Brain Reel #20

Am I snobby about science?, book TWO is kicking off, how I read so much

Hey you lot,

Writing this issue from sunny London, where I’m keeping everything crossed that it starts to properly turn into Autumn this week. I spotted some leaves falling off an auburn tree at the weekend; and I can’t describe the excitement I felt for less sticky tube journeys, JACKETS, cooler breezes, and not dying of heat exhaustion every night when I go to bed in my greenhouse of a flat.

I’m also super excited as I’m joining a members’ club this week after finally admitting to myself that I want a gym-cum-workspace that is *fancy*, and that going for the cheaper ones doesn’t motivate me to turn up - which ultimately is a bigger waste of money. Being freelance sometimes means not having a fixed space, and so I spend so much time travelling all over town for meetings. I’m psyched to have a central place to ‘go to work’ to when I’m in town, and invite people to me instead!

So it’s safe to say I’m looking forward to September - hope you guys are psyched about this month too…


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

I read Jeanette Winterson’s Manbooker Longlist nominee novel ‘Frankissstein’ last week and I’ve been left pondering something.

(Before I explain, let me first say that this book is ace and I highly recommend reading it, despite how mental the blurb is.)

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I find when fiction books reference something real and timely like ‘she unlocked her iPhone’, it loses me. It takes me out of the story and into the real world. It feels ‘cheap’ somehow…

Well, this book has a lot about AI, transhumanism, robots and general ‘future of humanity’ themes throughout, and at some points, I found the references to tech and science super jarring - giving me that same ‘cheap’ feel. It’s not that they were incorrect or clunky or even too dumbed down, it was just that they felt a little forced.

Let me give you an example. At one point, ‘Nick Bostrom at the Oxford University Future of Humanity Institute’ is referenced alongside a mention of the singularity. Now, for those of us who work in this field or take an active interest, we know that Bostrom is a good person to reference for this in the real world, but he’s certainly not the only person, and he’s arguably the more ‘general public’ reference considering his famous book ‘Superintelligence’. But then for those who don’t know him or the world deeply enough for the reference to make sense, there was no other context to explain WHY he was being mentioned, so it was completely frivolous and not at all helpful for the scene’s narrative.

Which means it seems like it was there to nod to the technologists, like a note from the author to say ‘I know who he is! I understand your world!’…but it was done in such a way that it simply felt like name-dropping. It felt like Winterson wanted to show us that she’s ‘on our side’ or knowledgeable, or worthy of our attention…but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like someone who has read only one article on AI, or gone to one conference, and references the same thing over and over in a bid to sound ‘part of it’.

Again - I *loved* this book! And I have huge respect for Jeanette Winterson. And I’m sure she is pretty clued up on AI and tech and all sorts - she must be, in order for her to write such a timely, funny and thought-provoking novel.

I can’t get away from the fact, though, that those bits made me recoil somewhat. Like someone is trying to mimic your accent and getting it wrong, but you don’t want to be mean and call it out. Or someone is trying to tell you what bars are great in your hometown when they’ve been there only once, and you feel like they’ve only got a shallow understanding, but there’s no point in pointing it out for fear of sounding like a dick.

Unless of course this was all deliberate on the part of the author - to make us tech and science buffs feel that jarring feeling; to make us pay attention. Or maybe I’m just being too ‘protective’ of the science and tech world, though considering I just wrote a whole book on the problem of hype within, might suggest I’m not too defensive? Or maybe it’s like when you moan about your family members, but won’t stand for anyone else moaning about them…? Am I just snobby?

I’m still pondering, I haven’t got to the bottom of why those bits (and there were a lot of them) made me recoil so much. I don’t know if it’s me or it’s the book. So if anyone has any clue what I’m on about or might be able to offer any examples of feeling the same way, I’m all ears…!

And please PLEASE don’t take this as a cue that you won’t enjoy the book. Despite those heebie jeebies throughout, I still loved it.


📖 Book Reel 📖

Quick update on where we’re at with Smoke & Mirrors:

  • The manuscript is with the copy editor and the legal team, and I should get both the legal changes (if any) back in the next week or so, and the copy edits (i.e. a 300-400 page Word doc with track-changes throughout……….) back on September 25th - so at the moment, I’m just waiting!

  • The cover has been briefed, and I sent over some more thoughts / ideas at the request of my editor over the weekend, so hopefully some initial ideas will be winging their way towards me in the next week or so…eek!

  • The meeting with the publicist has been scheduled for end of Nov, which initially sounds like an AGE away, but Sept/Oct is insanely busy for the publishing industry with Christmas titles as well as the Frankfurt Book Fair, so I’m trying my best to accept that proper marketing planning has to be put on hold for a wee while…

  • …and while it’s Frankfurt Book Fair season, my agent will be going out to the US market to start the sale of the American rights, which I’m super pumped about (right now, my book is confirmed to be published in English all over the world, minus US & Canada - we held back these rights until the manuscript was complete to try to negotiate a better deal - I’ll maybe do an interview with someone explaining book rights on the YouTube series I’m planning on book stuff, if that’s of interest? And maybe one about the 2 biggest book fairs / seasons?)

And a new update for you too…

  • Research for the SECOND BOOK has kicked off!!!

