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There’s a new book released today – on World Book Day, no less! – called Jessica’s Ghost, by Andrew Norriss. It’s a book which you should buy for any young people you know, but also read it first yourself before you give it to them, so that you get to read it before they do. It’s the Book of the Week over at Books for Keeps, and hey, I’ve just decided it’s Book of the Week right here at Cubik’s Rube as well. That’s two major plaudits in one paragraph! The buzz around this thing is electrifying.

It’s the latest book from a successful and long-standing children’s author with an impressively hefty back catalogue, who’s won various awards for his writing over the years, but more importantly is also really good at it.

(Any resemblance between his surname and my own is purely non-coincidental.)

So, here’s the thing about books and stories and film and Art in general: it’s supposed to make you feel something. Whether that something is “elated and blissful”, or “upset and thoughtful”, or “appalled and revolutionary”, or even just “pleasantly diverted from the botherances of life for a few moments”, it ought to be doing something to you.

And sometimes, the people making the art have a clear idea about what feelings they want it to make you feel, and are trying really hard to make sure you feel those feelings.

Now, this isn’t an unreasonable goal at all. Art tends to be about the real world in one way or another, and things that happen in the real world often make you feel things really hard, so good art probably wants to have a similar impact. Our everyday experiences of the universe can be strongly emotional. They give rise to all sorts of colourful and evocative metaphors, about floating on air or hearts skipping beats or being swallowed up by the earth, as we try to communicate to each other the potency of what we’re feeling. We are emotional creatures, and the world is a place full of feels.

Some art tries to represent the parts of the world that are the most emotionally fraught and full of feelings. Some art tries deeply and effortfully with all of its might to make you feel things just as hard as the real world makes you feel things.

But some art just gets on with it and lets you figure out for yourself how you should feel about it.

I read a book a while ago called Looking for Alaska, the first novel from a guy the internet seems to quite like called John Green. I enjoyed it, it’s a pretty good book, and this isn’t at all about knocking John Green as a writer. That’d be especially petty and fruitless, given the blockbuster success he’s had, as well as the sorry state of the half-drafted scraps of semi-chapters littering my own computer.

John Green’s debut felt a touch adolescent in some of its tone – he was 28 when it was published, and I would’ve guessed it had come from someone a little younger – but it was a solid first book, from someone who might come up with some really good work once they’d matured a little more, and learned a little more, and grown into themselves a bit. That probably sounds harsher than intended; I honestly mean it all as qualified praise. It’s really not bad.

But boy does it seem to want you to feel how the people in the book are feeling, and to experience sympathetic emotions along with the protagonist.

And it’s not like it fails in that aim. I read it and felt at least some of the things the author wanted me to; it’s a moving story. It’s not like it’s a harsh and damning criticism of a writer to say that I suspect him of wanting the reader to empathise with his characters. But…

The word “histrionic” has been dancing round in my head for the last couple of paragraphs, trying to tempt my fingertips into typing it. I’m holding it back, because it wouldn’t be a fair comment. Except that the point of this article is to talk about Jessica’s Ghost, and comparing Jessica’s Ghost to Looking for Alaska can’t help but highlight certain stark contrasts, not least in the two books’ differing approaches to inducing emotion in the reader.

It’s not really appropriate to draw too much of a parallel between the two – they’re not that similar in many ways, and Jessica’s Ghost is certainly written for a younger audience – but there’s a reason the contrast occurred to me while reading it. A notable thing about Jessica’s Ghost in any context – about my dad’s books generally, in fact – is how cleanly pared-down the storytelling is, how economical with its verbiage. You don’t get many “long descriptions of trees and things“, as one fan pointed out – and you also don’t get long descriptions of the characters’ emotions and overwrought treatises on why these emotions are so fantastically profound and important. You get what you need to understand the setting and the people and the things the story’s about, and then it gets on with it.

