chomsky has argued, conversing with a computer shows only that a piece of software can be programmed to breakdown the codes of our language and repurpose them (as it has been told to do so by a human programmer). This is not intelligence; but parroting.

Yet the notion of conversing with a machine opens up linguistic questions and challenges. Numerous pieces of research have shown that language not only shapes our culture – but also shapes and manipulates our personalities. Language programmes us, in that sense. With this in mind – and considering the subject of Eaves’s book – the Turing test, which has for so many years been the gold standard of measuring a machine’s intelligence, becomes even more central to the core of Murmur. By choosing to frequently adopt a conversational style within his writing, the reader must begin to question the formal structure of the novel, and their relationship with both the words on the page, and the characters within it. Are we, as readers, engaged in a Turing test of our own? Asked without directly being asked to assess whether we are in conversation with machine or man; or, more simply, whether we are able to assess for ourselves what does and does not have consciousness? Do characters feel, if their actions and thoughts on a page make us as readers feel? Are books themselves alive, if they contain within them what looks, feels and appears for all intents and purposes to be consciousness?

These questions of course invite further questions. For instance, is it mere coincidence that formally, there are times Murmur’s structure resembles some of the (at first) seemingly disconnected pieces of text – memories, questions, letters, and so on – that might be produced by some of the ‘AI’ writing programmes that have been developed in recent years? Coincidence perhaps; yet the fragmentary nature of the novel certainly asks us to think about the ways our own ‘intelligence’ – or consciousness – is structured.

We like to think of ourselves as straight thinking, coherent and logical beings despite all evidence to the contrary. There is no clearer feature of the mind than its willingness to construct wholes out of fragmentary parts. Our memories inevitably have gaps within them. Our focus can so easily be lost to distraction. Thoughts and memories pop up seemingly at random. A innocuous smell or sense of touch can make us involuntarily recall feelings and thoughts both good and bad; as well as those we have suppressed.

Life and consciousness are not logical (though they can of course be assessed and reviewed with logic). And this is one of the many things that Murmur does so well – it is, by its very nature, both an accurate representation of consciousness and human experience, as well as a thorough, logical analysis of these things. Through Alex Pryor, Eaves has developed a protagonist through which we may see these inherently complex ideas more simply.

This would be a triumph in itself; yet Eaves goes further – creating characters that are not simply tools through which we may explore high-level concepts, but through whom we empathise with, laugh with, and love with.

Perhaps this last part is the most important (as it so often is with a good novel). For all that the writing is excellent (as we have come to expect with Will Eaves); and for all that the book grapples with a veritable menagerie of ‘worthy’ ideas (there are so many more we could have discussed at length in this review); and for all that it provides another worthy voice to consider in the ongoing conversations surrounding artificial intelligence – none of these are really what the book is ‘all about’, or what readers should take away as being the most important aspect of Murmur. Because ultimately, what it all comes down to is that this is a novel about love. And it is the way in which Eaves presents this most human of emotions, that really makes this novel truly intelligent.

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Conquering Mount To-Be-Read: A New Year Challenge

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Starting the new year with a mountain of books to read? You’re not alone

It’s no doubt advice that you’ve heard time and time again, but it’s good advice – in order to be a better writer, you have to be a great reader. In the quest to read as widely and prolifically as possible, it’s inevitable that you’ll pick up lots of wonderful books. It’s even more inevitable that at least half of them will gather dust on shelves and in piles in bedrooms, living rooms, attics and garages. Alas, the curse of the bibliophile writer (is there any other kind?) is the to-be-read pile of shame.

Your TBR pile grows quicker than you realise – doubly so if you’re an ebook-a-holic like me. A new awards list comes out, so you pick up a few titles – they have to be good, right? A friend reminds you of a series that you’d been meaning to check out in a while, so that’s another set on the shelf. Amazon’s always got a sale on Kindle books, Humble are doing a new bundle of rare and unseen Neil Gaiman texts, and before you know it, you’re drowning in pages with more and more being added to the vast, wordy sea.

This Christmas, my bookcase reached its limit and became a health and safety nightmare, so I decided that something needed to be done. After scouring the web for a solution, I stumbled upon my potential salvation – the Mount TBR reading challenge, created by literary blog My Reader’s Block.

