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Tag: science fiction

World War Z by Max Brooks

To be honest, I did not imagine it would be this hard to keep my only New Year’s resolution for 2019 – to write a blog post a week. And yet, here I am, two months into the year and already failing. It’s just that I have been so incredibly busy that it’s been difficult to make time to open a book; let alone write about it! And even then, in spite of all the hair-pulling, fist-clenching, make-it-stop-screeching kind of busy that I’ve endured over these past few weeks, I’ve somehow, at the back of my mind, been chewing on this book. What follows is not my best review; rather a post-midnight spew of thought, but it’s better than nothing (so I tell myself.) 
World War Z by Max Brooks is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I’d read about it initially on the book blogging circles, many years ago, and eventually heard about the movie as well. And yet, nothing; I mean, nothing, could have prepared me for the ride that was this book. The most concise and precise review – what on earth. My reaction was as simple and as complex as that! It is easily one of the strangest, most accurate books I have ever read, and it blew me away.
The words “zombie apocalypse” bring to mind a very specific image, isn’t it? A story in the style of 28 Days Later – lone survivors, lost and hunted, and the rapid breakdown of society as we know it. Stories of apocalyptic outbreaks are almost always from a singular perspective – one man, family or group of strangers against the countless armies of the infected. This is what I expected from World War Z by Max Brooks, which has always been in the “zombie apocalypse” category. 
But World War Z is no 28 Days Later. It’s not a survivor’s drama-tragedy. It’s biting sociopolitical satire.The harsh realities and inner workings of different spheres of society, politics, geopolitics, economics, military are exposed. Written in the form of an “oral history,” that is, a series of interviews of people directly involved in a “Zombie War” that nearly eradicated all of humanity. From the very first Patient infected with the virus that reanimated the dead, to survivors across the world fleeing to the icy regions where zombies turn ineffective; soldiers from the countless armies fighting against the attacks; even the government bigwigs involved in making the plans of evacuation and counter-attack; reporters covering the mass outbreak of disease; media seizing the day to publicise anthems of hope; right up to big pharmaceutical companies manufacturing fake antidotes! 
Each interviewee has his own voice, and tone – cold, reflective, morose, shattered, clinical. The book ties all the perspectives together into a loose narrative over a few years. What we end up with is this haunting, realistic case study of what would happen if the human race were to systematically fuck itself up to a great big fall. Does it end on a sweet ray of hope? Hardly. There are places and stories which spark a light of hope in your hearts, but one that is easily squashed moments later. I mean, you can always draw inspired conclusions about this indelible nature of the human race, our ability to push through and emerge victorious in times of great strife. But we’d be fools to ignore who got us into that struggle in the first place. 
Many chapters are imprinted on my mind and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. But they’re best read, not described. To give you a taste… 

“They say great times make great men. I don’t buy it. I saw a lot of weakness, a lot of filth. People who should have risen to the challenge and either couldn’t or wouldn’t. Greed, fear, stupidity and hate. I saw it before the war, I see it today. I don’t know if great times make great men, but I know they can kill them.”
.
.
“A lie? It’s okay. You can say it. Yes, they were lies and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Lies are neither bad nor good. Like a fire they can either keep you warm or burn you to death, depending on how they’re used. The truth was that we were standing at what might be the twilight of our species and that truth was freezing a hundred people to death every night. They needed something to keep them warm. And so I lied, and so did the president, and every doctor and priest, every platoon leader and every parent. “We’re going to be okay.” That was our message… There’s a word for that kind of lie. Hope.”
.
.
“From that moment on we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and “They told me to do it! It’s their fault, not mine.”

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Not so much a review as an organised rant.

THE WORLD: Shelved as ‘science fantasy’, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is the first installment in the series that is built on the premise that humans have so ravaged the world that Father Earth wants revenge. There is only one continent left now called the Stillness which frequently suffers severe unpredictable climate changes – called the ‘fifth season.’ Every fifth season wipes out populations and communities. 
The population is also altered now. Alongside humans are beings called orogenes, who have the ability to harness the power of the earth,
feel shifts in stone and hear vibrations of the ground. And to control the orogenes from harming humans, we have the Guardians, who have been charged with taking care of the orogenes. The Stillness is a ravaged world, made savage through its suffering. Not unlike our world, it uses blind violence to get what it wants.

THE STORY: The book introduces us to three women, at different points in time. Essun, addressed simply as “you”, is the woman of the present day, an orogene who takes us through the latest fifth season that has hit the world. Hiding amongst the humans of a small village, Essun has constructed a lie. She is married and has two children, seemingly happy, except her husband doesn’t know that Essun and their children are orogenes.