  • I’m beyond excited about it

  • I’m not yet going to share what it’s about publicly, frankly because I haven’t got to the crux of what I’m trying to say yet, but as this section is about book journey, it didn’t feel right not to include it. Hopefully it will be helpful / interesting to document the full journey from ideation to (hopefully) publication of this new one too…I don’t think I’ll be able to keep my mouth shut for long though tbf so maybe the cat will be out the bag sooner rather than later…

  • Although, that’s not to say it’s an _entirely_ new project. See, I’ve had this itch needing scratched around the topic for well over a year now. I guess this moment is more of the ‘right let’s actually give this a go’ moment, as opposed to the ‘pondering’ time. As in, I’ve sent an email to someone saying I’m writing this book, asking for an interview. I’ve asked a few close friends for feedback on the idea. I’ve started scoping out the flow of the proposal. I’ve told my agent the rough idea. In short, I’ve moved from the ‘wouldn’t that be cool’ phase to the ‘well let’s see if this actually has legs’ phase.

(Pre-order links for ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’ for your bookstore of choice: Amazon or Foyles or Waterstones, or Blackwells or Wordery or Book Depository..!)


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

Someone asked me the other day how I read so many books. There are so many blogs and articles and even BOOKS out there to teach you how to read faster, or pick books better, or take notes on books etc etc - but I just really quickly wanted to share my own few thoughts on reading more:

The short answer is: it’s the standard activity I do in the evenings in my flat.

Yesterday (Sunday) I read a whole book, despite it being (for me) quite a full day.

It went like this: 7am got up; 8.30am went to Science Museum and Natural History Museum for a wander (this is not my usual Sunday, I was scoping out their bookstores!); 12.30pm lunch; 2pm went to London Review of Books and spent all my money; 4.30pm went home; 5.30pm started reading ‘Perennial Seller’ by Ryan Holiday; 9pm made dinner; 9.45pm back to reading; 10.30pm finished book, bed.

Of course, littered through this was chatting to my boyfriend and bits and bobs of pottering, but the main thing was that I was hardly on my phone, and I sat down and read. That was my evening activity. The TV wasn’t on. Instead of spending 5 hours watching Netflix back to back, or scrolling, I read.

I’ve not always been like this, and of course there are still many evenings when I squirrel my time away on Twitter and Instagram. Or times when I try to read but I’m not taking anything in and it takes so much longer. But if I want to read, I read. It’s not any more anti-social than silently watching Netflix together. My boyfriend is normally in the same room as me, doing his own stuff. We look up and chat often; we make dinner together etc - but I read, and he does whatever he wants to do. Sometimes he wants to watch TV, so I’ll go read in the bedroom / on our balcony…and sometimes I’ll join him of course. (It’s worth noting I’m also just not much of a TV or film buff, so don’t really care to watch it unless Lawrence really wants to show me something he thinks I’ll like.)

Granted I know I’m quite a speedy reader, but I also just spend a lot of my time reading. It’s not just an activity I do on the tube or just before bed - I read in an afternoon, or for a few hours in the morning, or instead of TV at night. I don’t feel guilty about spending time reading as a) I love it, and b) I can rationalise why it is useful / productive etc if and when those little demons creep into my brain (which they often do).

I also switch books often so I’m reading more than one at once - it means if I feel ‘not in the mood’ for one particular book, I can pick up something else so I’m still reading, as opposed to getting stuck on something not right for my levels of tiredness or whatever.

I love to read; I want to read; so I read. For me, it really is that simple.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

If you’re not already following me on Instagram, I write some more fleshed-out book reviews on there if you fancy that kind of a thing (amongst the regular freelance / travel / London photos that is!) - give them a wee look here

Books I’m reading right now:

  • Conan Doyle for the Defence (“After a wealthy woman was brutally murdered in her Glasgow home in 1908, the police found a convenient suspect in Oscar Slater, an immigrant Jewish cardsharp. Though he was known to be innocent, Slater was tried, convicted, and consigned to life at hard labor. Outraged by this injustice, Arthur Conan Doyle, already world renowned as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, used the methods of his most famous character to reinvestigate the case, ultimately winning Slater’s freedom.”)

  • The Great American Sports Page (“Spanning nearly a century, The Great American Sports Page presents essential columns from more than three dozen masters of the press-box craft. These unforgettable dispatches from World Series, Super Bowls, and title bouts for the ages were written on deadline with passion, spontaneity, humour, and a gift for the memorable phrase.”)

  • Tyrant: Shakespeare On Power (“How does a truly disastrous leader – a sociopath, a demagogue, a tyrant – come to power? How, and why, does a tyrant hold on to power? And what goes on in the hidden recesses of the tyrant's soul? For help in understanding our most urgent contemporary dilemmas, William Shakespeare has no peer.”)

  • Milkman - I’m really struggling with this one, been reading it for ages now, but determined to get through it as so many have told me it’s worth it for the payoff..!

I’m a bit obsessed with these Buzzfeed Draw-Off videos where they get cartoonists and illustrators to draw cartoon characters from memory / in their own style. Cracking to see their thought-process, and considering being an artist at Pixar was a childhood dream, they bring up allllll the feels for me.

ChinAI is a *FAB* newsletter that translates and shares AI papers written by Chinese scientists, into English. Awesome to be able to, even in a small way, keep up with the research coming out of arguably the most important market right now… (relatively technical, just FYI, but worth the challenge)


➡️ Next Reel ➡️


✍️ Work Reel ✍️


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Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, currently writing a book about hype and idealism in science and tech, is Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt, and loves a bit of public speaking.