Saturday, 27 February 2010

TROUBLE ON TRITON BY SAMUEL R DELANY

In some ways, Triton (as this novel was titled on its initial publication, in 1976) is as much about science fiction as it is about social and political models.

The infodump or exposition is a vital part of the SF genre; it helps ground us in the imagined world of the story at hand and to contextualise those uniquely science-fictional sentences Delany is so fond of, formations like Heinlein's 'the door dilated' or a statement like 'her world exploded', which could have a much more literal meaning in a science fiction novel than in a mundane novel.

Infodumps give us the necessary context to understand things that do not gel with our everyday experience, they help understand social, political, cultural and technological elements of a story's background that are taken for granted when reading a book about our own times and our own people.

But an infodump is not necessarily informative in the strict sense; there are endless examples of SF infodumps that offer an explanation for things that we know cannot be explained because they have not happened; furthermore, the explanation probably does not have much practical value, because except in very rare cases no one has gone and done those things in the manner suggested therein (although the device or technique described may since have been developed in some different way). Instead, it is a sort of gesture, a string of words with enough familiar terms to reassure the average SF reader (defined by Delany as having the equivalent of a bright 13-year old's knowledge of science) that this is 'proper science' mixed in with enough plausible-sounding esoterica to convince that reader that something fairly authoritative has been said.

One of the first proper infodumps in this book happens when an attack has just been made on Triton, and a government official is trying to tell his companions in a men's cooperative housing building that the brief gravity failure that took place is nothing to worry about. He gives an explanation that starts by referring to things that seem to relate to 'real' science, and rapidly becomes esoteric. Them he is asked to tone it down so that a mentally-deficient person present can understand. He gives a simpler explanation that his person can understand - and even this version makes no sense on our terms if looked at closely. Just as the government agent does not really know quite what has happened, but is asserting his authority by seeming knowledgeable, Delany is giving his made-up explanation more authority by showing how even a mentally-deficient member of his future society can understand what flied over our own head. This is a very clever device, and a way to both demonstrate and practice one of the chief uses of the SF infodump.

But there are many other infodumps in this book. Some relate to a made-up discipline of metalogics - something which again has no relation to any real system of logic we might be able to conceive of, some are in the form of descriptions of dramatic pieces couched in the jargon of academic cultural studies, some relate to genetics and medicine. Others are more personal.

All the infodumps that relate to disciplines of this future world start in terms that seem to make sense, then move into more or less incomprehensible realms for a very long time - most of the mental context of these people is way, way ahead of our own, Delany seems to be implying.

And then there are the personal infodumps. These are much more comprehensible, even as they tell us things about society and politics on the different planets and sattelites of the solar system that are quite fantastic by today's standards. But on the human level, once we adjust a little, they are perfectly comprehensible.

Except that the main character of this novel, Bron Hellstrom, seems to see very different things in these personal revelations than we do. We begin by trying to empathise with what seems to be the main character and hence hero of this story. And yet, we slowly find that the people he resents are among the most integral, self-actualised and compassionate individuals he encounters, and the society he hates is a sort of libertarian utopia that in many ways seems to superior to any current earth society. This brings us to the more commonly discussed aspects of this novel - how it belongs to a dialogue on ambiguous utopias with novels like Ursula K. Le Guin's The Disposessed, how different societies offer different kinds of liberties and privileges, how much of this is governed by factors like resources and space and may not be possible or even desirable in other circumstances, and what means are justifiable to preserve a desirable way of life. There's also a commentary on gender relations and roles that is worth investigating.

Just as interestingly, Triton is a fascinating study of a completely dysfunctional individual, but one that is told almost entirely via a closely focused third person narrative that gives us this individual's thoughts and perspectives rather than anyone else's. It's easy to fall into subjectivity here, like the people who are seduced by the prose in Lolita and forget that the narrator is a deeply sick sexual predator. Delany's achievement is that Bron's anomie is made clear to us despite immersion in his viewpoint.