One day, a giant rift hits the ground, signalling the start of yet another Season, and demolishes many communities in the Stillness. But this is not the greatest of Essun’s troubles. For the same day, she comes home to find her husband and daughter missing and her little boy strangled to death. And that can only mean one thing: their secret is out. Essun can sense that her daughter is still alive somewhere, a mother’s instinct, and she sets out to find her husband and daughter and avenge her son’s death. But Father Earth has other plans for Essun.

The plot is complicated and the timelines could get confusing. But it will keep on the edge of your seat, that’s for sure.

THEMES: This book and the rest of the trilogy is very intelligently crafted. I had asked friends to recommend books that were ‘unputdownable’ and this series was one of the suggestions. I don’t usually read series especially when I haven’t heard of them, but man, I’m so glad I read this. While I have only spoken about one story here, it is the series I wholeheartedly recommend. It is so well bound together that I cannot think of one book without its companions, an infinity gently split into three narratives. The series is about so many things, it’s about everything – family, life, death, love, forgiveness, kindness, race, politics, discrimination, war, survival, hatred, fear – from bare human emotions to grand worldwide conflicts. And it is about time, and how it affects everything in the most epic proportions…

THE CHARACTERS: It is through Essun’s eyes that we experience this world throughout the series, told largely in second-person perspective. She is a beautiful character and the best thing about this book for me – many fantasy stories today showcase powerful and flawless heroines that seem to exist to make a stand. (Two years ago, I had many speculative fiction magazines reject my first story, The Dew Eagle, because the main character, a tribal woman, didn’t seem strong enough, whatever that means.) Essun is strong. She is also flawed, and not always aware of her shortcomings – her temper, her ideas of motherhood, her selfish pursuits. She is not always in control, of herself or her surroundings. And  the story demands that you relate to her, identify with her, because she is ‘you.’

The Broken Earth Trilogy is reminiscent of Earthsea in its conspicuous lack of whitewashing. The characters, spread across different communities in the Stillness, are of different race, colour and sexuality – Jemisin takes great care in describing the characters as both individuals and representatives of their creed. And she tackles the prejudices present in the characters carefully as well – giving us a truly well-rounded believable world, not without its faults, but overall, understandably so. Perhaps the biggest achievement for Jemisin is that you cannot characterize any of her characters as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’; that kind of black-and-white judgment absent in her writing. Our characters range from prudent and self important, to impulsive and lacking in faith – and they’re all simply trying to survive, one way or the other. This is not a moral story, not a preaching session. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Any lessons are for you to deduce.

QUOTES: At this juncture, my own words fail me and I resort to good ol’ fashioned quotage:
“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine. But this is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. For the last time.”


“But human beings, too, are ephemeral things in the planetary scale. The number of things that they do not notice are literally astronomical.”

“Life cannot exist without the Earth.Yet there is a not-unsubstantiated chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth. We’ve come close a few times. That can’t happen. We cannot be permitted to win.”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip Dick

Warning – Minor spoilers: but none for the plot. I am very glad to have heard of this book only through Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls, though this should have given me a clue of its cult status. But I don’t suppose watching Blade Runner would have pushed me to read the book, so I am quite happy I hadn’t.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick reminds me of a Terry Pratchett quote… “What would humans be without love? Rare.”
The story begins far into the future when most of the life on our planet has been wiped out by a plague of dust. Man has colonized Mars and nearly everyone has left the planet Earth to live on the colonies. Many people in the world have been contaminated by the dust, altered to become something not quite human, not quite right. These are called ‘specials’. Still on Earth with the specials are certain people like our protagonist whose jobs have kept them back.
Technology has advanced to such an extent now that it is impossible to tell the difference between man and machine by simple physical appearance. The only thing that androids lack and humans have is the power of empathy. The colonies are run with the help of android-slaves, who have a habit of disappearing and running off. The Earth police are equipped with a technology that can determine humanity and android-ness based on reactions to certain psychological stimuli. Very simply put, this device measures how many seconds it takes one to wince when someone gorily describes murder or animal slaughter.
Rick Deckard is an Earthling and a bounty-hunter, whose job it is to catch and terminate any androids which have illegally alighted on the planet by escaping from the colonies on Mars. When a new type of android arrives which may fool the police technology, Rick begins to wonder what empathy really is. The androids he meets in his hunt test the limits and possibilities of his sense of empathy, and he wonders how well a judge it can be of humanity. Could a robot feel empathy? Could a human love a robot? Must a human possess empathy?
Through the book, introducing us to newer concepts and characters of this world along the way, the author asks and explores these questions. A world where electric animals are bred as pets, because most live species are extinct. A ‘special’ who cannot tell a live animal from a fake. A man who decides to help out a band of escaped androids. A robot who believes it is human. A machine to control and assign moods. Whatever does it mean to be human?
This is an excellent read. What Dick lacks in poetry of language, he makes up for in linguistic inventiveness. One of the non-living monsters of Dick’s world is “kibble” which is the word for odds and ends accumulated over time, any useless ‘stuff.’ He says our lives are full of it and it wreaks degradation in our lives. When no one is around, he says, kibble reproduces itself. It’s material chaos. This is just one example of the words that he has derived for this world. An elaborate “diktionary” of his terms is available online – a must read to get a taste of his writing.
The major theme is life and survival, and it also focuses of religion, popular culture and marginalization. Unlike most dystopian fiction, this does not have a ‘hero against  the system’ plot. Even so, I am a little tired of bleak futures, and would like recommendations of science fiction books with brighter todays and tomorrows. Or something that is set in the future but has a different immediate conflict, like Asimov’s initial Robots mysteries. I’d like something of that sort to be the next book I read for the Science Fiction Experience 2017

