Saturday, May 23, 2015

Science fiction trots the globe : Satyajit Ray from Bengal and Sergei Snegov from Russia


Imagine a society where the pursuit of happiness lies in the search for the absolute average, in the banishment of hyper- and sub-normalities, and the imposition of the norm with total prejudice. Where the leaders of society are individuals whose deviations from the societal average lie within a millionth of the tolerance bars. Where novelty is taboo, and innovations are censured. And then imagine such a society existing in a distant planet encircling a class M red dwarf star where the inhabitants are logical, rational, and highly mean-seeking human-sized violet-coloured bioluminescent grasshoppers.


Yep. Grasshoppers. Giant, violet, glowing grasshoppers. Rational ones, too. With a penchant for the mediocre.

I'll return to the Günterhoppers later1.

*

Imagine a planet-sized spaceship where the inhabitants number in the billions. Imagine this planet-arkship drifting through the inky coldness of the cosmos, and encountering the solar system on its merry stroll. Imagine it coming close enough to an errant asteroid for its controls to malfunction, for it to be thrown hopelessly off-track and crashlanding onto Earth. Without causing significant damage to Earth itself, thanks to it being as large as a standard football2. The arkship, naturally mistaken for something-that-looks-like-a-football-but-is-probably-not, is rescued one fine morning from the mudbanks of the local river and delivered to the, and for the, study of the local genius scientist and inventor, Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku. Shonku is astounded to find it to have a self-contained seasonal cycle that lasts one day, each twenty four hours having winter at midnight, spring at dawn, summer at midmorning and autumn/fall in the late afternoon. Tapping into a microsound magnifier device invented by Shonku himself, the inhabitants of the tiny world reveal that they are dying, trapped in the airless display box of Shonku's laboratory, and request to be let out. They also reveal that they are essentially sentient viruses, and could, and probably would, wipe off humanity in three months. Shonku is left debating which billion-strong civilisation to save.


*


When it comes to science fiction, the first names that come to mind are almost inevitably Wells and Verne from the nineteenth century, Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein and le Guin and Crichton from the twentieth, and a spate of modern, very capable writers. Most of these writers have written primarily in English, Verne being a notable exception whose translated works are of course ubiquitous. However, science fiction written in other languages do exist, and in some cases, have thrived for years.


The first paragraph above is a brief summary of one of the stories from Ambassador Without Credentials, a collection of closely-connected science fiction stories by the Russian author Sergei Snegov. The setting is twenty-fifth century Earth, and the protagonists are the physicist brothers Roy and Henry who investigate "baffling phenomena in space and society that were a threat to humankind". The twelve stories follow Roy and Henry's lives in a progressive manner, with the previous ones (episodes?) affecting the latter ones, evoking the structure of a season of something like Doctor Who. Roy is the cool-headed abstract thinking machine, while Henry is the impetuous one prone to intellectual leaps and depression. The plots are surprisingly strong, with a bizarre and extremely well-thought collection of science fiction ideas that focus perhaps a little less on the hard science and more on a study of the human psyche, both individual and societal.


The second3 paragraph is the summary of Golok Rohoshyo (The Mystery of the Sphere), one of the nearly forty-odd stories featuring the scientist-cum-inventor-cum-adventurer Professor Shonku. Shonku, sometimes assisted by his scientist friends Saunders and Kroll, encounters adventures around the world — some life-threatening, some less so — which he solves (or escapes from) using his inventions, his wit, and scientific genius. The plots, though not often very scientifically accurate, nevertheless are gripping and often quite strong. Inspired in part by Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger sans his domineering aggressiveness, Shonku is one of the iconic4 characters created by Satyajit Ray, a man perhaps better known in the world as a master of the cinematic medium. Ray was a prolific writer of short stories of surprising depth, and was reportedly once planning a Hollywood version of his The Alien, a script that later formed the inspiration for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by a certain Mr Spielberg.