I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of what there is to enjoy and think about in this novel; there is a passage in one of the appendices where Delany offers a comparison of the difficulty of understanding SF versus its potential range of expression as compared to mundane fiction that evokes similar dichotomies between tonal and atonal music, representational and abstract art. This alone is a point that deserves being engaged with in detail; that odd second appendix opens up even more ideas. The whole narrative is a mine-field seeded with explosive ideas and concepts. This is a science fiction novel that does it all - engages in a dialogue with its genre, offers deep, thought-provoking world-building and gives us total character-immersion. It isn't so much that they don't write them like this anymore as that they hardly ever did, or do.

Sunday, 7 February 2010


The Shilappadikaram by Prince Ilango Adigal is the story of a doomed young couple. The husband abandons his wife for a dancer. He squanders his fortune on his mistress, breaks up with her over a somewhat petty tiff and then goes back to his wife, who naturally accepts him. Broke and disgraced, he drags her on an arduous trek to Madurai, where, using his wife's gold anklets as capital, he will start afresh. Unfortunately, in Madurai, the queen has just lost a gold anklet, so he is captured and executed while trying to pawn his wife's anklet. His wife, in a frenzy of grief, confronts the king, who, learning of this miscarriage of justice, dies of shame. Then, the girl wanders around, rips off her right breast and causes the city of Madurai to burned down in divine retribution. We are told that it is all because of past life sins - the standard Hindu explanation for anything and everything.

I really don't care much for the central story.

What I did love were the numerous vivid descriptions of *everything* - from the tuning of a musical instrument to the many weird and wonderful magical creatures and places along the way to things like the layout of the city of Madurai and the weapons and torture instruments kept at the sentry posts in its walls. No one in this story can carry on a conversation with anyone else without telling a dozen or so apropos anecdotes, and these stories-within-the-stories are a treasure trove of morally edifying and quaint folk tales. There are several interludes of song and dance where the words of all the songs everyone sings are written down, and these passages often achieve a high degree of beauty, even in a translation that seeks to preserve neither meter nor rhyme.

The translation I have is the one made by Alain Danielou for Penguin. It is full of anachronistic words, such as genii, fairies, Eros and so on, when it would have been more accurate to use the appropriate Indian word, whether it was apsara, rakshasa and so forth and footnote it the first time. The use of words from completely different traditions was extremely dissonant. I could also have done with more comprehensive introductory material, putting this work in better context, exploring tropes and storytelling devices, and with some amount of annotation - this translation has none at all.

All in all, a fascinating book for all the peripheral detail even if I thought the story itself was the sort of thing that still forms the staple of normative melodramatic cinema and television shows.

Thursday, 4 February 2010


Finished Wylder's Hand by Le Fanu last night. It was a very effective mystery story, albeit one without a sleuth, but rather a story in which a central mystery is established, hints are dropped, consequences are shown and a sustained atmosphere of suspense maintained until all is revealed in a final cataclysm. Pacing is one of Le Fanu's great strengths, and he maintains interest and tension very well over the course of about 400 pages with a cast of vivid characters, including several nasty villains, two fascinating heroines, a possibly spectral and quite oracular uncle and many others. There are interesting subplots to hold interest, several moments of wonderfully Gothic atmosphere, beautiful descriptive passages, witty and philosophical asides and enough clues being dropped throughout the novel to keep the reader constantly engaged in trying to figure it all out.

Favourite quote: on the morning after a nocturnal visit from the aforementioned uncle, the narrator declares: 'I was growing most uncomfortably like one of Mrs. Anne Radcliffe's heroes - a race of nervous demigods.'

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

curfew, drought and UFOs

Hyderabad, in the late 80s. My family lived right at the entrance to a largely Muslim neighbourhood. Our upstairs neighbours were a Mennonite Christian family and our next-door neighbours were a Muslim family. During the annual Ganesha festival, louts participating in the never-ending processions of Ganesha idols were known to occasionally vandalise Muslim homes or harass their inhabitants. I remember my mother pre-empting this by stationing herself outside our Muslim neighbours' house with a garlanded Ganesha idol.

Conflict is stronger than harmony. Communal tensions led to curfew being declared several times when I was a boy. People were not allowed out in the streets after a certain time in the evening, and even during the daytime there were police checkpoints and patrols all over the place. My father, as a journalist, was exempt.