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

SO I have no intention of ever reading the Game of Thrones books; not out of a sense of I’m-too-good-for-it, but rather, Who-has-the-time? But I was curious about Martin’s style, so I have been meaning to get this book for a while now. Fevre Dream is a vampire story, which is much more up my alley than chain-mail-clad sword-brandishing fantasy, anyway. Written in 1982, this book is what one might call steampunk science fiction.
Summary: It is the story of a steamboat captain named Abner Marsh who is commissioned to construct a new boat by Joshua York, a strange beautiful gentleman and businessman who wishes to be his partner. The magnificent new steamboat is called the Fevre Dream and it is Abner Marsh’s dream to make it the fastest running vessel on the Mississippi. Part of Abner Marsh’s contract with York is to stay out of his away, no questions asked about York’s nocturnal habits or the strange company he keeps. Abner Marsh is more than eager to accept York’s conditions for the chance to captain his dream boat. That is, until he begins to discover a strange pattern to York’s secrets. A rumour floats upstream… vampire.
Meanwhile, in a small settlement along the Mississippi lies a haunted house. A house inhabited by such monsters that no slave is ready to work there, no guest returns alive. The property is run by Damien Julian, who calls himself the bloodmaster of his clan. As the neighbouring town turns against the demonic presence in their house, the ancient Damien Julian sends out his clan to find accommodation elsewhere. And a couple of them just happen to board the Fevre Dream.
“The very one, Abner. An astounding man. I had the good
fortune to meet him once. Our steamboat put me in mind of a poem he once
wrote.” York began to recite.

She walks in Beauty,
like the night
Of cloudless climes
and starry skies;
And all that’s best of
dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and
her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that
tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy
day denies.

“What shall we name
her?” York asked, his eyes still fixed on the boat, and a slight smile on his
face. Does the poem suggest anything? I had in mind something like Dark Lady,
or—”

“I had somethin’ in mind myself,” Marsh said. “We’re Fevre
River Packets, after all, and this boat is all I ever dreamed come true.” He
lifted his hickory stick and pointed at the wheelhouse. “We’ll put it right
there, big blue and silver letters, real fancy. Fevre Dream.” He smiled.

For a moment, something strange and haunted moved in Joshua
York’s gray eyes. Then it was gone as swiftly as it had come. “Fevre Dream,” he
said. “Don’t you think that choice a bit… oh, ominous? It suggests
sickness to me, fever and death and twisted visions. Dreams that… dreams
that should not be dreamed, Abner.”
My thoughts: To me, a well written speculative fiction contributes to the existing lore, offers an alternate. (To me, for instance, the ‘vampires don’t come out in the sun as they sparkle and stand out’ bit of the Twilight series is the least of its faults because of its sheer innovation. Did anyone ever even consider that the sun did not in fact harm vampires directly but made them more conspicuous?) In this aspect of lore-feeding, Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin fares rather excellently. The vampires of Fevre Dream are not supernatural, but rather a distinct race – humanoid yet different. A race afflicted by a thirst which might just find itself a cure in science.
The popular vampire myth is steeped in Christian ritual. The vampire is a reanimated corpse that rests in its coffin, leaves it at dusk, can be repelled with the cross, may not enter a church, gets burnt by holy water. Take all that away and what is left may not be a vampire at all. Hindu mythology speaks of batlike demon creatures but they bear only a vague resemblance to our walking dead. Like all recent vampire mythology, Martin’s story is a fight of good versus evil. It is also very Christian, but in a different way. Martin tells the story of Joshua York as a messiah come to free the vampires of their curse, the Pale King come to lead them to a newer tomorrow.
On a more meta-level, Martin’s story is a fight between the popular contemporary myth and the old darker one. I have heard of Martin writing morally ambiguous characters. Here, however, there is a clear black and white, which serves its (unintended?) purpose. On the one hand, you have Joshua York, beautiful and alluring, leading a civilized life and on the other, Damien Julian, blood master, a frightening creature wrought with pure evil and destruction. The vampire myth has adapted itself to the needs and likes of every generation and Martin’s story tests our allegiance. It does not leave you with a satisfying ending, but rather, drags you along till you make a choice – which is more enduring? The tragic prince-turned-Beast or the terrible monster? I chose the latter. Abner March, loyal to the end, remained alongside the beautiful and tragic Joshua York; the perfect friendship.
Fevre Dream is engaging; a surprise, for its size is tremendous. Martin’s lengthy descriptions of characters and their physical appearances bored me. Literary references abound, with Shelley and Byron being particular favourites of Joshua York. But the atmosphere of steamboat racing, breaking the chains of slavery, bubbling invention is a fantastic capture. The writing loses its way sometimes, gives in to gimmickry, but on the whole, it pulls you in. I have been chewing on this review for a long time, and one thing is clear, the book has left an imprint on my thoughts, if not always a positive one. 
Accidentally slitting my hand on a knife yesterday may have played a major part in pushing my opinion in favour of Martin’s book; the uncaring spillage of blood in modern vampire stories, its supposed beauty, now brings a particularly bitter taste, and having a young man or woman lust sacrificially after the metaphorical knife seems plainly objectionable. Dracula makes more sense than Prince Lestat, and Fevre Dream lets you pit one against the other.

