Writing & News

Object Coach, a novel by Tom Lee

I asked Tom Lee to give readers an entry point for this splendid second novel, released in November 2022. Here it is.

“It would be hard to make a work of fiction sound appealing if the author said that it was about anthropotechnic perception. Not love, death, coincidence or a pressing issue of social concern. Not travel, intergenerational conflict, trauma or parenthood. Letting more rounded versions of the words plop out in full doesn’t make it much better: human, technology, perception. We’re still no closer to dramatic flavour.

Among the Western traditions of writing, Science Fiction is the genre that perhaps deals with the question of technology most explicitly. It is true enough that at a granular level the genre boasts more diversity than the killer robots, space stations, aliens and far away worlds by which it is popularly known—take M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, for example, though the argument would be: does it properly belong to the genre science fiction? Furthermore, authors will to some extent use genre conventions to suit their own ends, in this sense there is nothing inevitable about the tone and texture of technological life in science fiction stories—Richard Powers’ earlier works such as Plowing the Dark and Galatea 2.2 are good examples of innovation in this regard. There are no doubt many others.

The French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour coined the terribly named genre ‘scienti-fiction’ for his work Aramis, or The Love of Technology, signalling an intent to tell a story about the mystery and wonder of technology, in this case a failed technology, that avoided the temptations of boosterish promotion and naive paranoia. And yet Latour fell back, unaccountably, on a clunky kind of prosopopoeia that referenced Frankenstein’s monster. The dead or failed technology of his story (a personal rapid transit system for Paris that was the source of significant amounts of research and development funding in France in the period between 1964 and 1987) speaks as though it were a human suffering existential crisis.

A second tradition—or perhaps let’s call it a ‘sensibility’—among literary writers involves less shiny and intricate sounding types of technology to which we give the name ‘thing’ or ‘object’. Despite the quaintness that black and white photographs, wooden chairs, rucksacks and old hats might have now acquired, they are nonetheless technological in the sense that at a certain point in time, or over a certain duration of time, these things would have seemed no less other-worldly and potentially world-shaping than the promises of machine learning, augmented reality and synthetic biology today. Calling on quaint and antiquated things to speak through the human characters, often as mnemonic devices aiding or prompting moments of reflection, is a strong tradition in Western fiction. W.G. Sebald’s books are filled with objects that talk in this metaphorical sense. There are many others.

Object Coach seeks a track between both the shiny and the dusty characterisations of technology prominent in these two traditions. One feature of this different track is that many of the technologies or objects described in the book are on the way to being made, in the condition of a ‘prototype’—a term in design research that means to make a draft version of something that expresses certain principles or features that are then testable, or at least more tangible, to ascertain feedback. A second feature of what I’m calling the Object Coach ‘track’ is an emphasis on the way ordinary human perception is always already bound up with the technological—writing, for the writer, though for all humans too, being the exemplary case of this always-already-ness. We cannot think or feel outside technology. And indeed, what strange measure of abstraction would any naïve advocate of ‘the human’ have to take if they were to see the naked, soft and worthy innocence of the human on one side of a divide—or cloistered within one department—and the hard, manipulative business of technological artifice on the other. The human and the technological are implicated in each other, that is the concrete situation. Therefore the unwieldy sounding slogan: anthropotechnic perception.

Perhaps that’s enough about the conceptual task I set for myself in writing Object Coach. The book is ‘auto’ enough to make a reflective, personal, prefatory exegesis feel a bit redundant.

So what can I offer? In the absence of more interpretation or a fitting origin story for the book, I present two fictional vignettes, each a further digression intended to intensify the cumulative, allusive re-orientation of perceptual experience I’m hoping readers will enjoy if they decide to read the book.

I once saw Cate Blanchett on a Sydney street talking to a friend outside a café. Cate Blanchett as a so-called flesh and blood person; a living being, not someone on my screen, subject to the whims of the remote control.

She was far taller than I’d imagined and was wearing a rugged, daggy, loose-fitting, green and brown outfit that she still managed to elevate into a kind of glossy magazine sense of stylishness.

            I saw that she was in fact going into the café with her friend, an environment that would be far more suitable for my creepy surveillance than the comparably exposed open street.