The aim of the game is to try and conquer that toppling to-be-read pile by choosing a target number of books to read throughout the year, with tiers named for mountains of differing heights. In my case, I’ve chosen Mount Blanc, partially because of the Shelley reference, and also because it equates to knocking a conservative 24 books off the list. It doesn’t seem like many, but that’s at least two books a month, and not an easy feat when you read whacking great sci-fi tomes like I do. However, with a bit of careful planning – a hastily scribbled list of all the physical books I have left to read, and a promise to take my Kindle on the bus to work instead of my 3DS – it’s a positively achievable goal.

There aren’t many rules in the Mount TBR challenge, except that the books must be ones you own (and surely that’s the point of doing the challenge), and, if you’re really not feeling a book, you have to give it a chance and get through a good portion of it before you can call it quits and knock it off the list. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can always scale your pledge up to conquer even more of the pile of shame. However, in the true spirit of competition, you can’t scale that number down. Come on, it’s meant to be a challenge after all!

As well as alleviating some of my reader’s guilt for leaving books on the shelf for so long, I’m excited by the fact that I’ll be reading loads of new stories. Already, I’ve knocked The Autobiography of James T. Kirk and Paul Cornell’s The Lost Child of Lychford off my list, but I’ve got some Annie Proulx on there that’s been languishing in the pile for several months. On my Kindle, there’s a T.C. Boyle novel that I bought during my MA that remains untouched, and there are even books that I bought in sales six years ago lurking on there. I’m hoping that at least a few of those will make the cut as I attempt to hit my target.

Although climbing the mountain and cutting down the list is its own reward, I’m hoping that the challenge will stretch me even further and encourage my writing output to grow this year. Getting off the computer and going analogue a bit more, diving into new and different worlds, should in theory encourage me to keep on creating my own. So with cup of coffee in hand and blanket in easy reach, I’ve started my ascent up the formidable Mount TBR. What are you waiting for?

About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

16 books all writers should read – according to Hemingway

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As any aspiring writer or artist will attest, there will always be a natural desire to meet those whose creative works have inspired you. The longing to meet and converse with the men and women whose artistic works have connected with you on some biological – perhaps even ethereal – level, is one that many of us will sadly never see fulfilled; especially since, unfortunately, many of those great cultural titans are no longer with us (not to bring the mood down here at all).

Yet in 1934, a 22-year old aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson was granted this most precious of meetings. Having set out with one goal – to meet Ernest Hemingway and become his literary apprentice – this young son of Norwegian immigrant wheat farmers spent almost an entire year staying with one of the most important writers of the 20th century.

“It seemed like a damn fool thing to do,” Samuelson recalled, “but a twenty-two-year-old tramp during the Great Depression didn’t have much reason for what he did.”

Yet Samuelson’s quest was not in vain. Shortly after the young man’s arrival in Key West, Hemingway got right down to granting him what he had traveled there seeking. In one of their first exchanges, he hands Samuelson a handwritten list and instructs him:

“Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as a part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated. They represent different types of writing. Some may bore you, others might inspire you and others are so beautifully written they’ll make you feel it’s hopeless for you to try to write.”

The full list is here below:

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  1. The Blue Hotel(public library) by Stephen Crane
  2. The Open Boat(public library) by Stephen Crane
  3. Madame Bovary(free ebook | public library) by Gustave Flaubert
  4. Dubliners(public library) by James Joyce
  5. The Red and the Black(public library) by Stendhal
  6. Of Human Bondage(free ebook | public library) by  Somerset Maugham
  7. Anna Karenina(free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  8. War and Peace(free ebook | public library) by Leo Tolstoy
  9. Buddenbrooks(public library) by Thomas Mann
  10. Hail and Farewell(public library) by George Moore
  11. The Brothers Karamazov(public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. The Oxford Book of English Verse(public library)
  13. The Enormous Room(public library) by E. Cummings
  14. Wuthering Heights(free ebookpublic library) by Emily Brontë
  15. Far Away and Long Ago(free ebookpublic library) by H. Hudson
  16. The American(free ebookpublic library) by Henry James

Billy the Echidna’s essential autumnal reading list

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Oh-ho, saviours of the written word! As we are tucked in tighter to the rigid sheets of autumn, harder to shift in the mornings and their embrace distant in the evenings, have faith in the script. We’ve given you some ace reads for when the living is easy, but how’s about the times when the living is wretchedly autumnal? Billy the Echidna provides you with four sacred texts to notch on your bedpost.

