19 June 2019

Indian science fiction that is not rehashed mythology (part 5 of 5)

Science Fiction | The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction | Tarun K Saint (editor)

Continuing the ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (I really liked it) review... This is part 3 of a post broken up so that I can tag all the authors in a story-by-story review. You can read part 4 here.

Anandna by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

This is in two parts, a story and a short poem. The poem only makes sense if you read the story first. The story doesn’t have quite the impact unless you read the poem at the end. There’s a large helping of brave self-pity in it, but the poem largely mitigates the maudlinism. It’s about a trio of dedicated researchers who make a drug that converts pain into pleasure. Things don’t stay in their control.

We Were Never Here by Nur Nasreen Ibrahim

A creepy story about a sanctuary for women who can’t take their downtrodden place in the world any more. There are costs, and the benefits may not even exist. “Some of us even fear that no one had noticed our departure.”

The Narrative of Naushirwan Shavaksha Sheikh Chilli by Keki N Daruwalla
Sheikh Chilli is one of the prototypical too-clever-for-his-own-good boastful guys of folklore. This story features an insolvent crook who borrows hugely and then flees the country along with his girlfriend (where haven’t we heard something like that in recent times?) to settle on the Moon and make merry. The twists are that he’s the last surviving Parsi. This is not as effervescent a story as you might expect. Decidedly heavy handed satire.

Looking Up by SB Divya

I found this story formulaic. It didn’t touch me in the right way. It’s about a candidate for passenger to Mars, who’s applied for a seat mainly to get as far as possible from the accident in her childhood, and about reconciliation with family. Predictable.

Reunion by Vandana Singh

Mahua has helped to mitigate climate change in Mumbai and its environs by moving to a decentralised village-style economy with rounded huts to withstand the ferocious new cyclones (I roll my eyes at such utopianism, but it’s not too central to the story), and, thankfully making it science fiction, smart connections between all people and things in the village. In flashback, we see how she came to do what she did, the AI and the AR, and what happened to her sister Kalpana and her friend Raghu on the way. The best parts about the story are the looking back to the present day as a sort of golden age, the Age of Kuber, where wealth abounded and resource was wasted.

All in all, a good collection, with some outright gems, and some pieces one just has to grit one’s teeth and plod through. Hopefully, there will be more reviews of collections of Indian science fiction that is not merely rehashed mythology (hint: yes, there will be. Stay tuned).

...End of part 5 and we finally reach the end of the chopped up long post...

Indian science fiction that is not rehashed mythology (part 4 of 5)

Science Fiction | The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction | Tarun K Saint (editor)

Continuing the ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (I really liked it) review... This is part 3 of a post broken up so that I can tag all the authors in a story-by-story review. You can read part 3 here.

The Beneficient Brahma by Chandrashekhar Sastry

This is a fantasy, not science fiction. It’s the fairy godmother trope with a just a little twist.

The Goddess Project by Giti Chandra

This is out and out sci fi, and the reveal at the end is a jarring extrapolation of contemporary mobs and their BMKJ cries. The smidgeon of hope is insufficient, though I suppose that may well be the best we can get.

The Last Tiger by Mohammad Salman

This is a satire that is so satirical and pointed that the less attention that is drawn to the fact, the safer the author is. Hats off, man. This is dark humour at its best and most cruel to the target, with laugh out loud slapstick moments and awful puns.

A Night with the Joking Clown by Rimi B Chatterjee

When most of the men die of over sensitive skin from Male Hypertoxic Syndrome, the rest of them rule the world, and the women are slaves, hoping to ‘make it’ to the level of getting a boyfriend instead of just being slaves. This society mashes toxic masculinity, passive femininity and predatory capitalism. Into this evil world comes an underground singer, causing disruption and dreams in the slave pits. The narrator, a New Guy without a lineage, and so lower in the pecking order, is given the job of flushing out this provocateur. I believe a book is forthcoming. But I prefer the simpler viciousness of the slave society in A for Anything (Damon Knight). This is more than I can stomach. It is gamer fantasy gone horribly wrong.

The Dream by Muhammed Zafar Iqbal (translation)

Julian jerks awake from a dream of being torn by wild dogs. Could this world, too, be a dream? He knows now how to find out. A short and brilliant gem of a story. The world will never be quite real after this.

