Readings: Bakewell, Aziz

I feel like I am finally getting my life back. Might even go running today, if all goes well.

existentialistAfter fairly reading-deprived March, I now seem to be devouring books at a steady clip. I have belatedly dived into Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, which is very very good if you are looking for non-fiction. I find myself drawn to these types of ‘group biographies’, wherein a certain time period or theme is explored through lives of several people. In this case, philosophy and existentialism in particular are explored through lives of people who started the whole wonderful mess: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, and a whole host of others. Bakewell does a fantastic job connecting both philosophy and biography elements of the book, so the volume is both a great intro to existentialism and a fascinating look at some interesting lives.

I also finished The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translation by Elisabeth Jaquette). I have woefully enormous gaps when it comes to Middle Eastern literature, so this is filling some of those. The easy description of it would be 1984 mixed with Arab Spring. This is the kind of book reviewers would describe as ‘chilling’, I suppose. It is firmly in the ‘disturbingly true dystopia’ camp. Something called the Gate appears after a failed uprising. The Gate controls all of citizens’ lives, including their access to doctors and healthcare. One must submit applications to have life-saving surgery (which obviously means one does not get said surgery in time to save life). Mind you, the Gate is never open, and so the action takes place almost entirely in the queue that forms in front of it. It is a rather grim little book, but worth reading. Out May 24th.

Into bright future with Russian philosophers!

Will of the Universe cover

Will of the Universe cover

I’m excited that writers have finally discovered that a number of Russian and Soviet philosophers of 19th-20th centuries were bonkers in all kinds of creative ways that could provide a wealth of material for speculative novels. These guys were not joking around. Tsiolkovsky penned this oeuvre in 1928: “The Will of the Universe. Unknown Intelligent Forces”. None of that ‘how to lead a moral life’ small fry.

Russian philosophy in general is quite fascinating, but I’m talking specifically about Cosmism. In particular, Nikolai Fedorov now crops up in speculative fiction. His ideas show up in two novels I’ve read so far: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi and now Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux. They are two entirely different books, both in style and substance, but they do include elements of Cosmism, particular its ideas on immortality. You can read my somewhat gushing review of Strange Bodies if you follow the link. The Quantum Thief is also one of my favorite books, and yet it is so odd, that I find it hard to recommend to everyone.

This is a neat overview of Cosmism by George M. Young, focusing particularly on ‘practical immortality’ and, obviously, whether immortality is desirable. Transhumanism is a close relative of Cosmism and shares some ideas with it. Transhumanism was influenced by a number of science fiction works, and in a neat philosophical circle, science fiction now finds some inspiration in Cosmism.

And finally, if you want to read some classic sci-fi with immortality themes, Joachim Boaz has made a list of relevant novels and short stories arranged by publication date.