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Speculative Fiction from Around the World

Review: Turbulence by Samit Basu, reviewed by Anil Menon (Author Week #4)

Turbulence by Samit Basu

Reviewed by Anil Menon

The opening scene in Turbulence captures perfectly what reading Samit Basu’s work is like. Determined to give his son Vir Singh his first taste of flight, fighter-pilot Balwant Singh dangles and swings his three-year old from the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower. To read Basu is to become that three-year old, roaring for more, even as we soil ourselves in shock. And Basu’s style is exactly that of Vir Singh’s father, a man described as having a ‘mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot.’

For the subcontinent’s readers, long familiar with Basu’s work, such prefatory comments are superfluous. He is the country’s preeminent fantasist. His debut trilogy The Simoqin Prophesies was India’s first modern fantasy series and his later works, not all restricted to novels, have scored several other firsts as well. Of course, claims of this sort may seem problematic given the country’s some half-a-dozen vibrant regional literatures as well as problems with the concept of modernity. The fantastic is central to the subcontinent’s literature, and as the folklorist and Tamil scholar A. K. Ramanujan showed, many ‘ancient’ folktales could easily be mistaken for postmodern fables. Nonetheless, I believe there is a difference. Basu’s use of myth is that of the modern: rich in irony, secular in belief, disinterested in didactic ends, and populated with characters who point out to each other the ridiculousness of the fantastic.

Turbulence bears all these hallmarks. Its plot is about a group of Indian superheroes—male and female, some morally challenged— charged with saving the world from themselves. Captain Vir Singh, a superhero in the employ of the Indian Air Force, is interrupted on his mission to take out Pakistan’s main nuclear facility by a mysterious voice. The voice, later identified as Aman Sen, computer geek and the story’s conscience, persuades Vir that larger issues other than demolishing Pakistan ought to be at stake for a superhero. Aman is part of a loose coalition consisting of Uzma, a British-Pakistan hottie trying to make it in Bollywood; Tia, a Bengali girl with the ability to duplicate herself at will; and two cannon-fodder characters, Bob and The Scientist.

Vir learns from Aman and gang that there’s a Big Bad, none other than his former squadron leader, Jai. Naturally, Jai has to be stopped at all costs but since he has his dance-army as well, all hell is unleashed. To paraphrase that old joke about the difference between capitalism and communism, if western superhero stories are about the struggle between a superhero and a supervillain, non-western superhero stories are the exact opposite.

This is not to say the plot is predictable. Vir and Jai both have to deal with a common enemy, a mysterious super-being capable of turning crowds into mobs. Since all the superheroes have exactly one super-power, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to deduce the identity of the Mob-maker. But Basu managed to throw me off the scent by a variety of twists and feints. The triangular conflict provides Basu with a lot of plot leverage. The enemy of an enemy may be a friend, but it is much less certain what to do with the enemy of an enemy of an enemy.

Frequently hilarious, the writing shifted smoothly from one protagonist to another, giving each sufficient screen time to accumulate affection in the reader’s mind. I say ‘screen time’ because the writing shows a strongly visual, almost cinematic, imagination. On the other hand, the plot also scatters them in different locations. The problem of course with a great many characters doing different things in different places is that characters have to periodically disappear for extended periods of time. This gives the narrative an absent-minded quality.

Basu’s authorial voice is a delight to read, but he wisely restrains himself. Instead, he relies more on dialogue and action to highlight aspects of his characters. When he does show characters dealing with themselves, as when Aman binges on world-fixing, the novel threatens to become darker and more serious than it sets out to be. It is perhaps to Basu’s credit that he resists this temptation as well.

A case in point is how superpowers work. The logic is a simple and familiar one. A superpower is a realization of its hero’s deepest desire. Uzma has a deep desire to be adored, Vir aches to defend, Tia wants to live many lives, the journalist Namrata wants to be where the news happens, et cetera. Their superpowers reflect these desires. Aman’s superpower is the ability to control any digital configuration. But what does he desire that this particular ability should manifest? As he explains to Uzma in an early meeting:

‘Growing up in Delhi – and Delhi’s a city of networks, the social kind, and contacts and families – I’ve always felt left out of things, like I didn’t know anything, the right people, the right places…. I don’t know how it was for you growing up in the UK, but here nearly all of us have this huge sense of irrelevance. We’ll never change anything. The world will never know us. We grow up thinking hard work and a certain amount of ability are all we need – and then we eventually have to accept that they can only take us so far… we never feel like we’re a part of anything.’ (page 59)

Geoff Klock in his How to Read Superhero Comics and Why makes a great deal about how they reveal Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, and perhaps he’s right about Marvel-DC comics. But it does not explain superhero comics outside of the Marvel-DC continuum. The driving force behind Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa’s The 99 series is the desire to set the story of Islam straight. Langston Hughes’ superman, Jesse B. Semple, his black Walter Mitty, desired to have the White Man taste defeat. Aman’s explanation goes to the heart of the matter as far as the subcontinent is concerned. Here, the desire behind a superpower, any superpower, is relevance. To matter.

Basu, however, chooses not to dig for profundities. Uzma, upon hearing Aman’s explanation, simply changes the topic. I liked the matter-of-fact approach to the changed world. In an age where the Chinese manufacture most of the world, Indians dominate IT, and a black man is the president of the United States, there is no need to marvel that it is up to brown people to save London.  Unlike a lot of Indian novels in English, this one isn’t interested in interpreting India for the west.

However, there’s also the reader’s comfort zone to consider. Basu’s technique is to make the desi setting feel universal rather than particular. All the characters are enlightened urban sophisticates with universal appeal; one can easily imagine bumping into them at coffee shops, hip bars, at a poetry reading, an art gallery, the other side of the bed. Their desi ethnicities are unobtrusive. For example, when Uzma’s super-posh Muslim parents meet Aman, a Hindu, Basu tells us simply that they subject him, to a ‘thorough investigation on every detail of his life.’

On the subcontinent, that interaction would be a bit more complicated. In reality, there probably would be much screaming. In a Bollywood movie, the father, dressed either in a suit or a dressing gown, would pretend to be happy for his daughter, then take Aman to a vast room with mounted tiger skins and offer him wads of cash to leave his baby alone. This would then be followed by an extended fight scene with the father’s goons. Regrettably, Basu takes the high road and eschews this melodramatic option.

Jokes aside, Basu’s creative choices are not entirely free of the burdens of history. In a country where religious crackpots routinely fulminate about the dangers of miscegenation, the novel would have a much more complicated task were Uzma a Hindu girl and Aman a Muslim boy.

I understand Basu’s decision to avoid the muddy waters of Hindu-Muslim relations. Melvin Maddox in his reevaluation of Thurber remarked that the best way to murder a soufflé is to treat it with the seriousness due to a roast-beef dinner. Basu is not intending to make roast-beef.  However, sometimes the novel’s refusal to take itself seriously goes too far. At several places, his characters cross the line of self-awareness into parody. For example, in the climactic scene, Jai reminds Aman and Vir about what generally happens in Superhero movies and suggests restraint. Parody is something of an all or nothing deal; in small doses, it can make the reader feel foolish for caring about what happens.

At the end of the novel, when all the fighting is done, what remains is irony. Truth is, superheroes have no real role in the modern world. They can’t fix world hunger or resolve the Mid-East crisis or cure cancer or stop domestic violence or end female infanticide. They are irrelevant. What is an intelligent superhero to do? In the end, Aman, whose power derives from his need for relevance, is faced with a choice that is not really a choice at all.

Turbulence delivers exactly what it intends: an entertaining, well-written read. In the genre’s history it will be seen as an important work, a reflection of the subcontinent’s growing self-confidence. Indians have had the pleasure of enjoying his work for about a decade now, and it is wonderful that Titan Books has decided to make it available outside the subcontinent.

August 30, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Locus Roundtable interviews Anil Menon and Vandana Singh

This week’s Locus Roundtable includes an interview with Anil Menon and Vandana Singh held during ReaderCon.