The similarities between Snegov's Roy & Henry and Ray's Shonku is their willingness and passion to solve problems using scientific ingenuity rather than violent means, a trait perhaps similar to a certain madman in a blue box.


*


Back to the Günterhoppers.


Roy is called to Leonia, home planet to the Günterhoppers5, to assist Kron Kwama, a sociologist specialising in decadent civilisations. There, the two of them devise a machine that will snip off sick and infirm Leonians from the calculation of the average and thus slowly raise the norm bar over a period of generations. Kwama is hopeful that the society will get back on its own six feet and two glowing wings, and Roy leaves a satisfied man. The action concludes here, there of course being none to begin with. Roy and Henry then team up to solve Fermat's Last Theorem6 by peeking into Pierre's notebook, chase away murderous mental phantom projections, try out a happiness machine, investigate a man who could walk through walls, and another who had attained immortality. All about five centuries before Shonku invented a medicine that can cure all ailments7, the miracurall.




1 Sorry, couldn't help myself.
2 Soccer, for those in the States. Not the oval thing. The round thing.
3 Well, the fourth, technically.
4 Well, in this part of the world anyway.
5 Not actually called as such by the author of course. Tin drums hadn't begun sounding out lives yet.
6 The stories were published in 1989, a few years before Andrew Wiles did the job without getting a chance to peek into Fermat's margins.
7 Except cancer. Initially. Version 2.0 could.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Calcutta's College Street : A Mecca for Secondhand Books


Jim Corbett was an English hunter-turned-conservationist with a surprising knack for good prose. He specialised in hunting down man-eating big cats in the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of erstwhile British India, and his vivid descriptions have since become very popular. At least in India. Well, at least in Bengal, where I hail from.

My first introduction to Corbett was when I was six. My mother had bought a secondhand Bengali translation for me on her way back from Presidency College where she would teach Bengali literature, especially stuff that Tagore wrote. She would buy that and similar other delicious books from this quasi-mythological place called College Street where the college, and quite a few of its siblings, used to, and still do, live in1.


Lo and behold! A dozen and a solitary year later, guess who would be taking up his major in the same college? Would the myth, pardon, quasi-myth be now debubbled? Would College Street be the stuff of Borges' Library, or would it dissolve into the unanimous night? To find out, tune in next paragraph. Same article.


Okay, maybe the paragraph after. You see, we Bengali collegefolk, especially those from Calcutta (now Kolkata), have a reputation of trying very hard to be intellectuals. Which basically means we sit around all day in our kurtas and sandals and carrybags and consume tea and coffee and ciggies and discuss Kafka and Sartre and Camus and generally be Metamorphosed Anobled Outsiders2. Now all of these ingredients steady supply of fire-breathing timid intellectuals; steady supply of tepid cuppas of thrice-boiled tea; steady supply of world thought and literature in printed form were all available at the timeless Coffee House. Which of course is in...(drumroll)...College Street!4


Back to the promised paragraph.


College Street stocks books in almost every Indian language. And in English. And in Russian. And in French. And in German. Books that have gone out of print for years. Decades even. It manages to do this because of its penchant for secondhand or used books. It has one of the largest collections in this corner of the world of used books, and a predatory stroll through its dusty nooks and crannies can unearth jewels. Which cost peanuts. Well, peanuts cost more nowadays. Anyway, you gotta bargain. The auteur Satyajit Ray was known for stalking the Street with his six-foot many-inches frame and hitting pot luck on multiple occasions. Students with pocket money barely enough to scrape by would scrape through the outer too-expensive new-book-crust and reach the inner cheap but glorious mantle of secondhand texts that generations of collegegoers have put lovenotes in. Scholars and academicians would go about unearthing dusty tomes and discovering their predecessors trying to emulate the once-marginalised Fermat. And once too often, a paperback or hardcover, perhaps an old but complete Decline & Fall or a forgotten Lost Horizon, would leave its former domicile for ever, ready to sleep, perchance to dream, awaiting to be awakened. Books never die. They are simply reincarnated. They are the true observers of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be. Assuming the cosmos stays well short of the numbers 4, 5, and 1. In that order.