  1. High Rise – J.G Ballard

51dccScK8KL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Billy the Echidna couldn’t be more Ballardian whether he’s fantasising about Ronald Reagan or delighting in the marmoreal veins of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As a young Echidna, I was enthralled by the putrid, pornographic meld of sex and technology Ballard describes in Crash (the first time Billy remembers having to put down a book because he felt nauseous). First drafted as a social worker’s report, High Rise accounts an English tower block’s descent into mayhem as the tenants scrabble for clarity in its hierarchical, suffocating units. The book follows three residents of the building’s highest, middle and lowest floors as the psychological pressure of high-rise living crushes all reason within its corridors. Fans of Will Self and Michel Houellebecq will find a fantastic introduction to a profoundly depraved author – best to read before the critically acclaimed Ben Wheatley screen adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston is released later this year.

  1. The Third Reich – Roberto Bolano

third_reich_rhb_fcPosthumously published, this book was described as for “completists only” in a New York Times review but this Echidna couldn’t think it further from the truth. Written in the late 80s and most likely based on the Catalan beach town where Bolano resided, The Third Reich is an endearing exploration of mysteries found around the next corner. Udo Berger is a German war games champion taking his first love to his childhood holiday destination in Spain. When an unexpected, confusing, wind-surfing compatriot disappears from the small town, Udo must get to the bottom of it like the detective from his girlfriend’s novels he keeps second-guessing.

  1. Cotton comes to Harlem – Chester Himes

Cotton comesUnlike the rest of the year, Autumn is a perilous time to catch a train. Falling leaves will bombard your carriage and your train will come to a panicked stop leaving you further from the beans on toast you’d planned for supper. What better to overcome this horrifying truth than a bombastic crime thriller? First published on the pages of Playboy, Cotton comes to Harlem is the story of black detectives Gravedigger Jones and “Coffin” Ed Johnson hot on the tail of a conman exploiting the racial divides of 50s New York. A no-nonsense satire of the black American experience. Check out the theme by Melba Moore from the Blaxploitation 70s remake for your daily soul dose.

Not the Booker Prize: An alternative literary reading list

Christopher-Booker-prize-001 - Photograph George Monbiot Guardian

Photograph: George Monbiot/Guardian

Mired in controversy since it began, the Man Booker Prize has long held the attention of the literary world. In its time, the Prize has witnessed what is as close to an authorial punch up as can be – when William Golding squared off against Anthony Burgess. It was once described by Richard Gott as “a significant and dangerous iceberg in the sea of British culture that serves as a symbol of its current malaise.” And has faced accusations of its listed books being both “too high brow” and “too readable.”

Yet irrespective of the claims against it, the prize has endured. And, as the shortlist has now been announced, we here at Nothing in the Rulebook thought it would not be out of place to suggest an alternative literary list for our fine readers to contemplate.

Supposedly, the Booker Prize aims to recognise the best British or Commonwealth authors. Yet here there undeniably seems to have been some bias toward the English. Despite a population of just 2.5% of the commonwealth, over half the winners of the prize have hailed from England’s shores. And, while there have been notable winners from former colonies, including the South African novelist J M Coetzee, it should not escape our attention that an overwhelming number of Booker judges are middle class English people, who are perhaps likely to prefer their own nation’s literature.

With this in mind, we will therefore endeavour to correct this imbalance in our own shortlist. While we have no funds to actually offer the authors on this list any prize money, we can offer a potent cocktail of hopes, dreams and admiration – and that’s probably just as good.

The list in full:

Reading in the Dark – Seamus Deane

Reading in the darkIn strikingly lucid language and scenes fired by a spare, aching passion, Reading in the Dark combines the intimacy of a memoir with the suspense of a detective story. Seamus Deane’s poetic inclinations shine through in his debut novel, perfectly illuminating a coming-of-age story of an unnamed narrator in Northern Ireland. Deane captures the underlying, subconscious fears present throughout the course of the ‘troubles’ – where people live as “if they might explode any minute” and can be “disappeared”. Yet this is a pervading background to an essentially familial story, which contemplates love, religion, innocence, love and truth. And while answers to the novels questions come in bits and pieces, by the turn of the last page readers lives have been illuminated, washed in an elegant, graceful and forgiving prose.

