Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘Facebook’

‘Holophin’ by Luke Kennard

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on April 8, 2013 at 1:15 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

In Luke Kennard’s debut novella, the Holophin is a tiny, incredibly-powerful, highly-personalised computer. While humanity has forever been developing tools and technology to make life easier – the wheel, the plough, the sail, the loom, the steam engine, the computer, the telephone – in recent decades the drive has also been to make these tools individual, for example the mobile phone as opposed to the household landline. At the same time, those devices are capable of an increasing number of tasks; the mobile takes/makes calls, but also sends messages (texts and emails), takes photos, surfs the web (including social media), keeps a calendar, plans routes, plays games, wakes us up, plays music and videos, writes/edits documents and can probably do far more as well. What’s more, it fits in your pocket and you can take it almost everywhere.

But with a rise in technological capabilities comes a rise in fear of that technology and what it can do to humans. I don’t mean the dangers of radiation from phone masts or handsets – though that probably should be a concern – I mean the fears that technology is becoming increasingly autonomous and has begun to run our lives, that people genuinely believe they can’t live without their smartphones, that civilisation would collapse without wi-fi access and that vast data servers hold swathes of information about every technology user on the planet. The other day I even saw a TV news report claiming that governments – obeying their ‘corporate masters’ – can (indeed, are obliged to) track individuals’ locations to within a hundred metres, using their mobile phone signals.

Maybe those fears are unfounded, but even if we aren’t heading towards a Terminator-style war when the machines finally take over, there’s no denying the increasing presence and ubiquity of technology in the developed world.

Luke Kennard's Holophin reviewed

Luke Kennard’s advert for a Holophin

At the same time, we’re bombarded with adverts for products that offer simple solutions to complicated problems (solutions made possible by advancing technology): combat the signs of ageing with this easy-to-use lotion; become sexually irresistible with this deodorant; buy this game and train your brain to be smarter! Those are just generic ones: the internet and Google can quite easily give each user specific ads based on your previous buying habits, your browser history and subject headings from your email inbox (though some of its choices can still be charmingly bizarre). You can chose to see this as a useful, personalised internet experience, or as technology’s further encroachment into your life.

As if with that in mind, Kennard’s novella opens with an advert for the Holophin, a dolphin-shaped sticker of immense (at least partly autonomous) processing power that promises help with, among other things, ‘weight loss or gain; confidence; alleviation of social anxiety […] happiness; concentration and focus […] insomnia, anti-social behaviour, addictions and phobias’ as well as grief management and self-discipline. On top of all that, the Holophin provides a built-in(to the brain) media centre and personal organiser which can not only arrange meetings with other people’s Holophins, but even attend them for the wearer too. If the creeping dominance of smartphones worries you, the Holophin is your worst nightmare, Kennard’s extrapolation from modern fears and trends. But at least it’s a cute dolphin shape.

The best sci-fi takes our modern-day fears and concerns and puts them in a different context, allowing us to see ourselves from a new angle, without the potentially comforting surrounds of the modern world. We can consider Hatsuka and Max – the young characters in Holophin – with a disinterest that would be much harder when considering our own use of, say, a smartphone. In his first novella, Kennard is able to explore the idea of politely domineering technology as well as looking at how that technology can develop a life of its own and raise rather deeper questions. One of the Holophins has started writing poetry, and another is working on the first Holophin novel – where do we consider these endeavours in the context of art as a means of human expression and creativity? And how much are humans actually limited by their reliance on technology: for example, how much do we now rely on autocorrect and autofill functions when typing, rather than remembering how to spell for ourselves?

As in good sci-fi, the setting here feels contemporary, it could be the early twenty-first century – except for the occasional references to, say, the fact that countries no longer have any meaning and corporations are everything (do you use an iPhone, BlackBerry or Android? a Microsoft computer or an Apple one?); corporations that fight over sales and staff like nations used to fight over resources and territory. There’s a hint of Margaret Attwood’s Oryx & Crake in the grooming of highly intelligent youngsters by powerful, quasi-governmental corporations hungry for technological developments – exposing the idea of nations as just one way of organising people; here, corporations provide schools, and education is paid for by working a shift or two in the factory. Who needs a government when the corporation provides its own housing, security, schools, shops and employment opportunities? The Cadbury brothers would be proud.

The dangers of powerful computers plugged right into the brain become apparent when Hatsuka loses all grip on reality and the novella’s narrative fragments. It’s at this point that Holophin becomes rather less accessible and more of a surreal whirl through fantasy, the subconscious, virtual reality and corporate competition.

Whether you’re left wanting a Holophin of your own probably depends on your attitude to technology’s impact on our lives. Is it an enhancement and a helper, or insidious and a threat? Holophin lets you believe either, but carries a warning that we’re bound to find out one way or the other eventually.


