A unique science fiction tale of India at its centenary told through the inter-locking tales of nine extremely different characters. There is Mr. Nand...moreA unique science fiction tale of India at its centenary told through the inter-locking tales of nine extremely different characters. There is Mr. Nandha,the Krishna cop tasked with exterminating artificial intelligences (or aeais as the book terms them) who break beyond their programming restrictions to a higher threshold of intelligence. There is Shiv, a gangster fallen on hard times forced to work for genetically-engineered titans. There is Tal, a nute (or neutral-gendered person) drawn into intrigues far beyond yts comprehension. There is Thomas Lull, a professor who designed digital worlds that gave birth to a multitude of smaller aeais before running away from it all to live on a leaky boat in Southern India. Most importantly there is Aj, an orphan searching for her origins while all around her India is crumbling into chaos and disaster. McDonald crafts an intricate story that comes together into a beautiful ending that hits every aspect of what I enjoy in sci-fi. (less)
I am a sucker for fiction set in or around Mumbai, so picking this up was a no-brainer. Chandra's first book, Red Earth & Falling Rain, was only s...moreI am a sucker for fiction set in or around Mumbai, so picking this up was a no-brainer. Chandra's first book, Red Earth & Falling Rain, was only so-so but this new book has managed to grip me within the first 50 pages. I'll let you know how I'm feeling after I get to Page 900 or so...
900 pages later, I am of the opinion that Vikram Chandra is in dire need of a skilled editor. This could have been whittled down about 500 pages and moved a lot more smoothly, yet the characters are still interesting in their own flawed and miserable ways. It was worth the reading, but I was ready for it to be over about 2 weeks ago.(less)
Dan Simmons is one of the most skilled writers of science fiction currently putting pen to page (or however that metaphor would work in a post-paper a...moreDan Simmons is one of the most skilled writers of science fiction currently putting pen to page (or however that metaphor would work in a post-paper age). His Hyperion series is a well-regarded classic that takes Chaucer's Canterbury Tales into the space-faring age and his Ilium and Olympos still stands as the most interesting rendition of a post-singular society-slash-retelling of Homer's epic-slash-paen to Shakespeare that I've ever read.
It was with great excitement that I picked up Simmons' 1985 foray into horror, Song of Kali. I mention the year it was published because it's worth noting that this book is ultimately a product of the age in which it was written, but more on that later. On face this book has everything possible that could make my heart go pitter-pat: a reliable author who had never let me down, the story is set in India, features a resurrected poet (mmmm... zombie poetry), a good dose of gothic dread, a secret death cult, and (have I mentioned?) it's set in India. Surefire draw, right there.
So why didn't I like this book more? It had everything I like in a good read, but just didn't work for me. Primarily, I think it was a problem with the narrator. He's supposed to be a renowned critic of Indian poetry, with an Indian wife and in-laws, yet he is a) completely ignorant of the customs, culture, language, and history of the country which he is supposed to be enthralled with, b) when actually in said country he is simply mortified at how alien and inscrutable the actions of its inhabitants are, and (most damningly for me) c) he seems to have no liking (or even respect) for his wife, Amrita. A woman who did not want to come to Calcutta with him but who he begged to tag along and, once landed, then spends the next 250ish pages trying to force to leave Calcutta. She's supposed to be his interpreter, yet is constantly left behind at the hotel. She gets one decent scene where she gets to reflect upon her status as an alien in both the US and in her ancestral homeland, caught between worlds, as such, but that's it. By the time I finished the book I just kept hoping that she would leave the creep.