The boy of six, now a boy of slightly-more-than-six, closer to the inevitable end of his teenagehood, exits the gates of Presidency College. It is a warm day. The afternoon sun has turned golden. The kettles are full and boiling; the tea leaves are in; thirsting brigades wait, queueless. The soprano clatter of the enterprising photocopiers create imperfect anharmony with the baritone rattle of the lackadaisical trams. The boy sees none of this, hears none of this, feels none of this. He instead goes to the stall nearest the college gate. He sees an old, faded, yellowed, thin paperback. He asks, how much. He is replied, two hundred. He counters, five.


Sitting at the back corner window seat of the tram, homeward bound, the boy's wallet feels fifteen rupees lighter. His bag feels five ounces heavier. And Corbett stalks his Man-Eating Leopard through the jungles of Kumaon.



1 When one is little, and one hears stories, stories about stuff one digs, everything is quasi-mythological, just not too heavy on the quasi.
2 Doesn't actually mean anything. Made it up. Good pfun3.
3 Made that up too. The 'p' can be silent, if you want it to be.
4 Confetti? Fresh out. Sorry.

Monday, April 27, 2015

1Q84 (Books 1 & 2) by Haruki Murakami, a review


I published this review on Goodreads today. Here is a facsimile.

***

1Q84 (1Q84, #1-2)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Cats. Haruki Murakami loves cats. They are everywhere. They are in Kafka on the Shore, a book I have not yet read. They are in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another book I have not yet read. They are in 1Q84 (1&2), a book that I have just finished reading. Well, its first two parts anyway.

Short anecdotes within a novel that give the reader a brief break from the principal characters and yet retain a degree of relevance to the overall plot are a welcome feature, with both David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and 1Q84 (1&2) having them. In Mitchell's case, the story about the two vendors who take shelter for the night in an old temple retains at most a tenuous connection with the principal plot. Murakami, on the other hand, uses the story about the Town of Cats to great effect, it essentially being a reflection of the primary plot.

The novel begins in the year 1984 in Japan with one of the two primary protagonists, Aomame (a name that curiously means Green peas in Japanese), stuck in a traffic jam en route to an important appointment. Sensing that she will not reach in time, the taxi driver offers her a way out; she'll be able to exit the highway using an emergency staircase that not many know exists and then take the subway. Aomame ponders this while listening to the Janáček's Sinfonietta, a twenty-five minute composition from 1926. Aomame decides to take the taxi driver's suggestion and, musing on his cryptic parting remarks, climbs the barricade and descends the stairway. Thus begins her foray into wonderland, into a town of cats. As her story progresses, she realizes as the Eagles did that she can try and check out of this town of cats any time she likes, but she can never leave.

Tengo Kawana, the other primary protagonist, is looking for his place in the world. As a child and continuing into his early youth, he was hailed as a mathematical prodigy. However, that early promise has by 1984 all but fizzled out. He now teaches mathematics at a Tokyo cram school three times a week, and devotes the rest of his time to writing novels. It is he who brings the novella Air Chrysalis, written by the seventeen-year old Fuka-Eri, to the attention of the magazine editor Komatsu and points out its captivating plot. On Komatsu's insistence, Tengo reluctantly accepts a daring plan to ghostwrite the badly written novella into something that can win a debut literature award.

A reviewer of Kafka on the Shore had likened Murakami's writing to a plane taking off. The first few pages would see the plane taxiing on the tarmac, seemingly indifferent to its purpose in life and least bothered about the bored passengers it carried. Then, of course, it would line up on the take-off runway, set itself, and go! The pre-take-off acceleration would be breathtaking, taking the novice reader entirely by surprise and the experienced ones with returning thrill. And then it would take off, into the wide blue skies and its depthless expanse, where the boundaries between reality and imagination relentlessly blur.

