12 Bytes (by Jeanette Winterson)

12 Bytes Jeanette Winterson Social

“There’s a new kind of quasi-religious discourse forming, with its own followers, its creed, its orthodoxy, its heretics, its priests, its literature, its eschatological framework. Even its own Singularity. It’s AI.”

Title: 12 Bytes
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Pages:
368
Published by: Grove Press

ChatGPT, everyone’s favourite purveyor of bad poetry, was released in November 2022, with OpenAI’s generative AI tool altering the landscape of work for a number of industries. 

This of course extended to indie authors who, long-acquainted with having the odds stacked against them, found Kindle Unlimited flooded with bookish sewage overnight as a clutch of have-a-go writers and grifters took advantage. Fortunately, Amazon would eventually restrict them from only publishing a mere 3 books a day. That’ll teach them.

This brings us to 12 Bytes, a brilliant piece of non-fiction by witty wordsmith and all-round literary rockstar, Jeanette Winterson. Published as a series of topical essays, she guides the reader through key developments in tech.

And whilst it helps if the reader is familiar with AI, this is by no means mandatory – this is pure Winterson; informative and hilarious in equal measure.

Welcome to the metaverse

From sex robots and metaverse avatars, to transhumanist biotech such as Neuralink, the future is digital, whether you like it or not. 

And 12 Bytes offers a great insight into this from the perspective of a writer. Winterson speaks on the topic with a prescience, having immersed herself in the worlds of big tech, automation, and AI for a number of years.

In fact, her 2019 novel Frankissstein was a retelling of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, with the monster less a physical manifestation and more a discussion on the ethics of AI, transhumanism, and cryonics.

Likewise, as generative AI develops in leaps and bounds, it poses a number of questions for society, including the future of creativity and employment. These are big, emotive topics with rival pro and anti-AI camps emerging in creative circles.

Binary opposition

Because our society thrives on binary opposition, the subject of AI has pitched tech evangelists against artists in public discourse.

Artists and publishers are (understandably) concerned that their work is being used to train AI tools, whilst the tech sector has to make the case that regulation (such as the EU’s AI Act) must be applied in calm and informed moderation rather than in a reactionary manner.

Fortunately, Winterson doesn’t buy into this adversarial discourse – engaging with the topic of artificial intelligence with, well, intelligence and nuance.

It’s worth noting that 12 Bytes was actually published in 2021, over a year prior to us mere mortals gaining access to generative AI tools. 

I asked Winterson at Manchester Lit Fest whether her thoughts had changed since the dawn of publicly available generative AI tools. 

Her answer? 

“Well, I have to be optimistic, because what’s the alternative?”

In 12 Bytes Winterson envisions a world where AI could help transcend human limitations and biases. Is this overly optimistic? Time will tell.

Womens’ erasure from tech - A tale as old as time

We live in a world of ‘tech bros’. Think Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Sam Altman. 

Tech Bro Spirit Halloween Costume - Stuff Tech Bros Like
Source: StuffTechBrosLike

And yet Winterson drops a series of truth bombs throughout 12 Bytes. The forerunners to modern tech innovations such as AI and automation lie in the work done by women. 

12 Bytes analyses the history of tech, bringing the women responsible for our current advancements into the public consciousness. She pores over the work of Ada Lovelace in particular, taking jabs at the notion that tech is predominantly for men (a myth invariably propagated by men).

To be clear, this isn’t a polemical book – it’s just the facts. And because of this, 12 Bytes is important. It’s a chronicle of history that simply isn’t taught or discussed, arriving at a time in which artificial intelligence models are being trained en masse in a sector lacking in diversity.

And from a historical perspective, 12 Bytes is a fantastic chronicle of the erasure of womens’ roles in tech. Even those familiar with the subject will find some of the passages astounding.

Final Thoughts

12 Bytes is an excellent piece of non-fiction that manages to inform and entertain in equal measure. 

At times Winterson, a sharp thinker, falls foul of the ‘looking at screens is inherently bad for us’ trope when discussing technology, which doesn’t hold up under any meaningful scrutiny.

Still, 12 Bytes is a witty and highly competent analysis of the tech sector’s history, and a must-read for anyone curious about the past, present, and future of the industry.

4/5

The Chimp Paradox Book Review (by Professor Steve Peters)

The Chimp Paradox Book Review

‘It's not good or bad. It's a chimp’

Title: The Chimp Paradox
Author: Professor Steve Peters
Pages:
368
Published by: Ebury Publishing

The Chimp Paradox is a bestselling self-help book based on the Chimp Mind Management programme that has transformed the lives of many of its readers – notably in the field of sport psychology.

Steve Peters has worked with a number of sporting icons including Ronnie O’Sullivan and Chris Hoy (amongst others), before going on to work with Liverpool Football Club and the England national football team.