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

trainspottingConsidering two Man Booker Prize judges successfully pulled Welsh’s Trainspotting from the 1993 prize shortlist by threatening to walk out, it seemed especially apt that we list the novel here. For readers who do not come from lowland Scotland, one of the particular pleasures of this book is becoming totally immersed in the language and dialect of the novel’s characters. Ostensibly the plot follows a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts, and through its rawness, Welsh draws the reader into a world of urban depravity, Aids, drugs, and individualism – the latter an ironic homage to Thatcher’s neoliberalism, where we see in action what it’s like to live in a world where “there’s no such thing as society”.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

margaret_atwood_the_handmaids_taleCanadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic tells the chilling tale of a concubine in an oppressive future America. Almost 30 years since it was first published, the book is perhaps more vital than ever. Atwood’s lyrical prose is the vehicle used to transport readers to a world where facts appear to merge into one another, and history appears immaterial. This is a fiercely political novel and, while bleak, remains both witty and wise. Arguments continue as to whether this can be classified as a work of science fiction, yet to get caught up in such debates ignores the unarguable fact that this is a truly brilliant novel by an excellent author.

Blindsight – Maurice Gee

BlindsightWidely acclaimed when first published, New Zealand author Maurice Gee’s Blindsight offers readers a complex but knowing portrait of siblings who were once close but are now completely estranged as adults. As the novel evolves, Gee brilliantly draws readers into the past histories of his main protagonists slowly revealing the hidden reasons Allice Ferry and her brother Gordon now live such divergent lives. Deserves to be regarded as one of the best novels published in New Zealand in the past couple of decades.

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

thingfallapartPublished first in 1958 – the time Britain, France and Belgium finally began to recognise the failure of colonialism and begin their unseemly withdrawal – Chinua Achebe’s debut novel concerns itself with the events surrounding the start of this disastrous chapter in African history. Setting the book in the late 19th Century – at the height of the “Scramble” for African territories by European powers – Achebe tells the story of Okonkwo, a proud and highly respected member of the Igbo clan. Through his eyes, we witness a village that has not changed substantially in generations become utterly transformed upon the arrival of the English. Yet it is the Bible – not the gun – that becomes the most violent weapon of choice by these “clever” white men. Set to remain on of the great novels of the colonial era, and the book that announced Achebe to the world as a most brilliant writer, it would be a disservice not to include this masterpiece on our humble list.

Sheepshagger – Niall Griffiths

SheepshaggerDespite being born in Liverpool, Niall Griffiths’ strong familial ties to Wales earned the dubious honorific “the Welsh Irvine Welsh” for the stunning vernacular monologues in his books ‘Grits’ and ‘Sheepshagger’. Though there are linguistic and political similarities, it’s a disservice to think of Griffiths’ book as an imitation of ‘Trainspotting’. Here we follow anti-hero Ianto – a near mute “inbred” savant with a mystical connection to nature, who divides his time between roaming the mountains of his childhood and accepting whatever drug or drink is offered by his circle of friends. As the novel progresses, we witness near Bacchanalian horrors, a distorted but nonetheless sublime depiction of the natural world, and Ianto’s ultimate downfall. It’s vivid and compelling, a modern sensibility informed by Greek tragedy and the Blakean sublime.

Not just an ordinary reading list

So, there we have it. A finer shortlist of novels than you’re otherwise likely to find today. We may not have the excitement of guessing which of these great books will emerge the ultimate, victorious winner, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. After all, in a way, we’re all winners here. Because we’re the ones who get to go out and read these books and enjoy doing so, without ever having to carry out the agonising process of actually writing the damn things. Some might say such thinking is a bit of a luvvie-duvvie cop out; but nobody wants to treat writing like a competition, right?

Professor Wu’s essential summer reading list

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Summertime. The time when the living is easy, apparently. Also the time when we look for breezy, beachy books to take with us on our travels around the world. But what about books that help us actually take other, metaphorical, journeys? Obviously metaphorical journeys won’t necessarily give you the best pictures to post on Facebook or Instagram – and you might not even get a tan! – but they can be both spiritual and intellectual, while they also cost significantly less than a return trip to that 5* all-inclusive resort in the Maldives; so it’s a win-win situation, really.

