Category Archives: Phi Fic Podcast

Phi Fic means Philosophical Fiction. Each episode, we have a candid dicussion on a heady work of of fiction, full of SPOILERS. Join host Nathan Hanks and readers Cezary Baraniecki, Daniel St. Pierre, Laura Davis, and Mary Claire, plus the occasional guest.

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Originating from The Partially Examined Life’s Not School and its Philosophical Fiction group. Sign up for a small recurring donation for access to many more discussions!

Phi Fic #18 “The Trouble with Being Born” by E.M. Cioran

It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late. –The Trouble with Being Born (1973)

In this volume of aphorisms, Emil Cioran (1911–1995) strips the human condition down to its nub to defend his proposition that the true disaster in life is not death, but birth. Cioran was considered a brilliant mind, heralded by many as belonging to the same realm as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. He wrote extensive ruminations that were often metaphysical in nature and whose recurrent themes were death, despair, solitude, history, music, decay, and nihilism. Yet the beauty of his writing belies his famed overarching philosophical pessimism.

Join us as Mary insists that Cioran’s writing is a “joyful noise… despite everything that you might pull out of this that is concerned with despair, there is such an incredible enthusiasm… you could never convince me that he didn’t love life,” and Daniel asserts that he doesn’t think “Cioran would be one to passionately argue for free will but [that] he seemed to… believe strongly in the necessity of feeling free.” Laura is convinced his struggle comes from an early episode in which Cioran’s mother told him that if she knew he was going to be as sad as he was, she would have aborted him, and Nathan observes that Cioran “brings you to the edge… he puts you in the realm of an idea and its up to you to play in the space.”

*Note: Cezary couldn’t join us for this recording as he was traveling through the Sahara on a camel that wouldn’t share its wi-fi password.

Watch Cioran’s discussion on suicide.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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Phi Fic #17 “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. –Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a novel about a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino’s fragmentary study of urban images is composed of brief prose poems, structured as the traveler’s report on the emperor’s expanding empire. And even deeper than that, it becomes a question of whether Polo is creating his reports from his imagination or merely describing his native city, Venice. A tapestry of discussion weaves throughout Polo’s poems tying in ruminations on stories, linguistics, and human nature.

…the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping… something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene…. –Invisible Cities

Join us as we discuss this beautiful novel, as Cezary notes of Calvino’s distortions, “that in an exact description there is a destruction of the thing described…[that] in leaving space for the reader to chart out what they’re thinking is [his] goal In a work like this,” and Nathan’s reflection that “there’s a reality here but it’s also something spiritual or emotional… I love this style of writing because of what it makes you feel and understand,” while Mary observes that “in describing the relationship with a city as a love affair, it gives it a sense of urgency and closeness,” and Laura wonders if this novel falls into the postmodern construct of eliminating the artist from the work.

*Note: Mary had to leave early to fight a cold and Daniel was absent this time, reprogramming the internet.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

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Phi Fic #16 Stories by Clarice Lispector

This time we discuss two works by the remarkable Clarice Lispector—born to a Jewish family in Ukraine shortly before they emigrated to Brazil, where she became one of its most important writers. We read two of her works, the novella The Hour of the Star (1977), and the short story “The Departure of the Train” (1974).

I know there are girls who sell their bodies, their only real possession, in exchange for a good dinner instead of a bologna sandwich. But the person I’m going to talk about scarcely has a body to sell, nobody wants her, she’s a virgin and harmless, nobody would miss her. –The Hour of the Star

In The Hour of the Star, the narrator continually breaks the fourth wall as he obsessively addresses the reader about Macabea, the story’s primary character, whom Lispector describes as “… a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs… The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”

In the short story “The Departure of the Train,” Lispector writes about two women who meet on a train—the first, a young woman escaping her boyfriend’s overbearing intellect and lack of sensual passion; and the other, an elderly woman escaping her daughter’s negligence to return to her more loving son:

Donna Maria Rita was so ancient that in her daughter’s house they were accustomed to her as if to an old piece of furniture…. Since [she] had always been an ordinary person, she thought that to die was not a normal thing. To die was surprising. –”The Departure of the Train”

Join us as Daniel explains that while The Hour of the Star is “very intellectual, very heady” he’s never read anyone who writes with this sensuous quality; Nathan observes that the narrator is the only one in the novella who really sees this girl, that the world doesn’t see her—“she’s the grass.” Laura comments on Lispector’s “passion for the void” in her writing, while Mary notes that both women in “The Departure of the Train” were traveling from emotionally cold relationships to warmer ones—to people who were more loving and affectionate. And Cezary speaks for all of us when he describes Lispector’s writing as “maddeningly brilliant.”