July 27, 2012 Posted by | July 2012 | , | 1 Comment

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana

Anil Menon has announced the cover for the forthcoming Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh. The anthology will be published by Zubaan Books in India. Here’s the cover, and the list of contributors!

Contributors:

Molshree Ambastha Kalyug Amended
Neelanjana Banerjee Exile
Priya Sarukkai Chabria Fragments from The Book of Beauty

Indrapramit Das Sita’s Descent
Rana Dasgupta The Billionaire’s Sleep
Abha Dawesar The Good King
Sucharita Dutta-Asane Sita to Vaidehi — Another Journey

Lavanya Karthik Day of the Deer
Tabish Khair Weak Heart
Swapna Kishore Regressions
Kuzhali Manickavel The Ramayana as an American Reality Television Show: Internet Activity Following the Mutilation of Surpanakha
Sharanya Manivannan (Tharini Manivannan) Petrichor

Mary Anne Mohanraj The Princess in the Forest

Shweta Narayan Falling into the Earth
Pratap Reddy Vaidehi and her Earth Mother
Julia A. Rosenthal The Mango Grove
Pervin Saket The Chance
Vandana Singh Oblivion: A Journey
K.Srilata Game of Asylum Seekers (Women)
Aishwarya Subramanian Making
Lavie Tidhar This, Other World
Tori Truslow Machanu Visits The Underworld
Deepak Unnikrishnan Sarama
Abirami Velliangiri Great Disobedience

April 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 7 Comments

Guy Hasson’s Secret Thoughts, Reviewed by Anil Menon (Author Week #2)

Guy Hasson: Secret Thoughts

Review by Anil Menon

 

Since intimacy and secrecy  are all but inseparable, it’s no surprise that Guy Hasson’s “Secret Thoughts,” a collection of three novellas, is also a triad if stories about intimacy. The novellas consider intimacy in three distinct contexts: the living past, the Other, and the possible future.  But what distinguishes “Secret Thoughts” is neither its focus on intimacy nor the choice of its contexts. It is that the stories, all first-person accounts, ask us to imagine being a telepath, to imagine living in a world where intimacy is thrust upon you, a world where intimacy is a burden, not a gift.

The first story, “The Perfect Girl” (previously published in Dreams in Aspamia, #12) illustrates with a deft opening stroke the basic  issue in telepathy. We are told that when a telepath touches someone, the telepath gains access to the other’s thoughts, their emotions (the distinction isn’t always clear) . So when the telepath Alexandra Watson wants to know if the attractive guard at the gate of Indianapolis Academy is attracted to her, she doesn’t have to guess. A furtive “accidental” touch reveals all. However, her reaction is not one of pleasure, but self-disgust. She has groped a mind, taken something she wasn’t entitled to take. Her act may be immoral, but the point is a larger one. Alexandra can control what she learns from people, but  she cannot control her responses to the information.

The Indianapolis Academy is about teaching her, and others like her, that control. We are told that memories continue to persist for about seven days after death, enabling the students to practice their thought-reading skills on corpses. Alexandra touches the mind of a young suicide victim, Stephanie Reynolds.  In the fading light of Stephanie’s memories, Alexandra tries to understand why this young woman, so very like her, had chosen to end her life. However, the story is not about Stephanie. It’s about Alexandra and whether reconstructing our past can set us free. The conclusion is not hard to predict . Most telepathy stories, in contrast to invisible-man stories, are about self-realization, not voyeurism.

The idea that we can’t ignore the past and that we must embrace it to become whole is of course psychotherapy’s foundation stone. However, when Freud was reproached by a worried Ernest Jones about the implicit endorsement of the occult entailed by Freud’s papers on telepathy, the great man wrote back saying: “When anyone adduces my fall into sin, just answer him calmly that conversion to telepathy is my private affair like my Jewishness, my passion for smoking and many other things and that the theme of telepathy is in essence alien to psychoanalysis.”  Telepathy is alien to psychoanalysis? Why? Surely telepathic skills would result in a better therapist?

Hasson seems to sense this tension between therapeutic exploration of a mind and telepathy. Towards the end of “The Perfect Girl,” Alexandra goes to one of her professors, Dr. Parks, to gain some understanding. Dr. Parks makes her terms clear:

“I’m not going to touch you,” she says, as she slowly puts her hands down, fingers spread, a few millimeters from mine. “From this distance, with my ability, we’re safe. I only feel what you want me to feel, and you only feel what I want you to feel…” (p. 31)

Yet, the mind they examine together is Stephanie’s. Imagine going to a therapist and instead of the couch-and-inkblot routine, the good doctor has you reading Sylvia Plath? Alexandra’s session with Dr. Parks is quite similar. Stephanie’s memories are read the way we might read a book.

Perhaps what Hasson is getting at is that the telepathic skill turns bodies into text. It disembodies us. Were we all telepaths, we would become literature. Freud was right to see telepathy as completely alien to psychoanalysis because the latter is the exact opposite. Psychoanalysis embodies everything. A cigar is a penis. A box is a vagina. Nothing ever dies, especially not the past.

Alexandra learns an important truth about herself, but we may wonder, as Freud seems to have wondered with psychoanalytic transference, whether it is her own truth or a telepathic transference courtesy Dr. Parks, or even, poor dead Stephanie. All things considered, “The Perfect Girl” is a thought-provoking tale.

The second story, “The Linguist,” shifts the focus from the past to how we relate with the Other. The story is narrated by Rachel Akerman, telepath and professor of linguistics at NYU. An alum of the Indianapolis Academy, her real name is Michelle Rayburn, and she’s in hiding because the government  will no longer tolerate their existence. Her quiet fake life comes to an end when CIA agent Daniel Willis shows up at her Brooklyn apartment. He’s been able to trace her because many years earlier she’d made a 911 call that had saved him, a teenager, from committing suicide. Since no such kindness goes unpunished, Willis informs Rachel he’s going to drag her to Spook Central because the country needs her help. The government has found a space alien, and they need someone who can talk with it. Only mind-melders need apply.

Now, such a story will flameout in a number of ways, and the main question is whether the fire will start in the tail, the wings or the very nose of the vehicle itself. Here, it happens in the middle; every painful interaction with the alien (as touch-unfriendly as a box jellyfish)  is accompanied with Rachel’s gasps, shrieks, hallucinations, fainting spells and debriefing sessions where the men in black say tough things like “Lie to me again and bad things will happen.” (p. 85)

The story makes several dubious claims about intelligence; namely that it entails emotions, a theory of mind, a sense of personal space, intentionality, etc. In the end, making contact with the alien is not too different from figuring out whether that weird foreign neighbor is asking to borrow some sugar or your spouse.

I’m being overly hard on the story. It’s an adequate instance of Alien Contact, a defining sub-genre of 80s SF. It’s a category that has, and should always have, a special place in SF. The best ones in this sub-genre transmute mystery into wonder;  this story’s main weakness is that it tries to turn mystery into a moment of personal growth. We can be happy if Narcissus learns to open-up. But wonder-struck? No.

The final story in the collection, “Most Beautiful Intimacy” is infused with wonder. In this case, it’s that of a couple who realize they are about to become parents. However, this is no ordinary couple: the soon-to-be mother’s a telepath, and the soon-to-be father’s empathic. Like all couples deliriously in love, they feel they’ve already been graced by a miracle. As the narrator, the to-be father says: “Miraculously we found each other:  the telepath and the man who should have been born a telepath.” (p.119)  The telepathic ability of the mother is the first complication of the story. Telepaths, we learn, are not to become pregnant. The baby’s developing mind, almost pure Id and lacking all the restraints of socialization, will quickly swamp  the mother’s mind, driving both to madness.

The second complication of the story is that the government is hunting telepaths down.  The couple do not have the luxury of walking into the nearest hospital, of calling 911, of alerting the authorities in any way.

The logical solution is an abortion, and yet. The couple agree it’s the logical choice, and yet. Even if everything should be fine, raising a child on the run will be incredibly complicated, and yet. The couple slowly realize that an irreversible choice entails a commitment, in this case, between intimacy and security. The couple must decide if they will entrust themselves to the future, to accept, as Rilke wrote in a letter to the young Kappus, “…that even between the closest human beings, infinite distances continue.”