And on this whimsical note, I once again press Pause, and and start a fresh post for the rest of the stories in this collection.

...End of Part 4...

Indian science fiction that is not rehashed mythology (part 3 of 5)

Science Fiction | The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction | Tarun K Saint (editor)

Continuing the ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (I really liked it) review... This is part 3 of a post broken up so that I can tag all the authors in a story-by-story review. You can read part 2 here.

Mirror-Rorrim by Clark Prasad

I imagine readers from other countries would skip some of the references in some of the stories here, not finding a context they know about, and that’s what I did with the Star Trek references in this story. As Tarun K Saint said in the intro, the irony is that these references need no explanation with most English speaking sci fi readers, while other Indian references that people like me know already get (what is to Indian readers) unnecessary exposition. Having got that gripe out of the way, this is a nice time travel/alternate universe story, well plotted and executed, with nods to both European/American/Australian readers and Indian ones. I really liked this one, too.

Flexi-Time by Manjula Padmanabhan

Nooooo, Manjula Padmanabhan, I expected better from you. Indians have an altered sense of time?? How twee and exotic. That rattling sound you hear is my eyeballs rolling at high rpm.

The Other Side by Payal Dhar

Another gem. This story evokes the Bangladesh refugees of 1970, and the modern dystopia of capitalism, with Corporations owning governments, and propaganda reprogramming human compassion, with casteism in new forms and old shapes. A tense, suspenseful story, with all the ends tied neatly. And the irony of refugee camps across the border in Nepal.

15004 by Sami Ahmad Khan

This is India’s answer to Train to Busan, but more terrifying, more gory, more horrific. Thank goodness for the tiny little ray of hope in the very last 100 words. I would have suffered trauma without that. Really.

Why the War Ended by Premendra Mitra (translation)

Alternative history about the real reason WWII ended. There was a passage in the story reminiscent of The Kraken Wakes (John Wyndham), but the aliens of that book were nothing in front of this story’s alien horror. The quaint League of Nations and other references help to damp it down as something that happened in the middle of the last century. Place it today, and we’d have been creeped out for a long time.

Were it Not For by Arjun Rajendran

This is such a sarcastic gem of poetic satire that I’m including a screen shot. Just for this, I will buy copies of this book and distribute them.

And on this brilliant note, I once again press Pause, and and start a fresh post for the rest of the stories in this collection.

...End of Part 3...

Indian science fiction that is not rehashed mythology (part 2 of 5)

Science Fiction | The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction | Tarun K Saint (editor)

Continuing the ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (I really liked it) review... This is part 2 of a post broken up so that I can tag all the authors in a story-by-story review. You can read part 1 here.

The Twenty-second Century by Rahul Sankrityayan (translation)

Once again, a story/extract included for its historical significance. These are a few extracts from a young man’s imaginative look at the next century, from 1924. Certainly, these are selected because they are so nearly true today, and the editor would have discarded the pieces that imagined things that are not going to come about, but the forecast by Rahul Sankrityayan is startling in how closely truth has followed fiction in these seven early extracts, not just technological, but social. A positive look at the world, full of hope.

Shit Flower by Anil Menon

This story will ring familiar to the Indian and to the European. I wonder if the title (it refers to a lotus, which grows in filth) is unintentionally or deliberately satirical, but the story is a gem. It has everything you could want in terms of cybertech, a near future world that looks familiar (but leaves me feeling skewed at least 35 degrees from horizontal), personal growth, bizarre extrapolation of social trends, and a human dilemma. One of the best in the book.

The Man who Turned into Gandhi by Shovon Chowdhury

Okay, this isn’t science fiction. It’s biting satire. But it is laugh out loud funny. I did. Laugh out loud (and got strange looks, but who cares). A gem to treasure. And, I suspect, it will still be funny years from now. However, whether readers from outside the Subcontinent will find it equally hilarious, I don’t know. My personal favourite in this book, I think. And, like I said, it’s not even science fiction.

Seventy Years after Seventy Years after Partition by Kaiser Haq

A poem. Not my scene. YMMV.

Moksha by Sumita Sharma

A poem. Very sci fi. A bit creepy, too. Worth the read.