It’s common for people discussing literature to conflate those “long descriptions of trees and things” with writing which effectively draws the reader into the written world. To assume that “good” writing, or “grown-up” writing, has to have things like lengthy and complex passages of scene-setting, if it’s going to be allowed to be about serious emotions and strongly felt feelings. To believe that, if a book’s going to be about death and loss and loneliness and serious things like that, it also has to be elaborate and full of flowery metaphors and packed with individual turns of phrase that you can point to and call deeply poignant.

And of course good writing absolutely can be like that. It’s by no means an unforgivably bad thing if you read something and consciously notice such things. You haven’t undermined the whole creative process if you can sometimes say “Ah, I bet this author wrote that bunch of words there to make me feel sad/happy/scared/relieved for the main character”. Trying to make you feel feelings is a thing that art does; so long as it’s not hitting you too violently over the head with it, it’s not wrong of it to want you to feel certain things and to try to use writerly tricks to get you there.

But another way to write good writing is to just get on with the story. To let people figure out for themselves how they feel about the things they’re reading about, and find their own empathy with the characters and their plight.

I’m worried some of this sounds like a backhanded series of compliments. Like I’m saying that Jessica’s Ghost is simple, or simplistic, or doesn’t have beautiful and deeply poignant writing in it, or that the sentences aren’t all elegantly put together in a way that makes it read like a dream, or like it’s failed in some way to be a proper grown-up book about serious things. If that’s the impression you’re getting, that’s only because I’m not a good writer myself.

I read this book in a weekend, I loved it, it stayed with me. It’s one of the best things I could think of for any young people to read, particularly if they’re still learning things about the feelings that life makes us all feel. The compassion and humanism behind it is consistently remarkable.

It’s released in hardback today, and available all over the place, and it’s World Book Day so if you don’t buy it then you basically hate literacy. Especially after you read a sample chapter (PDF), which is a much better way of deciding what you think of it than all my not-remotely-impartial wittering on. Go and read.

Brief personal addendum: I really might have a house to live in quite soon now. For really reals this time, not like all those other times when we thought it was all about to be great but then it was terrible instead. As ever, I’ll keep you posted.

As tradition demands…

I’ve stopped being round, and I’m back in my prime.

At least, in a numerical sense. Physically, after the lunch and cake assortment laid on by my mother-in-law this afternoon, I’m still feeling pretty much spherical.

I’m also a Mersenne prime again as of today. The last time that was the case, the Cold War wasn’t over, Charles and Diana were still making a go of it, Mike Tyson wasn’t a convicted rapist, and Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and Disney’s Aladdin were both yet to rock the word with their cultural impact.

So much has changed, in merely the time it takes to go from 2n-1 to 2n+1-1. By the time 2n+2-1 rolls around… I can only wonder what brave new world awaits.

On with the year, then.

Year-end round-up

Well, 2014 is at an end, and good riddance to it too.

No surprise, I’m still not really here or back to actively writing again yet. But I did get a few interesting things blogged this year, so I thought I’d do a brief recap of some of the highlights.

For some reason I’m having trouble getting links to the posts themselves to work – the WordPress software’s being buggy or something – but the titles are listed below so you should be able to track them down. Here are my top ten posts that featured on this blog in 2014:

10. Why I’m rethinking my stance on both Jeremy Hunt and chocolate digestives

9. UKIP candidate in bizarre strawberry jam gaff

8. You’ve been using thumbs wrong your whole life

7. Holy shit you guys I didn’t know cats could do this!

6. Most convincing proof of Biblical literalism I’ve seen yet

5. Russell Brand: this generation’s Martin Luther King?

4. Okay, I’m sorry, you can all stop pointing out that the UKIP jam scandal was a hoax now

3. What the fuck’s the Archbishop of Canterbury said now?

2. I think, therefore I am Groot

1. My #icebucketchallenge video

If I missed out any of your personal favourites, feel free to share. Here’s hoping 2015 yields some even more exciting conversations.

Well, to paraphrase a recurring Twitter joke that’s usually about Baz Luhrmann or Wes Anderson or someone: I see Charlie Brooker’s made his bleak dystopian satire again.