The story handles several fronts with panache. There’s the need to find a doctor. There’s the couple’s fracturing over the mother’s unilateral decision.  But most of all, the story does a great job of imagining a telepathic pregnancy. A large part of the story reads like one of those baby- in-the-womb movies, but this is also about  the baby’s ur-thoughts, the structure of its needs, the development of its personality. It’s a sustained act of the imagination.

We are aware of our thoughts, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a mother might be able to read her foetus’ thoughts or that telepathy might exist more generally. But when we find telepathy in a story, perhaps it reflects one of the deepest desires of a storyteller, namely, to see into the hearts and minds of their fellow human beings. Dorrit Cohn in Transparent Minds, a study of how consciousness gets embedded in literature, reminds us of the Greek God Momus’ criticism of Vulcan. Momus had blamed the engineer god for not installing a window in the human breast and thus making us less transparent to the Gods. Storytellers are the Vulcans of their domains, and so the presence of a telepathic character may serve to appease Momus. But does the presence of a telepathic character give us, the readers,  any extra insight into other characters’ minds? Is there anything that a telepathic consciousness adds to fiction that we do not already have with the usual five narrative modes: dialogue, exposition, description, action, state-of-mind?

I doubt it. Hasson’s telepaths are able to read people’s thoughts the way we are able to read characters’ thoughts in fiction. This suggests that what his telepaths learn can only be the sort of things we, the readers, learn from regular fictional characters.  However, though telepathic characters can’t provide any extra insight for readers or offer the omniscient author anything they don’t already have, the telepath is a way to embed the act of reading into the tale. A fictional telepath is a character who, like the reader, is able to see the tale’s other characters in a transparent way.

Hasson’s settings and focus don’t provide much scope for exploring this idea. Perhaps the best way to put it is that his stories are about telepaths, not telepathy. However, this triad of well-told, interesting and often moving tales should serve to encourage many more explorations into this fascinating trope. As Freud remarked in his paper on dreams and the occult: “If one accustoms oneself to the idea of telepathy, one can accomplish a great deal with it – for the time being, it is true, only in imagination.”

 

 

April 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments

Review: Housuke Nojiri’s Rocket Girls, and The Last Planet (Haikasoru Week)

Housuke Nojiri: Rocket Girls (tr. Joseph Reeder)

Housuke Nojiri: The Last Planet (tr. Alexander O. Smith)

Review by Anil Menon

 

Given Japanese pop culture’s fascination with schoolgirls and science fiction’s fascination with outer space, it is all but inevitable that Japanese SF would try to merge the two subgenres into one: schoolgirls in space. Housuke Nojiri’s novels, “Rocket Girls” and “The Last Planet” turns this inevitability into a few hours of fun reading. These novels, the first two volumes in what is most probably an infinite series, deals with the space adventures of sixteen-year olds Yukari Morita, her half-sister Matsuri Morita and Akane Miura.

“Rocket Girls” begins with the failure of the sixth rocket launch of the Solomon Space Agency. The SSA, located on Maltide in the Solomon Islands and run by Director Isao Nasuda, is given one last chance to show it can pull off a manned space flight. Nasuda’s rationale for the outfit’s mission is framed in terms of bringing education and modernity to the natives on Solomon Islands, but as it turns out, the man just wants to put humanity, preferably Japanese, in outer space. Unfortunately, male astronauts, even the starved and much-abused Japanese astronaut Nasuda has imprisoned on the island, are simply too heavy for SSA’s rockets. Enter Yukari Morita.

Yukari arrives in Maltide in search of her father, a gent who had walked out on his wife, post-coitus, on their honeymoon. Fortunately, Yukari’s architect mother is more than able to handle stresses of this sort. For example, she raises no objection to her sixteen-year old daughter taking off for an island chain with a history of head hunting, some 3,500 miles away.

“I don’t know what good it will do,” her mother began. “But who knows? A trip like this on your own—it might be good for you.” And like that, her mother handed her five hundred thousand yen in cash.

Yukari’s genetic inheritance thus includes the right stuff, namely, an iron spine inherited from her mother and a certain devil-may-care attitude from her father. More importantly, she is about five feet, 31”-21”-32” and only weighs 37 kilos. For Director Nasuda, she’s not a schoolgirl; she’s his astronaut.

Yukari shortly discovers that her father, Mr Morita, is not only a chieftain on the island, but that she has a half-sister, Matsuri, from one of his many wives. Matsuri also has the right dimensions and is also quickly recruited by Nasuda as a potential backup for Yukari.

In a novel with many quirky characters, Matsuri tops them all. In her endearing innocence, unflappable cheerfulness and manic loyalty, she reminded me of South Park’s Butters. However, she’s Butters plus some serious survivalist skills.

These skills come useful in a startling aspect of the story. Murphy’s law in this novel takes the shape of evil spirits that the natives are supposedly able to invoke with their curses. The curses are not personal; they are, in fact, meant to help. The natives merely want to see some fireworks, some explosions. They believe the Japanese are working towards the same goal with their shiny silver rockets.

Almost half of “Rocket Girls” is taken up with getting Yukari and Matsuri ready for their space flight. The novel strikes just the right balance between pretending there’s nothing too improbable about schoolgirls in space and reminding us soberly how awfully risky the whole venture is. When things do go wrong, the technical details are kept to a necessary minimum. There’s a certain type of reader for whom good SF means a steady diet of orbital calculations. This book will manage to please such a reader but is not aimed at them.

The second volume, “The Last Planet,” continues with the adventures of Yukari and Matsuri. A third schoolgirl is introduced. Akane Miura, Yukari’s classmate at the Nellis Academy,  joins the Solomon Space Agency. The Rocket Girls proceed to teach NASA how to really run a space exploration outfit. The second volume was written a short while before Pluto was officially kicked out of the snooty planet club, so sadly, the “Last Planet” is about saving a NASA space mission to a non-existent planet. This volume follows the pattern set in “Rocket Girls”: discovery of talent, arduous training, minor frustrations, launch, crises…

The translators have done an excellent job. We get the feeling we’re dealing with Japanese characters, and not, a la Mikado, with English characters masquerading as Japanese. There’s not much variation in the writing (mostly exposition and dialogue), but by carefully controlling how the characters react in various situations, Nojiri is able to create the sense of distinct personalities. Much of the humor appears to have survived the translations as well. This is probably because the humor arises from the total sincerity of the characters. They’re funny the way Forrest Gump is funny.

I suppose I should mention the slinky spacesuits. The schoolgirls are decked out in ultrathin one-piece spacesuits, two millimeters thick, a “second skin.” When Satsuki, the rather lovable Nazi bitch who runs the medical program, yammers on about the suit’s thermal, elastic and osmotic properties, Yukari just sighs:

“The only part I understood was skintight. Sounds like a pervert’s dream.”

Indeed. When the rocket girls encounter the Russians and Americans, the astronauts are as discomfited as the conscientious reader. Actually, by Otaku (Japanese fanboy) standards, the books are about as risqué as an Amish quilting guide. And the suits are not a titillating feature meant only to appease the Otaku. In “Rocket Girls,” the sexual attractiveness of Yukari has some unexpected consequences when she encounters the Mir astronauts.

The Russians, alas, don’t come off too well in “Rocket Girls.” In a crucial scene, they behave treacherously and dishonorably, whereas in “The Last Planet,” the American astronauts come across as heroic (but bumbling).

In contrast, the Japanese see themselves as underdogs. They’re underfunded, under staffed, and working under great political pressure. All they have going for them is their ingenuity. “The Last Planet” is really about Director Nasuda proving to Director Holden of NASA that the Japanese can help with the construction of the International Space Station. Holden cuts Nasuda off in mid-speech, notices only the risks and flaws, not the Japanese enterprise or innovation, and he’s unwilling to acknowledge that the rocket girls are anything more than “charming little angels.”