A Visit to Partition World by Tarun K Saint

Augmented reality meets psychology. At the end, I’m left wondering if the trauma of Partition can be solaced by museums, or whether they will exacerbate the wounds and lead to further hate and violence. Is it catharsis, or will it refresh the experiences? This story is timely, as the last of the people who actually lived through that ghastly time and have first hand memories are dying out. We have people with second-hand hate who believe they know what Partition was all about. Those who actually lived then want no repeats. It’s the third generation ones that love to pound their chests and howl. And it was only several months ago that an actual Partition museum was set up (I think, in Chandigarh), with crowd-sourced funding.

Dreaming of the Cool Green River by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

A story of the (hopefully) far future, when any Art that is found Objectionable by any Mob is summarily removed and placed in a vault, never to be seen again. Or is it? I liked the concept of this story, but not the actual treatment.

And at this point, I press Pause again, and start a fresh post for the rest of the stories in this collection.

...End of Part 2...

Indian science fiction that is not rehashed mythology (part 1 of 5)

Science Fiction | The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction | Tarun K Saint (editor)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (I really liked it)

I have mixed feelings about this collection. To start with, I had high expectations. After all, stories set in the Subcontinent would be set in my daily milieu. Plus, they were science fiction. This is a genre that does not have much of a dedicated market in India, especially in English. So people like me have to cast a world-wide net, and rely on translations or English language publications. That is a separate essay, which I am not writing here.

The collection itself has different levels of writing. Some of them are such gems, I want to buy copies of the book and gift them around. Hence, overall, 4 stars (I really liked it). There are poems, also, and poetry is in the eye of the beholder, but again, some left me cold and some were my beamish boys.

But some of it is eye-rollingly disappointing. Especially the old historical stories in translation. Some of it is not science fiction. Sorry, Tarun K Saint and Manjula Padmanabhan, you included some stories because you liked them and because the writers perhaps write science fiction, but these were not the stories that are science fiction. I was forcibly reminded of a hoity-toity reviewer of a Terry Pratchett book (which the publisher’s found fit for weird reasons to add as a blurb) which described him as ‘one of the premier satirists’ of the day. I remember reading that, curling my lip and muttering, No, no, and again no, buddy, you’ve missed the whole point. Certainly, some science fiction makes satirical points. But if that’s the primary aim, it dates fast and horribly, and the gruesome remains are turned over by foresters while holding their noses and poking about in the ruins. And there are usually not too many arguments about which animal’s scat and/or remains are being turned over, though some may recall seeing the beast in the wild with fond nostalgia. And yet, I feel reluctant to dismiss some of the pieces just because they are not science fiction, because some of these pieces are such extremely good satire. I guess the editors felt the same tug, so I’ll provisionally forgive them.

So, to the story-by-story. (Only because there is a limit on the number of tags I can put on a post, shall I split this into two or more posts).

Foreword: Spice-ship to Infinity by Manjula Padmanabhan

In which one of the most famous names in this collection brings us fascinating historical tidbits,  ponders inclusivity, voice and cultural references, and reaches unhappy conclusions on the perils of compromise and marketing pressures.

Introduction: SF Matters: South Asian Futures to Come by Tarun K Saint

This is almost a literary thesis, with no less than 91 footnotes, and brings us a doubtless difficult-to-write yet concise summary of South Asian sci fi, set in context both in time and space (the whole world).

Planet of Terror by Adrish Bardhan (translation)

One of the mistakes that anthology planners make is to start with a historical piece, the oldest one they can get hold of. This is a very light piece, it reminds me of sci fi that I used to read in Children’s World when I was a kid (I’m not knocking the magazine; it’s still the best kids’ magazine in the world; their monthly round-up of current affairs is the utmost neutral and accurate news summary on the planet, that alone is worth the subscription price). But this kind of fantastic story is now a done-to-death trope, and has no freshness any more.

Inspector Matadeen on the Moon by Harishankar Parsai (translation)

This is one of the prime examples of satire that has dated badly. In 1985, the angst and black humour of Jane Bhi Do Yaaro (the movie) was still fresh and the flavour of the month. This Inspector Matadeen story is a walk down that dystopian lane, harsh, cruel almost, satirical and over the top.