I was never really scared; except once. Walking through the streets to a nearby market area, I reached a place where there was a barricade across the road. The policemen manning this barricade were armed with rifles. It may have been the first time I had actually seen people bearing such large weapons. I was very terrified as I approached the barricade. Perhaps sensing this, a young policeman confronted me sternly and asked in a very harsh and frightening voice what I wanted. I stammered out that I was on my way to the marketplace. He nodded me through. I walked back the long way around from the marketplace, avoiding the barricade.

In my imagination, the experience was conflated with various war comics and movies into a highly-charged personal narrative. I lived in a war-torn city. The streets were filled with bomb craters, rubble, torn and scattered barbed-wire fences and military camps. I was a resistance fighter, undercover, moving from one safe home to another, carrying supplies, ammunition and important documents right under the noses of the enemy. In my fantasy, I was a tall, slim, strong man, highly trained and capable, but at the same time I was also myself, a little boy who could easily slip through the enemy's check posts.

The other great recurring feature of my childhood in Hyderabad was drought. This happened for several months a year, many years in a row. The water in the taps would dry up altogether and we would have to have water brought to us, first in tankers and later on in a barrel that was wheeled around in a sort of cart. My sister, then only 3 or 4 years old, would jump into this barrel and splash about. She nearly drowned at least once.

Because water was so scarce, we had to have sponge baths. My mother would heat a saucepan of water and give it to me to bathe with. I would wipe myself with a sponge, soap myself up and then wipe myself again until all the soap was removed. These were synthetic sponges, dyed a sickly shade of green or sometimes bright magenta. I never felt entirely clean afterward.

Hyderabad summers are very hot, and I was often thirsty, but we also had to be careful about how much water we drank.

Sometimes I imagined the whole city a vast desert, sweeping vistas of dunes replacing the crowded streets that surrounded our house, the last outpost of civilization in a vast wasteland. Clusters of cactus plants broke up the monotony of sand and sky. A few bones were strewn about, remains of less hardy travellers. I was a seasoned traveller, returning to civilization after a treasure hunting expedition. I would soak a thin towel in water and wrap it around my head - this was a permitted extravagance due to the extreme heat - and walk around the garden, stumbling, weary, bent under the weight of my precious cargo, but doggedly determined. I was tall, handsome, unshaven, a fascinating man with many mysteries in his past, a nameless wanderer who never stayed in one place for long but was always off in search of the next adventure.

My dogs also took part in this game in the character of a faithful pack of half-tame wolves.

I loved to read books about UFOs as a boy. I would simply inhale the pages of any UFO book I could get my hands on, believing every single word and somewhat blurry picture. Many of these stories of UFO encounters had a menacing aspect, but I could not get enough of them. Late at night, though, I would regret reading those books as I lay in bed, the sheets drawn over my head and my legs and hands safely tucked in, listening to the sounds of leaves rustling, a dog barking, cars on the road and imagining some sort of alien being, vaguely humanoid and luminous, creeping about in the garden, coming up to my window and standing out there, sending mental commands to me, glowing horribly...

One night, my upstairs neighbour Calvin and I were on the terrace when we saw a UFO. It was spherical and had a white glow, with traces of green around the edges and pink in the middle.

'What's that?' I asked Calvin, who was about 3 years older than me.

'It must be a UFO,' he replied in an awestruck voice.

We watched in excitement as it hovered for a while and then vanished.

My father's paper ran a small story about the sighting a few days later. I never saw a UFO again.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Three young men discover a hidden land peopled entirely by women (they reproduce by parthenogenesis). These women have built a sort of progressive-collectivist utopia, much to the chagrin of at least one of the men who cannot believe there can be a civilization without men. Although Gilman spends a little too much time in exposition, there are numerous telling observations on the limitations imposed on both men and women by conventional gender roles, and the absurdities and abuses allowed by a patriarchal society. Two of the men and one woman are setting out to return to the outside world in the end, and I feel Gilman could well have extended her narrative to show the woman from Herland's culture shock out in our world, instead of abruptly ending it at this point. In short, a witty, thought-provoking and interesting book, but one that falls short of its full potential.

ETA: Actually, there is a sequel, With Her in Ourland , which forces me to increase my rating of this book.