I don’t wish to give the impression Nojiri is out to prove that one side is better than the other; there are plenty of fools on every side. But he’s obviously aching, as every space enthusiast probably aches, for a space agency willing to err on the side of courage and ambition.

Nothing represents this desire more than putting sixteen-year old schoolgirls in charge of space rockets. In Japanese culture, restraint appears to be contrasted, not with freedom as it is in the West, but with innocence. The rigid hidebound past is confronted with the novum’s giggles, disrespect, and eroticism. The giggles invite indulgence, the disrespect makes indulgence impossible, and the eroticism undermines all punishment; it’s a triple punch against which tradition has little protection. It is important that the novum be mostly unaware it represents these things, for nothing is more aging than awareness. The Rocket Girls aren’t posers. They aren’t trying to be different or original or represent some cause or the other. Most of the time, they’re simply trying to survive.

And is the premise—schoolgirls in space– that incredible? Samuel Pepys, president of the Royal Society, Cambridge alum, and pal of Isaac Newton, taught himself arithmetic only at 32. George Washington, who had only a couple of years of schooling, was  a major in the Virginia militia at 21, and his heroism in the Battle of the Monangahela made him a colonel two years later. Alexander Hamilton was just 20 years old when George Washington made him a Lieutenant Colonel. David Farragut, the first American admiral, was in his first bloody sea-fight at 10; he took command of his first ship at 12. Competence wasn’t always confounded with schooling.

Nojiri has fun with this confusion in the interactions between Yukari, Akane and the principal, some of the funniest scenes in “The Last Planet.” The principal of Nellis Academy, the school of Yukari and Akane, is all about discipline, tests and the class schedule. As he says, in justifying his expelling Yukari:

“Rules are rules, Miss Morita. And it is of the utmost importance to us that all of our girls learn the rules by which they must they lead their lives before we send them out into society–”

Unfortunately, the principal is right. And it is because he is right that we need many more rocket girls to help us achieve escape velocity from such repressive worlds.

These novels are a nice gift for that bright nephew or niece, but they’d also work for any lover of teen adventure stories. According to the infallible Wikipedia, Nancy Drew, the original schoolgirl-to-the-rescue, was a formative influence on women as varied as Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Sandra Day O’Connor. Here’s hoping Nojiri’s rocket girls will serve to inspire a new generation of movers and shakers.

 

 

March 23, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Ekaterina Sedia’s The House of Discard Dreams

Anil Menon takes on our guest author Ekaterina Sedia‘s latest novel, The House of Discarded Dreams.

Review: The House of Discarded Dreams

by Anil Menon

In Ekaterina Sedia’s novel, there is a striking passage where the heroine Vimbai invokes the Rafflesia, an endoparasitic plant with flowers that “looked like slabs of meat and stank of rotting flesh.” Inextricably entwined around the host plant’s life support systems, the parasite is completely embedded inside the host and visible to the outside world only in the form of its grotesque flowers. The House of Discarded Dreams splits our veins to show us the oneiric parasites that suck us dry, prospering as we wither, flowering in our ruin.

We give these dream parasites various names. For Vimbai, a second-generation American whose immigrant parents came from Zimbabwe, the dreams take the shape of guilt. Guilt at not being American enough and guilt at being too American. Like many children of the Diasporas—Asian, African, Hispanic, and European— she’s caught in-between, an African soul trapped in a new world body. Her mother, an Africana scholar, is harsh, loving, driven, irascible and hyper-sensitive to history. Her father is weak and ineffectual. Unable to take the daily blowouts any more, Vimbai moves out into a rental. Her two roomates are decidely odd. Felix, for example, has a black hole that doubles as hair (perhaps a play on Cosmology’s no-hair theorem for black holes). Her other roomate Maya has her familiars, critters that are a cross between foxes and squirrels. The house begins to float away. A Psychic Energy Baby downloads itself from the telephone wires.

Though the exuberant fantasizing is fun, it sometimes leaves the novel with insufficient constraints. It’s a problem intrinsic to the fantasy genre. If fantasy adheres to rules and regulations, then it’s just an alternate Earth with an alternate physics, chemistry and biology. But remove the rules and regulations,and there’s always the risk of adhockery. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, and Sedia’s novel occasionally teeters. For example, there’s a scene where Vimbai is being drowned in a lake by the catfish (Chapter14). Along comes the Psychic Baby who saves her by sucking the lake dry. It isn’t that this sort of thing is unusual in fantastic literature. Indeed, there’s a Hindu myth involving the sage Agasthya that’s quite similar. Nor does it have to do with the specific solution: the story’s context makes it clear why the solution requires the Psychic Baby to drink the water and not, say, make ice from it. The problem really has to do with the long sequence of such events. Myths and fairy tales are short. But at novel length, the techniques of symbolic fantasy can be wearisome.

To be fair, Sedia is very careful with her images. The basic set of events is quite sparse and mostly play with water, light, drinking, drowning, body traumas and the insides/outsides of things. And she never wavers from her central question: what does one do if one’s dreams are not one’s own, but parasitic dreams, life-sucking dreams embedded by one’s heritage, parents, and the Other. In Vimbai’s case, these parasitic dreams are primarily due to her mother and to a lesser extent from the American society around her.

Vimbai’s mother is a fascinating character. In the grand narrative of the Hardworking Immigrant Citizen, there are two things of special interest. As the scholar Bonnie Honig pointed out, the immigrant is the only citizen to “explicitly consent to the regime.” Regular citizens may have the luxuries of resistance and dissent. The Immigrant, however, cannot complain about the status quo because they came voluntarily. The second (related) point of interest is that the Immigrant’s dream is assumed to correspond with the State’s interests. But in Sedia’s novel, Vimbai’s mother is an immigrant who neither consents to the regime nor embraces the standard immigrant dream. She’s inconvenient, exasperating and not very grateful. She is also fully three-dimensional. For me, Vimbai’s mother made the story. Iwould have liked to have seen a lot more of this fascinating woman. Perhaps this book should have been her story and not Vimbai’s.

Perhaps it is. When we follow Vimbai in her attempts to free herself, to make sense of her existence in what shouldn’t be– for her– the New World, what we are also following is a mother who seeks rest. In this journey, Vimbai is assisted and harassed by a variety of frenemies—an old grandmother, totem animals, ghosts of universes past, and the presence of good and evil everywhere. But most of all, it’s her mother who guides her to the resolution.

The writing is occasionally a little rough, especially at the beginning, where there’s a marked lack of precision and cohesiveness. The first chapter could have used a more careful editorial scan. For example, this sentence with its unclear pronouns:

“She wished she would pay as half as much mind to Vimbai’s problems and worries as she did to the white men trying to hijack her department.” (p. 9)

But these problems mostly disappear in the later chapters, and the narration is more cohesive and to the point.

Perhaps the point is a moral one. I disagreed with Sedia’s thesis—or rather, the implied author’s thesis– that the “good” includes a non-judgmental respect for the past and its beliefs. In the novel, things get their aura from their connection with the past, from their humility and from knowing their place.The new, the modern, the forgetful and the aggressive are the problem, not the solution. Thus Vimbai’s beloved animal is the tortoise because it does not “chase after things” and is “satisfied with what it has”and is “never aggressive and yet gets its way.” (p. 292) This immediately disqualified the tortoise as my favorite animal, but then again, an author is not obliged to respect the reader’s preferences.

We could imagine a different Vimbai. A Vimbai who takes a bulldozer to that termite-ridden ancestral house. One who couldn’t care less about colonization, old myths or her parents’ inexhaustible regrets. One whose beloved animal is herself. A Vimbai who might one day lead a nation much like herself: noisy, brilliant, future-oriented, pulsing with the blood of immigrants. On the other hand, this is no longer a fantasy.

The House of Discarded Dreams is a courageous novel. It avoids easy cliches, it’s driven by powerful conflicts and its solutions are not necessarily pleasing. It’s condescending to give the novel extra credit because Ekaterina Sedia, an author of Russian origins living in the US, chose the African disapora as her setting. But I’m very glad she did.