Stealing the Sea by Asif Aslam Farrukhi

This is a mood piece, a slice-of-life look at instant crowds in urban India and the stereotypical people who populate them. Withal, it’s slightly cli-fi (climate change fiction) which is the token sci fi theme making an appearance, a take on present day urban systems, and has a sad ending. 

By this point, I was seriously wondering what I’d got myself into.

Chernobyl by Somendra Singh Kharola

A long poem or a short opinion with its starting point as Chernobyl, a trek across cultures, and an end that is a question mark. I’m not sure I like it, or that I will remember it years from now, though some lines have great power. YMMV.

The Sea Sings at Night by Mimi Mondal

Thank goodness for this story, otherwise, I would have shut the book and missed some of the wonders to come. This is about a narrator who loves one of the sea folk (that hunt for the sea fauna that “Mumbai is teeming with”). A compassionate look at holding on and letting go, at assimilation and maintaining one’s culture in the face of immense social pressure, at love and the residue of loss, at being an alien in the Big City.

And at this point, I press Pause, and start a fresh post for the rest of the stories in this collection.

...End of Part 1...

09 June 2019

Bastards do not beguile

Detective/Thriller | The Hollow Man | Oliver Harris


The mystery is well done, the detectiving is fine. The writing is pacy and atmospheric, the editing is taut. That should easily get a book 3 stars.

The reason it does not, is the ‘bastard of a hero’ as the blurb too charitably puts it. I found the detective (Nick Belsey) to be an appalling human, greedy, addicted, manipulative, conniving, misusing his position for personal gain, dishonest in every possible way (and yet he manages to con the investigative journalist into falling in love with him, despite lying to her at almost every step).

Deal breaker. It’s only curiosity about the mystery that saw me through the whole book. Next time, I’ll watch a train wreck instead.

So, the rating is the average of 1 star (I hated it, that’s Nick Belsey), and 3 stars (I liked it, that’s the mystery). It’s a shoddy compromise, leaving me feeling vaguely unclean. Like the book itself. More accurately:
   2 stars and a pile of poop.

Insufficient genius

Fantasy | Coldmaker | Daniel A. Cohen


'Cold' as something tangible that falls from the sky and is the measure of wealth is a new concept. However, the treatment is not sufficient to make this the kind of wow experience that Brandon Sanderson (one of the author's role models, as per the afterword) did in the Mistborn series.

There are unresolved points (is the Utopia dreamed of by the slaves real or imaginary); the kind slaver is two dimensional; the hero is a genius inventor who can invent and prototype system-changing innovations in, literally, days; the heroine is mysteriously independent, bold, able to get unconditional support for no reason that the reader can see while the hero has to prove himself...

Yet, there are plus points. The basis for the excessive cruelty of the slaver class is realistic (religion can cause people to put aside empathy and be cruel by godly demand). You do care for the hero and the heroine. There are sympathetic characters. Some of the villains are somewhat understandable. The 'science' of the Cold seems to have some (if flimsy) basis. At a few points in the book, you can feel the heat that pervades the World Cried (that's what it's called).

I'm ambivalent whether I want to read the next book in the series or not. I fear the plot is being dragged to generate more volume. It may not stand up to the strain.

2 stars = it was ok

No superheroes, only supervillains. What's an ordinary human to do?

Fantasy | Steelheart | Brandon Sanderson


Brandon Sanderson has got a wild imagination, which is lucky for us readers.

It seems to me he decided to write an epic fantasy book (get it? get it?) and succeeded. You didn't get it? Hmm... So, in this world, suddenly some people develop super powers, and these people are called Epics (get it now?). And absolute power corrupts absolutely, so these turn into some of the most capricious and cruel dictators ever. No superhero turns up. Only supervillains. What's an ordinary human to do then?

Fortunately, no matter how powerful, the Epics have weaknesses. The rebellious Reckoners find these out, and start killing some of the most murderous, if not the most powerful Epics. 

David has seen one of the most powerful, Steelheart, the absolute ruler/owner of Newcago kill his father. He grows up, and decides to join the Reckoners. Because he has seen Steelheart bleed, and intends to decipher his weakness and destroy him for the killing of his father and the destruction of his world.

