Although she “came of age in an era of extreme contextualism” Daston is anything but time-bound. She starts things off in John’s wheelhouse with Henry James, before moving on to Pliny the Younger–no, not the scientist, the administrator! Then she makes a startling flanking maneuver to finish with contemporary Polish poetry. John puffs to keep up…
In this conversation, Daston–Raine to her friends–shows that rules are never as thin (as abstract and context-free) as they pretend to be. True, we love a rule that seems to brook no exceptions: by the Renaissance, even God is no longer allowed to make exceptions in the form of miracles. Yet throughout history, Raine shows, islands of standardized stability are less stable than they seem. What may feel like oppressively general norms and standards are actually highly protected ecotopes within which thin rules can arise. Look for instance at the history of sidewalks (Raine has)!
Kim Stanley Robinson, SF novelist of renown, has three marvelous trilogies: The Three Californias, Science in the Capital and Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. But lately it is The Ministry for the Future, his “science fiction nonfiction novel” (Jonathan Lethem) that has politicians, Eurocrats and the rest of us pondering how policy might fight climate change.
In this Books in Dark Times conversation from the RTB vaults (you can also read a longer version that appeared as an article in our partner Public Books) Stan and John start out with Stan’s emerging from the Grand Canyon into the pandemic moment of late March, 2020. Then they discuss Stan’s sense that SF is the realism of the day and his take on “cognitive estrangement.” Finally, they happen upon a shared admiration for the great epic SF poet, Frederick Turner. Small fact connecting him to RTB-land: he completed a literature PhD directed by Frederic Jameson with a dissertation-turned-book on the novels of Phillip K. Dick.
How should we humans respond to our ongoing human-made climate catastrophe? To answer that question, we turned to prize-winning climate reporter Elizabeth Kolbert, who visited Brandeis this Fall as part of the New Student Book Forum.
The topic was Under a White Sky, her recent book that documents the responses to the climate crisis ranging from a form of climate engineering that shoots reflective particles into the air to cool the atmosphere, to negative emission technologies that capture and inject carbon dioxide underground.
In a 2019 discussion that proves eerily prescient of politics in 2022, first discuss Jean Raspail‘s racist 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, a book whose popularity in certain quarters since its publication might explain how Europe has gone from Thatcher to Brexit, from Vaclav Havel to Viktor Orban. How is this xenophobic screed related to science fiction of the same period–and to John Locke? Pat Buchanan, American early adapter of Raspail’s hate-mongering, figures prominently.
John and Elizabeth talk with Brandeis linguistic anthropologist Janet McIntosh about the language of US alt-right movements. Janet’s current book project on language in the military has prompted thoughts about the “implausible deniability” of “Let’s Go Brandon”–a phrase that “mocks the idea we have to mince words.”
The three of them unpack the “regimentation” of the phrase, the way it rubs off on associated signs, and discusses what drill sergeants on Parris Island really do say. They speculates on the creepy, Dark Mirror-esque similarity between the deciphering of “Q-drops” and academic critique. Turning back to her work on basic training, Janet unpacks the power of “semiotic callousing.”
What do children love most about books? Leaving their mark on inviting white spaces? Or that enchanting feeling when a book marks them as its own, taking them off to where the wild things are? Back in 2021, Elizabeth and John invited illustrious and illuminating book historian Leah Price to decode childhood reading past and present. The conversation explores the tactile and textual properties of great children’s books and debate adult fondness for juvenile literature. Leah asks if identifying with a literary character is a sign of virtuous imagination, or of craziness and laziness. She also schools John on what makes a good association copy, and reveals her son’s magic words when he wants her to tell a story: Read it!
Paul Roquet is an MIT associate professor in media studies and Japan studies; his earlier work includes Ambient Media. His recent mind-bending book The Immersive Enclosure prompted John and Elizabeth to invite him to discuss the history of “head-mounted media” and the perceptual implications of virtual reality.
Paul, Elizabeth and John discuss the appeal of leaving actuality aside and how the desire to shut off immediate surroundings shapes VR’s rollout in Japan. The discussion covers perceptual scale-change as part of VR’s appeal–is this true of earlier forms of artwork as well? We explore moral panic around VR in Japan and the U.S., recap the history of early VR headset adapters on trains (including Brookline’s D-line!) and learn about the geneaologies various Japanese words for “virtual” and their antonyms. Paul wonders if the ephemerality of the views glimpsed in a rock garden served as guiding paradigm for how VR is experienced.
Charles Yu won the 2020 National Book Award for Interior Chinatown but some of us became fans a decade earlier, with How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010). That novel brilliantly uses SF conventions to uncover the kind of self-deceptive infilling that we all do every day, the little stories we tell ourselves to make our world seem predictable and safe when it’s anything but. In this crossover episode, which originally aired on Novel Dialogue, where critics and novelists sit down together in peace, He speaks with John and with science-fiction scholar Chris Fan, Assistant Professor at UC Irvine, senior editor and co-founder of Hyphen magazine.
Margaret Cohen joins John to discuss The Underwater Eye, which explores “How the Movie Camera Opened the Depths and Unleashed New Realms of Fantasy.” Margaret’s earlier prizewinning books include The Novel and the Sea and The Sentimental Education of the Novel, but this project brings her places even her frequent surfing forays hadn’t yet reached. She charts the rise of “wet for wet” filming both in the ocean itself and in various surrogates, exploring the implications of entering a domain that humans can explore and come to know, but never master.