Self-help books tend to raise an eyebrow from this reader, but The Chimp Paradox presents a genuinely interesting psychological framework that is highly applicable to all readers.

What is The Chimp Mind Management Programme?

The Chimp Paradox posits a highly simplified metaphor for psychological theory. 

Essentially, our minds are divided into three categories: Chimp, Human, and Computer.

The Chimp

The emotion-led, primal part of our brain. The Chimp is about evolutionary instinct, self-preservation, and winning at all costs. It’s the ‘gut feeling’ one gets (which may or may not be accurate).

The Chimp's reaction speed is five times faster than the Human. Whilst The Chimp can be highly inappropriate in certain settings, it’s also important for survival.

After all, “It’s not good or bad. It’s a chimp”.

The Human

The Human is the rational part of our brain.

It’s highly logical, processes information as things are (rather than as we would like them to be) and ultimately wants a positive resolution for all parties.

The Human is the mediator, the social animal, and the ideal state for social situations.

The Computer

This is our pre-programmed behaviour. Essentially, it’s how our brain responds to things, without having to even think. For example, learned behaviour such as riding a bike, or unwritten social rules that we don’t think about - we just do.

The Computer allows us to act before the Chimp, which is preferable due to the Chimp's destructive tendencies. However, when adverse experiences are introduced to the computer, they can be harmful and difficult to remove.

The Chimp Paradox presents a number of means and methods to calm the chimp whilst ensuring its needs are represented. It also discusses how to keep the computer in healthy balance, removing unhelpful ‘gremlins’ and fostering socially beneficial ‘autopilots’.

Interestingly, it has a lot in common with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and also touches lightly upon trauma therapy, as covered in Bessel van der Kolk’s excellent book The Body Keeps the Score.

Is The Chimp Paradox a Difficult Book to Read?

Professor Steve Peters does an excellent job of making an incredibly complex field of psychology easy to follow.

The book also includes summaries of each section throughout, as well as practical ways to implement the theory. Its universal simplicity is brilliant – anyone can apply this logic to their own lives.

Some have criticised the book for its simplistic approach to psychology, but this is a fairly superficial point. Peters acknowledges this in the introduction and that The Chimp Paradox is a surface-level introduction to a much deeper topic.

Where the book can be criticised is its occasional lapsing into esoteric thinking. For example, Peters builds upon the Chimp / Human / Computer analogy by situating it within a cosmic universe. The ‘divided planet’ is where the human and chimp wrestle for control, whilst the ‘guiding moon’ is the computer that pulls the divided planet in the right direction.

It just about works, but it stretches the metaphor further than necessary, when the Chimp / Human / Computer explanation itself is fine.

Still, The Chimp Paradox is essential reading for those interested in personal development. If you’re an anxious person, quick to confront people, or feel like life is passing you by, this is a genuinely enlightening read.

Conclusion

There’s a reason that The Chimp Paradox remains a bestseller, many years after publication. It’s a compelling theory that anyone can use to improve their lives.

Whilst those with a qualification in psychology may find shortcomings in the theory, this is a book review – and as a book, it’s a very good read. 

Unlike some other self-help books, which border on smoke & mirrors, The Chimp Paradox is the real deal.

4/5

The Art of Escapology Book Review (by Nicola Ashbrook)

The Art of Escapology Book Review Featured Image

Ever had that feeling of just wanting to run away? To disappear and start over, leaving your troubles behind like shed skin.

If so, The Art of Escapology should be one of the next books on your reading list.

From a receptionist fleeing the mundanity of day-to-day life, through to darker topics of domestic abuse, The Art of Escapology sweeps the reader through a series of compelling vignettes on the theme of escape.

Small but mighty, it’s an 88-page anthology of highly impactful writing.

Flash fiction is a remarkable medium of storytelling.

Humble, yet radical, it’s the panacea to a publishing landscape dominated by 800-page epics and a movie industry shackled by sequels and reboots. In as little as two paragraphs, a talented writer can impart a character’s entire life story and challenge a reader’s worldviews.

Nicola Ashbrook’s The Art of Escapology is no different. Punchy and perfectly paced, each story subverts the reader’s expectations (sometimes multiple times) and delivers some gut-wrenching twists. 

Personal highlights include Moving Homes, Giants of the Sea, Thor is to Bifrost as I am to The Mersey Gateway, The Sparkly Horse Story, Run Ratty, Run, Delphine’s Decision, and Praying for Dad.

Escape, or the need to escape, is a powerful emotion, and it’s partly because of this that these stories succeed – the other part being that Ashbrook is an excellent writer.

Conclusion

Occasionally witty, often thrilling, and always thoughtful, The Art of Escapology is an elegant collection of flash fiction that should be on every short story lover’s bookshelf.