This is not sci fi. There is no attempt at making ordinary sense of the Epics' powers. They just are. But it's not without its internal rules. No good fantasy can be without those. The fun is in finding out what the rules are. Sanderson does an excellent job of developing the premises into a pacy, fun tale.

4 stars = I really liked it.

Advertising will make consumerist zombies out of us all. Halp! Yawn.

Science Fiction | The Space Merchants | Frederik Pohl and C Kornbluth


This is one of the books based on the 50's worry that advertising would make consumerist zombies of us all that hasn't dated very well.

Capitalism has run amok. Great corporations own the world and the people are slaves. They think they are not, because they get paid, but the Companies supply all their needs, at increasingly exhorbitant rates, so they’re always in debt. Sounds a bit like the USA today, doesn’t it?

Except that it’s all so over the top that it’s dated. And not well.

2 stars = It’s ok

Urban fantasy of the type 'super strength people hidden amongst us'

Fantasy | Ghosts of Winter | H.B. Lyne


These days, I tend to struggle through urban fantasy of the type "magical people with super strength, hidden among us". 


There's a lot of: Then they all went to sleep. Then they woke up and ate breakfast, which X had bought on the way to the hideout/Y had cooked Z things. Then they all went to do their daily jobs. After some time, I'm muttering: enough already.

Of all the characters, the new one, James, was the most 'real' to me; not the protagonist, Stalker. The Alpha of the pack didn't do much, neither did the fairy godthing. Stalker keeps feeling she's losing her humanity, the rest don't seem to care. I never quite got why the pack was doing what it was doing. Maybe because I came into the series with Book 2. But...

2 stars = It's okay...

Flying wizards and wishy-washy inverted sexism

Fantasy | The Philosopher’s Flight | Tom Miller


American college story set in the 19th century. Young adult. Interesting and pacy read. Quaint language (like calling wizards philosophers), but smooth and does not jar.

Robert Weekes is a boy who wants to be a flying wizard ("hovering philosopher") and work in the search and rescue corps. Except that only girls are philosophers...

It's gentle. The underdogs win. There is only one bully, who is pretty pathetic, not a real enemy. Fans of Harry Potter would probably like this one.

I didn't quite see this as a good book on sexism using the male as target. The lack of agency and #everydaysexism just isn't there. There's nothing in the story that makes you boiling mad at any stage. It's all very plasma and not whole blood.

I'm reminded of a quote, which I'm paraphrasing: If you get to learn about sexism by being told about it rather than experiencing it, that's privilege. This book may be about inverted sexism, but it's very privileged. Sexism isn't experienced in this book, it's something third-hand. Partly, it's because though all the 'strong philosophers' are female, the rest of society is just the same, so the sexism that Weekes experiences is a watered down revenge of those with a little power, not really sexism the way billions experience it daily.

I really liked the concepts, but this drags away at least one star.

3 stars = I liked it.

Hard sci fi that bends reality very convincingly

Science fiction | Ball Lightning | Cixin Liu


Good, but not as good as the Three Body series or Wandering Earth.

I like Joel Martinson's translations better than Ken Liu's. Let's get that out of the way directly. Ken Liu's are more faithful, Joel Martinson's flow.

Chen sees his parents incinerated by ball lightning on his 14th birthday, and therefore grows up to be a ball lightning researcher. The only way something as rare as this gets funded for research is military applications. He meets and works with Major Yun Lin, who is a reckless but influential person with a searing interest in new weapons of all types, the more quixotic, the better. They are joined by the cantankerous genius theorist Ding Yi (who also shows up in the Three Body series).

What eventually happens to Yun Lin is an outcome of her psychology, quite fascinating and heh heh, quantum. And I have never, ever, come across such a way of concluding a war as in this book. Trust you me, MAD is nothing.

Ball lightning turns out to be something that Cixin Liu specialises in inventing: strange forms of matter that seem superbly convincing while you read the book. You have to finish the book, roam around outside, touch a few solid things, and check on the Internet that, since the book was published, scientists have actually found out what it is (and it's not what's said in the book, thank goodness for that!), and then return to the normal world after the mad roller coaster ride of imagination.

This book has a slower pace and not as large a sweep as the Three Body series. But it is a prequel. Fans of the series should read it; they will not be disappointed.