The thing about Black Mirror, which recently aired a one-off Christmas special, is the same thing that’s always the thing about Black Mirror. It’s really worth watching, it’s generally frustratingly unsatisfying, and it’s sufficiently engaging that it’s prompted me to pour more words into a blogpost about it than any other subject in months.

The way the show presents its ideas is always gorgeously realised, with glorious production values, beautiful sets, fantastic performances, and all that jazz. It suckers you into its shiny world, but there’s not much substance beneath all the pretty and highly watchable gloss. To someone even moderately sci-fi literate, the ideas themselves often aren’t especially revolutionary, or original, or insightful – and the way it takes its time over them makes it seem as if it’s more proud of itself on this score than it really deserves.

It consistently hits “quite fun” levels, but seems to be expecting my mind to be blown. Which is really distracting, and leaves me wondering what could be done if such effort and skill that’s clearly been put into the production could be applied to some really bold, creative, intense sci-fi ideas.

Or at least some sci-fi ideas which aren’t basically always stories about stupid people who are deplorably, unforgivably shit at dealing with their (often self-inflicted and entirely avoidable) problems.

See, I don’t doubt there are things which speculative fiction is well placed to address, regarding humanity’s tendency to be unforgivably shit at dealing with their problems. We are a species with no shortness of innate shitness at all kinds of things, after all. But the lesson I tend to draw from Black Mirror is “you can avoid this terrible fate if you somehow find it in yourself to be fractionally less shit than these complete incompetents”, which doesn’t take long to learn and doesn’t particularly expand my mind in the way good sci-fi can.

In many ways, this show about how technology impacts our lives is much more about the lives than about the technology. It’s not exactly a deep insight to say that the science parts of science-fiction are often primarily a device for talking about universally recognisable aspects of human nature and its flaws. But when seen this way, both the technological dystopias of Black Mirror, and the dark corners of humanity they reveal, are disappointingly unsophisticated.

The bits of the show that work best for me – and thus, by extension, the bits which are the best in objective and unquestionable truth – are the opposite of the bits that are most clearly intended to be powerfully bleak and viscerally horrifying.

Spoilers for White Christmas to follow, because it’s the one I can remember most clearly to cite as a useful example:

People being tortured or simply imprisoned in those cookie things is a genuinely chilling idea. For all that I’m bitching a lot about this show, when it has a thing it wants you to look at, it does a fine job of showing it off, and you definitely felt how sinister that notion was. What’s happening in the story is seriously creepy, and if seeing it proposed as something which could really happen doesn’t deeply unnerve you then you’re thinking about it wrong.

But it gets stopped short of being genuinely insomnia-inducing. In part, the effect is muted by the nature of the proximate cause of the nightmare: namely, the active and direct malice of Jon Hamm’s character (and later of the police officer casually ramping up the torment beyond anything experienced by a single individual in human history). Both the characters we see being tortured in a digital prison are having this punishment deliberately inflicted on them.

That’s fine as far as it goes: Person A really wanted Person B to experience great suffering, and made it happen. On an individual basis, that’s horrible, and scary, but it’s not exactly new. The scale of it that’s enabled by the technology is impressive, but still not unprecedented.

But while it’s certainly believable that this kind of cruelty could take place, I don’t think it identifies a broader human failing that our species as a whole should be worried about. In both instances in the show, this kind of cruelty seems to have been institutionalised into a system in widespread use. Torturing a replica of yourself into acting as some kind of household organiser seems to have become mundane and everyday. Given how much straightforward evil that would require of basically everyone who accepts this system, I don’t see it as likely that we’re going to backslide that far into that level of callousness. (Recent poll results on the support for torture as an interrogation tactic by the CIA among the American public makes me think twice on this one, but it still doesn’t feel authentic, as a path we might be in danger of going down.)

