Writing a story based in a city I’ve never been in is interesting, and fun. I wonder how writers did it before the age of the internet. I can drop down into the streets and virtually walk them to get a feel for the city. I can look up bars and restaurants and read reviews and see pictures. Some even have virtual tours.

I have a feeling writers of the past had to be much more social than I do. They probably had to seek out people who’d been there and have conversations with them, pull out details, encourage descriptions of smells and sounds and ambiance.

Sounds like a lot of trouble!

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

Orlando tells the story of an English nobleman living during the reign of Elizabeth I. At the age of 30 he mysteriously turns into a woman, then lives on for 300 further years. He is an aspiring writer and poet, and meets many people over his/her life.

At the start of the book, he falls in love with a Russian princess, Sasha, who then abandons him on the night they are to elope. The descriptions of his love for her were so detailed and identifiable that I thought sure they would end up together again somehow. I was a bit disappointed at the end when they did not. I thought the story was to be about how love endures over time and regardless of gender, and I imagined that they’d meet again when Orlando was a woman, and still love each other even though he had become she.

The book did not go that route though. Orlando travels through time always working on her poem, The Oak Tree, and meeting various people. In the end she meets and instantly marries a sea captain by the name of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (???) who, although he dresses like a woman sometimes, is still a man. I was slightly disappointed that she ended up marrying normally, and marrying a fairly normal man, as was expected of her, and it seems a sort of mild end to an otherwise ‘out there’ novel.

Though it lost me a bit at the end, I enjoyed it a lot. The writing was very clever and I laughed quite a few times.

Going to the Eclipse

I will see the total eclipse on the 21st! I will have to sleep in my car and drive for many hours, but I will see it!

I’ve never seen one, and can’t help but wonder what it must have been like for ancient peoples who had no idea what was going on. I’m sure total eclipses spawned religions like meat draws hornets…

The fear, the awe, the beauty… all of it combined must have driven people mad thinking the world was over. What did they do in those minutes of darkness?

Maybe I’ll find out next week…

Mind games

I’ve started reading ‘The Glass Bead Game’ by Herman Hesse, mainly because the title made me think of go. The story features a fictional game that is very abstract and deals with concepts and ideas as the ‘pieces’. The players are intellectual elites who use pieces of knowledge or pieces of culture to play their games. The opening of the book is a history of the game’s origins and evolution to its current state, in the future world of the novel.

This opening, detailing a fictional future world where intellect and the mind are valued, made me wish our world could be like that. Thinking and knowledge for the sake of it, for the improvement of your own self and your understanding of the world–is not ‘in fashion’ anymore in our world. Knowledge and intellect are valued only as much as they can be used to make money or increase power. Philosophy is laughed at, the arts are considered a waste of time, history is viewed as a political tool, music is for selling tickets.

Can we return to an age of thought and reason and imagination and introspection? It’s what our species does best–what makes us stand out from the other animals. Let’s not let it fall away in favor of fighting and destruction.




Kindred: disturbing, embarrassing, eye opening

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler follows Dana, a black novelist who lives in California, 1978, and is unwillingly transported back to a pre-Civil War Maryland Plantation.

This brief synopsis is already probably enough to make you squirm. I was unsure what I was in for going into this, but I’m glad I read it. The brutality isn’t the focus, so don’t let a dislike of violent writing turn you away from this one. Although there is violence, it is not drawn out or overdone. The true horror of this story is the casual acceptance by everyone–including the victims–of what went on in this time.

On Dana’s first trip into the past, she saves a small white boy from drowning, and over several trips spanning many years, she becomes friends with the man as he grows up. But even as friends, he still treats her as his property, as something beneath him. The book does a great job of showing the humanity of the slave-owners, how they can convince themselves they feel compassion and even love for their slaves, but still treat them in disgusting, dehumanizing ways. And how a slave could tell themselves ‘he’s not so bad’ even as their master beats them and sells their children away.

Because people will accept anything, eventually, if everyone around them is accepting it too.

It is an amazing human power to be able to believe two contradicting realities at once. To believe you love someone, while believing they are your property. To believe someone is an inhuman monster, while at the same time feeling the need to forgive them.

Slavery is a subject that I, being white, have the luxury to rarely think about. Reading this book made me feel embarrassed for my country, that such a clearly wrong and disgusting thing could go on for so long in a so called ‘civilized’ and ‘advanced’ world. And it made me feel worried for what could come in our future. If we were willing to accept such a thing for so long, what else might we accept?



Human Species

I’ve just started taking a class on Coursera, ‘A brief history of humankind’. The first lecture was very interesting and I learned that the multiple species of humans–homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis, homo floresiensis and so on–were not simply links in a chain leading to us, homo sapiens.

All these species of humans lived at the same time, and even interbred at times. It has been found recently that we have about 4% neanderthal genes.

This talk of different human species living together got me wondering if it could happen again. What would our world be like with multiple human species? Not something so trivial as ‘race’ but actual different species with different biologies who can’t interbreed. For it to happen by evolution at least two groups of humans would have to be separated from each other in different environments for a very long time.

But, we humans have been becoming more and more adept at manipulating genes. And despite what moral and ethical problems people have with it, it is only a matter of time before we start playing around with our own genes, and those of our unborn children.

If style and language and ideas and opinions are affected by the culture you live in, why wouldn’t the choice in gene manipulations be a product of your culture? Would Americans manipulate their children’s genes in different ways than Japanese or Indians? If we change ourselves enough, and in enough varying ways, there could be dozens of separate human species in the span of a few generations.

Or would humanity coordinate and globalize, keeping all but the few inevitable outlliers in line with each other? And if they did, would the result of a few generations of genetic manipulation still be ‘homo sapiens’? Or something new?