So how does one take said metaphorical journey? Fortunately, there’s no need to get Tripadvisor involved here. In fact, it’s rather simple: all it takes is a good book and a bit of your time!

But what books to read? That Harry Potter collection under your bed has had its day, I fear, and what are you doing reaching for that dusty copy of War and Peace? It might be brilliant, but is it summer reading brilliant? At over 1200 pages, I’m not so sure. Instead, I feel it’s best to opt for some really rather marvellous books, which pack a lot more bite than your classic holiday lit; but which don’t weigh more than your entire luggage allowance.

As such, I’ve put together my essential summer reading list for 2015 – so here you can find three books guaranteed to take you places you’d never dreamed of. Enjoy!

The trick is to keep breathing – Janice Galloway

So, what gives? As well as being a simple yet effective life hack for anyone seeking an easy win in the constant battle against death, Galloway’s the trick is to keep breathing is also a deviously intricate novel about mental health and gender roles.

Lost the plot? The central character of Joy Stone has just lost her married lover, a fellow teacher from the local school, in a terrible drowning accident while they were on holiday. The book contains short dream-like passages which piece together that dreadful event. On returning from overseas, Joy is ostracised by her colleagues and friends. She is the unwanted reminder of a less than perfect life, and it is not how people want to remember the dead. Everyone – including Joy, at least in part – wishes she would disappear. Galloway manages to convey a life where every little task becomes unimaginable, overwhelming and virtually impossible. The detail and the effort are beautifully rendered in Galloway’s unsentimental and often disconcerting writing. There is humour, but in context it is of the blackest kind.

Verdict: The perfect literary companion for married teachers to read while on holiday – preferably while their SO is taking a dip in the sea.

The Absent Therapist – Will Eaves

So, what gives? Well, what doesn’t? This is a fabulous book – not a novel; not a collection of short stories – but rather a collage of over 200 mini-narratives; thoughts and voices of different people about different places, different memories, other people, other stories. Some of these voices and people recur, but that isn’t to say there’s a linear story here. More than anything, it’s a compilation of different experiences; more than anything, it’s about life.

Woah: Yep. Each of these narratives makes sense on their own, and where characters or voices or places recur there’s some tantalizing hint at something larger, more complex and significant at work. But isn’t that just true of life in general? We exist through a collection of myriad different places, events and people – only ever able to catch the smallest of glimpses at what greater meaning there may – or may not – be. It’s only by looking at events and moments – and listening to voices – one at a time that they become manageable. You have to whittle life down to these individual scenes and narratives to make sense of it; otherwise it builds up in one great tumultuous event that doesn’t make sense. And that’s possibly what makes The Absent Therapist so interesting: it is, quite possibly, fantastically insane. Yet, irrespective of this; it simply seems to make sense.

Verdict: While listening to the waves of the sea, open this book and let the stories wash over you. Immerse yourself in these funny, wry, acute and startling observations; snapshots and overheard conversations  – all written in a flawless, vivid and compelling style and mixed in with deeper intellectual thought and discussion on all manner of topics – from sex to existence, as it were.

Butchers Crossing – John Williams

So, what gives? This, quite simply, is a novel for all disenchanted university graduates whose disillusionment with societal pressure to take up jobs ‘in the city’ has led them to wonder what it would be like to step outside civilization for a while and spend a gap year slaughtering buffalo.

We’ve all been there. For sure, the protagonist Will Andrews’s general malaise at post university life is as much a driving narrative force in the novel as the relentless character of Miller, whose determination to seek out and kill the now extinct American Buffalo drives the characters out to a wilderness both physical and psychological. There are of course clear themes of humanities rapacious consumption – pertinent in this day and age of unrestrained capitalism and striving for growth at any ecological cost – but this is primarily a literary western. There’s also something deliciously evil and human about seeking out a great and rare hidden, beautiful treasure – in this case, the last great herd of buffalo hidden in a lost valley in the Rocky Mountains – and destroying it on sight.

Verdict: Set yourself up with a large, thirst quenching cocktail and within a short distance of an all-you-can eat buffet on some all-inclusive Mediterranean holiday and enjoy reading Williams’s pitiless depiction of men reduced to the most basic and extreme situations: thirst, cold, heat, exhaustion; and isolation. Preferably discuss over some expensive steak – cow, I guess; for want of buffalo meat.