The Dead Zone by Stephen King


‘My daughter,’ Bannerman agreed softly. ‘I think she passed within forty feet of that …
that animal. You know what that makes me feel like?’
‘I can guess,’ Johnny said.
‘No, I don’t think you can. It makes me feel like I almost stepped into an empty elevator
shaft. Like I passed up the mushrooms at dinner and someone else died of toadstool
poisoning. And it makes me feel dirty. It makes me feel filthy. I guess maybe it also
explains why I finally called you. I’d do anything right now to nail this guy. Anything at
all.’
A little while ago, I was telling someone how Stephen King writes more than *just horror.* You know, one of my usual rants. In the foreground of that conversation, I am all the more happy I chose to read The Dead Zone. Published in 1979, it is one of his older books and has that experimental style. I don’t know how I missed it for so long.
The Dead Zone is about a man named Johnny Smith, who once gets in a life-altering car accident. Johnny is a man who is shown to have possessed a strong sense of intuition since his childhood. But is after he wakes up from a nearly five-year-long coma, that his intuition has blown into a full-fledged clairvoyance. Johnny has sustained unusual brain injuries that may be the cause of his psychic ability. He can sense the past, the future and worm out people’s secrets. But there are some things that he can never reach – and these he says lie in a damaged part of his brain which he calls ‘the dead zone.’ With the help of his ageing father, Herb and his doctor, Sam Weizak, the book follows Johnny as he attempts to lead a normal life in spite of his new extra-normality. Life, however, has other plans for him.
Meet Greg Stillson. An aggressive obnoxious salesman-turned-businessman who nurtures an ambition to one day run for President. Avoiding straight answers, making ludicrous promises, loud gestures – these are some of Stillson’s specialties. His rallies are led by gangs of bikers for an audience of mindless fanatics. His is a nearly farcical exterior that helps hide the beast underneath. Greg Stillson is a dangerous man masquerading as a joker. The true extent of his breed of terror is revealed to Johnny Smith when he shakes hands with Stillson, and gets a dreadful vision. The Dead Zone is very much about the politics of its time – yet it couldn’t be any more relevant in today’s world. In fact, look what Stephen King tweeted earlier this year, “Populist demagogues like He Who Must Not Be Named aren’t a new thing; see THE DEAD ZONE, published 37 years ago.”
King does not let you take the driver’s seat in this story. You cannot guess what will happen, I don’t think you are supposed to. The Dead Zone is as unpredictable and meandering as real life. It is at once a murder mystery, a horror story, a family saga, a political thriller, a psychological drama and a blossoming love story. It is all of these and none of these. Its characters are its lifeline, not its plot. At its core, it is simply the story of a man dealing with what life throws his way and trying to make the best out of it. A good man who has been dealt a bad hand. It is a story of redemption and forgiveness, it is a story that makes you love its simplicity, until it goes and shocks the hell out of you. 
“The same chipped angels year after year, and the same tinsel star on top; the tough surviving platoon of what had once been an entire battalion of glass balls. And when you looked at the ornaments you remembered that there had once been a mother in the place to direct the tree-trimming operation, always ready and willing to piss you off by saying ‘a little higher’ or ‘a little lower’ or ‘I think you’ve got too much tinsel on that left side, dear.’ 

You looked at the ornaments and remembered that just the two of you had been around to put them up this year, just the two of you because your mother went crazy and then she died, but the fragile Christmas tree ornaments were still here, still hanging around to decorate another tree taken from the small back woodlot. 