While I perhaps wouldn't use exactly the same analogy for 1Q84 (1&2), I would compare the pacing to a fifty-over cricket match as it used to played in the late nineties and early noughties. The first few pages (the first fifteen overs) would be breezy and exciting, the middle bits slow and mildly meandering (the middle overs), with the pace picking up again towards the end (the slog overs).

Although it perhaps suffers from a case of mild lack of plot dynamics in its central portions, it uses those pages to build up the characters of Tengo and Aomame in meticulous detail, and has enough spare space to flesh out the supporting cast that include the enigmatic cat-like Fuka-Eri, the mercurial Komatsu, the intellectual Professor Ebisuno, the stately dowager, the stoic Tamaru, the tragic Ayumi, the repugnant Ushikawa, the mysterious Leader, and of course the Little People. Surrounded as they were by such varied characters, Aomame and Tengo are still essentially lonely, alienated souls, tied together in the roles they play, or will play, as the destiny holders of the world of 1Q84.

1Q84 is a world that differs from 1984 in a a few minor ways and in one very major way. Police uniforms change, mysterious US-USSR joint bases suddenly pop up on the moon, and religious sects appear out of agricultural communes. And there is an extra moon in the sky.

Murakami's narrative weaves in and out of the daily and mundane to the surreal, and as he pulls Tengo and Aomame even deeper into the rabbit hole, the readers find that they have now entered the town of cats.

Did I mention that Murakami likes cats?

Highlight :

"Ho ho", said the keeper of the beat.

"Ho ho", the six other Little People joined in.




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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Always sign above the line : Japan's surrender in WWII hits an unexpected snag

It began on December 7, 1941 amid death and destruction. It ended on September 2, 1945 in the aftermath of far greater death and destruction, amid a sombre ceremony involving ministers in top hats and bowties. And canes.

It lasted twenty-three minutes. Someone actually stood with a timepiece, probably a pocket-watch, and recorded when each event occurred.

And someone signed below the line.

*

Colonel Lawrence Moore Cosgrave was a war hero from the first world war, the recipient of two Distinguished Service Orders and the French Croix de Guerre, and the author of the book Afterthoughts of Armageddon recounting his experiences in the Great War. On the fateful day in 1945, he was acting as the Canadian liaison officer in Australia , and for some reason was the only Canadian military officer of sufficient rank1 within shouting distance of the USS Missouri, the ship on which the signing was to take place.

I'll return to the Colonel in a bit.

The Second World War, clearly the most ruinous — and the most significant — war ever fought by Homo sapiens sapiens, was not a very geographically homogeneous affair. While the Germans — aided by the Italians — were pitting their Heer, Kreigsmarine and Luftwaffe (army, navy and airforce) against the Brits and the Russians in the European fronts, the Japanese had their hands full with the Americans in the Pacific Theatre. It was all their fault really; near the end of 1941 they decided to try and bomb the Yankees into submission by successfully managing to enter Pearl Harbour into history books. By the time US troops were landing at Iwo Jima, Japanese strategists must have been looking for a save-load option. However, to the credit of their armed forces and to the ruin of their civilians, they refused to surrender. And thanks to the initiative taken by Leo Szilard, and a certain Albert Einstein which resulted in Pa taking action, US President Harry S. Truman had the means at his disposal to bring down kamikaze upon the Japanese.

Which he did. Twice.

The US copy
Having met history's most notorious overweight male adult and undersized male child, the Japanese decided to throw in the towel. Two copies of the Instrument of Surrender were made, one for the US and one for Japan. The text was drafted by the Americans, and consisted of eight short paragraphs, all brief and to-the-point. It was a two-page document, the left page devoted completely to the text and the right side containing the dotted lines.The Ceremony was scheduled to be held on the USS Missouri, an Iowa class Battleship that had entered Tokyo Bay a few days previously just for this reason.

