“Myself and my circumstance”

José Ortega y Gasset. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

My novel, Immunity Index, available next month, opens with a quote from the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia y si no la salvo a ella no me salvo yo.” I am myself and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.

It appeared in a essay in the book Meditaciones del Quijote (Meditations on Quixote) published in 1914 when he lived in Madrid, Spain. In the essay, he posits that there can be no “I” without the external world, and he contrasts freedom and fate.

I’ve translated a portion of that essay here:


We must look for our circumstance, such as it is, precisely in what it holds as limitation, as particularity, as the apt place in the immense perspective of the world — not to remain in constant rapture of its solemn ethos but to conquer the appropriate site for our individual life there. To be brief: the reabsorption of circumstance is humanity’s specific destiny.

My natural outlet toward the universe opens through the passes of the Guadarrama Mountains [northwest of Madrid] or the fields of Ontígola [to the southeast]. This sector of circumstantial reality forms the other half of my persona: only through it can I be integrated and be fully myself. Biological science now studies the living organism as a unit composed of the body and its particular medium: thus the vital process consists not only in the adaptation of the body to its medium but also in the adaptation of the medium to the body. The hand endeavors to shape a material object by grasping it tightly; but at the same time, each material object hides a previous affinity with a specific hand.

I am myself and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself. Benefac loco illi quo natus est [Bless the place where you are born], we read in the Bible. And in the Platonic school, as the enterprise of all culture, we are given this: “to save the appearances” or the phenomena. That is, looking for the meaning of what surrounds us.

With our eyes schooled by a map of the world, we ought to return to the Guadarrama Mountains. Perhaps we will find nothing profound there. But we may be sure that the shortcoming and sterility result from our gaze. There is a logos as well in the Manzanares River: this most humble rivulet, this liquid irony that moistens the groundworks of our city, beyond a doubt carries among its few drops of water a drop of spirituality.

For there is nothing in the world without a thread of divine sinew: the difficulty rests in reaching it and making it contract. Heraclitus shouted to his friends who hesitated to enter the kitchen where he was: “Come in! Come in! There are gods here too.” […]

Nothing impedes heroism — which is the activity of the spirit — as much as considering it attached to certain specific substances of life. Wherever heroism might subsist below ground, every person needs to hope that if they vigorously strike the ground beneath their feet, a spring will gush forth. For Moses, the hero, every rock was a source of water.


Immunity Index goes on sale May 4. You can order an autographed copy through Volumes Bookcafé.

My Goodreads review of “Middlegame” by Seanan McGuire

Middlegame (Middlegame, #1)Middlegame by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beware of alchemists, if alchemy is real in your universe. It can permit access to unlimited power, and while power might not corrupt, it can reveal deeply corrupt personalities.

This long but never slow novel centers around two people, not corrupt, who were created as a very corrupt alchemist’s experiment to manipulate the universe. What could go wrong? In Seanan McGuire’s capable hands, a lot. Human beings, even artificial ones, resist control. They will resist before they know what they are, and they will resist even harder after they find out what they can do.

From the first page, the story is told with urgent, evocative prose. “Timeline: five minutes too late, thirty seconds from the end of the world. There is so much blood.” Exactly what too late means becomes more clear as the story develops and adds successive layers of complications and depth.

This novel won major awards and nominations for a reason. It might break your heart — and it might make your heart full. Spoiler: it is not the end of the world. This time.

View all my reviews

“Semiosis” ebook only $2.99

My publisher, Tor, has made a few ebooks available at the special price of only $2.99 throughout the entire month of April:

  •   Semiosis by Sue Burke
  •   Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey
  •   Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Find out more about the books and get links to your favorite bookseller here:


My latest novel, Immunity Index, goes on sale May 4. Read an excerpt here. Read a different excerpt here.

My woolly mammoth ivory

I own a few bits of woolly mammoth ivory. Although the sale of ivory from elephants is restricted and highly controversial, woolly mammoth ivory is unrestricted and provokes few worries.

That’s because elephants are listed as threatened with extinction by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and despite conservation efforts, illegal trade continues. Woolly mammoths, however, went extinct about 10,000 years ago. No mammoths are killed to obtain ivory because they’re already dead, so woolly mammoth ivory remains relatively easy to buy and somewhat affordable.

My ivory came from Alaska, and I bought it from a jeweler. He had bought a piece of tusk that came with a bark-like crust, the result of thousands of years of aging, which he’d stripped off and was selling for 25 cents per gram, since he had no use for it.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, either. It looks a lot like tree bark but feels and weighs more like stone, since it’s basically a mineral that our bodies can produce: a tooth. Perhaps I could use my bits to make jewelry that uses its rough aesthetics to artistic advantage.

I bought the ivory because a woolly mammoth plays a role in my latest novel — specifically, a mammoth recreated by genetic engineering. While the novel largely deals with other issues, it mentions a few of the problems with mammoth de-extinction. For example, mammoths, like elephants, led highly social lives. If we want to bring them back humanely, we need to bring back many large herds of them. In the book, sadly, that wasn’t done.


The latest novel, Immunity Index, goes on sale May 4. Read an excerpt here. Read a different excerpt here.

Homer’s wine-dark sea

This is a view of Osterman Beach in Chicago from the Weatherbug weather cam website, taken on December 29, 2020, at 6:59 a.m. I can see Osterman Beach from a different angle through the window of the home office where I’m writing this.


Much has been made of the lack of the word “blue” used by Homer to describe the sea in the Illiad and the Odyssey. Instead, he often compares its color to wine.

But water is blue! So is the sky! Therefore ancient Greeks had problems with the color. Perhaps they couldn’t even see it.

To which I say: hogwash. I live next to an inland sea, Lake Michigan, and it can be a variety of colors, depending on the waves, the turbulence, and the sky. Besides many shades of blue (from pale to deep), the water can also look green, gray, brown, black (at night), and white (in winter), among other colors, sometimes several colors at once.

The sky can display a multitude of colors as well, especially at sunset and sunrise.

And so, on some wonderful mornings, water can be turned, briefly, into wine.


Tangentially, there’s this discussion of the color of the sea from Ulysses by James Joyce, about which I have no comment.


My next novel, Immunity Index, goes on sale May 4.