February 2, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Anil Menon’s The Beast with Nine Billion Feet now available for Kindle

Anil Menon‘s YA science fiction novel, The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, set in a wonderful futuristic India, is now available as an e-book on Amazon.

About the book:

Set in Pune, India in the year 2040 AD, this novel, by one of India’s best new speculative fiction writers, explores growing up in a world where grown-ups are not to be trusted. Thirteen-year old Tara and her troubled elder brother Aditya struggle with the controversial political legacy of their brilliant father,the radical geneticist, Sivan. When Tara makes two new mysterious friends Ria and Francis, from “a place near Sweden,” the past catches up with the future. Why are Tara’s new friends so freaked by the night sky? Is their strange and beautiful mother, Mandira, friend or foe? Why is she so interested in Aditya? Where is Sivan? And what, exactly, is the beast with nine billion feet?

Tara and Aditya find themselves on very different tracks, caught up in a deadly game – a struggle for power and control, a fight for the shape of life itself. In the ‘here and now’ of Anil Menon’s brilliant and disturbing debut novel, the future itself is at stake.

Rich in ideas, sparkling with wit, and guaranteed to entertain, The Beast With Nine Billion Feet, marks a new era in Indian speculative fiction.

Get the paperback on Amazon, or get an e-book edition for the Kindle!

December 7, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off

Tuesday Fiction: “Eustace Albert” by Anil Menon

Sorry for the slight delay in posting – without further ado, here is this week’s story, by Indian writer Anil Menon!

Eustace Albert

By Anil Menon

The boy’s name was Eustace Albert. But that wasn’t the problem. His troubles were of his own making, and his mother summed it up neatly.

“Eustace,” said Mrs. Albert, “you are not a bat, and you should stop acting like one.”

“Eustace,” echoed Eustace, his mouth full of buttered toast, “you are not a bat, and you should stop acting like one.”

Mrs. Albert began to slather the next piece of toast. She nodded ominously at her son, but addressed her husband.

“Tell him, Mr. Albert, that if he keeps this up, Dr. Metenier will cut his tongue out.”

It was, of course, an empty threat. Everyone knows doctors simply aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing these days. No matter what the provocation.

“I’m serious, Eustace!”

“I’m serious, Eustace!”

He granted his mother a friendly glance, as if to say: ‘nothing personal, Mom.’

And indeed there wasn’t. Given the inanity of most human conversations, the echo is as reasonable a response as any. For example, what could possibly satisfy someone who asked:

“Wassup, Eustace?”

“Hell, how do I know?” Eustace could have replied. “Why ask me?  I just got here. Your guess is as good as mine. Look up and you’ll find out, what?  The damn sky is up; shut up; ozone; boll weevils; your time is up?  Take your pick, dude.”

But Eustace would merely echo.

“Wassup, Eustace?”

It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Any fool can repeat, but it takes courage to void the ego and avoid the jocose intent. Eustace Albert eschewed intent. If you sounded happy, then he too would make the sentence purr. If the mood was somber (“Grandma died, Eustace”), he would try to be equally sad (“Grandma died, Eustace”) but no sadder. Eustace Albert wasn’t in it for the cheap thrills.

Echoing is an art form, where the unsaid is what counts. When the history teacher, Mrs. Richie, once asked him:

“Who was the commander of the Golden Hind?”

Eustace Albert inserted a silent ‘B’ before the Hind. It sat there in vulgar satisfaction, orangutan red, and begging to be paddled. Genius is a gift.

As expected, the herd didn’t appreciate his gifts. People resent being echoed. It’s hard enough to think straight as it is without having to deal with a mobile mountain range. They felt robbed, as if by photographing their words, Eustace Albert was stealing their identity. As philosophers love pointing out, identity means a bit more than the nightly sprint around the local fire hydrants. It extends outwards from the boundaries of one’s skin to “my” clothes, “my” job, “my” girl, “my” lunchbox, and goodness, even, “my” words.

But not according to Eustace Albert. Your words are his bitches, pal!

So it was war. Society versus Eustace Albert. However, he was like one of those resistant bacterial strains. The classic deterrents were useless against him. For example, it was no use trying to foil him with long complicated passages. Eustace Albert had invented the iconical-indexical echo: an echo that began with an “etc.” and the balance was a perfect reflection of some piece of the whole.

Well, they laughed at Edison too.

It was no use trying statements like “I am a monkey’s son,” or “I ate horse crap this morning,” or “My mother likes it in the–” well, you get the idea. The boy was immune to self-referential insults. For a simple reason: You are, therefore he exists.

To insult Eustace Albert was to insult yourself; why on earth would he take offense?

The kids had tried foxing him with foreign languages. Kishore– a weepy little Indian boy– was green-carded in to abuse Eustace in Hindi. Eustace responded with gobbledygook; to his mind (and most semioticians would agree) his task was to echo what he heard, and what he heard was gobbledygook. Eustace Albert: 1; World: 0.

They’d tried seduction. Betsy tried her booby grazes and hot thigh presses on Eustace Albert. She succeeded in frightening him, but somehow, he managed to coo her sweet nothings right back.

They kicked his ass, shoved him around, threw ink on his clean shirts, introduced him to toilet bowls, gummed him to school chairs, mussed his hair, and in general, did everything the Hobbesian state can do to enforce conformity. Eustace endured.

He developed an unusual capacity to hold his breath for yogic intervals. Fat as he was, he could easily outrun any kid on the block. He learned to look piteous and provoke both maternal as well as paternal instincts. He cultivated allies, waged psychological warfare, and in his own humble way, was as ruthless as Gandhi on a hunger strike.

In the end, they admired him. It was impossible not to. There was nothing more entertaining than to see a new teacher try to take Eustace Albert down; the boy could’ve sold tickets.

So yes, perhaps he was right not to take his mother’s threats about Dr. Metenier too seriously.

Mrs. Albert stared at her son. What would she do, she wondered, if Dr. Metenier also failed. Their family doctor, Dr. Ballycock, had given up tweaking pill dosages.

“Frankly, Mrs. Albert,” Dr. Ballycock had said, with a peculiar laugh, “it’s not a biochemical problem. I wouldn’t blame you if you used more physical means.”

“I’ll need a second opinion on that,” she’d smiled and immediately– illogically – felt guilty. “On the pills, of course.”

For a few seconds, Dr. Ballycock had said nothing. “There’s this expert, Dr. Gregory Metenier, who specializes in stubborn– difficult– cases. He’s new to the neighborhood but already has quite a reputation.”

“Not a psychoanalyst?” Mrs. Albert didn’t set much stock in the disgusting Freudian nonsense. “A psychiatrist?”

“Impeccable credentials. A student of Bruno Bettelheim, I believe. I’ll set up an appointment.”

“Bettelheim,” thought Mrs. Albert, as Eustace echoed his father’s burp. Hadn’t Bettelheim told fairy tales?

“Tell Eustace what happened to the boy who wouldn’t stop sucking his thumb,” she urged her husband.

“Yes, dear.”

Since she often addressed her husband instead of talking to her son directly, Mr. Albert had developed the unfortunate (but justifiable) habit of ignoring his wife.

“Mr. Albert.”

“Yes?  What?  Oh. Came to a bad end, I’m afraid. A very bad end indeed.”

“Conrad. Wasn’t that his name, Mr. Albert?”

“Absolutely. Thumb looked like a prune. Smelled like a twenty-dollar wh–.” He coughed. “Why don’t you tell it, dear?”

Until now, Eustace Albert had only been skimming the conversation, but he immediately perked up his ears.

Mrs. Albert gave her husband the Do-I-have-to-raise-this-child-by-myself look. He retreated behind his paper.

“Conrad just wouldn’t stop sucking his thumb. His parents warned him and warned him and warned him some more. But he still wouldn’t listen. So one day: snip, snip!  Along came the tall, red-legged tailor one day with his great sharp scissors and snip, snip!  Off came the thumbs. Isn’t that so, Mr. Albert?”

