18 04 2017


Ursula Le Guin is my favourite sci-fi writer. Her immaculately-constructed worlds echo the goals and ghosts of the 1970s – feminist worlds, planets riven by capitalist-Communist cold wars, anarchist moons, environmentalist Vietnam War parables set in outer space – works of speculative anthropology as well as fiction, imagining how things could be.  Her writing is immersive, brimming with rich details as well as fully realised characters. “The Dispossessed” tells the tale of twin planets Uras and Anarres, the latter an outcast society on a barren world which operates without laws or governments as a kind of whole-planet kibbutz, fiercely protective of its non-hierarchical way of life. On its parent planet meanwhile, the wealthy “West” and authoritarian “East” fight proxy wars in developing countries and governments seek to oppress liberty, whether in the rich countries or the poor ones. A visitor from the egalitarian moon of Anarres must decide how to engage with this world or if it is best to leave it all alone and hide in isolation.


8 04 2017

I finally finished the thrilling “Sapiens: A History of Humanity”, a book bursting with strange facts and thought-provoking ideas. Among these: can we measure happiness? If not, how can we measure the success of civilisation? Are we happier than our forebears?

The author, Yuval Harari, answers that we may (or may not) be happier since we abandoned life as hunter gatherers, but when animals are taken into account since the advent of the agricultural revolution, the sum of unhappiness on our planet is greater than ever before. Does that make it a failure?

Elsewhere, he ponders immortality, positing a belief in our finite existence as cultural and religious rather than biological. Scientists have shown our body is made up of thousands of systems which could potentially fail, causing death. But one by one, we have made huge progress in finding these “fixes”. What really is standing in the way of us, one day, soon, finding the final solutions to all of them?

Harari argues powerfully that “progress” – a belief in the ability to make life better – is a concept not shared by all cultures, but one which now powers the modern world (generally for the better).

And along the way he throws in some tantalising historical factoids and perspectives; one is that our Earth was once home to hundreds of “worlds” – human communities who believed themselves alone and unique on the planet, whereas over thousands of years we have inexorably become linked together into one giant Earth-sized “world”.

He wonders what would have happened had Manichaeism, an extinct religion which once flourished from China to North Africa, beaten Christianity to become the new favourite of Rome two thousands years ago. How would this have influenced human thought and morality?

And he relays the fact that aluminium, now used to wrap sandwiches, was once one of the most expensive substances on Earth and that at one infamous banquet Napoleon and his guests of honor ate with aluminium utensils while the second-rank guests were forced to make do with forks and knives of pure gold.

A lot to learn, and a lot to think about.

Cavemen and Kristen Stewart

27 03 2017

My twin obsessions this week, oddly, were Kristen Stewart in the strangely luminous “Clouds of Sils-Maria” and prehistoric man, courtesy of the surprise hit book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.”

My curiosity for Olivier Assayas’s “Clouds of…” was piqued by the rave reviews for his upcoming “Personal Shopper” (for which I had snagged tickets at the Hong Kong International Film Festival) and which also starred his (rather unlikely) new muse, Kristen Stewart.

The formerly much-derided Twilight star has been amassing accolades. I have seen her variously described as “the greatest actress of her generation” and “a star for our times.” I didn’t get it. What was the buzz about? But halfway through this movie, which I had originally found slight and rather dull before it totally sucked me in, I twigged. Stewart is a naturalistic actress par excellence. She doesn’t look like she is acting. So at first I took her for granted – where were the virtuoso emoting I associated with “great acting”? Where was the transformation?  She looked like she always does, shaggy dark hair, stumbling over her words, willowy frame in clothed in grungy lesbian-chic. But then I realised that despite that, this character isn’t HER. She is a multimillionaire, not Julian Binoche’s ambitious assistant in the Alps, and the fact that I had forgotten that shows what a great performance it was.

“Sapiens” was also something of a revelation. The book, by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, traces humanity from its origins to the present day. Powerfully written, Yuval kicks off with the sensational reminder that although today there is only one human species, used to thinking of itself as the pinnacle of all evolution, we know that once we shared the world with at least six other human “species” – the homo erectus and Cave of the Red Deer people in China, the dwarf-like homo floresiensis of Nusa Tenggara, the Denisovans in Sibeia. the neaderthals in Europe…. The book claims that humanity’s “original sin” was perhaps the genocide of our brothers and sisters, leaving us alone as the sole surviving humans on the planet.


Natural Histories

23 02 2017

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This week I have been reading the book that accompanies a new BBC series, Natural histories. This traces the cultural history of 25 animal species, and how each animal has been portrayed and interpreted through human history. It is such a rich and fascinating topic and the book is full of interesting tangents, from the 1778 painting above “Watson and the Shark” to the Chauvet cave paintings of lions (below) via bugonia (the Ancient Greek belief that bees were spontaneously created from the flesh of decomposing cows), Medieval beliefs that butteflies – contrary to modern sensibilities – were allied to Satan, and the adventures of the Victorian naturalists.

The Essex Serpent

8 01 2017


The “Essex Serpent” by Sarah Parry has been my holiday reading. It is based on a 1669 pamphlet entitled “Strange news out of Essex” which told the story of a dragon-like creature terrorising the swamps of the then-rural English county, now located on the outskirts of greater London. Intriguingly, Parry has picked up this real-life inspiration and re-imagined a story set two hundred years later. In the Victorian era, where Charles Darwin’s ideas are being hotly debated and British high society society has become fascinated by strange specimens streaming in from all over the empire, an upper-class London moves to Essex and hears rumblings of the serpent, said to have arisen in the Essex “Blackwater.”


4 01 2017

Barracuda is the ABC television adaption of the book by the same name by Melbourne author Christos Tsiolkas. It tells the story of a young aspiring swimming champion transferred to an elite private school, and expounds on Tsiolkas’s usual themes: what it takes to be a man in a modern, multi-ethnic Australia, how masculinity can be a toxic quagmire of anger or a positive force, and how gay men can reconcile the different parts of their lives as men, as gay men, as brothers and sons, and members of their ethnic communities. If that makes it sound dour though, its not. The series is wonderful – delicate and tender at times, searingly blunt at others, and searching. It was also, I thought, exceptionally well-acted, my favourite character being Rachel Griffith’s all-too-familiar Eastern suburbs harpie.


The Mirror of the World

31 12 2016


Created as part of Melbourne’s designation as a World City of Literature, the exhibition “Books and ideas: a mirror of the world” is located in one of the galleries that ring the dramatic high Victorian Reading Room at the State Library. It contains manuscripts from time periods throughout history, such as the Javanese koran below.

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