Sure, that’s right, God’s a real prince. God’s a real sport. He’s such a sport that he fixed up a funny comic-opera world where a bunch of glass Christmas tree globes could outlive you. Neat world, and a really first-class God in charge of it.”

I mentioned an experimental style before… The book has a strange narrative flow. An unreliable narrator we don’t know we have until the story begins to sound like an unfinished puzzle. We have letters and newspaper clippings and a chunk of story shoved into a mind-blowing epilogue. Surprises, surprises, so many of them. His writing breaks all the norms and so well, it makes you wonder why there are any rules at all. Recently I saw an interview with Stephen King where he said something to the effect that he doesn’t want people to read his books for their language, or their message or whatever. What he wants is to just reach out and grab his reader. He did, here. He always has.

(Let this be part of R.I.P XI which pulled me back to horror after a far-too-long hiatus.)

Embassytown by China Mieville

Note: This post may look like it contains spoilers, but rest assured, it doesn’t. This is not a review. This is a book I do not consider myself adept to review. But I do want to mention it on the blog, if only as a recommendation, and spend maybe a moment here dwelling on its genius. There is so much to say about Embassytown that I wouldn’t know where to begin. The world Mieville has created is intense and nearly disorienting in its detail. I have a feeling that just its basic premise would suffice to make you want to read it. Because if it does, you’re in for a hell of a ride. I hope it does…

Concept: In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet called Arieka. On the planet of Arieka, humans and other exotic extraterrestrials co-exist with the indigenous Ariekei. The Ariekei are bizarre looking creatures with two wings, many hairy legs and two mouths which they use together to speak. The language of the Ariekei, simply called Language is unique in many ways and comprises speech units that are like two words spoken at once, one with each mouth.


In Language, unlike in our languages, there is complete non-arbitrary sound-meaning correlation, in that:


For humans, say red and it’s the reh and the eh and the duh combined, those phonemes in context, that communicate the colour. That is not how it is for the Ariekei. The sounds aren’t where the meaning lives. Language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen. 

For the Ariekei, a word that is not meant is only noise. So anything that is unknown to the Ariekei cannot be said, because it cannot be meant. With their perfectly referential language, the Ariekei cannot lie, or even speculate. The closest they can come to making allusions is by inducting humans into Language to function as rhetorical devices: making them undergo bizarre ordeals to turn them into human similes that then become part of Language. Lying is a thrill to the Ariekei, who compete at Festivals of Lies to see who can most closely approximate speaking an untruth, an act which is considered impossible and also, highly taboo. 
Embassytown describes a revolution. It’s the story of Avice Brenner Cho, a human simile, who is “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given her.” It is the story of how the simile turns into a metaphor. Of how the Ariekei learn to symbolise, how the Ariekei learn to write, and how they learn to lie. It is a political fable about the power of words. 

My reaction: Normally I like to keep this blog gif-free, but this is hard to resist. His expression does perfectly capture my reaction to this book. I’ve read it thrice over, cover to cover, since December, and I’m blown away…


On language: As a new linguistics student and a long-time language enthusiast, I am delighted by Embassytown as a rumination on human language. These are rough notes I’ve made in my diary, often in the last dull minutes of my morphology class, mulling over the book that a part of me hasn’t stopped mulling over in months:
Embassytown is sort of an evolutionary story, as the Ariekei go from being vessels of their language to creatures who possess the capacity of self-aware expression. Does lying make us human? A strangely fitting detail in the book is that it is when the Ariekei learn to lie that they learn to write, scratching primitive marks on the ground, even as Avice pictures them soon holding pens in their giftwings. It begs the question – when did humans go from describing what they saw to predicting what they didn’t or couldn’t actually witness? 
It is fascinating that once the Ariekei understand lies, they can no longer tell the truth like they used to. It changes their perspective of the world, of language, and in a biblical fashion, there appears a shift in their understanding of right and wrong. Embassytown puts forth the most obvious and difficult questions of truth and morality. What, really, is left of the meaning of the word truth without the concept of a lie. 
On weird fiction: Apparently Mieville insists on his writing being labelled as weird fiction. That brings to mind Lovecraft, above all others. Weird is a genre I associate, on an instinct, with fantasy. Kraken would fit that description, it was a strange book that I never particularly enjoyed. Embassytown, if I had to, I would say, is classic old-fashioned science fiction; even though I haven’t read enough sci-fi to make that distinction, I have an intuition about this, it has a feel. A linguistics thriller, I saw it called somewhere – what a delicious description. One of my pet words on this blog is genre-defying. Embassytown, rather, is genre-defining, I’d say, a highly recommended read for those of us who love earnest stories that take themselves seriously. 