There’s a brilliance to each narrative and it’s a genuine pleasure to read. Don’t sleep on this one.

5/5

The Battle That was Lost Book Review (by Michael S. Jackson)

The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Review
The Battle That Was Lost by Michael S Jackson Book Details

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

The Battle That Was Lost is the latest book in Michael S. Jackson’s Ringlander series. 

A 50ish page novella, this entry details a battle that has significant ramifications for the narrative of Jackson’s full-length fantasy novel, Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

On the surface of it, how interesting could a novella about a battle be? Swords presumably clash, armour is rent, and people die. Par for the course. And let’s be honest – the most memorable parts of fantasy fiction tend to be the character moments and world-building.

Fear not, dear reader. The Battle That Was Lost strikes a good balance between character and world-building elements. The frenetic fighting is punctuated with flashbacks that help steady the pace of the writing, giving the story both time and space to breathe.

This is another impressive outing from Jackson, and well worth your time if you’re into fantasy fiction.

Discontent is brewing in the world of Rengas.

The occupying Bohr faction faces a rebellion in the form of the native Tsiorc, led by Tactician Laeb. And whilst this civil war plays out in more detail in Jackson’s full-length novel, The Battle That Was Lost instead focuses on the smaller, but nonetheless important frontier of Drakemyre.

Thugs for hire, Qor and Staegrim – the latter a proud bastard – prowl the outskirts of the battle, moving between the lines of troops in pursuit of their target for assassination.

The banter between the two is a winning formula; it’s authentic and genuinely amusing. 

They share an unconventional relationship; friendly, but wildly antagonistic. Each exchange is tense, yet amusing – it’s a compelling paradox that keeps the reader involved in the narrative, and it’s this relationship that forms the heart of The Battle That Was Lost.

But there’s plenty more at stake here than the result of a single pitched battle. After all, this is a world of political intrigue, supernatural forces, and tactical minds. This confrontation between the Tsiorc rebels and the Bohr could determine the future of the continent.

The Art of the Novella

The publishing industry is not short of fantasy novels.

People are constantly on the lookout for the next The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and because of this, fantasy novels tend to be fairly lengthy in an attempt to replicate the epic scope of the genre’s more iconic titles – whether they justify the length or not. 

The novella is therefore a brilliant medium for readers to enjoy the genre. It’s a challenging style that forces an author to be clinical with their prose, including only the best of their writing.

Indie Publisher Interview

I recently spoke about short-form writing with Andy Leach of subscription-based publisher Seventy2One.

And in a world where some fantasy authors simply want to write 7-book epics, it’s refreshing to see a writer embrace the short form for a change.

Jackson’s a good writer too, and this novella is no exception. It’s witty, amusingly crude in parts, and tells a good story in a concise manner.

It’s an accessible means of introducing new readers to a larger world, allowing them to dip into a mythos without the need to commit their time and patience to a larger novel. Plus, The Battle That Was Lost also includes the first three chapters of Ringlander, Jackson’s full-length novel, to give the reader a taste of what’s to come. 

From the author’s point of view, it’s great marketing for their larger novels. From the reader’s point of view, they get a shorter, more concise snapshot of what to expect from the author’s larger books, as well as their writing style.

Flashbacks to the Future

Flashbacks have a sketchy reputation in fiction, both on-screen and in books. And for good reason.

Too often, they interrupt the pacing of narratives, risking the alienation of a viewer or reader who is thrust into a time or space they don’t immediately recognise. If the flashback doesn’t add to the present narrative, either plot-wise or thematically, it can be jarring.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case in The Battle that was Lost. Jackson uses the technique in a really smart way, with each flashback foreshadowing future events whilst creating a sub-narrative of its own. These are equally compelling as the battle, helping to switch up the full-tilt pace of the titular battle.

The flashbacks make this novella far stronger, and also serve as a window into the events of Ringlander: The Path and the Way.

Book Review

Read the full Tales from Absurdia book review of Ringlander: The Path and the Way

Conclusion

The Battle That Was Lost is another solid entry into Jackson’s expanding world. It’s an approachable novella that reconnects readers already familiar with the world of Ringlander, whilst serving as a solid entry point for new readers.

It’s witty, features some brilliant battle sequences, and fleshes out the existing lore in a really satisfying way. The inclusion of maps is also a brilliant addition – every fantasy author should do this. It’s a great way to situate the events of the book, whilst still encouraging the reader to use their imagination.

Sure, it won’t change the minds of readers who don’t enjoy fantasy, but for those who do, The Battle That Was Lost – plus its full-fat sibling Ringlander – offers readers a compelling world, a strong narrative, and a bevy of unique characters.

