Category Archives: history

Homo Deus

Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)

Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose… A life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions. (421-422)

Wow, another cheery apocalyptic read! I love it. What else could one ask for these days?

I think I enjoyed Homo Sapiens more, mostly because I found the chapters about the Cognitive Revolution and earliest days of homo sapiens so fascinating. But Homo Deus is still very much a worthwhile read, mainly for the way it looks towards the future. I’ve tended to avoid books like The Shallows because (to put it bluntly) I tend to avoid books that would potentially make me feel depressed about the current state of humanity. BUT what’s commendable about Homo Deus is how he narrates everything in a very calm, detached, observant, and often VERY humorous style. I guess that’s what a regular practice of vipasssana meditation will do for ya!! (Vipassana founder Mr. S.N. Goenka is thanked in the acknowledgements.)

The book has several main theses. One is that the central project of the future of humanity is to “protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.” (23) What dangers does he think are forthcoming? WELL, let me tell you:

  • An obsession with attaining eternal life.
  • The rise of Dataism (a form of data-worship that borders on being a religion, and which he sees as eventually making Homo sapiens irrelevant)
  • The rise of a new super-elite biologically engineered race of humans, mainly consisting of rich people who can afford to pay for genetic manipulation.
  • A class of “useless” people as more and more robots replace jobs.
  • The replacement of consciousness with intelligence.

This last one was is in particular, about consciousness vs. intelligence, was very interesting to me. Hell, this whole book was interesting!! But this last point in particular. He talks about how apparently we understand VERY little of how consciousness actually works, in terms of our abilities to make memories and dreams and desires in the brain. And how so far we have been good at building robots who are intelligent, but not conscious. So ultimately, we are gonna have to make a choice – is intelligence more important to us as a society, or consciousness? “It is sobering to realize,” he writes, “that at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.” (362)

ANOTHER BIG FEAR he states about the future (or not fear, but POTENTIAL OUTCOME) is “what will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can almost do everything better?” (370) I.E. BEING OVERTHROWN BY A.I. OVERLORDS. I wondered during this section if he was, like, giving Google and self-driving cars too much credit? Aren’t self-driving cars a bit rubbish? (At least at this point…) But then I think of all those articles you see floating around online making fun of shitty poetry and recipes written by robots. It’s like… it might be bad now… but what about twenty years? Twenty years ago, I NEVER used the Internet, and now I use it EVERY DAY – no joke – like everyone else I know.

He also has a lot to say humanity’s obsession with growth – mainly, is growth always good? He is no critic of capitalism, in fact, he writes “criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. So far it’s been an amazing success – at least if you ignore the potential for ecological meltdown, and if you measure success by the yardstick of production and growth.”  (256) So if it comes down to economic growth vs. ecological stability, what will happen when growth is no longer possible?

My favorite thing about this book was how he linked Very Big Questions About the World with the nuances of the everyday human mind. For example, in terms of growth, he comments that, “Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger tastier.” (23) Such truth.

What else does he forecast about the future? He’s definitely super into the idea of non-organic artificial intelligence, though he calls it less of a prophecy or prediction, and more of a way of discussing our present choices. “You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.” (76) A strong argument for Team Vegan, for sure.

Apart from talking about the future, he also talks about the past – I found his discussion of the rise of modernity and the definition and formation of liberalism and humanism SO INTERESTING, especially since I never took political science or anthropology classes in college that talked about this kind of stuff. Who would have thought liberalism was so closely linked to romanticism, to the idea of an authentic, valuable, unique self dwelling within you? What is Google and Facebook going to do to this notion of the self, if they can predict what you want and who you are better than you can?