(from Reveling in Genre: An Interview with China Mieville)
There’s simultaneously something rigorous and something playful in genre. It’s about the positing of something impossible—whether not-yet-possible or never-possible—and then taking that impossibility and granting it its own terms and systematicity. It’s carnivalesque in its impossibility and overturning of reality, but it’s rationalist in that it pretends it is real. And it’s that second element which I think those who dip their toes in the SF pond so often forget. They think sf is “about” analogies, and metaphors, and so on. I refute that—I think that those are inevitable components, but it’s the surrendering to the impossible, the weird, that characterizes genre. Those flirting with SF don’t surrender to it; they distance themselves from it, and have a neon sub-text saying, “It’s okay, this isn’t really about spaceships or aliens, it’s about real life,” not understanding that it can be both, and would do the latter better if it was serious about the former


On book reviews: Every once in a while I come across a book that leaves me breathless, heady, asking questions, wanting more. It is at times like these that a part of me is thankful for places like Goodreads and blogs, where I find other passionate responses to stories and get to share mine. A part of me is also anxious, this is the part that has to summon all my thoughts to one place, organize and flesh them out with coherence before committing words to post. Surely I couldn’t possibly do justice to a great book and I’m wary of the idea of me commenting as if an expert on a work of genius. And then I remind myself that Tabula Rasa is a book review blog only for the convenience of the term, when actually it is a book appreciation blog. Thus reassured, I proceed to gush, and swoon, and rant, and end up with posts, like this, that are typically disorganized but on the whole, heartfelt.

Blindness by José Saramago

STORY: An epidemic of blindness. What a horrible concept. At the very start of Blindness by José Saramago, a man goes blind, waiting in his car at a traffic signal. One moment he has perfect sight, and the next, all he can see is light, pure whiteness. No explanations given. Then, we see the blindness spread like wildfire. The first blind man is taken home by a helpful man, only to be taken advantage of. The apparently kind helper, who ends up stealing the first blind man’s car, meets his fate a while later: when he turns blind too. The first blind man, meanwhile, pays his ophthalmologist a visit. The doctor is confused – there is nothing wrong with his eyes, no medical reason why he should be blind. That evening, the doctor discusses his strange patient with his wife. After dinner, while pondering over the case, the doctor goes blind too. All around the city, patients who had been in the clinic with the first blind man lose their sight.
The doctor informs the authorities, who once they get over their disbelief, are quick to act. Quarantine. When the ambulance arrives to take the doctor to the quarantine, the doctor’s wife is unable to bear separating from her husband. She claims to have also lost her sight and accompanies him to the asylum for the blind. Through the eyes of the one woman who can see, we see the society of blind, as the people descent into savagery, akin to those in Lord of the Flies, but adults, with no one coming to rescue them.
STYLE: To give you an idea of the style of writing, let me quote something the doctor’s wife, the woman who sees, says.
Now we are all equal regarding good and evil, please, don’t
ask me what good and what evil are, we knew what it was each time we had to act
when blindness was an exception, what is right and what is wrong are simply
different ways of understanding our relationships with the others, not that
which we have with ourselves, one should not trust the latter, forgive this
moralising speech, you do not know, you cannot know, what it means to have eyes
in a world in which everyone else is blind, I am not a queen, no, I am simply
the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see
it.
No question marks, no quotation marks, not exclamation points, no full stops and almost never any indents – that’s how the book is written. It is difficult to get accustomed to, difficult to make head or tail of. Take away the order in the writing and we end up, like the people in the book, with a mess that the best of us find difficult to wade through. Like a blind man groping in the dark for familiarity and meaning, we stumble through the labyrinth of words, feeling out sentences, mentally inserting punctuation, trying to make some coherence of the jumble. The style is genius and makes reading Blindness an incredible experience in itself. 
CHARACTERS: The characters have no names.
Fear can cause blindness, said the girl with dark glasses,
Never a truer word, that could not be truer, we were already blind the moment
we turned blind, fear struck us blind, fear will keep us blind, Who is speaking,
asked the doctor, A blind man, replied a voice, just a blind man, for that is
all we have here. Then the old man with the black eyepatch asked, How many
blind persons are needed to make a blindness, No one could provide the answer.
There you go, that’s them. The main characters of this book are: the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the first blind man, the first blind man’s wife, the girl with dark glasses, the man with the black eyepatch, the boy with the squint. No names, just physical descriptions, like identification markers. And they’re as evocative as character names can get. You can just picture them by their names. It’s convenient; except, irony: they’re all blind. While they don’t bother with names or outward appearances, all we can know them by is the outer shells. Again: genius. The book plays tricks on you, and it’s difficult not to let them get to you. 
THEMES: I haven’t even come close to figuring it all out. I’m still processing, having finished the book only a couple of days ago. For me, the book is about what it means to be human. Watching society as we know it collapse is horrific; but what makes you keep reading is the hope. The little gestures of love, affection and kindness; the old man with the black eyepatch finding love, the first blind man sympathising the man who stole his car. Their white blindness makes the people see the world in a new light, see things for what they truly are. The reason for the blindness hardly matters, and it’s never touched upon why that one woman (the doctor’s wife) remains sighted; it is understood that they always were unseeing, even when not blind. The book is harrowing, brutally honest and can sweep you up in its wisdom and leave you feeling exhausted and in awe. 
It’s also not for everybody. There is violence. Gory details about things that you’d rather pretend didn’t exist are thrust in your face. To read this book, you can’t afford to be blind to what’s right there in front of you, the book won’t allow you that luxury. Blindness by José Saramago is not a book you can read in a matter of days, or grasp in one read. It’s an effort, but in the end I think it’s worth it. It’s the first book to actually make me cry.