‘Border Run’ by Simon Lewis

In Novel on April 24, 2012 at 5:42 pm

-Reviewed by Elinor Walpole-

Simon Lewis’s Border Run is a pacy read that tells the story of two gap year travellers, Jake and Will, who embark upon an ‘adventurette’ in the jungle on the borders of China and Burma that turns nasty. We see events unfold from the viewpoint of Will, an insecure young man keen to prove his adventurous spirit to validate himself in his ex-girlfriend’s eyes. Lewis’s writing conjures up the self-reflexive Facebook generation perfectly, with Will analysing each experience in terms of its ability to impress back home. Jake even berates Will for mediating his experiences through the lens; ‘take that camera off your face. Stop using it like a shield’.

Will and Jake’s personalities contrast with one another, the uptight and slightly neurotic young man to carefree and footloose lad. The novel opens with Jake excitedly proposing a roadtrip with a stranger, the bait for Will being a photogenic waterfall. The bait for Jake is somewhat different; the temptation of ‘walking marriage’ with girls who live in the borderlands. Will is disappointed at the first sight of their promised paradise, his vision clouded by his resentment towards the carefree Jake for having commandeered their carefully planned itinerary. He jumps to negative conclusions, seeing the place as ‘a hopeless mass of green detail’ before they come upon their real destination.
Border Run Simon Lewis
The novel is full of vivid descriptions seen through Will’s keen eye as a photographer. The luscious settings, a smattering of technical photography language and the odd detail such as their snacking on ‘Cashew Savageness nuts and Lonely God crisps’ recreate the curious traveller’s wonder. Will captures every moment as it unfolds for its physical beauty, but more importantly for him as proof of his experiences for how they might rate as a Facebook album. Later his relentless documenting of every detail becomes his protection as he casts himself in the role of witness.

Will’s unease about the impulsive trip is overridden by his desire to impress, and when things start to heat up he ‘told himself to relax and be more like Jake, carefree, easy in his body, going with the flow’. However Will’s premonition that things are too good to be true doesn’t take long to be proven right. As soon as evidence starts to appear that perhaps Howard, their tour guide, isn’t quite as altruistic as he’s made himself out to be Will assumes the moral high ground and begins to weigh up his options considering his irresponsible travelling companions, and finds himself having to constantly adjust to increasingly perilous situations until he’s no longer sure where his loyalty lies.

Short chapters and playful cliffhangers keep the story moving rapidly as the situation spirals out of control. The narrative is dialogue driven, from Will’s cringeworthy non-conversation with a nubile tribal girl to increasingly awkward interchanges between himself and Howard that become more tense as Will tries to make sense of the turn of events and his position within it. Despite this Will makes an unexpectedly sympathetic protagonist. We follow his agonising decision-making process from one uncomfortable situation through another, from the trivial to the perilous.

Border Run is an engaging, humorous novel that forces our modern Young Werther-like protagonist away from introverted self-analysis and into the thrust of the action, until finally he is forced to really test his limits and what he believes himself capable of.

‘Circuits of the Wind (A Legend of the Net Age) Volume #1’ by Michael Stutz

In Novel on April 13, 2012 at 8:52 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Circuits of the Wind Volume #1 is the first in this trilogy by Michael Stutz, which will cover computer communication’s rise from an obscure by-product of telephonic connections to the now-ubiquitous high-speed internet. Stutz’s blurb claims that he ‘coined the term ‘net generation”, which makes it sound like he knows what he’s talking about, and even raises the hint of this trilogy being a tad autobiographical. These books attempt to provide a personal narrative for the information age, trying to impose on it an overall meaning and poeticism missing from more usual computing histories.

Circuits of the Wind (A Legend of the Net Age) Volume 1 - Michael Stutz

Starting from an almost pre-consciousness age, Circuits of the Wind narrates the life of Raymond Valentine, an American whose life seems – through coincidence of birth, if nothing else – to be intrinsically linked with the growth of home computer technology and, ultimately, the internet. In Second Grade, he discovers arcade and home computer games in their infancy. His babyhood fascination with the home telephone flowers into a desire to become a hacker, with a home computer and modem, which will enable him to ‘call out and connect, [to] know the ways and [to] walk the winds like ghosts’.

It’s rather like a gradual biography of internet communication (Volume #1 being set in the 60s, 70s and 80s, before the internet as we know it today). Ray grows up as the reach of computers and phone lines extends, expanding with his adolescent body in ways he doesn’t fully understand but that he can see opening up a future world of adult promise. If you think that makes it sound like a geeky, teenage boy coming-of-age story, then you’re not far wrong. Circuits of the Wind is deeply embedded in external modems and old-school computer hard disks, recalling a time when teenage boys dreamed of ‘accidentally’ gaining access to the Pentagon’s mainframes (cf. Wargames) and hacking consisted of a few bits of metal across the house’s phone line. There’s a certain geeky appeal to Ray’s existence, and just enough computing/internet jargon to reel in geeks without losing the less technically-minded reader.