“Absolutely. Jets of blood everywhere. Real geyser. Ghastly. Listen to your mother, Eustace.”

Eustace Albert’s eyes shone. This was the tops. Simply the tops.

“Listen to your mother, Eustace. Did Conrad spin like a garden hose?”

“You’re missing the point, Eustace.”

“You’re missing the point, Eustace. Did he, Mom?  Did he spin?  Like Sophie Fatale in Kill Bill?”

Mrs. Albert sighed. “I suppose so.”

“I suppose so!” shouted Eustace Albert, finger-scissoring the air. “Snip, snip!”

* * *

As a psychologist, Dr. Gregory Metenier was not exactly reassuring. It’s good to listen carefully, but to listen as if the other person was dinner, well, it simply made Mrs. Albert uncomfortable. The bizarre decor of his office was equally distressing; neither fun, nor cool and definitely not cute. What, for example, was the point of that barber’s chair?  His secretary, Tanya, was equally non-reassuring; a beanstalk of a woman who kept surreptitiously sniffing her hands. If Dr. Ballycock hadn’t recommended Dr. Metenier with such enthusiasm, Mrs. Albert would have fled.

“Excuse me, doctor.” Mrs. Albert fingered the straps of her handbag. “But I– we must be boring you?”

“On the contrary. Do go on, madam. Spare me nothing.”

The cultured European accent wasn’t reassuring either. He sounded like James Mason in that unspeakable movie, Lolita. The accent didn’t match those large, knobby, calloused hands; the hands of a peasant. They embarrassed here.

Words poured out Mrs. Albert as if she were an overheated kettle.

“What I want to know, doctor, is whether Eustace has Tourette’s syndrome?  I read this book on echolalia and it fit Eustace to a T. But that kid had catatonic seizures and Eustace doesn’t. Sometimes his blood sugar goes up, and he has to lie down but that’s about it. Dr. Ballycock says it’s not Tourette’s but what if there are some unknown varieties?  That’s what I want to know. It’s not psychological. We can rule that out. Dr. Ballycock admitted I was a good mother. No Oedipal issues or anything disgusting like that. We’re good parents, we are. You can ask Eustace. Mr. Albert doesn’t take the interest I wish he would, but what can you do?  He’s obsessed with his job – he’s a wedding planner – and you know how people are; it’s very sexist, that’s what it is. Mr. Albert planned our wedding, and let me tell you, it was spectacular. Simply spectacular. My sister thought the taffeta was a little much. It was this chameleon color–”

Dr. Metenier yawned. It was a real doozie; a hippo would’ve thought twice about tangling with its owner. Mrs. Albert was yawned into silence.

Dr. Metenier pointed a long knobby finger at Eustace Albert.

“Stop fidgeting, boy.”

“Stop fidgeting, boy. Up yours, Nimrod.”

“Eustace Albert!” Mrs. Albert blushed.

“Eustace Albert!”

Dr. Metenier picked up a leather paperweight and twirled it on his glass pad. His smile was chilly.

“How long has he being doing this?”

“Since he was about five years old.”

Dr. Metenier continued to twirl the paperweight. “It is not catatonic schizophrenia. It is not Tourette’s syndrome.” He gestured with his chin at the scans lying on his desk. “It is not echolalia. Well, it is echolalia, but not what medicine calls echolalia. Nothing so modern.”

Mrs. Albert waited in suspense.

So did Eustace. Perhaps he only had a year to live. Oh, the scores he would settle.

“Is he a bad child, Mrs. Albert?”

“Bad child?  I’m not sure what you mean …”

“Does he break things?  Harass the family cat?  Light firecrackers at inappropriate times?  Does he trip people?  Pull pigtails?  Look up skirts?  Eat soap?  That sort of thing.”

“Dear me…. Nothing of the kind.”

“Then he’s civilized enough, Mrs. Albert. Annoying, yes. But that’s the quintessence of children. Why not let it be?”

“But what about later?  Suppose he goes for a job interview. Or is on a date?  Not everyone will be as understanding as you are, doctor.”

“Oh, I’m all for correction. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Isn’t that so, Eustace Albert?”

“Isn’t that so, Eustace Albert?”

“See, doctor!  He’s incorrigible. The other day my sister had come to visit– Aunt Lorraine, Eustace. Remember?  No don’t echo that!  I’m trying to make a point.”

“Aunt Lorraine, Eustace. Remember?  No don’t echo that!  I’m trying to make a point. Can we go, Mom?”

“No, we can’t go. As I was saying, doctor, my sister Lorraine had come to visit, and Eustace drove her crazy– simply crazy– with his echoing. Poor dear. She didn’t dare open her mouth all weekend. Not that that’s a bad thing. She won’t let anyone else get in a word. It’s a family joke. Lorraine’s convinced it’s something in the food. All those additives they feed the chickens. Could it be, doctor?  Dr. Ballycock wants to put Eustace on a regimen of Clozaril and Loxitane. I thought– Mr. Albert and I thought–  we should get a second opinion on Loxitane. The FDA–”

“Oh no, madam,” interrupted Dr. Metenier. “No drugs. Too crude. We have to pluck out the problem by its roots. The old methods are the best. Let me think.”

He resumed twirling the paperweight.

“What would that be, doctor?” asked Mrs. Albert timidly. The silence had begun to buzz in her ears. “The problem, I mean?”

“Inappropriate echoing, of course. Are you sure, madam, that you want him cured?  A narcissistic time needs its echoes.”

“I want a normal boy– not that he’s abnormal or anything.” She shot a quick glimpse at Eustace’s face. “He’s a darling. But we’ve become the laughingstock of the town. We simply can’t take him anywhere.”

Dr. Metenier leaned over and spoke into the intercom. “Tanya?”

Almost as if she’d been listening just outside, the secretary glided in. There was something wrong with her, thought Mrs. Albert. Something about the eyes, or perhaps it was merely all those piercings.

“Make an appointment for next Friday, Tanya. And please take Eustace with you; I need to speak to his mother in private for a few minutes.”

When the pair had left, Dr. Metenier turned to her.

“I prefer the old-fashioned methods, madam. You’ll have to trust me absolutely. Do I have your word?”

Mrs. Albert gave him a blank look. “Of course. That’s why I’m here. How many months do you think it’ll take?”

“Months?” The doctor smiled. “A single session should do it. Think of it as an exorcism. It will not be pleasant.”

“It won’t hurt, will it?”

Dr. Metenier steepled his fingers. “That’s not a sensible question. No pain, no gain. But I need your strength, not his.”

Mrs. Albert retreated into the forest of her mind. She nodded, a quick abrupt shake that left no doubt.

“Good. Tanya?  Bring the boy in.”

* * *

Tanya was listening outside the door. Now and then she would turn to the boy and smile, as if they shared a secret. Then it was back to eavesdropping.

The creature was creeping him out. She was like a bat, only a little prettier. When she came over, he thought he heard the rustle of wings. But it was merely the rustle of her skirts. When she leaned down, he smelled lavender.

“Want to know a secret?” she whispered. Her kohl-lined eyes were alive with excitement.

“Want to know a secret?  What?”

“His name’s not Metenier. It’s Putin.”

Eustance stared at her.

“It was my mother who slaughtered me.

It was my father who ate me.

But pretty Marlinchen looked for my bones

And laid them beneath the Juniper tree.

Kyweet, kyweet, kyweet

Oh, what a beautiful bird am I!”

Eustace continued to stare at her. Tanya leaned towards him.

“That’s from the Juniper Tree. Did you read that in school, my little pet?”

Eustace swallowed. This freak was whacked. “Etc. Did you read that in school, my little pet?”

The intercom burst into life: “Tanya. Bring in the boy.”

“Oh, you’re in for it now,” she whispered, and Eustace was unclear whether she was talking to herself or to him.

Tanya led him back to the office. His mother stood next to Dr. Death. Eustace Albert’s legs felt shaky.

“We shall be doing a glossectomy, Tanya,” said Dr. Metenier. “Set up the apparatus.”

He looked at the boy. “That means cutting out your tongue, Eustace.”

