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About Us

(The story of Misfit Press is inextricably linked to the story of Misfit Incorporated, which is inextricably linked to the story of AJ and Melissa Leon. These fascinating stories have been told at length on many other occasions – in newspapers, on TEDx stages, during numerous interviews and chance meetings in wine bars. If you want to explore the weird and wonderful company that is Misfit Incorporated, peruse our site. For the full backstory, check out this video interview.)

Misfit Press itself was established in 2014, with the publication of AJ Leon’s The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit. The little-known backstory to The Life & Times is that it was originally slated to be published by a major American publisher, who headhunted AJ after noticing the popularity of his blog, The Pursuit of Everything. About a third of the way through the writing of the book, AJ began to get twitchy about the compromises involved in traditional publishing: uncompromising editorial pressure, a lack of say on issues such as design and artwork. Not long later, AJ bailed on the contract, and decided to publish the book himself. The Misfit team created and ran a Kickstarter, aimed at raising $15,000 to cover publishing costs. By the time the fundraising had run its course, pledges totalled more than treble that amount. With the excess funds, AJ and Misfit decided to go one better than just publishing a book, and also founded a publishing house.

Since its founding, Misfit Press has steadily flourished. In 2015, we took under our wing Wolftree, the finest arts journal in the American Midwest; we released our 2015 Anthology, featuring the finest creative work we encountered over the preceding year; and The Life & Times of a Remarkable Misfit continued to find readers across the globe. In 2016 we published Destination Shakespeare, the debut poetry collection from esteemed Shakespeare academic Paul Edmondson; and we have more Shakespeare-related publications in the works for 2017, including Shakespeare On The Road, a tale of a Shakespearian adventure across the US.

Last  year was a big growth period for the Press, and there is lots more on the way for 2017. As you’ll see from our Forthcoming Publications section, over the next twelve months we will be publishing Saya Sayama: Three Years in Myanmar by incredible photojournalist Spike Johnson, a photonarrative account documenting a unique moment in Myanmar’s history: the violent shift from General Ne Win’s fifty-year dictatorship to the country’s first steps towards democracy. Also imminent is Tangentially Reading, featuring some of the most insightful, shocking, touching, and hilarious moments from the first 200 episodes of Christopher Ryan’s much-loved podcast, Tangentially Speaking.

These are exciting times at Misfit Press. To keep up to date with everything that’s going on, follow us at our blogFacebook, Twitter and/or Instagram. Into the future, we will always continue to work in the fashion we do right now: with authors we like, on projects that matter, in a way that leaves writer, reader and everyone in-between satisfied. We will also never renege on our One-for-One pledge; for every publication we ever sell, a child in India will receive money towards prescription eyeglasses, via the Misfit Foundation.

w: Matt

E. M. Forster Predicted the Internet, Skype and Climate Change in 1909

The English novelist E. M. Forster is best remembered for the novels Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924) – long, rich works exploring class, society and humanism. The latter work is set mostly in India during the last days of the British Raj, and thematises the politics of colonialism.

However, Forster also dabbled in science fiction – with prescient results. In November of 1909, he published the dystopian novelette called “The Machine Stops” in The Oxford and Cambridge Review. “The Machine Stops” is notable for featuring, almost a century before they were invented, things that strongly resemble the internet, Skype, and instant messaging. It also predicts the ravages of climate change a few decades before the subject was part of mainstream political discourse.

“The Machine Stops” opens on a woman, Vashti, sitting in a sealed hexagonal room. The room has “buttons and switches everywhere” to summon food, music, clothing, a bathtub. Vashti’s face is “as white as a fungus” because, as we soon learn, people don’t go outside anymore. With the advance of technology, the human race has retreated from the natural world to life in underground artificiality, where “neither day nor night” existed. The earth is now “only dust and mud, no life remains on it.” The air is freezing and unbreathable. Everyone now lives in one of Vashti’s hexagonal pods, all of which are “exactly the same” as one another.

Most insidiously, the destruction of the earth has fed into how people perceive the earth. Having “harnessed Leviathan” and being impeded by nature no longer, humankind disdains their old home. Vashti “dislikes the stars” and “dislikes seeing the horrible brown earth.” The “old literature, with its praise of Nature… rang false as the prattle of a child” to her. The organic is seen as gross and repulsive. The artificial, the calibrated, the man-made, is revered. Even literature, in a metafictional joke from Forster, is produced by a button.

The planet, meanwhile, is ruled by a vast, unseen, “omnipotent, eternal,” intelligence  – a cross between a government, a global server, a corporation, and an AI – called the Machine. Vashti (and everyone else) revers the Book of the Machine, which gives “instructions against every possible contingency.” Underground, people trust the Machine absolutely, “seldom moved their bodies” anymore, and have almost zero in-person interaction. They “never touched one another.” The Machine decides which citizens can and cannot have children, and which citizens can and cannot die.