Oh, some of his sentences in this book just slay me! Here are a few of the more shining examples:

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing bears are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and aging Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. (33)

It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? (39)

If a crusader Knight had actually been able to sit down to watch Survivor, he would probably have grabbed his battleaxe and smashed the TV out of boredom and frustration. (282)

The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. (320)

Can any human fathom these musical experiences and tell the difference between a whale Beethoven and a whale Justin Bieber? (417)

The wildest dreams of Kim Jon-ug and Ali Khamenei don’t extend much beyond atom bombs and ballistic missiles: that is so 1945. (438) This REALLY made me laugh… darkly…

For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants. (423)

In the twenty-first century out personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. (397)

Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. (401)

A highly recommended read.


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Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún)

This week I started reading the deliciously post-apocalyptic yet super Guns Germs & Steel-like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindwhich I hope to finish soon. I finished Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún last week, but the more I think about it, the more I admire it. It strikes me as a book that must have been very difficult to both conceive of and write–I wonder if that was the case. It was translated by Sophie Hughes, who also translated The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horseanother short, deeply strange and wonderful novella, which would make for powerful re-reading during these troubled times.

Even though Affections bluntly advises us that it “is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Erlt family,” I highly recommend that people still look them up on wikipedia. Even though certain stories that are vaguely connected to the family don’t appear in this book – specifically Nazis helping the CIA hunt down Che Guevara (!?) – still, they are worth knowing. I mean, seriously!! Even Bolaño couldn’t make this shit up.

The story that DOES appear in this book took a while for me to get into – I started the book and put it down at least two times. But once I knew the historical background, that helped a lot. I read somewhere (who knows where, somewhere in the depths of the Internet) that the book was initially a lot longer, but the author cut it down to its bare bones. If this is true, then man, what a brave, badass choice.

Poetic, fragmentary, vignette-like: these are all good terms that could describe the book. Notes I wrote in the margins include: Werner Herzog meets The Mosquito Coast, Aguirre Wrath of God, Death in the Andes.

There’s a rotating cast of narrators: Heidi, the middle daughter; Trixi, the youngest; Monika, the oldest daughter and arguably the main character; and Reinhard, the brother-in-law (you might notice that Hans, the father and the family’s main claim to fame, is absent from that list–an interesting and inevitably significant choice). Monika’s chapters are narrated in “you” style, while Reinhard’s are narrated as though he’s responding to interview questions. We begin with the father’s expedition into the Bolivian jungle in search of a legendary lost city. We end with workers on an isolated and rural hacienda, digging what is mostly likely a grave–for who, we never know for sure (though we certainly have some guesses).

The story in here could have easily been fattened up to 300 pages, but as is, it works as a strange kind of poetry in its thinness. I underlined so many sentences in this book:

It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most. (135)

Maybe to become an adult is precisely this: to be ashamed of your body and its revolts and emergencies… to always fear the worst. (130)

I found nostalgia served a purpose. To feel that life had been worth it and to make the present fuller somehow. (126)

The writing is simple and straightforward, yet haunting. The grave-digging in the final chapter is, in particular, an image that will stay with me for a while.

I loved the theme of feeling out of place in this book, of not quite fitting in. The family eats sauerkraut with their tortillas, yet “on the rare occasions we were obliged to speak Spanish it felt fake.” (16) The maid is taught German recipes because no one really cares for Bolivian food. The sense of place is also well done, particularly with the descriptions of La Paz in the beginning.

There’s a big theme in the book of how to grow into your own person – how to become the kind of person you want to be. The author touches upon this idea in this interview, commenting that “in AFFECTIONS there are characters trying on different masks and disguises throughout the novel. They’re searching for themselves the whole time, and the changes they go through are quite drastic. I suppose the same thing can be said of all of us. We take a while to become ourselves, to accept who we are or can be.”