The boy blanched. He shot a look at his mother, but she looked away.

“That means cutting out your tongue, Eustace. You’re whacked, dude.”

Dr. Metenier nodded. “Your tongue was a gift, Eustace. Use it or lose it. That’s the law. Haven’t you read your fairy tales?”

Eustace made a dash for the door. But there was no escaping Tanya. She pounced; there was incredible strength in her arms. Eustace found himself half-carried, half-dragged to the barber’s chair and strapped down.

“Doctor,” his mother began. “I’m not so sure about this.”

“Trust me, Madam. He’ll be a much pleasanter boy without his tongue. Think of the peace and quiet.”

“Well–” His mother sounded confused. “As long as you don’t hurt him.” Her voice trailed off.

Was she crazy?  Was she crazy?  Eustace let out a roar.

“Do stop howling, Eustace Albert,” said Dr. Metenier in a matter-of-fact tone. “It’ll only hurt a bit.”

“Do stop howling, Eustace Albert. It’ll only hurt a bit. Mommy!  Mommy!  Help!  Fire!  Fire!”

Tanya rolled out a sterilized towel and began to lay out the necessary tools. Mirror bright stainless steel retractors, forceps, speculas, scalpels and bowls of assorted sizes. Rolls of crepe bandages, rubber tubing and boxes of wool. But the star of the show was a pair of stainless steel scissors, almost indecently large. It was unclear how it could possibly fit in a mouth.

Dr. Metenier held it up and showed it to Mrs. Albert with undisguised pride.

“The finest Seville scissors money can buy,” he said and clicked his tongue. “Surgeons used to be barbers.”

Tania had inserted something into Eustace’s mouth; he resisted with all his fury, but she pressed somewhere along his jaws and before he knew it, something cold and metallic pried and held his mouth open. He wet his pants. Dr. Metenier came over to inspect.

“A fine tongue. Pity it’s misused.”

“Afineargsgstonararahghhh. Helargsgsh.”

“Oh dear, oh dear.”

“Now, madam, you must be firm. Do I have your permission to go ahead?  To cut his tongue out?”

The doctor stared at Mrs. Albert. After a moment, she nodded; not to him, per se, but to the wall, the world and the wildness in all things. Eustace strained against his straps.

“I’m sorry, madam. Is that a ‘yes’?”

Tanya’s face broke into an idiotic half-grin.

“Yes,” whispered Mrs. Albert. “Cut it out.”

“Excellent. True love is tough love.” He looked down. “Isn’t that so, Eustace?  Don’t you remember your fairy tales?  Remember what happened to bad children?  Dreadful things. Unmentionable things.”

“Whaumspsh!  Golsyhsspwhe!”

Dr. Metenier smiled. His shadow loomed large over the tilted chair, the boy in it, the glittering instruments, Eustace Albert, everything.

“Do you know, Eustace, there are fifty-four mutilations in Grimm’s fairy tales?  Children have always been morality’s fodder. Now it’s your turn. Snip, snip, Mr. Albert. Are you ready?”

“Pleassgshneh”

“Dear me. I can’t understand a word. Tanya, hand me the scissors.”

“Aaargshsah!”

The doctor turned to Eustace. “What’s that, boy?”

“Whataearagshby?”

“Tanya, remove the clamp for a second. Give the boy his last words.”

The metal came out of his mouth like a grotesque alien probe. Eustace screamed.

“Yes, Eustace?”

Eustace shot a terrified glance at his mother. But she had her back to him, her hands were over her ears. He saw the blood-lust on the doctor’s face and the half-smile on Tanya’s. It was all true, realized Eustace. Witches and ogres, lost children and dying beauties. Threefold quests and stepsister’s bones; pigeon-pecked eyes and glass slippers; gifts that burdened and the pedagogy of fear. There were no safe places.

“NO!  No!  No!”

“Let me get this straight,” said Dr. Metenier with a smile. “Rip out my tongue, doctor.”

How the scissors gleam as the doctor waits for the echo!  How the echo recedes in Eustace Albert’s throat!

“We were mistaken it seems. Silence is consent. Tanya, the sciss–”

“NO!  Aaaarhhhhhh…”

Mrs. Albert turned and rushed over to his side. Perhaps she wasn’t a witch after all, but Eustace Albert would’ve his doubts for the rest of his life.

With a sigh, Tanya released the boy. The doctor tilted the chair back, removed the clamps, undid the straps and patted Eustace Albert’s head.

“Of what use is a principle if it’s abandoned at first bite?  Either pick those less easily abandoned, or cultivate the art of abandonment itself. Consider yourself advised, Eustace Albert.”

The drive home was a quiet affair. At one point, Mrs. Albert felt something had come loose and she pulled over. She walked around the car, kicked each tire, tapped the gas cover, pressed the trunk, and then got in again, breathing heavily.

“Did you hear this clicking noise, Eustace?”

“No.” The boy had been very quiet throughout.

Mrs. Albert was very sure she’d heard something. She sat perplexed for a few seconds, with her hands on the steering wheel.

“Do you want to get an ice-cream at Kohl’s?”

He didn’t say anything. She glanced at his face; he looked lost in thought, and his eyes were half closed. Perhaps he simply hadn’t heard her.

“Do you want to get an ice-cream at Kohl’s, dear?  I think I would.”

“Sure, mom.”

They resumed their journey. Mrs. Albert had to stop two more times to make sure, absolutely sure, there really was no sound at all.

What of Eustace Albert?

What of Eustace Albert?  There’s no reason to doubt that he lived happily ever after.

THE END

“Eustace Albert” (c) 2005 Anil Menon, first published in Time For Bedlam.

November 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Comments Off

Original Content: World-Building in a Hot Climate, by Anil Menon

World Building in A Hot Climate

Anil Menon

I came across Paramjit Kumar’s Scourge From the Sky (1964) many years ago, on my way home from school, in one of Mumbai’s then-myriad footpath bookstores. The slim cloth-bound octavo volume, modestly self-labeled the  “Greatest Science Fiction of the Century,” was about an interstellar adventure complete with flying metallic saucers, imperialist aliens, hapless abductees, heaving boojums, one “unreconstructed” Nazi, trips to Mars and Jupiter and “lustful orgies” by said Nazi. Did I mention it also included Eternity? Well it did. The last chapter was titled “Back to Earth From Eternity.”

Had it been written a few decades earlier, Kumar’s work could have thrown its hammy arms around other cutting-edge Campbellian SF. Translated forwards in time however, it’s a misfit. 1964 was the age of Rocannon’s World and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Stand on Zanzibar was four years away and J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition was about to get banned. Kumar’s book had all of the 60s fixations— nuclear doomsday, commie menace, UFOs, excess hair— but its SF machinery was badly out of date.

I’m fond of the book and the memory of finding it, but it’s become clear to me that its problem—premature obsolescence—   continues to plague much of Indian SF in English.

If Darko Suvin right[1], then SF’s task is to build new worlds. It’s hard to pin down what “new” is, but it’s easy to identify what it achieves. It effects cognitive estrangement. It freaks you out. Ideally, it flips you inside out, bug-eyed and porcupine. Suvin argued that SF writers create new worlds in one of two ways: (1) by extrapolating the natural world, or (2) by analogizing with the natural world.

Indian SF also bears this out. The worlds in Amitav Ghosh’s “The Calcutta Chromosome,” Sudhir Jha’s “Matrubhoomi” and Pradip Ghosh’s “A Long Day’s Night,” use extrapolation and analogy to striking effect. The work of authors like Ashok Banker, Samit Basu, Priya Chabria, Rimi Chatterjee, Abha Iyengar, Manjula Padmanabhan, Anushka Ravishankar, Anshumani Rudra, Pervin Saket, Vandana Singh, Kaushik Vishwanathan and others all point to a new era in SF.