Ray’s is a life slightly disconnected from immediate reality, existing instead in a world spreading outwards and away from Ray’s physical location. His world (and, increasingly, these days, our world) is one of telephone lines and faraway places, of connections and information flying through the air. It’s a world with a vast amount of information readily available, where a person (like Ray) can know about many things, people and places without actually experiencing them tangibly. Stutz captures the thrill of first receiving a computer screen message from hundreds of miles away, and the desolation when that access is revoked and our horizons are suddenly reduced back to the merely physical.

His life’s disconnection includes relationships, which Ray struggles with as he gets older. Or at least, he struggles with relationships with more than a couple of friends in ‘real life’ – his online social life thrives. It’s a situation any modern Facebook/MySpace/Twitter addict will recognise, perhaps with a guilty half-shrug or sheepish smile; Ray chats with people across America, but feels isolated and ostracised when offline.

At times, Stutz tries to do a little more than tie together the parallel biographies of Ray and the internet. The narrator of Circuits of the Wind starts taking lengthy paragraphs to inject some poetic meaning into the story, and to condense longer periods of time into the book – as though the reader must have a constant stream of narrative about Ray and no part of his life can be left untold. It’s as if Stutz doesn’t want to leave a break in the plot, so rather than go from event to event he gives us everything without pausing except for new chapters. At times this technique is reminiscent of the modern internet’s unremitting stream of data and information, which needs sifting and sorting.

The next two instalments of the Circuits of the Wind series pursues Ray’s life into the internet-enabled 1990s, with increasingly advanced graphics and quicker connection times. Whether he’ll manage to make anything of himself, or while away more hours in front of a computer screen, remains to be seen – and bears a resemblance (and a warning?) to procrastinators everywhere.

Brittle Star #27

In Magazine on August 4, 2011 at 11:05 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

For a literary magazine that has been around for more than 10 years, Brittle Stars online presence still feels curiously disorganised, despite the official website having been revamped in March 2010. A quick check with Google reveals that Issue 28 is already out and the magazine is reading for Issue 29, but on the magazine’s official website, clicking on a picture headed ‘Latest issue’ leads to a separate WordPress blog entry about Issue 27 (bizarrely, the actual URL ends in ‘/issue-24/’). Neither the blog nor the magazine’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have been updated since January 2011. If this were my favourite literary magazine, I would regard the effort required for keeping up-to-date with what it was doing as bordering on excessively complicated.

That said, it would be a shame if potential readers/subscribers missed out on Brittle Star because of this. For as Issue 27 proves, there is commendable work to be found in this slim magazine. The official website notes that Brittle Star ‘has earned a reputation for providing a platform for writers at the beginning of their careers, many of whom have seen their work in print for the first time’. In this issue, one such writer is Nick Boyes, whose poem ‘To a Slug’ strikes a balance between applying a child-like imagination to nature’s creatures (‘The ant is a Victorian strongman’) and deploying a more adult awareness (‘the hiding spider / is a cold war secret agent’, ‘you slug, you are a fat friendless child / who doesn’t know why’).

This knowingness also manifests itself in poems like Terry Jones’s ‘Birdsong’ and Michael Bartholomew-Biggs’s ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Fructiculture’. In ‘Birdsong’, ‘Their call-and-repeat-and-warn tapestries’ are immediately reinterpreted in the next line as ‘Sung territories of threat and feathered lust’. The sonic echoes in word pairs ‘tapestries’/‘territories’ and ‘threat’/‘feathered’ (with ‘repeat’ creating a visual triple) subtly reinforce the transformation of meaning. Although the poem closes with the apparently hopeful ‘Somewhere Cuckoo muscles into light’, in opposition to the evocative phrasing of ‘a dark rain of birdsong’, one wonders if a more ambivalent reading is not called for. The previous line (‘Rook guards his crown of thorns’) contains a Biblical allusion to the Crucifixion, which in turn points back to the rook’s folkloric association with death. Furthermore, many cuckoo species are brood parasites, laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, so the element of deceit further undercuts the attempt to read the ending as hopeful.

With ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Fructiculture’, Bartholomew-Biggs relocates the fruit of the Holy Spirit from Galatians 5 to a literal garden. The language of cultivation admirably sustains the conceit with startling ease, allowing the poet to play with both levels of meaning throughout the poem. While the final injunction concerning ‘Self-control’ is to ‘Prune away / extravagant growth’, this is surely not an issue for this poem. While the poem is not divided into stanzas, each attribute is economically dealt with in what almost feel like three-line aphorisms. Personal favourites follow:

Low-bush Kindnesses

are easy to pick. They bruise

with careless handling.