I should have loved this book, but I didn't. I didn't quite hate it, but it's not likely to be one that stays with me for long after finishing. It just seems like a trite rehash of things that have come before. When Robert, the American critic, stumbles upon a secret cult of Kali it smacks of the ridiculous scene from Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom where the guy's beating heart is ripped from his chest. It's just all so xenophobic that it grates on my nerves. I've still got a lot of respect for Simmons and what he has done with his sci-fi writings, but think I'm going to avoid his older works for a time.(less)
For whatever reason, India has always held a special fascination for me. From the first time that Kipling's descriptions of the richness and scope of...moreFor whatever reason, India has always held a special fascination for me. From the first time that Kipling's descriptions of the richness and scope of the Grand Trunk Road in Kim first caught my young ear the thought of India has possessed a fairly good chunk of my imagination. I know that it's not rooted in fact so much as it is in vague imagery of the exotic culled from Hollywood cliches and Mother Theresa infomercials. These are colonialist visions of riotous colors from half-remembered dreams in which Hanuman spirits Sita from the citadels of the evil Ravana even as the British Raj brings the nation under its yoke in order to propagate the poppy that will be so instrumental in bringing the Chinese under the heel of Western powers. Knowing that I'm not even glimpsing one quarter of the reality of what daily living is actually like, I devour book after book set in these tropical metropolises to sate my hungry imagination as I scrimp and save in order that I may someday make it to the teeming streets of Mumbai or the spice loving kitchens of Chennai.
Having read quite a few different works from authors whose minds have also been ensnared by this particular corner of the globe, ranging from the classic to the contemporary, I've come to find that there some very definite archetypes that writers tend to fall back on when writing about the subcontinent. There are those that tend to write about the white experience in India, from the outright xenophobia of Dan Simmons' Song of Kali to the genteel indictment of Colonial racism offered up in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. There are those who write about the Indian immigrant experience, of those who have left their homeland behind in search of the better life just across the horizon, from Monica Ali's Brick Lane to Jumpha Lahiri's Namesake, though in my opinion most successfully in Salman Rushdie's oft-maligned opus, The Satanic Verses.
Finally, and most germane to the purposes of this review, there are those who like to revel in the dirt, disease, and decay of India. Those who seem to take a particularly perverse joy in the rampant poverty, splashing titillating descriptions of the sewage and sweat and rickshaws and families packed one atop another in slums awaiting one middling earthquake before collapsing like so many stacked playing cards. To them it seems that endemic poverty and disease is a fun bit of shock to throw at readers, poverty porn to warm the cockles of Western readers as they imagine themselves living in such a world. Writers of this sort tend to be of a couple sorts. There are Western writers whose characters tend to be of the damaged-yet-benevolent white man variety, such as Lin the junky-doctor in Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram or the naive-yet-effusive travelers of the sort that Will Rhode described in his forgettable Paperback Original, who use decadence as a spice, to add a bit of thrill to their pulse-racing pages. Then there are the Dickensian writers, authors like Q&A's Vikas Swarup, who love few things more than crafting another rags to riches tale of crossing caste boundaries and living the American dream, and it is this category that Aravind Adiga's Man Booker winning The White Tiger sits squarely within.
Being the memoir of Munna/Balram, a precocious (of course) boy from the darkest depths of rural India who, yearning to break free from the trappings of caste poverty, never stops angling for a better job, a better lot, a better life. First moving up the ranks of the tea shop he is destined to serve in until he dies, then striking out for the big bad city wherein he endeavors to find the respect that his politico bosses, by dint of status, wealth and corruption, are afforded so wantonly. As he comes to understand the many ways in which he is ritually humiliated and kept subservient, something almost resembling class consciousness grows in his heart until he finally slits his master's throat and disappears with a large sum of cash. These aren't spoilers, the narrator himself admits as much within the first few pages.
The writing is nothing special to write home about, others have described the same scenery with as much (or better) aplomb- Adiga's descriptions have none of the poetry and imagery that Arundhati Roy brings to her every sentence. The real substance of the story lies in Adiga's chronicling of the resentment that builds within his upwardly mobile limo driver, listing every slight and backhanded insult in such a way as to make the inevitable murder so much more palatable. After a particularly bruising experience in which Balram is forced to sign a fake confession to protect his master's wife, I wanted to skip ahead just so I could taste the bloody revenge before its appointed hour.
While a worthwhile enough read, this Booker winner pales when stood along winner's of years past. Adiga is following the path that such luminaries as eternally-reviled Rushdie and fantastically incendiary Roy have trod with such alacrity, but his brief effort will likely have little of the staying power that any of the other award winners named herein have carved out for themselves. Still, it was enormously entertaining and would be ideal to wile away an afternoon at the beach.(less)
You know those books that you think you know even before you read them. Those books that seem to strike those happy chords in your heart and call out...moreYou know those books that you think you know even before you read them. Those books that seem to strike those happy chords in your heart and call out to be your bosom buddies based on nothing more than an impression of their cover? That's how Krishnapur and I were for those months it sat on my shelf before I got around to it. Yet when I recently got around to actually cracking the spine on this Booker winner, I found that I had no clue what I was in store for.