I could’ve sworn I remembered the title Black Mirror as being a classical literary reference of some sort, describing a reflection of the dark side of humanity and making us face the blackness that stares back when we look at ourselves, or something. Apparently I made all that up and it just means computer screens. But even so, the resonance that stories like these will have depends on how well they convince us that they do reflect something meaningful about us. It needs to feel representative of life as a whole, or of “the way the world works”. When a story doesn’t feel believable, it’s not necessarily that we think it defies the laws of physics and could literally never happen, but that it doesn’t fit with the stories we use to frame real life.

So, good guys win, because the world is basically fair, and good will win out in the end, really. Or, the good guys fail, because we live in a hopeless godless world that doesn’t care about us, in which the good guys won’t get what they want just because movies have always told them they will. Either way, the specific example in question is implying this broader set of conclusions about the way the world works.

With Black Mirror, there’s never a “happy” ending, and the conclusions it leads us to about the real world and human nature are always something dark and disturbing. This isn’t a problem in itself; as I say, there’s plenty that’s dark and disturbing about life and humanity that’s worth exploring. But it’s the part where the characters (and by extrapolation humans in general) are flat-out evil, bringing about our doom by deliberate malevolence, that doesn’t ring true.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Almost no one is evil; almost everything is broken.

So much more harm has been brought about by well-meaning folk being badly organised, by good people getting stuck in harmful patterns of self-defence, by broken systems where nobody’s getting what they want but nobody’s incentivised to change anything, than by evil people simply wishing evil things. And the former has more gut-wrenching horror lurking inside it, too. There doesn’t have to be some brilliantly dastardly mastermind plotting and scheming, derailing the universe’s plan for good people to be rewarded; people can just be human, and well-intentioned, and recognisably good in every important way, and still effect unimaginably terrible suffering. That’s a more relatable and frightening idea to explore, and rings far truer as a probable harbinger of actual future dystopian calamity.

There was a lesson in White Christmas which resonates more strongly with me, about faulty thinking regarding artificial intelligence, and a glimpse of the consequences of fucking that up as badly as we probably will – but that didn’t seem to be the pitfall the show was warning us about. The main message seemed to be the usual theme of technology’s potential to be used to cause suffering when it’s convenient for us, with our philosophically inadequate notions of consciousness tacked on as a chilling coda.

The really scary and horrific things done by humans, historically, have been much more down to social influences than technological ones. Any truly dark and nightmarish future will come from a far less easily predicted direction than that suggested by an entertaining, whimsically spooky TV show.

Merry Christmas.

I’m not dead.

I am, however, really enjoying not worrying about having to post stuff here. Like, not even thinking about it, at all.

I’ll get back to it. Just not right now. My mental health is very much appreciating a break from the pressure. It’ll be up for some more exercise again at some point.

Some time soon, I’ll get to say: “Hey, remember ages ago when we moved house and that was somehow basically the only thing we did for an entire fucking year? That was shit, right? I’m glad that’s long since over and we don’t have to talk to any fucking estate agents any more.” And then I will be happy.

In the meantime, I’ve just got to keep reminding myself.

So let’s recap our first lesson in “not totally sucking as a person”, which it seems like some folk missed.

Making friendly contact with strangers, and engaging pleasantly with people you don’t know, is an important skill to develop. You might use it to make new friends, or maybe it’ll simply help you get along smoothly with some of the many people you’ll briefly encounter in the world, even if no lasting relationships are formed. It’s good that so many of you want to work on this and get some real-world practice.

But let’s look at an example of how this can go wrong.

Let’s say that you offer an unsolicited compliment to a woman you don’t know. You’re putting a random act of kindness out into the world, with a hope of brightening a stranger’s day with some positive words to boost her esteem. But, even though you’re just being nice, this woman doesn’t seem grateful. She ignores you, turns coldly away, shuns your offering, refuses to even acknowledge how nice you were being to her.

Now, if your response to this involves lecturing, berating, chastising, shaming, criticising, blaming, or bringing any negativity to bear on this woman at all for being unappreciative and unfriendly, then… Well, what can we say about your behaviour in that case? Any guesses, class?