Small unassuming

Blossoms mark true Goodness from

Self-righteous hybrids.

Brittle Star also features short articles and literary fiction, and in this issue, Brittle Star intern Saskia Katarina Hidas’s article on the Norwegian poet Gunvor Hofmo is particularly interesting, drawing attention to a European post-WW2 poet who has been compared to Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson. However, in comparison to the featured poetry, the fiction largely feels like it falls short. Luke Thompson’s ‘Quick small steps’ is too chatty without seeming to go anywhere in the end. As for Michael Ranes’s ‘Jani and the boy’, it should just manage to avoid giving offense despite its unsubtle treatment of racial themes, seeing as there is always the excuse that the entire story is ultimately mediated through a biracial narrator. Even if that revelation feels more gratuitous than illuminating.

Paper Darts

In online magazine, Website on April 30, 2011 at 10:54 pm

-Reviewed by Roy Marmelstein

Paper Darts is a strange but ambitious beast. Based in Minneapolis, it’s a beautifully-illustrated but sometimes difficult to browse website that sets out to showcase exciting art, poetry, music and prose.

Now, the problem with this sort of thing is that the qualities of the different arts aren’t really the same. What makes a piece of visual art fantastic isn’t the same as what makes a song or a poem great. As competent and as passionate as curators and editors can be (and the editors of Paper Darts sure seem passionate), it’s unrealistic to expect them to be as knowledgeable about every form of artistic endeavour.

So, is Paper Darts a jack of all trades and master of none? Far from it. The art showcased is hugely impressive. Much of the prose is very well written. The poetry is rather hit and miss. The music isn’t very good at all…

Let’s discuss these in a bit more detail:

*Art* – Paper Darts knows its art. All the works showcased were fresh and of extremely high calibre with Ruben Island’s eery creations being a personal highlight. It’s also the easiest area to browse on the website, with the editors simply presenting us with a profile and a gallery for every featured artist. Definitely worth bookmarking and checking for updates.

*Music* – The music part is by far the weakest aspect of Paper Darts. The section instantly attacks you with a frustrating and badly-designed Flash carousel. It’s slow and difficult to browse and the actual music is mediocre
at best. I much preferred the art, prose and poetry sections…

*Prose* – The fiction part of Paper Darts features 24 short stories, their excellent selection feels a bit like a treasure trove. The ones I read were all fantastic. Standouts were Elizabeth Sowden’s “Final Notice” that perfectly captured youthful poverty (reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger), OneThirtyFive’s short polaroid stories were pretty entertaining and “The Living Water” By Sara Aase, like the best short stories, was deliciously mysterious and left the reader wanting more. In comparison, the non-fiction area of the site seemed a little less exciting with well-written but rather dull contributions (with the notable exception of an intriguing flash non-fiction competition Paper Darts ran on Facebook).

*Poetry* – In a bit of a crude generalisation, students and teenagers who first dabble in poetry like to be a bit emo, attempt to shock the reader with sex-related imagery, experiment with unusual forms  and try to make a political point. It’s completely natural to start with bad but personal poetry and many will grow out of that initial phase to write really great poems. My issue with much of the poetry on Paper Darts is that it’s still in that embryonic teenage phase.

For example, this section from “On Their Eighteenth Birthday” by Sergio A. Ortiz

“–First she thought she was a Tapir,
then a pole.  I stuffed a butt plug in her mouth,
but she asked for a loincloth.
She fell in love with my skin, wanted to peel
it, peel me–Our lady of the Broken Condoms,
Latina Americana gringa wanna be
with the sagging implants. ”

or “Fly Over Poem” by Matt Rasmussen

“Your jet contrails stream
across my face of sky

like a money shot
in slow motion.”

Now, I’m not a prude and there’s nothing wrong with sexual imagery when it’s used for good effect. In fact, one of the better poems in Paper Darts‘ selection is Show Me Your Breasts by Niels Hav, a beautifully odd and rhythmic longing for a Russian woman and Russian culture.

There’s definitely some wheat in Paper Darts‘ poetry selection, but unfortunately there is quite a lot of chaff too.

Considering Paper Darts is completely free and online, there’s no reason not to check it out and it’s a great way to spend time on the internet. The art and fiction sections are particularly well done and you may find some good poetry in there too. As mentioned, the editors are a passionate bunch and I’m certain Paper Darts will continue to improve with future updates…

[Ed: Due to time constraints this is a review of the website’s blogzine rather than the print issues produced by Paper Darts but in the advent of it being shortlisted for a Saboteur Award we will judge issue #3 as the most recent issue at the time of review].