Rather than a brutal retelling of colonial history, of the harsh realities of life under the British yoke, this was more of a look at the psychology of imperialism- of the justifications that the Brits (and currently the Americans in Iraq) threw up in order to shield themselves from the guilt of their repression of the indigenous peoples. These excuses range from the glory of spreading Christianity among the dark heathens, to developing a better understanding of the pseudoscience of phrenology, to the bringing of rational science to a people who would rather sacrifice a goat than build their dikes higher and prevent flooding. That Ballard can compose such a story while avoiding having any actual native characters (aside from the faceless masses waiting to storm the building that forms the titular Siege) is a tribute to his skill as a writer. Better than anything, Ballard drives home just how banal this evil was and how unwittingly it was perpetrated upon their Indian subjects in the name of progress.
The time is the early 1860s, the setting is a fictional cantonment in a Hindustan still ruled by the East India Company. The Indian army is in revolt because the new bullets they were issued are greased in animal fat to allow for easier loading. The military can not understand why this is upsetting for their Hindi soldiers, because loading the weapons entails using ones teeth which is a violation of their vegetarian ways. So the sepoys (Indian soldiers) revolt and trap the Brits in the local government headquarters and begin a months-long siege.
Over the next several hundred pages, Farrell unravels the various foibles of these ladies and gentlemen, who have relied for so long on their servants for everything that they can't even fathom a reality where they must do their own work. Things swiftly devolve into a miasma that reminds me of nothing so much as Pride & Prejudice with Lord of the Flies (which is fitting, given the recent popularity of Austen adaptations such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Pride & Predator).
Farrell's style is long-winded and occasionally a bit too pedantic to allow me to give it that ever-elusive fifth star, but the stunningly complex characters that he weaves together into an increasingly chaotic rabble all, at one point or another, manage to get you invested in their continued survival. It's odd to see that, no matter how willfully blind they are to the native's complaints or how unconsciously racist these people are, I still care about whether they survive to return to England and feast upon the Queen's crumpets or whatever it is that Brits do in their spare time (I imagine that it has something to do with dog's bollocks).(less)
In his two full-length novels, Brasyl and River of Gods, Ian McDonald has sculpted universes so amazingly rich and detailed that readers couldn't help...moreIn his two full-length novels, Brasyl and River of Gods, Ian McDonald has sculpted universes so amazingly rich and detailed that readers couldn't help being caught up in these tales of worlds on the cusp of new evolutionary leaps and societal upheaval. For days after finishing both of his prior books I would awaken from dreams set in the far-flung locale of a future India on the eve of its Centenary or the porous membranes between variant realities in the Rio of tomorrow. It was with great anticipation that I looked forward to Cyberabad Days, McDonald's collection of stories set in the future-shocked universe of his renowned River of Gods.
Possible River of Gods spoilers below...
I was not to be disappointed. Set during and after the fragmenting of India into disparate states that formed the climactic crux of its parent book, Cyberabad Days both further fleshes out this vision of an India of tomorrow and answers some of the lingering questions I had after finishing River of Gods. The tales included range from the anime-ready yarn of a battle mech loving chai wallah who falls in with some child soldiers remotely controlling the large mechs to the ethical (and practical) dilemmas raised when an aeai (AI) soap opera star falls head-over-heels in love with a classically trained dancer (Adjustment Bureau this is not) to the closing story, "Vishnu at the Cat Circus", an imaginative epic of a world on the cusp of a true cognitive singularity that could be ripped from some Ramayana of the future.
Individually the stories are of varying levels of quality and would make little sense to readers unfamiliar with the source material, and there are minor grammatical and spelling errors that make me think this was rushed to print in the wake of River of Gods success. Still, in this collected form nearly all offer an entertaining return to one of the most imaginative universes I have yet to encounter. This brief tasting tray of scifi done right has only whet my appetite for McDonald's next long player. Highly recommended for fans of dystopian futures and wonderfully rendered worlds.(less)