At the start of the story, Vashti is phoned by her son, Kuno, via a proto-Skype (he lives “on the other side of the earth”). She speaks to him through a “round plate” which is similarly a sort of proto-iPad. The connectivity of the technology is a remarkable thing: “She knew several thousand people,” Forster writes. “In certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.” Equally, there is the suggestion of  a shallowness infecting the connections fostered in this hyper-digital age, amid a concurrent fracturing of attention spans. Vashti, she tells her son, can only afford to give him “fully five minutes.” The proto-Skype system “only gave a general idea of people,” a simulacrum of real connection. Meanwhile, irritability is “a growing quality in that accelerated age.” Sound like a world you know, perhaps?

Eventually, Kuno persuades Vashti to visit him. She leaves her little room, seeing a fellow creature “face to face” for the first time in months, and journeys across the earth in an air-ship. (The whole way, she pins shut the blind to block out the sun and the repulsive view of the earth and its “ruins of cities.”)

Her son, it transpires, resembles the male protagonist of another famous dystopia: John “the Savage” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Kuno doesn’t trust and doesn’t like his coldly engineered society. He criticises his mother for “beginning to worship the Machine,” and wants to escape. He wants to rediscover his physical self, rather than waste away in a pod. He feels “all the generations who had lived in the open air,” all those who had who lived without “all these tubes and buttons and machineries,” calling to him from the surface of the earth.

Vashti pities Kuno, but being such a card-carrying fan of the Machine, her pity is outweighed by her disgust. Maternal love is overshadowed by civic allegiance. “On atavism the Machine can have no mercy,” she tells herself.

As it turns out, Kuno has recently fulfilled his with, and climbed up out of the Machine into “the peace, the nonchalance, the sense of space” on the surface of the earth. (He lives, he discovers, beneath the historic English county of Wessex, described by Forster in his 1907 novel The Longest Journey as “the heart of our island.”) Up above the Machine, seeing the planet in its realness for the first time, he feels that the natural world “had called with incalculable force to men in the past,” and that “men had loved [it].” Eventually, the Machine pulls him back underground. Kuno finishes his story with a rather gorgeous tirade against the Machine:

“Cannot you see . . . that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops – but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds – but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”

Slightly chilling, no? (Can anyone rely deny that today’s technologies feels often to be following their own will, not ours? Has trading the outdoors for Netflix and Xbox not “robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch”? Has the infinite abundance of online porn not to some extent “narrowed down love to a carnal act”?)

Vashti finds “her nerves tingling” with her son’s “blasphemies.” She disowns him. Even though Kuno is transferred across the planet to a pod very close to her own (prefiguring the story’s closing scene), she decides she never wants to see him again.

Over the following years, Forster tells us, the Machine extends its reach; “year by year it was served with increased efficiency and decreased intelligence.” And, as it turns out, Kuno was right. Eventually, as the title of the story warns, the machine stops. The mechanics gradually decay and falter, and human beings have become so dependant on the Machine that they have no idea how to repair things, or who is in charge. The “collapse of humanity” is triggered by the failure of the Machine’s bed-deploying systems, followed by the failure of painkiller disposal, and the failure of pod lighting. People pray to the Book of the Machine, to no avail. The system collapses entirely, in scenes reminiscent of any disaster movie. The underground citizens, we read, begin “dying by hundreds out in the dark.”

The story closes with Vashti and Kuno, mother and son, meeting in the darkness of the collapsed Machine. Kuno is dying, but he perceives something like a happy ending. As he bleeds to death in his mother’s embrace, he rejoices that “we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.” Just before an airship crashes into ground breaking the whole city “like a honeycomb” and condemning Vashti and her son to “the nations of the dead,” Kuno assures his mother that “humanity has learnt its lesson” and will rise again, without dependance on the Machine.

Forster’s is a chilling tale, in which man is ultimately “strangled in the garments that he had woven.” It predicts the internet, something like Skype, and the relegation of physical activity for the digital and the sedentary. It predicts climate change, and the drift of a mindset away from one that treats the natural world as sacred toward one that treats it as dirty, unpredictable, dangerous and gross.

Hugo Gernsback said that science-fiction can be defined as “imaginative extrapolation of true natural phenomena, existing now, or likely to exist in the future.” “Ray Bradbury said that sci-fi “is really sociological studies of the future, things that the writer believes are going to happen by putting two and two together.” If this is right, then 119 years after this story was first published, what can we learn from Forster’s vision? What was he predicting, how much did he get right, and what can we learn from what he envisioned?

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MattMatt is Chief Editor at Misfit Press. Alongside overseeing all activity at the Press, he is in the latter stages of a PhD, working on a thesis examining the intersections between literature, neuroscience and the philosophy of consciousness. Soccer, snowboarding, prog metal, Dostoevsky, a good Chianti and strangers' dogs all rank amongst his favourite things.

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