Monika’s sections especially deal with this theme:

Was this what becoming an adult was? Taking decisions and responsibility for the things you do or stop doing? … At twenty-one, can you call yourself an adult? At twenty-one, can you feel that living, when all’s said and done, means belonging to yourself, and that everything that came before was a kind of dream? Why try to forget it if it was a reasonably happy dream? … Increasingly, you feel that your life can fit into a single sentence, or at least a few. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it. (62-64)

Alongside this narrative thread concerning personal growth and development, there’s also the concurrent theme of BIG (macro?) history, which Heidi reflects on during the jungle expedition in the opening chapter:

Part of the route had been cleared centuries ago by the Incas. It was terrifying to think of it, it was fascinating and sad. It was all of these things, too, to realize that we were lost in the heart of a foreign country, so far from home. The expedition had only just begun and it was easy to lose perspective, to forget that what we were doing day in and day out was all part of a bigger plan. (23)

Indeed, how do you maintain perspective when you tell a historical story? What details do you focus on? Is the “bigger plan” what matters? The book focuses more on the development of Trixi’s smoking habit than it does on Monika’s development into a revolutionary guerrilla. The nationalist revolution, in which Indians gain the right to vote, and armed conflicts in the mines are referred to only passingly. Who’s to say what are the things that make up a life? Who gets to tell history, and what experiences do you focus on when you’re narrating it?

I think most people might find this book challenging if they know little about Latin American history. But if you’re interested in guerrilla stories, or Latin America of the 60s, this is a highly recommended read. To me, it worked as a fascinating example of a different way to narrate historical fiction: in a highly sparse, fragmentary style, rather than detailed and sweeping.

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Tips for reading ‘A Place of Greater Safety’

This is one heck of a book. The cast of characters list at the beginning is six pages long. The author’s note promises that “anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.” 749 pages.

These are the main tips I have for reading this book:

  • Keep notes! You will be SO THANKFUL. If a character appears and you are not sure who they are, check the list at the beginning and write down the page number she/he appears on. Distinguishing characteristics are also helpful. This is by FAR one of the most helpful things you can do to help keep track of everybody–if it weren’t for the notes my sister had made, I don’t know what on earth I would have done. Here are some examples:
  • Give in to the wikipedia temptation. At first I tried to avoid it because I didn’t want any “spoilers” (I know nothing of French history, had never heard of Danton or Camille Desmoulins and thus had no idea what was going to happen to them). But it’s inevitable. You’re going to need it, especially when you can’t remember what/who the Girondists are.
  • Antoine Fouquier-Tinville and Antoine Saint-Just are both cousins of Camille, they’re both ominous jerks, and they are TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. I spent the entire book thinking they were one and the same until they finally confront each other, forty pages from the end. “WHAT?” I shrieked out loud, causing my sister’s cat to turn towards me in alarm. “They’re two different people??” Yes. Yes, they are. Do not make the same mistake. Refer to page 57 in particular if you need a reminder: Antoine Fouquier-Tinville is a lawyer rumored to have murdered his wife, Antoine Saint-Just is a failed poet. They are both extremely Bad News.
  • René Hébert (described as “a theatre box office clerk”) will play a BIG role in Part Five so don’t forget about him–his newspaper in particular will cause a lot of trouble.
  • Stanislas Fréron (the childhood friend called Rabbit) doesn’t play as big of a part in the book as you’d expect him to. He’s mostly just kind of… there. Lafayette (a war hero from the American Revolution) is similarly mentioned a lot early on and then just disappears (but no worries, there’s plenty of new characters to focus on!).
  • Pay attention to the neighbors’ daughters. Especially little Louise in the case of Danton, and Babette in the case of Robespierre. This in particular is an excellent example of how Mantel uses fiction in a way that straightforward history cannot: by making something up that likely has little historical evidence (as far as I know), she nevertheless illuminates one of the book’s biggest themes, that of how the personal is the political.
  • You better remember that Maitre Perrin is Camille’s former boss, as the sketchy rumors about their illicit relationship will play a big part throughout the book.
  • Brissot is one of the few characters listed twice in the character list (Part Two and Part Five). Don’t let this confuse you!! They are indeed the same person. The most helpful note to put next to his name is “Danton’s political rival.”
  • Cordeliers is the name of a neighborhood where Danton lives, and will later be the name of his political party.