The Japanese delegation
On the historic day, the US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz boarded the Missouri at 8 o'clock sharp, followed forty-three minutes later by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Force, and fifty-six minutes later by the Japanese representatives led by Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, who was wearing the aforementioned tophat-bowtie-cane ensemble. Gen. MacArthur took up the microphone at two minutes past nine2 and started proceedings that would take a further twenty-three minutes and would be broadcast around the world3. The Japanese representatives signed first, followed by MacArthur and Nimitz. Representatives from China, the UK, the Soviet Union, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand all signed one after the other, and the ceremony was all but over by twenty-two minutes past nine. World War II was all but over.

Well, all but over.

As I mentioned previously, the second page of the document would contain the signatures. Each signatory would be required to sign above a line, below which his designation was provided. For example, General MacArthur signed above the words "Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces", while Foreign Minister Shigemitsu signed above the words "By Command and in4 behalf of the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese Government". Our protagonist, Colonel Cosgrave, was required to sign above the line above the words "Dominion of Canada Representative".

Which he did. Splendidly.

On the US copy.

Japan's copy
On the Japanese copy, however, he managed to sign in the next slot, the one that was meant for the French representative5. Which meant that the French representative, and everyone who followed him, had to sign one slot below, with the poor New Zealand representative signing in no-man's land.

Right after the signing, the Japanese spotted the error, and pointed it out to General Sutherland, Chief-of-Staff to General MacArthur. An ordinary man would have been well within his rights, at that particular moment, to reasonably panic.

Sutherland instead took out his pen.

He then sat down at the table, and proceeded to scratch out the designations of all the representatives following Cosgrave and rewrote them, in all-caps, in the lines below. He then handed the historic document, all penned up, back to the Japanese. Who, justifiably, were not amused. So Sutherland took it back and proceeded to sign his initials against every correction. This time, the Japanese had no further complaints.

No one knows what was going through Colonel Lawrence Cosgrave's mind at that particular moment.

A mighty air-armada celebrated the signing. History's bloodiest war was finally over.

*

Hiro and Naga, war veterans, still meet at the local watering hole, share a drink, and maintain the same stunned silence. Seventy Years.

  1. https://web.archive.org/web/20121019041023/http://www.cbc.ca/news/reportsfromabroad/ellwand/20060427.html
  2. Someone had a really good pocketwatch.
  3. Radios, presumably.
  4. Seriously? "in behalf of"? I really think this should have been "on behalf of", given this.
  5. Who truly had one of the most impressive designation-name combinations I have come across : Général de Corps d'Armée Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque.



Friday, February 13, 2015

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a review


I published this review in Goodreads today. Here is a facsimile.

***

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


When I started The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I was halfway through Cloud Atlas, having met and journeyed with Adam Ewing, having been mesmerized by Robert Frobisher's symphonic personality, having been drawn into the mysteries surrounding Louisa Rey, having laughed and sympathised with the ordeals of Tim Cavendish, having been chilled to the bone yet seeing the germination of hope in the eyes of Sonmi~451, and finally having to wade through the Sloosha's Crossing and the verbalisms and complexities of Zachry's tortured mind. Cloud Atlas is an immense book, its immensity stemming not from its size, which is comprehensive, but from its sheer audacity and scale. An author who dares take on six different periods in Earth history, some historical, some contemporary, and some within the realms of imaginative masonry, and delivers them with such unerring mastery and almost supernatural artistry deserves perhaps more than a pat on his back and a tiepin, and certainly does not deserve to have his lovingly constructed masterpiece abandoned exactly halfway through. But abandon it I did, for Old George's charm and the lexicon of the people of Sloosha became a little miresome. I was rather taken in by Mitchell's style and sense of unrestrained audacity, and decided to pursue a different book; perhaps to compare, perhaps to recover. I found Thousand Autumns, and the prologue interested me, for it was about Japan, and topics pertaining to Nippon and its people have, for a long time, held a strange fascination for me.