In nearly 50 years of filmmaking, British director Mike Leigh has ranged from comic portrayals of ordinary life amid the social breakdowns of Thatcher’s Britain (Life is Sweet, High Hopes) to gritty renditions of working-class constraint and bourgeois hypocrisy (Meantime, Abigail’s Party, Hard Labour) to period films that reveal the “profoundly trivial” elements of artistic life even two centuries in the past (Topsy-Turvy, Mr. Turner). (if you want to skip all intro, here is the audio.)
Leigh contains multitudes. What Roland Barthes says about the novels of Marcel Proust is true of Mike Leigh films as well: you notice different things every time you return to them.
Dana Stevens joins Elizabeth and John to discuss Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Her fantastic new book serves as occasion to revel in the work and working world of Buster Keaton, that “solemn, beautiful, perpetually airborne man.” Although packed with fascinating tidbits from Keaton’s life, Camera Man is much more than just a biography. It performs its own airborne magic, lightly traversing topics like the crackdown on the use of children in vaudeville, the fluidity of roles before and behind the camera in early Hollywood and the doors that were briefly (ever so briefly) opened for female directors.
Among other treats, Dana unpacks one of Keaton’s early great “two-reelers” One Week ( a spoof of brisk upbeat industrial films) and his parodic “burlesques” e.g. of Lillian Gish.
Our first August rebroadcast was John and Pu’s 2019 interview with SF superstar Cixin Liu (you may want to re-listen to that episode before this one!). Here, they reflect on the most significant things that Liu had said, and to ponder the political situation for contemporary Chinese writers who come to the West to discuss their work.
They consider whether our world is like a cabinet in a basement, and what kind of optimism or pessimism might be available to science fiction writers, and extend the conversation from their interview about world building, realism, and film. They compare the interview to a recent profile of Liu in The New Yorker, and ponder the advantages and disadvantages of pressing writers to weigh in on the hot-button topics of the day (hint: RTB made the right choice!).
John and Pu Wang, a Brandeis professor of Chinese literature, spoke with science-fiction genius Cixin Liu back in 2019. His most celebrated works include The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.
When he visited Brandeis to receive an honorary degree, Liu paid a visit to the RTB lair to record this interview. Liu spoke in Chinese and Pu translated his remarks in this English version of the interview (the original Chinese conversation is at 刘慈欣访谈中文版 Episode 14c).
In this 2019 conversation, rebroadcast now to follow up RTB 82, Elizabeth and John try their best to unpack Zadie Smith’s take on sincerity, authenticity and human sacredness; the “golden ticket” dirty secret behind our hypocritical academic meritocracy; surveillance capitalism as the “biggest capital grab of human experience in history;” and her genealogy of the novel. If we had to sum the day up with a few adjectives (and we do): funny, provocative, resplendent, chill, generous, cantankerous.
In this 2019 episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”
As dwellers of and in language, we know the power of words, but what we do not know—or perhaps we know but aren’t able to predict the particular form and effects of—is the process by which language forms a spectacular house of meaning, such as the poetic edifice that Mohabir has built. Mohabir’s poems house his queer identity, diasporic existence, and multivalent violence—they are a construction of precise imageries and innovative hybridifications of interfacing languages.
Since the original airing of this episode in June 2021, Roger Reeves’ second book Best Barbarian was published by W.W. Norton, and the paperback edition of David Ferry’s translation of The Aeneid was published by the University of Chicago Press.
Their tongues are ashes when they’d speak to us.
David Ferry, “Resemblance”
The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from heroes (Gilgamesh, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas) and poets (Orpheus, Virgil, Dante). Some come down for information or in hopes of rescuing or just seeing their loved ones, or perhaps for a sense of comfort in their grief. They often find those they have loved, but they rarely can bring them back. Comfort they never find, at least not in any easy way.
Rajiv Mohabir is a dazzling poet of linguistics crossovers, who works in English, Bhojpuri, Hindi and more. He is as prolific as he is polyglot (three books in 2021!) and has undertaken a remarkable array of projects includes the prizewinning resurrection of a forgotten century-old memoir about mass involuntary migration. (If you don’t need to read any further, Listen to the episode here).
He joined John and first-time host Ulka Anjaria (English prof, Bollywood expert and Director of the Brandeis Mandel Center for the Humanities) in the old purple RtB studio. During the conversation, Rajiv read and in one case sang poems from his wonderful recent books, Cutlish and Antiman.
Madeline Miller has made a name for herself by retelling Greek myths; she calls it literary adaptation or mythological realism. Her 2012 debut novel The Song of Achilles (Orange prize winner), retells an episode from the Iliad. Circe, published in 2018, is a retelling and expansion of the Odyssey from the perspective of Circe.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is a witch who lives on the island of Aiaia and turns visitors into beasts. She traps Odysseus’s men this way, but with his cleverness and help from the gods, Odysseus himself evades her tricks, frees his men, and wins her over. She is an important ally, telling him how to visit the underworld and return home. As the introduction to the RtB conversation with Miller puts it, though, she only has a “bit part.” Reflecting on her approach to retelling Circe’s story, Miller tells RtB, “I do feel like it’s a corrective in the sense that it’s a balancing […] We’ve had three thousand years of the male heroic tradition. Can we just pull on that a little bit, and bring the female voices up?”
Retellings are intensified stories. When you read a retelling, you read at least two stories at once, like the doubled vision of blurry eyes. Because of this, I was fascinated to see that Circe in Miller’s retelling has a similarly doubled vision of herself. She constantly sees herself as men see her, constantly hears her story as a man would tell it.
“I could imagine the stories he was telling of me, humorless, prickly, and smelling of pigs,” Circe says after sending Hermes away from her island. She is well aware of the stereotypes she inhabits, steps around, plays into and is forced into. They have become the lenses through which she views herself, and therefore limit the ways she can imagine herself being. She is haunted by the way others will tell her story.