In many ways reading this book was more way more difficult than reading A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the most comparable experience I can think of. In ASOIAF, characters are restricted to their point-of-view chapters (so you don’t ever have to worry about someone from Arya’s world popping up in Daenerys’, for example). In this book, however, characters can appear pretty much anywhere at anytime (which the exception of the Royal family, who rarely appear and are appropriately very much contained to their own little universe). So you better have a pen next to you when you’re reading this cuz there’s no time for fucking around.

All in all, despite the length and complexity I read this book FAST, binge-style. The first 200-300 pages describing the characters’ early lives (of which apparently very little is officially recorded in history) are particularly gripping, and as for the last 200, well forget about doing anything else with your time. Mantel does an excellent job of setting up tiny clues and little hints for big pay-offs, like when Danton befriends an actor who teaches him deep-breathing techniques for public speaking:

“You breath from here”–he stabbed at himself–“you can go on for hours.”

“I can’t think why I’d need to,” Danton said.” (31)

Or this exchange between Camille and Robespierre:

“What is the point of combating the tyrants of Europe if we behave like tyrants ourselves? What is the point of any of it?”

“Camille, this isn’t tyranny–these powers we are taking, we may never need to use them, or not for more than a few months. It’s for our self-preservation, our survival as a nation.” (589)

Oh, the delicious irony of these early foreshadowing scenes! Even knowing nothing about these characters’ lives (with the exception of Robespierre, thanks to 10th-grade World History class), I could tell that they were being set up for something big.

Unfortunately with a book this ambitious, some things ended up getting lost for me. Namely Camille’s relationship with his father–it’s made clear to us that Camille never gets his approval, is never good enough for him, etc. And yet with everything else happening in the novel this theme never felt as fully developed as it could have been. Instead it just felt like a convenient trope. But heck, who am I to complain? Mantel apparently started writing this book when she was TWENTY-TWO, and had to complete all the research before moving to Botswana with her husband (pre-Internet days, at that!). It was then promptly rejected by agents and publishers and didn’t end up getting published till twenty years later. An encouraging tale of perseverance and how to not judge your own self-worth based on the market, indeed.

So many things to praise about this book… The modern-sounding dialogue (the majority of the book by far is conversational exchanges, which plays a huge role in making it so gripping to read. No boring exposition here). The focus on women. The way that big events often happen “off-screen” (with the exception of a few big ‘uns, the focus is mainly on the events’ after-effects, when the characters are back in their living rooms with their families, shaky and panting). The pathos of the ending as it all comes crumbling down. The gleeful walk-on cameos by Marat and Buonaparte. It’s also gloriously fun to learn unexpected facts–for example, did you know that the author of Dangerous Liasons plays a teeny-tiny minor role in the Revolution?

There are so many characters in this book with artistic intentions: actors, poets, writers… Camille himself often anguishes over his failure to write (his stutter is also used to great metaphorical effect), and journalists and pamphleteers (especially in the second half of the book) wield an important power. Beware the written word, this book almost seems to be saying. It can do things. It can make things happen. It’s almost nostalgically uncynical, at least until everything starts to crumble. Despite its incredible sense of order, in a way this is a very punk-rock book. The three main characters propel through it with the energy and enthusiasms of teenagers (sex for Camille, money + goodies for Danton, and idealistic visions of a more just society for Robbespierre). You could totally write modern day fan fiction about these three being friends and causing a ruckus on an East Coast liberal arts campus, going to anti Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter protests. More than anything else, it’s the depiction of the friendship, relationships and interactions between these three central figures that make the book worth reading.

God, how fun it is to read a book this rich and absorbing, to completely disappear into a world you otherwise knew nothing about, to get lost in it! How glorious! The sheer amount of research and effort that went into this! How wonderful it is to use your brain when you read; to be forced to be attentive! How overwhelming; how marvelous! What an achievement, what a story, what a novel.


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