It’s not very nice of you? Well, that’s partly right, but you can go further. In fact, if you act like this, you were never being nice to her in the first place.

You might think you were being nice. In all likelihood that’s the story you’ve told yourself about what happened and your motivations. But you’re lying to yourself.

If you did something nice for a stranger, but then stopped being nice and indignantly complained about how unjustly you were being treated the second you didn’t get what you wanted out of the interaction, then you weren’t actually doing something nice. You were being an asshole from the start.

Because what you’ve done there, you see, is decided that your feelings are the only thing that really matters, and that you’re owed something by this woman whose path has only crossed with yours at all because you’ve actively and uninvitedly injected yourself into her life. You’ve demanded that your benevolent intent be recognised as the only admissible truth, and that a complete stranger reward you with precisely the kind of interaction you deem appropriate, at a time of your choosing. What this stranger might want from life, and how she might be feeling, hasn’t come into your calculations at all – which is mutually exclusive with actually being nice to someone.

“But where’s the harm in just offering a sincere compliment intended to brighten someone’s day?” I can hear one or two of the slower learners among you still asking. “Maybe some cat-callers shout abuse and other things women might not want to hear, but I don’t deserve to get lumped in with them when I’m saying something flattering and non-threatening and just trying to be nice.”

Well first of all, this person didn’t ask for your opinion, they didn’t invite you to get involved, they don’t owe you shit, you don’t deserve shit, so get the fuck over yourself.

But you know what, you raise a good point there. Some people do shout abusive, threatening, hateful things at strangers – most commonly women – and some even escalate this abuse to physical assaults and violence. And while it’s a good sign that you can at least recognise these as being bad things to do, you’re not actually as completely different from those violent assholes as you might like to think.

One thing that many of those abusive, threatening, rapey assholes have in common is that, before they turned so abusive that it’s obvious even to you how unacceptable their behaviour is, they started off by offering some unsolicited but positive assessments of some aspect of this woman’s appearance or character, which were intended to be interpreted as a compliment.

And guess what? This is something that you and those abusive assholes have in common too!

Yes, yes; I’m sure you know that you’re not going to take things any further, that you’d never try and grope a woman or call her a slut for shunning your advances, no matter how rude she is when you were just trying to be nice. But she doesn’t know that.

That thing you’re doing, where you offer her a “compliment” to be “nice”? You look exactly like a lot of guys who turned out to be abusive violent assholes when you do that. You may not be an abusive violent asshole yourself, but that doesn’t get you a whole lot of credit in this situation. Especially when, as discussed earlier, you’re not really being nice.

Offering unsolicited opinions on a woman’s appearance or character, then complaining about her conduct and the unfairness with which you’ve been treated, is what those abusive assholes do. If you don’t want to be unfairly compared to that sort of person, don’t act exactly like them.

And here’s some proactive advice on how you can achieve that: try directing more criticism toward men who shout abuse, or send rape and death threats online, than you do toward women who’ve received more threats and abuse than you could know (because – quick reminder – you don’t actually know a fucking thing about them) and who sometimes aren’t too keen to make friendly conversation with a stranger as a result.

I’m sure you all think you obviously do that anyway – but is it really reflected in the way you talk about it? You might find, in practice, that the behaviour you spend the most time policing is that of women who don’t give men what they feel entitled to, while the abusive assholes tend to get a brief “yes obviously BUT” before returning to the main story of what women are doing wrong.

If that’s the case, then you don’t need to look any further. Your journey is at an end. The shithead was you all along.

And there’s the bell. Class dismissed. Do try not to make complete tits of yourselves, or I’ll drag you back in here for a remedial session.

Hi there, thanks for checking out our restaurant. You’ve probably heard a few things about us in the media lately, but before you rush to judgment, let me correct some of the misconceptions and misrepresentations you’ve almost certainly been told about the food we serve here.