4/5

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Ghost Signs Book Review (by Stu Hennigan)

Ghost Signs Book Review Header

Review contains affiliate links to bookshop.org. Purchasing the book through these links provides the blog with a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Ghost Signs, Stu Hennigan’s debut publication, is a non-fiction book set in Leeds during the first UK lockdown of 2020, following the arrival of COVID-19.

Ordinarily a librarian, Hennigan volunteered to be a delivery driver for the local council, providing fresh food for families shielding or economically impacted by the lockdown. This took him to some of the most impoverished places in the entire country.

A desperately sad read, Ghost Signs is an eye-opening account of poverty in the 5th biggest economy in the world, whilst highlighting the crippling human cost of an absence of sensible domestic social policies.

It’s also a shocking indictment of the lack of vision from 12 years of successive Conservative governments.

It’s March 2020. And with much of the UK in lockdown due to rising COVID-19 infections, a Leeds City Council van trundles through the darkened streets of the pandemic-hit city.

One of the poorest places in the UK, 24% of Leeds’ neighbourhoods are in poverty. Furthermore, 29% of the city’s children under the age of 16 are living in absolute poverty*.

In response to the pandemic, the council has mobilised the Food Distribution Centre to ensure that the extremely vulnerable and their families have access to food, drink, and sanitary products. Over the course of the first three to four months of the initial lockdown, Hennigan chronicles his experiences within the local community, revealing the harsh impact of both the pandemic and years of austerity-led economic policies.

If social conditions were bad prior to COVID-19, it’s far worse now. On the doorstep, Hennigan witnesses emaciated 30-year-olds who haven’t eaten in days, socially anxious individuals fearful of answering the door, and victims of crippling drug addictions.

Days and weeks blur into one another, the same issues cropping up on the doorstep. Sallow-faced parents delighted to see a food package, their children celebrating the arrival of the delivery drivers. The volume of people unable to support themselves is stark, and tremendously upsetting.

One particular exchange with an eight-year-old girl stands out:

“Is that FOOD? she asks when she sees the bags
I nod.
ALL of it?
I nod again.
For US? She points to herself, eyes wide.
Yep, all for you.
YAYTHANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!...

… I’ve got tears streaming down my face on the way back to the van… …her reaction to the food is so sad that it’s unbearable. Months later, I still won’t be able to recall the event without welling up. It’s a moment I’ll remember as long as I live.”

And this is just one man’s story in one city. 

Multiply this narrative to the numerous volunteers at Leeds’ Food Distribution Centre – then scale it up further to encompass the entirety of the UK – and it paints a truly desolate picture.

*Absolute poverty is defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.”

The Road to Armley Gaol

Ghost Signs has drawn favourable comparisons with George Orwell’s excellent The Road to Wigan Pier. This isn’t a surprise – both texts are investigations into poverty in the North of England, and very effective at what they do.

However, there is one key difference. Whereas Orwell’s text feels more journalistic and theoretical, Ghost Signs is more a memoir of a frontline worker’s direct experiences. Orwell is an outsider looking in whilst Hennigan is a local person stepping up to serve his community in a time of need.

Starving children, elderly people in tears due to loneliness, and individuals with crippling depression fearful to leave their own homes… these are tangible stories about real people.

The authenticity of Hennigan’s writing style, and of course the dreadful conditions that people live in, are what makes this book so difficult to read in parts. But they’re also the reason that Ghost Signs needs to be a widely read book.

The Human Casualties of the Pandemic

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic. 

Times journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott published the seminal work, Failures of State. An excoriation of the inaction of government policy, the text examines policy-making during the pandemic, as well as the PR and Comms that came out of Number 10, Downing Street. It’s well worth a read.

But if Failures of State was the post-mortem of the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghost Signs is the funeral pyre. The former details policy failures, whilst the latter chronicles the human consequences of Whitehall’s prevarication and harmful years of austerity.

Still, there are moments of affirming humanity. Smalltalk on the doorstep and brief moments of brilliantly droll Northern humour in the face of adversity punctuate the misery. And the fact that a volunteer service like the one Hennigan took part in can be set up and actioned so quickly, speaks volumes about the ethical character of the nation.

Conclusion

Ghost Signs is less a book about the pandemic, and more a commentary on successive governments’ inability (or unwillingness) to tackle absolute poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.

It’s a glimpse into the palimpsest that is the UK’s socio-economic landscape. One where working people bear the brunt of adversity, whether it’s a pandemic or a bruising cost of living crisis, whilst the millstone of economic inequality weighs ever more heavy as the months and years go by.

Though a highly uncomfortable read, Ghost Signs is a very well written book. It’s an honest, hard-hitting contribution to public discourse and a stark wake-up call for the electorate.

4/5

Ghost Signs is available in paperback (affiliate link) at bookshop.org, or directly from the publisher at Bluemoose Books.

Full disclaimer: A review copy was kindly provided by the author and publisher in exchange for an honest review.