In his 1989 L.A. Times review of Soul Storm, Richard Eder wrote of Lispector’s characters: “Lispector has not lodged her own poetic and subtle qualities in them; she has found their ‘ordinariness’ in herself. She hasn’t given them spunk, or fight or hidden wit. She hasn’t brought them, one by one, to her writer’s table and made them unforgettable by processing them with art. She has stripped herself of art and gone to them. She has made herself as foolish and uncertain at her typewriter as they are in the street, cabaret, or bedroom.”

Benjamin Moser, author of Lispector’s biography, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, calls her the “most important Jewish writer since Kafka.”

Here’s a link to the only televised interview with Lispector, in 1977. She died later that year. And here’s some info on the jabuticaba tree.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Please note: We had some technical problems that cut off Laura a short way into our talk.

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Image of Clarice Lispector pulled from the cover of The Complete Stories (2015).

Phi Fic #15 “The State of the Art” by Iain M. Banks

This time, we talk about a novella in the late, great Iain M. Banks’s famed Culture sci-fi series, which is centered around a utopian, post-scarcity society that spans various planets (and other habitats) within the Milky Way galaxy.

They have hope. The Culture has statistics.

So says Linter, one of the chief protagonists in The State of the Art. In the story, a group of Culture members—mostly humanoids—venture to Earth to study its inhabitants and decide whether to induct them into the fold. A crisis occurs when one of the group—Linter, who has spent a considerable amount of time on-planet—wants to “go native” rather than return to the ship and his life in the Culture.

We’re the ones who’re different, we’re the self-mutilated, the self-mutated. This is the mainstream; we’re just like very smart kids; infants with a brilliant construction kit. They’re real because they live the way they have to. We aren’t because we live the way we want to.

Linter’s shipmate and friend, Diziet Sma, gives her best arguments to try to urge Linter to return, highlighting Banks’s fascinating examination of Earth’s human inhabitants as seen through the eyes of a far more advanced civilization. What they observe is a relatively barbaric species consumed by materialism, violence, and spiritual uncertainty, along with feats of astonishing creativity, depth, and beauty.

Within our discussion, Nathan contrasts Linter’s statement that “the stakes are higher on Earth” to the Culture’s belief that our civilization is brutal and wild. Cezary notes the similarity between the Culture’s attitude and that of hunter-gatherer tribes in the Amazon that avoid contact with the West, as once you do there’s no going back. Daniel wonders about the frictionless lives of Culture citizens, and what they sacrifice in never experiencing true pain and suffering. Laura questions the lack of hope in the Culture, and Mary says that it might be hard to imagine a post-scarcity existence, but it’s sure fun to dream of it.

Disclaimer: Banks created a rich, dense fictional world in the Culture series, which might make this discussion a little tough to follow for folks who aren’t familiar with it. Plus, this is one of our older discussions, so there are a few glitches in the recording. That said, we had a good talk and Iain Banks was a great writer, well worth talking about, so please join us.

Listen to a dramatization by Paul Cornell from BBC Radio 4 on youtube.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via

Phi Fic #14 “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

From Ponce de León to Woody Allen (and likely every self-reflective person who has lived), entropy has been at the root of human anxiety. Is there a way to hold off or reverse the inevitable?

A testament to this primary apprehension is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov, a short story we discussed a few years back (after which the resultant sound files had their very own group entropic episode, only recently resurrected).

This is one of Asimov’s most famous short stories and his personal favorite. It follows the evolution of his enduring conception, the computer Multivac, through six phases of space and time, and humanity’s relation to it. In each phase, a human asks the Multivac if it’s possible to reverse the entropy of the universe—how to stop its seemingly inevitable death, save the universe, save humanity. And the Multivac invariably responds:

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

It’s a short piece but packs a punch, with a comic ending that inspires rumination.

Join us as we tangle with this complex philosophical and engrossing scientific question—as Laura insists we’re not just data, that we have a physical life, Daniel ponders the merged consciousness at the end of the story, and Cezary warns, “If you’re looking for an individual consciousness here—not gonna happen. At some point, we’re going to be called IG-73 and then it’s going to morph into a hive mind.” Mary wonders at the exceptional nature of what makes up the human experience, and Nathan highlights that the end of the story provides a kind of hope, that there is a circularity there, the universe is coming back.

Listen to Isaac Asimov read this story on youtube:

Disclaimer: This is an early discussion and the quality is a bit low, but it’s a terrific talk and a great short story. Please join us!

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.