3 stars = I liked it

Djinns, con artists, magic, intrigue, palaces

Fantasy | The City of Brass | SA Chakraborty


It's a great read. It has humour, mystery (the best kind; 40 pages on, you say to yourself, waitabit, this was mentioned before; so that's what it meant).

Yes, I would certainly read the next book. Eagerly looking for it (I understand it's out).

I was a bit surprised to see so much detail of historic Egyptian society and Muslim mythos from someone named Chakraborty, but I think it comes from a) her spouse and b) being in Egypt for sufficient time, c) resident in the USA. Not that I mind. I prefer fantasy to be placed in a European or West Asian or East Asian setting, anything other than what I know best, so that there are less chances of my shaking my head and muttering noooo....

The story revolves around Nahri, who is a con artist in Cairo, who heals abnormally fast, but doesn't believe in magic. Until she invokes a djinn named Dara(yavahoush) aka the Scourge. Who sniffily insists he is not one of those inferior creatures, djinn, but an identical being called a daeva. (It's political). She's quite happy to go separate ways, except that ifrit (also identical, but both djinn and daeva look down on them) attack them, and they need to flee to Daevabad for her safety. We learn quite a bit about the different categories of magical beings, peris and marid and lesser creatures like murderous rukhs and the like. Nahri herself belongs to a category called shafit who are human-magical-being hybrids, and much oppressed, mostly for religious reasons but also for other reasons, which emerge slowly.

In the meantime, we also meet Alizayed, aka Ali, the second son of the Daevabad ruler. More politics ensues. Ali is too serious, working hard to be a good little Qaid for his brother as and when he should ascend the throne. Much too good to be true, at heart a softie despite being the best sword in the land, clueless about the value of money while understanding economics perfectly. A conscientious nerd.

The two story lines proceed in parallel for a while, and then rapidly converge in Daevabad. Quite a lot of interest is sustained in liking both of them, and finding they are likely to be on opposite sides. How is this tension going to be resolved? Both young people get tossed here and there on political currents. Our friend Dara the 1400 year old daeva turns out to be an accursed undead doomed to slave for humans. More politics ensues.

It's all great fun, very intriguing. Most fantasies have a social background that is superficial, but this one is not. The viewpoint is that of naive and idealistic teens/twenties, but behind the screen there is religion (several, actually), Big Power politics, and even ... economics. Bravo! Few writers get that aspect right.

Yet, it would not work without solid characters whom we care for. Here, even the villains are multi-dimensional, villainous because they are pitted against Nahri or Ali, but even then each has his or her motivations fleshed out and we can understand them, feel for them, and then hope that the conflicts get resolved without bloodshed. Of course, SA Chakraborty is too savvy for that, and assorted characters get killed to the sounds of our groans and curses. No mere JK Rowling this, whose books ended up with so many characters that you had to write them down in neat tables to keep track of them.

I like the villains. Hey, I even like Ali's sister, who is the closest the characters get to the wicked spoiled rich cool girl of schools that is quite a trope. Except one or two of them... I'm sure I will get to like them all in book 2 when they get more screen time... In the meantime, I love and hate Ali's father at the same time, have great affection for his brother, can sympathise with his (absent) mother, really hate Nahri's mother, loathe a Minister, and so forth.

Now, you all know of a famous writer who is fond of killing of characters in his books/series more for shock value than anything else (treats it like a Game). This is not so for The City of Brass. Any deaths, any conflicts, any misunderstandings, any alliances, all flow from their own internal logic, and perfectly naturally. It only faltered once toward the end, before recovering and proceeding in a brand new direction.

I actually held off picking up the next book on my bedside for a day just to savour the aftertaste of this story.

If I liken a book to a meal, this one is filling while leaving you slightly hungry. Sweet, salty, sour, even hints of bitter, in a perfect blend. The wait service also being impeccably timed, you give the restaurant a 5 star rating, and decide to host your next party here, and go away calculating whom you can invite for it, and which halfway acceptable occasion is nearest in time. In other words, eagerly anticipating book 2...

If you loved Meghan Whelan Turner's Thief of Attolia series, you will equally love the Daevabad books.

5 stars = I loved it!