But these exceptions only highlight the problem with the average. What we often find in Indian SF is world-reusing, not world-building. The stories extrapolate and analogize the worlds of golden-age SF, not the natural world. The robots are from Asimov, the spaceships are from space-operas, the aliens are from 60s Star Trek, the time-travel is from Wells, and the gender-relations are straight out of the 50s. It’s a pastiche world, lovingly glued together from bits and pieces of remembered stories. There’s an old-fashioned, defanged feel to the stories, as if estrangement had been collared and corralled into the safe confines of a folktale. If it were bad writing then we could see it as a case of Sturgeon’s Law, but the problem isn’t bad writing, it’s obsolescence.

Part of the reason for this may have to do with the fact that very little of modern SF is available in most Indian bookstores. No Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow anthologies. No Octavia Butler. No Samuel Delany. No George Zebrowski. No Jim Kelly, John Kessel. No Geoff Ryman. No Kelly Link. No Jonathan Lethem. No Greg Egan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Paul McAuley, Jeffrey Ford, or Tim Powers. The big metros have bookstores that might carry Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow and Ian Macdonald, but by and large, the smaller ones file Asimov right next to James Hadley Chase and call it a day.

Asimov is big in India. Asimov is very big everywhere. I don’t know how Asimov-bhai pulled it off, but he hit notes that everyone seems to enjoy. He’s been translated into every regional Indian language. I estimate some 200 to 300 million Indians must have heard of Asimov and read one or two stories of his. They get him.

So how come they can’t get Asimov’s magazine in India?

No doubt, there’s a reasonable answer based on the cost of beans, Ben Franklin’s bifocals and what not. Besides, when I say stuff is unavailable, I mean it’s not legally available. Thanks to Al Gore, a lot of fiction is downloadable via torrent files.

But the pirate still has to know what to download. And what the pirate knows is often shaped by the pirate’s preferences. If golden age SF is what most Indian readers are exposed to, then those are the sort of worlds they’ll reach for when they begin to write.

This disconnect from mainstream SF is only part of the reason why much of Indian SF—at least, the one in English– feels dated. Paradoxically, the other aspect is that there is not enough of a disconnect. The subcontinent, like other once-colonized nations, is still emerging from a state of thralldom with “the west.” Frantz Fanon’s brilliant and perhaps unequaled description of this process in The Wretched of the Earth, and summarized here in Ian Crump’s abbreviated quote[2] captures the idea:

“In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. . . . In the second phase we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is. . . . But since the native is not a part of his people, he is content to recall their life only. . . . Finally in the third phase, which is called the fighting phase, the native . . . shake[s] the people. . . . He turns himself into an awakener of the people.”

It’s interesting that even so shrewd an observer such as Fanon couldn’t shake free through the sexist presumptions of his time. That aside, there is truth to what he says. The writer who reaches for the stale futures of the past, of the West’s past, does so because “he” is seeking to join the conversation, but is unaware that the discussion has shifted to different topics. This attempt is grounded, I think, not just in the history of colonial oppression, but also in a genuine love for a new set of ideas.

Chinua Achebe, in his essay The Novelist As Teacher, tells the story of a boy in his wife’s class, who wanted to write about winter, something he’d never seen, instead of the harmattan, West Africa’s Saharan winds, because he didn’t want to be thought a bushman. Presumably, western kids don’t reach for the harmattan when they mean winter despite the risk of being labeled rednecks. So why is that?

Achebe sees this as an residual of the “traumatic effects of our first confrontation with Europe.” Maybe. Certainly one effect of colonization is to make one ashamed of one’s own. But it’s equally possible that one can fall in love with another culture. It may be a forbidden love. An out-of-your-league love. Perhaps there are better, more worthy, parent-approved creatures to love. But there it is. This is what you love. The Romans fell in love with the Greek world. The Europeans fell in love with the Roman world. The “lost generation” of American writers fell in love with the European world. Why should it be so upsetting if a generation of African, Indian, and other non-western writers fell in love with the western world?

It is only upsetting if there’s no choice. For me, what matters is that the African kid should reach for winter because he wanted to, and not because he wasn’t aware there were other choices. Indeed, the lack of a similar choice for the western kid would make her situation equally unfortunate. What I see in many of the Indian SF stories that come my way is the lack of such awareness. So we get kids in Delhi, one of the most historic of cities, writing public school fantasies set in England. So we get dragons, as Deepa D wrote in her insightful blog piece, not garudas, sharabas or navagunjaras. So we get stories that are sincere, well-intended and perhaps even estranging in the exotic Indian-rope-trick manner, but all the same, hopelessly out of date.

The solution is not to embark on a massive reading program. That would only replace one set of dead idols with another. Such programs, usually self-inflicted, only result in what Hoggart sneeringly referred to as “scholarship boys,” deracinated individuals ruined by education. The problem is not to become more like somebody else but to become uniquely oneself.

So what to do? I suggest the solution lies in discontent. Discontent is an endless resource. Discontent is a natural human instinct, both contagious and easily kindled. Discontent makes hope possible. After all, one hopes for what one does not have. Discontent packs bags, jumps borders, breaks hearts, ruins lives and wrings pearls from grit. Discontent allows us to say: balls! Balls to history. Balls to psychology. Balls to probability. If these three witches had their way, humans would still be huddling in caves, contentedly picking lice off each other’s hairy backs. But we are not. That’s because we became discontented. Discontent brought us down from the trees, drove us out of the caves. Discontent set sail on the Mayflower. Discontent is the key. Discontent with what has been done. Discontent with what hasn’t. If SF writers were to start in a seething state of discontent, trembling like compass needles maddened by a private magnetism, then they could tear free and truly produce what Paramjit Kumar threatened in 1964: “the greatest science fiction of the century.”


[1] Darko Suvin, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” College English 34 (1972). pp. 372-82.

[2] Ian Crump: ” ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born’: Irish Literature as a Paradigm for the Formation of Postcolonial Literatures.”  In English Postcoloniality: Literatures from around the World. Radhika Mohanram & Gita Rajan (eds). Greenwood Press. 1996. pp. 31-42

May 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 10 Comments

Editorial: Changes at the World SF News Blog

Changes at the World SF News Blog

Lavie Tidhar

As you may have noticed, we’ve recently changed the theme for the blog – this is only a part of the planned expansion of the blog. What the new format allows us to do, amongst other things, is offer free advertising for international SF-related books and projects. We’ll be adding some more of these – and rotating them from time to time – but if you want to take advantage of it simply e-mail us at worldsfblog@gmail.com. Ads can be static images or animated GIFs, at a width of 164 pixels and a height no more than 200 pixels. Space is limited, but we’ll gladly offer the space for any relevant projects.

This, of course, is not the main change. International SF is at a good place right now, with more exposure than ever (most recently the special SF issue of World Literature Today), and we’ve been overwhelmed with the interest in, and support for, The Apex Book of World SF, which launched this blog in the first place.

Looking at our stats, hits truly do come from all over the world – Guy Hasson’s potentially-controversial recent article for us, American Authors vs. Foreign Authors, for instance, has drawn attention from, variously, Hungary, Poland and Greece, alongside the US, while our coverage of the controversy surrounding China’s Science Fiction World editor (covered here by Charles Tan) has naturally attracted readers from across the globe.

While the blog was conceived as a source of news for the international SF community, one of its main purposes of course to draw attention to fiction from around the world. As such, it is merely a natural progression for us to start offering fiction.

I’m very excited, therefore, to announce that, starting tomorrow, we begin featuring fiction on the World SF News Blog. our first offering is an original 15-part serial from Singapore:  The Basics of Flight, by Joyce Chng. We will run one chapter a week, every Tuesday, for the next four months. We hope you enjoy it!

We already have a few more stories planned, so stay tuned!

A word on submissions: we’re still avidly looking for contributors for our regular (or semi-regular, at the moment), essays and editorials. This Wednesday we’ll have a new article by Anil Menon, but we are always looking for new material. Please drop us a line at worldsfblog@gmail.com if you feel you can contribute.

Regarding fiction: we are interested mainly in reprints (being a non-profit blog, we can’t offer payment for fiction or articles), and are particularly interested in serials. If you would like to contribute, again, e-mail us.

We hope you enjoy the new, improved blog!

May 10, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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