The Nightmare of Black Island by Mike Tucker

“Lewis Carroll. He was an odd one. Real name was Charles
Lutwidge Dodgson. Completely denied having anything to do with the Alice books.
Daft as a brush. You’d have liked him! Loved inventing words. Ever read Jabberwocky?
Loads of good words in there. “Tulgy”, “whiffling”, “galumphing”. And “burbled”. How come “burbled” gets to be in the Oxford English Dictionary but “tulgy” doesn’t? Hm?'”

My first Doctor Who novel. Late, I know. But the idea of books based on TV series has always made me uncomfortable. The annoying Buffy Season 8* did nothing to help; but if I write about that, I’ll probably burst into angry flames. These, though, are highly addictive, I have since read two more, the third arrives any day now!

Summary: On a lonely stretch of Welsh coastline, a fisherman is
killed by a hideous creature from beneath the waves. When the Doctor and Rose
arrive, they discover a village where the children are plagued by nightmares,
and the nights are ruled by monsters. The villagers suspect that ancient
industrialist Nathanial Morton is to blame, but the Doctor has suspicions of
his own. Who are the ancient figures that sleep in the old priory? What are the
monsters that prowl the woods after sunset? What is the light that glows in the
disused lighthouse on Black Island? As the children’s nightmares get worse, the
Doctor and Rose discover an alien plot to resurrect an ancient evil…
My thoughts: Mike Tucker has captured the voice of Rose and the Tenth Doctor perfectly nicely, giving them just those sort of quirky Doctor Who moments we love. The prose, though, is oversimplified: filled with page-long descriptions and little character depth. Since we already know the characters, and the imagery is very apt and vivid, that style of writing works in his favour. Where there is little plot movement, the spooky atmosphere keeps you engaged. The children, the nightmares, the creepy man in the wheelchair, the angry Ms. Peyne: the book has all the elements of horror. The ending is a bit unsurprising and sensationalized; but it also just somehow works. The whole book reads like an hour long episode, and it’s easy to ignore that little predictability. I suppose these books would make great reads for someone whose default state isn’t in a book. If you love the Tenth Doctor like I do, and have a hard time getting involved in books, read this. The Nightmare of Black Island is quick, funny, original and exciting.
I’d been too busy this month to read anything other than that one book I read weeks ago. What with little time and lots of work, this was just the guilty-pleasure-YA break I needed.

*Another Buffy connection: There is an audio version of this read by Anthony Stewart Head, but I’m not the biggest fan of audiobooks, and his voice still says Giles, and that just wouldn’t have seemed right.

Let’s assume I read this for the 2014 Science Fiction Experience. The other books I’ve read for this event are Time and Again by Jack Finney, and three dystopian short stories by E.M. Forster, Jack London and Kurt Vonnegut. Sadly, I only just found Timescape by Gregory Benford, and I doubt I could finish reading it in a day!