I noticed Blanchett notice me as I entered the café, she may have recognised me from the street earlier, deserted as it otherwise was. Nonetheless, I reasoned that it would be unlikely she’d guess that I had entered the cafe simply to be in her proximity.

            I took out my computer and started to record the fragments of the overheard conversation between Cate and her friend, some of which I sensed was confidential industry politics and gossip, that, for obvious reasons I will leave out of this story. The rest, however, from what I could glean, involved speculation about COVID—still then in its less dramatically impactful phases—and emerging approaches that were being used to direct films remotely.

A key question that concerned me while I wrote was the extent to which I could say I’d met Cate Blanchett, any more than I’d met her on screen. After all, she had no knowledge of who I was, my actions didn’t in turn produce any cycles of explicit interpretive engagement between us. For all intents and purposes, she was almost as remote as when talking on a screen, perhaps more so, as I didn’t feel licensed to look closely at her face and could only half-hear what she was saying.

While closer in terms of spatial and temporal proximity, the Cate Blanchett I’d encountered perhaps didn’t deserve to be classified as a categorically more real than the one I’d previously known from the television and silver screen. Etiquette and social customs, as much as video recording equipment and screens, had, no doubt for the better, ensured a certain remoteness between us in public space.

At one point the talk stopped behind me and I slipped into what I soon discovered was a fiction: I’d imagined Blanchett and her friend to be sitting in an impressively extended silence across from each other at the table. When I next heard Blanchett, however, her voice emerged in a way that indicated she was positioned differently, as though she’d arrived, after being absent, and was standing at the table. She must have gone to the toilet, a realisation which eclipsed my previously imagined reconstruction of the table scene and the vague assumption that had gone along with it that the two friends were either slightly awkward in each other’s company or well-practiced at inhabiting a sociable silence.

When the Cate and her friend got up to leave I heard that the Apple Store was the next place they would visit, to buy a microphone for an event, perhaps so Blanchett could make herself present, in the form of an amplified voice, to people in an audience, who might otherwise have to content themselves with a distant, blurred image of a face and speech that could only be partially heard.

This is a story about a young man called Des, who worked as a typographer. Des had called on the evening after the first day of a four-day tea set making course to see whether it was too late to join. The teacher, Geraldine, knew that it would be a struggle to get anyone through the course after missing the first day, unless they were experienced ceramicists. Fitting everything into the week was already a challenge for most people, sometimes people had to leave part of their sets incomplete and return to finish them later. It was important, thought Geraldine, that people were able to take home something that was as close to complete as possible at the conclusion of the course. 

On this occasion Geraldine decided to let Des join the course. A late cancellation meant there was enough space and Des did sound enthusiastic.

When Des arrived the next day at the potting shed, he asked whether he could make a tea set based on his own design, rather than following the design that was standard for the course like everyone else. Geraldine had her reservations but again, Des seemed enthusiastic, with a clear sense of intent. Namely, to design a pot that suggested ornamentation without being explicitly ornamental.

Over the next nine days Geraldine worked closely with Des as he attempted to sculpt a form from the clay that met with the vision inside his head. 

At the conclusion of the week, after several teary capitulations, Des couldn’t bring himself to take the tea set home in his car.

I don’t want to see it in my house, he exclaimed to Geraldine.

You can come and see it if you like, suggested Geraldine, and I followed her around to the back of the potting shed to a hidden corridor filled with unfinished and misshapen ceramics and, somewhat perplexingly, a bench-press with stacks of weights on either side.

Geraldine retrieved the now dusty, gossamer-layered teapot from the shadows and presented it to me. 

The design of the handle and the rest of the pot didn’t seem to go together. The handle was ornamental, whereas the rest of the vessel was quite refined, quite modern.

            Geraldine shook her head.

The different elements are actually quite well resolved, she said. You could just make the curves on the handle slightly less pronounced.

I stood back to take a photo of the teapot with my phone, at first asking Geraldine to move to the side, then suggesting, on second thoughts, that it might be nice if she held the pot in her hand. Geraldine gripped the pot handle with one hand, her other hand placed flat under as a makeshift table, I suppose. She smiled gleefully for the camera and then tipped the pot forward as though pouring a cup of tea.”

Tom Lee. Sydney, 2022.