A major part of Thousand Autumns is based around the years 1799-1800, when Dutch naval and maritime economic power was fading, to be overtaken and soon dominated by the near-invincible British. The setting is the trading island of Dejima, on the outskirts of the city of Nagasaki, a century and a half before Fat Man. Tokugawa-era Japan had a policy of not allowing any foreigners into their lands, and they grudgingly tolerated the presence of the Dutch on this little trading outpost, on condition that transactions would be entirely financial, and religious discourse kept to an absolute zero. Jacob de Zoet, a clerk, sails into Dejima with Unico Vortenboesch, the new Chief of Dejima. Vortenboesch seeks to overturn the corrupt practices of his predecessor Daniel Snitker, and ensure that trade flourishes once again. Jacob de Zoet, attracted to the new Chief's unbending attitude, becomes his accomplice, unwitting to some level. With a vivid principal cast such as Orito Aibagawa and Ogawa Uzaemon, and a brilliant constellation of supporting characters such as the enigmatic Doctor Marinus or the elusive Abbot enomoto, the book travels from the seaside at Dejima to the interior of Nagasaki to the mountains of Kyoga and manages to weave three very separate plots into one unified whole, the common thread between all three being the Clerk de Zoet.

Thousand Autumns does not have the audacity or the expanse of Cloud Atlas, but it does have its eye to the little details, the historical accuracies, the cultures and traditions of two very different peoples of two hundreds years past, and is sincere about how their motives and motivations are perhaps not so different from our own. In this David Mitchell tries to bring back the theme of Atlas, where too one finds a common yarn winding its way through almost five hundred years of the history of a civilisation, bringing unity in disparity, as well as pinpointing the diversities. On the flip side, the interconnectedness of the three plots can at times feel a little tenuous, and the descriptions at times a little tiring. I almost resolved to give up the book during the first few days of Mount Shiranui, but I held on and was rewarded.

Final words : A must-read if one wants to round out Mitchell's themes and styles. Three separate plotlines weave together enmeshedly. Descriptions can be academically interesting but casually frustrating at times.

Highlight : "...nownownownownownownownow..."



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Saturday, January 03, 2015

How writing evolved.

Micropost : http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/writing-evolve.htm

1984 is so last century.

I read “Ai Weiwei is Living in Our Future” in three bursts over a period of three hours or so. The first burst dealt with the bit about Weiwei, and my reaction to that was outrage mixed with a hat tip towards a wonderful man. I was aware of Weiwei’s predicament in general terms, but the part about the two guards watching over him at all times was rather unsettling. That was when I shared the article on twitter with a 1984 annotation, convinced that this was worth a read. I stopped at “Just like ventriloquists”.

When I returned to the article a little later, the tone of the article changed. From the victims of constant surveillance the author shifts to the people who carry out that surveillance, but have very little control themselves. This was new for me; I had never put myself in the shoes of the latter set of people. The next bit about face recognition and how a juggler on the run from the law for fourteen years is finally caught reminded me (ahem!) of the Hollywood movie “The Avengers”, where the villainous Loki is located using face recognition software that sifts data from cameras all over the globe in a matter of minutes. That is scary. So is Obama talking in that blue tent of his. And so is the capability of predicting what I am going to do.

And then, in the third act, we come to “meatspace”. The tracker bands. The app to track your pet. Your children. To turn off their cellphones if they don’t call back. Pavlok. Quantifying everything we do including dating. “Privacy is theft”. Google as the OmniTerra machine, a bit of a Brainiac. And we the bots feeding it. We whose emotional and moral centres are now laid bare (thanks social media) and suppressed (thanks again). The watchword is obviously Control, enforced by the nearly unstoppable flow of Information. Is there an end to it? Perhaps not. And although Weiwei talks about freedom being symbiotic to one who has experienced it, I doubt if, given the sheer scale of Control that the author has mentioned, will our next generation be allowed to ever experience it?