Tag Archives: ideas

Dear Jim . . . (#23) Re: Pregnant in the Head-Brain

BY JON PILL

Dear Jim,

Fertilisation of the womb requires that sperm are deposited high in the vagina of a woman close to the time of ovulation, says my university physiology textbook. You did ask about the earliest point of gestation right?

Oh, reread your letter. That makes more sense.

Gestation as metaphor for art has a heavy pedigree. I’ve just been corralling the Oxen of the Sun in Ulysses for the second time and apart from the fact that reading that section feels like a labour of a different sort, it also gives us the subtle imagery of Joyce’s avatar Stephen spouting off about exactly this gestatory idea of art, while an actual parturient shits out a wee bairn (or whatever the Guinness-swillers call them) on the upstairs landing.

You are more aware of these things that I am, but presumably the whole thing goes back at least to Plato’s apology for pederasty in The Symposium – in which ideas are treated as spermatozoa and young minds as vagina’s into which the semen of wisdom is to be deposited. Less is said about exactly where the beloved’s literal deposits are going, but that may have just been prudishness on the part of the translator.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [… … …] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

I think gestation is a rather grandiloquent word for what art is and does (imagine a carpenter discussing the ‘gestation’ of your dining table). I rarely go in with as clear a sense as you do when putting together a story; or at least am unclear in a different way (no musical touchstones or trees in the mist). Most often I have an idea or a voice or a form I want to play with and I just start a game. The mucking about continues until there’s enough of a sense of what can be done with it all. Then the mucking about becomes mucking in as I get a sense of direction. Most often this point comes when I know how the whole thing will end.

To be more specific I might have to look at a given story. The story that has left the clearest tracks in the snow is probably one called Switches. That story came from my reading a story on the New Scientist website about Boltzmann brains* (with one of the greatest headlines ever). As I began to write a stream of consciousness for one of these things from the point of it coming into existence.

It ran out of steam and I needed a new thread, and I was reminded of two things: I had also previously read about the China brain on Wikipedia and the two ideas bonded. The third part of the story came from a Brian Greene book on types of multiverses in a chapter of which he describes the universes we might simulate in a computer.

A little more batting around and I had my format, plot and ending. The rest is history (or will be when I can find a damn place to publish it) as I sat down to hammer out Switches.

He who sees everything and founded the land, who knows (everything) and is wise in everything.

But you can probably go further back on that story. Those two brains and a universe were harvested as story materiel because of the types of things I like to to write about. For whatever reason, non-human consciousnesses stimulate my creative prostate, I can’t get enough of them. The great apes, GM-animals, insect swarms, computers, human hive-minds, clockwork synapses, Boltzmann brains its all fabulous grist.

To keep following the tracks of the gestating story-fetus: some of that interest can be traced back to my teenage reading of Michael Crichton books; Prey and The Terminal Man in particular – maybe also Congo. They set me up to think of a person’s mind as mechanical and mechanical-minds as potentially persons. (In that vein I recently read the excellent Blindsight by Peter Watts – thanks to Laura Heron for putting me onto that – which can be read for free here).

Probably some of Dan Dennett’s TED talks, Richard Dawkin’s science books, and my various readings in psychology during A-level. All these things till furrows into the folds of grey matter, thickening the womb lining in preparation for the fertilised zygote which then metamorphoses into words on the page.

I want to speak of bodies, changed into new forms.

As well as the plottier ideas: formal conceits, voices and structures also come from external fertilisation followed by manipulation once they have accreted onto the original play-draft.

In Switches, the rhythms of the voices refer back to my other teenage obsessions: Fight Club and American Psycho, both of which have a particular kind of narrator, flat of affect and simple and direct in his sentences. Palahniuk also does a line in line-repetition that I have stolen and used in almost everything I’ve ever written.

Switches is particular marked by repetitions because of the voice but as well as stealing other people’s voices and moulding them into something new, there is also the more direct theft from Hitchhikers of the mind suddenly brought into being by chance and then being destroyed by its not naturally tenable position in the galaxy. The monologue of my Boltzmann brain is – ahem – very like the whale’s. Which is another case of  something being stolen and then redrawn in a fun-house mirror.

The end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I feel like learning something new next week. Since you’re doing sondage on a number of topics lately, I’d like a letter on how you research for your fiction and how much getting the facts right matters to you.

Yours originally,

Jon

P.S. These are theoretical consciousnesses that must arise in an infinite universe in which quantum fluctuations are constantly producing matter at random in the void of space.

P.P.S. This is a theoretical brain made up by the population of China who are given walkie talkies to communicate with each other and specific instructions which, if followed, will mean they communicate with their compatriots the same way as a given neurone in a human brain. The idea is that this brain of people would be just as conscious as any of the brains in the humans that make the China brain up.

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