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.

Phi Fic #13 “The House of the Dead” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Our reading this month is The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian labor camp. Dostoevsky was sent there after being convicted for his connection with the Petrashevsky Circle, where Western philosophy and literature were discussed, which was deemed subversive by Tsar Nicholas I.

Told through the eyes of Aleksander Petrovich Goryanchikov, convicted of murdering his wife, Dostoevsky paints the world of the camp through the prisoners. He pulls us into the horror the inmates suffer within their souls:

No man lives, or can live, without having some object in view, and without making efforts to attain that object. But when there is no such object and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster. The object we all had in view was liberty, the remission of our confinement and hard labor. —The House of the Dead

We discuss this fascinating “early prison literature,” and explore (i.e., veer off into) the role of crime and moral breakdown in society. Mary expresses concern about the loss of hope, and Laura about the inescapable human condition. Daniel admires Dostoevsky’s psychological sense, and Nathan notes that the prisoners are “broken in time by the larger swarm of the State.” And poignantly, Cezary finds Dostoevsky’s words hold hints of Nietzsche, with our laws having buckets of blood behind them.

Reality is a thing of infinite diversity, and defies the most ingenious deductions and definitions of abstract thought, nay, abhors the clear and precise classifications in which we so delight. Reality tends to infinite subdivision of things, and truth is a matter of infinite shadings and differentiations. —The House of the Dead

This is one of our earlier discussions, so there are a few sound issues. Many thanks to Tyler Hislop and Laura for their editing magic!

You are welcome to contact us at with any recommendations, thoughts, or what have you. Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Phi Fic #12 Stories by James Baldwin

On two short stories by James Baldwin: “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” and “Sonny’s Blues.” Both are included in the collection Going to meet the Man (1965). Unfortunately, Daniel had to be absent this time, but we did get Mark Linsenmayer to join us!

For the first time in my life I felt that no force jeopardized my right, my power, to possess and to protect a woman; for the first time, the first time, felt that the woman was not, in her own eyes or in the eyes of the world, degraded by my presence.

So says the narrator in James Baldwin’s remarkable scrutiny of racism in “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” reminiscing about the moment he realized that he had truly fallen in love. His life in Paris has allowed him a freedom to live beyond the color of his skin, but now he is returning to the turmoil of the United States with his wife and son.

In our discussion of this beautiful short work, Mark pinpoints Baldwin’s examination of the psychological internalization of the degradation of racism, with Mary citing the abuse of the narrator’s sister and her friends by the police. Laura delves into the question of the “other” in society, while Cezary posits that racism today seems to be subsumed in discussions of different cultures. Nathan highlights Baldwin’s argument that our understanding and perspectives on racism are influenced by differing realities—which is Baldwin’s reply in the famous debate with William F. Buckley.

We then discuss ”Sonny’s Blue’s,” Baldwin’s story of family, responsibility, suffering, race, and freedom. The narrator’s younger brother, Sonny, is a brilliant musician who is imprisoned for selling and using heroin. On his release he moves in with the narrator and his family, and the brothers struggle to communicate. Sonny’s music finally offers them a way toward understanding and perhaps even a sort of freedom.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it … But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air … another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

We highly recommend Baldwin’s famous debate with William F. Buckley.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via
Thanks to Chrisopher Nolen for our music.
Special thanks to Mark Linsenmayer for being our guest this month! And if you haven’t already done so, check out the PEL’s James Baldwin on Race in America episodes.
Photo by Allan Warren, 1969


Phi Fic #11 “The Body Artist” by Don DeLillo

Grief. Is it mourning loss or is it mourning change?

Our book this time is The Body Artist by Don Delillo, an absorbing look at Lauren, a performance artist, and her experience of overwhelming loss when her husband commits suicide. We reflect on her travels through the murky struggle, accompanied by a strange young man (“Mr. Tuttle,” whom she names after discovers him hiding in her rental home), which culminate in an elaborate performance piece.

Past, present, and future are not amenities of language. Time unfolds into the seams of being. It passes through you, making and shaping. But not if you are him. This is a man who remembers the future. Don’t touch it. I’ll clean it up later. —The Body Artist: A Novel

Join us as Daniel muses about the body and art; what Lauren notices and what she fabricates. Nathan discusses the meta-ghosts in the room that still haunt her, Laura wonders if Mr. Tuttle is a manifestation of grief, and Cezary touches on the idea of significance—a key concept in this book—and how order and duration of the moments are crucial in the book’s opening scene of Lauren and her husband at breakfast, their final moments together. And Mary reminds us, “[in life] we’re all just renters, with pretty damned short leases.”

For further reading: Point Omega, White Noise, and Zero K by Don DeLillo, also, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (a friend to DeLillo).

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

You can see a film adaptation of the novel, The Body Artist…


… but, you ought to read the book.

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