This restaurant was founded by people with a noble vision. They wanted to raise concerns regarding the quality of many of the raw ingredients that end up in a lot of meals presented to the public. There are some chefs out there who are buying their stock from sources who’ll do them favours in order to keep their business. These sources are often dubious, and aren’t seeking to provide customers with the most tasty and nutritious meals possible. This is potentially a serious problem in the restaurant business; if the public are getting a higher level of salt or trans-fats in their diet than they’re led to believe, because of some shady and unethical deals going on between kitchen staff and providers of ingredients, then this is a scandal which deserves to be exposed.

We’re driven by serious ethical concerns, and trying to change genuinely problematic behaviour in the industry.

So would everyone please stop describing this restaurant as “that place where they shit in your food”.

That is not what we’re all about. We’re trying to inform the public on things like the shockingly high fat content often found in even prime cuts of meat. But everyone keeps ignoring our true priorities, choosing instead to focus on complaints about being served plates of food that are literally full of human shit. There is so much whining from people who claim that this happened to them, and from do-gooders who are outraged on their behalf, and it just needs to stop.

Now, look, obviously I’m not saying I support anyone shitting in anyone else’s food. Of course I don’t think that’s okay. But this is all a distraction from the important issues that the majority of us, who aren’t taking a shit in anyone’s food, are trying to address.

I’m just a waiter here. All I do is bring diners’ meals to them, and at the same time provide some handy informational leaflets explaining our concerns, and how these concerns affect you, and how you can make a difference, and (most importantly) whose fault this all is. If the order I’m bringing happens to have been mixed with, or entirely replaced by, a steaming pile of human shit, that’s not my fault. My encouragement about healthy eating and ethical trading practices are peripherally connected to those plates of shit at best.

Really, the uproar over some shit apparently turning up in a few people’s food is totally hysterical and out of proportion. Some customers have reported being unable to eat properly for days due to nausea, even in contexts that have nothing to do with our restaurant. This is frankly pathetic. Bodily waste products are an everyday part of life. If you’re going to be the sort of person who eats and digests food on a regular basis, you can’t be so thin-skinned or unprepared to face the harsh realities of fecal waste, whether or not it’s directly in front of you on a plate.

Yes, I’ve seen the pictures that have been shared online, showing dishes laden with the combined excrement of several of our chefs, which had been placed on the table in front of certain individuals who claim to have been simply trying to enjoy a pleasant evening out with their families. I understand that there has also emerged some camera footage from our kitchen, where you can clearly see several of our cooks defecating directly onto the meals recently prepared for our customers while discussing loudly the virtue of the philosophical point they’re making about modern dietary habits. But I don’t just blindly accept the narrative being pushed on us here, and I question the agenda of those doing the pushing.

They’d have you believe that this is proof that shitting in people’s food is all that happens in this restaurant. In fact, there are strong reasons to believe that some of these people have been shitting on plates of food in their own kitchens at home, and maliciously misattributing the footage to make us look bad.

But of course, nobody who’s chosen to side with the customers can accept that any of them would behave like that. So they just lap up the story they’re being fed by the media, and conclude that everyone who works in this healthy-eating-centred restaurant is just constantly shitting on everything, all of the time. Which is palpably ludicrous and impossible, just on a biological level.

More than that, it’s also deeply offensive and derogatory, to an establishment founded on healthy principles, and with numerous decent people like myself working towards an important goal. People who refuse to let their worthwhile aims get derailed every time someone whines and wails about finding another mound of human shit in their dinner.

This restaurant is not going away. We are determined, and we will persist. No matter how many public health bodies decry our practices and brand us a hazard to society. No matter how many so-called experts weigh in and declare that all the efforts of our dedicated staff to educate the public about what they’re eating are tainted by the stink of all the shit people are claiming to find in their food. We will not be oppressed. Our doors will remain open, and we will continue to serve customers as we have always done, with a focus on improving honesty and accountability in the manufacture and distribution of basic foodstuffs.

If you don’t like it, eat shit.

(Not literally. I would never condone or approve such behaviour.)

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