*85 Pu Wang and JP unpack their Cixin Liu interview


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.

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In the original interview, Pu leans forward to fine-tune a translation….

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!).

Discussed in this episode:

Cixin Liu, The Three Body ProblemThe Dark Forest, and Death’s End

Jiayang Fan, “Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds” (New Yorker interview/profile)

Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution

Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity

George Melies (dir.), A Voyage to the Moon

Fritz Lang (dir.), Metropolis

Frant Gwo (dir.), The Wandering Earth

Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov

Listen to the episode here

Transcript available here

*84 Cixin Liu (JP, Pu Wang)


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 ProblemThe 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).

Mr. Liu, flanked by John and Pu (photo: Claire Ogden)

They discuss the evolution of Mr. Liu’s science fiction fandom, and the powerful influence of Leo Tolstoy on Mr. Liu’s work, which leads to a consideration of realism and its relationship to science fiction. Science fiction is also compared and contrasted with myth, mathematics, and technology.

Lastly, they consider translation, and the special capacity that science fiction has to emerge through the translation process relatively unscathed. This is a testament to science fiction’s taking as its subject the affairs of the whole human community–compared to the valuable but distinctly Chinese concerns of Mo Yan, or the distinctly Russian concerns of Tolstoy.

Discussed in This Episode:

Cixin Liu, The Three Body ProblemThe Dark Forest, and Death’s End

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Stanley Kubrick (dir.), 2001: A Space Odyssey

E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops

Mo Yan, Red Sorghum

Listen to the Episode Here

Read the transcript here

*82 Zadie Smith in Focus (JP)


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.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)

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79* Madeline Miller on Circe (GT, JP)


In this rebroadcast, John and Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (an occasional host and perennial friend of Recall this Book) speak with Madeline Miller, author of the critically acclaimed bestseller Circe. 

They discuss Circe’s place in Greek mythology and in a retelling of the Odyssey “from below” or “from the side,” the concept of “mythological realism,” and the influence of The Once and Future King on Madeline’s writing. They touch too on the sweet family aspects that show up in Homer, and on Odysseus’s changing reputation throughout time. Madeline has two totally unexpected recommendations in our Recallable Books section.

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77* Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson (EF, JP)

John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson in this rebroadcast of a 2019 Recall this Book conversation. Her Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia both relates the history of Polynesia, and explores how histories of Polynesia are constructed.

Tupaia's_map,_c._1769
Tupaia’s map

The discussion considers various moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the moment ijn 1976 when the Hokule’a‘s traveled from Hawaii to Tahiti in a triumphant reconstruction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding. Thompson has fascinating thoughts on how the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.

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75* Sean Hill talks about bodies in space and time with Elizabeth Bradfield

This July 2021 conversation (the asterisk in 75* indicates a rebroadcast) features Brandeis poet Elizabeth Bradfield, and the poet Sean Hill, author of Blood Ties and Brown Liquor (2008) and Dangerous Goods (2014).

Sean read his “Musica Universalis in Fairbanks,” (it appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review) and then, like someone seated in an archive turning over the pages of aged and delicate documents, unfolded his ideas about birds, borders, houses and “who was here before me.”

Continue reading “75* Sean Hill talks about bodies in space and time with Elizabeth Bradfield”