Time and Again by Jack Finney

I can’t believe I let almost an entire month go by before I posted anything, but having had to choose between the blog and the book (time constraints and all that) I naturally chose the latter. That being said, I’ve been able to read very few books this new year, that is to say, I’ve finished only one. This. But what a book.
Stephen King called Time and Again the great time travel novel at the end of what I’d then thought was the great time travel novel. Needless to say, he was right.
Time and Again by Jack Finney is essentially a mystery. And the story is driven by that very curiosity, that pressing need to find out what happened, to piece together a puzzle no matter how little or inconsequential. When artist Simon Morley is recruited by the government to take part in a highly classified experiment to go back in time, he chooses to go to New York, in the winter of 1882. Why? To trace a mysterious letter that drove his girlfriend’s grandfather to suicide. Again, why? Because something so curiously small in scope is just what they need as Si’s project: to see if making a largely inconspicuous change in history alters the present, to see if the experiment could be used to increase our understanding and knowledge of the past, mostly because, why not?
Of course, while the plot would kind of collapse without this mystery (What did the letter that made Andrew Carmody kill himself really contain and who sent it?) at its heart, the book is about New York city. Of the present day, which in case of this book is 1970 and of the past. To someone who has actually been to New York, I’m not sure how the book will read; but to me it is fascinating and vivid. The descriptions are accompanied by illustrations, in the form of oldish photos and sketches that Si makes. Comparing the descriptions with the pictures is endlessly intriguing; the atmosphere couldn’t have been better translated into words. When in 1882, Si falls in love, it’s not with the one woman but with the entire city and who wouldn’t?
Finally, I love the sheer simplicity of this concept of time travel. In Time and Again, feeling that you are a
part of January 1882, brushing away all your awareness of the present century
and replacing it with the past, convincing yourself that you are travelling in
time, that 1882 is your present, is the key to going back. As is explained to Si, our present is the constant
subconscious awareness we get from all the knowledge fed into us and around us
and all our modern surroundings and memories. Without this knowledge or
with the ability to extract ourselves from this constant certainty, to remove
the continuous feeding of ‘presentness’ into our subconscious, we might find
ourselves in the past. Time travel in this book involves a self hypnosis of sorts, under the right conditions.
And I love the history that Si lives. When he first sees a man up close in 1882, he is taken aback by how real he looks, how not-out-of-a-photograph his face is, red from the cold, and how he surely looks at the world from the eyes of someone from the nineteenth century without even being aware of it. I loved how Si blurts out to a driver that there should have been traffic signals. How he finds the furniture old fashioned and then a moment later, realizes the irony. It is amazing that when they make Si study the past, they make him look not at rags saved up in a museum but things that are just as new but different from today – beautiful things women would actually want to wear, the shoes, the dresses.

The ending: that’s just the most amazing thing. I felt bad there was a sequel. I don’t see myself reading it. This, on the other hand, I’d recommend to everyone. Hasn’t the length of this post already convinced you? Get the book here.

The 2014 Science Fiction Experience

I’m not your biggest expert in science fiction, not having read most of the bests. So undecided as I was about what to read for The 2014 Science Fiction Experience, which has begun already this month, I downloaded all the free science fiction short stories and novellas available on my phone. So far, I’ve read three.

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London: This is supposed to be a classic dystopian; the book description called it a post apocalyptic fiction novel. To me, it seemed less like a novel and more like the basic framework of a novel. Set in the year 2072, the story follows an old man, Professor Howard James Smith, the only survivor from the old world and his savage grandsons. The old man tells them the story of the scarlet plague, which, ironically, struck the world in 2013 and wiped most living creatures off the earth. The savages listen to the old man’s detailed descriptions with disbelief, dismiss his complex language as the ravings of a mad man as the once Professor Smith mulls over the fate of civilization.
This book made hardly a story, narrated mostly in flashback. If it really were one of the first dystopians ever written, I can understand the charm. It is ingenious and does make you wonder. But the fact is, now, for the most part, it seems like a dull narration, put in contrast with many post apocalyptic stories I really like. It is too short to be called a novel (made me wonder if that slim Call of the Wild copy of mine is in fact, unabridged) and recommended, I guess, only to fans of the author.
The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster: This is a short story set in a future world where people live wholly underground with everything they need provided to them in their solitary cells. The only contact with the surface of the earth is during flights, but people prefer not to travel unless absolutely necessary, and when they do, they’re mostly uncomfortable and nearly always, scared of the view. The only activity people do is share their ideas through machine messages. This Machine, which runs their lives, has slowly gained a mystical, godly image and people have begun to revere it. One of these people is the main character, Vashti, who is invited by her son Kuno to visit her, out of the blue. He turns out to be a rebel and Vashti’s reluctant visit leads to her shocking discovery that Kuno has been to the surface of the earth, illegally.
If all this sounds just too obvious for your liking, consider this: the story was written in 1909. I know quite a few people who didn’t like Howard’s End much, but I seem to be very comfortable with Forster’s writing style. For a book written more than a hundred years ago, it is quite perceptive of the future and the characters and interactions so aptly and simply put will certainly strike a chord with today’s readers. If our machines stopped, would we be able to survive? In a few pages, the story makes you rethink a lot of your basic assumptions about the world and yourself. You can read it online here
2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut: 2BR02B, with the 0 read as ‘naught’, is a very short story, a brilliant satire about a future where they’ve found a cure for aging. What would happen if, like in this new world, the government took up the responsibility for administering all births and deaths? It goes like this: for every person to be allowed to be born into the world, one person has to volunteer to die.
This story was very Kurt Vonnegut. Dark, hilarious and abrupt. It took me only a couple of minutes to read this, it was over even before it really began and I found myself chuckling at the end! Basically: I loved it. Go read it here.
I’d say this was a good start to the challenge, and I mostly want to read short stories and novellas for now.