Thursday, May 31, 2012

Culture Corner: Bollywood

Several times in my life have I heard someone say: “What, you’ve never seen a Bollywood movie? You simply have to! They’re great!” The best of intentions never panning out, being in India seemed like a good time to take up their suggestion. And so, on a 42 degree afternoon (f#%^ hot for the Celsius impaired), a companion and I bought tickets for a blessedly air-conditioned cinema in downtown Varanasi. Jannat 2 our afternoon’s entertainment, my first experience with Bollywood was in a context as it was meant to be. But like the heat and chaos waiting outside, I left in shock.

Want high-school romance? Check. Want Tom Cruise action? Check. Want chase scenes? Check. Want slapstick humor three red balls short of a clown? Check. Want nasal singing? Check. Want choreographed happy people dancing like Jim Carrey? Check. Want choreographed happy people dancing amidst graphic death? Check. Want unending slow-motion glamour shots of Indian stars made to look as Eur-american as possible? Check. Want highly predictable plot outcomes of the wink-wink variety? Check. In short, it’s all like stewing MTV, Lethal Weapon, and any Jennifer Aniston romance into one big pot of ugliness.

Enough said. Here is a rough breakdown of Jannat 2 as proof.

Scene 1 Boy is shown joking with friend at night on bridge. (I say “boy” because of his metrosexuality. He was not a convincing “man”.) Fellow gangsters appear who know boy. Friend runs away. Gangsters threaten boy by holding him over bridge abutment. Gangsters smile. It is a joke. He will live. Gangsters slash boy’s palm.

Scene 2 Boy goes to doctor’s office for hand. Sees beautiful goddess actress and it’s love at first sight. (Viewers become aware of the love thanks to the subtleties of slow-motion hair-flipping on the girl’s part and the “holding-cucumber-in-mouth” look of the boy.) Boy acts shy while girl doctor (only in the movies in India!) tends slashed hand. Saccharine dialogue ensues. Girl refuses boy’s advances, so boy slashes other palm with scalpel. Blood flows. Boy smiles. Girl smiles.

Scene 3 Men sit in bar drinking and smoking. They are off-duty detectives. One man, a real man, drunkenly leaves and attempts to call wife. No luck because she's been dead for a year. Man lurches back into bar. Philosophy ensues over cigarettes.

Scene 4 Boy walks down street in daytime, talking with friend, no bandages. Stops at shop to make a deal. Off-duty detectives from previous scene witness deal and give chase. Charley Chaplin scenes ensue, complete with such tricks as: boy hides behind car only for car to drive away, exposing boy to otherwise hopeless police. Chase continues. Attempting to escape, boy accidentally jumps into same rickshaw as female doctor. Ooh. Dialogue ensues. Boy acquires phone number. Police catch boy and boy loses phone number. Girl drives away.

Scene 5 Boy is convinced by detectives to go undercover and infiltrate a gun smuggling ring. Simple.

Scene 6 Street at night. Boy and group of friends discuss boy’s bad luck at having lost girl’s phone number. Song breaks out. Boys dance in choreographed fashion while boy sings. Images of he and girl wearing beautiful clothes and being beautiful people spliced into song and dance routine. Everyone feels better.

Scene 7 Same night, maybe different street. Obvious bad guy sits at table (later to be revealed as #2). Boy and friend approach. Clever dialogue ensues. Boy dismantles and reassembles pistol in record time, thus passing bad guy’s test. Boy welcomed into gun ring with friend.

Scene 8 Restaurant. Boy and friend eat (with hands, shoveling food into mouth like animals). Girl enters with friends. (What a coincidence in a city of 13 million!) Boy and friend banter about speaking to girl. Boy ultimately talks with girl, convinces her to go on date.

Cut scenes Boy goes on date with girl. Scenery is luxurious and dirt-free, coconut palms, architectural wonders, etc. Song breaks out. Everyone is happy. Many slow-motion glamour shots showing beautiful people. Girl is convinced. There is hand holding at the end. (All the middle schoolers giggle.)

Scene 9 Luxury SUV enters underground storage area with various guns scattered about. Man exits vehicle. Obvious is big boss. #2 introduces boy to boss. Boy afraid because boss’s piercing eye stare seems onto his undercover status.

Scene 10 Boy shown secretly meeting detective to pass info about gun ring. Bro moment occurs.

Scene 11 Boy goes on second date with girl. Love is decided. They go to a civil office and are married the next day. Love scene ensues. No nudity. Only glamour shots of girl wearing 17 different saris.

Cut scenes Boy shown at various stages of dealing and storing weapons, and generally sneaking around. Does good job. Boss approves of boy and friend. Wife waiting at home for boy. Life is good. Manly detective watches from wings, bottle of booze always in hand.

Scene 12 Boy and girl’s new home. Girl welcomes father for a visit. Father turns out to be gun boss. Ooh. Plot twist. Another ooh. Boy scared.

Scene 13 More bro moments occur between manly detective and boy. Boy afraid father-in-law/boss will discover he works for police and kill him.

Scene 14 Boss gathers crew and tells them he knows a rat exists in his crew. Everyone scared except #2.

Scene 15 Detective’s office. A mole exists. Manly detective discusses situation with police chief. Detective instructed by chief to find mole. Leaves to drink.

Scene 16 Newlyweds highly westernized luxury penthouse (no rubbish in sight). Girl prepares candles and spreads roses over whole apartment in 21st century Betty Crocker attentiveness. Boy shown in wife-beater grinning like pervert on bed. Slow motion love scene ensues wherein the only flesh exposed is shoulder and a hint of couple’s backs. Sexual congress is implied amongst many slow motion glamour shots--no pimples, wrinkles, or other imperfections to be seen.

Scene 17 Boss gathers crew again and points to friend as rat. Tense dialogue ensues. When friend’s life is threatened, boy attempts to admit he is rat. However, friend gives life for boy. Blows out brains in graphic detail. Nobody is singing.

Scene 18 Manly detective confronts random co-worker about potential status as mole. Detective destroys conveniently worn cast on right arm to test if any listening devices are located inside. None are. Chief calls detective in for another meeting. Something must be done.

Scene 19 Boy drives with boss and #2 in luxury SUV to big gun deal. Manly detective suddenly appears, stops SUV, and threatens everybody with arrest. Group escapes on legal technicality. #2 eyes boy with look “I know you’re the informant.” Detective drinks as SUV drives away.

Scene 20 Boss instructs boy to leave town for a big deal. Boy breaks news to girl: no honeymoon. I must work. Girl sad. Slow motion tears and sadness ensue.

Scene 21 Boy and detective secretly meet in back alley at night. Boy expresses pains of life. Detective drinks. Bro moment with heartfelt dialogue. #2 suddenly appears and utters the Hindi equivalent of “Ha! Gotcha!” to boy. Chase ensues. #2 caught and tortured by detective. #2 dies.

Scene 22 Grand climax. Boy returns to gun lair. Numerous young men enter cavern behind him. Nobody wants to sing. Or dance. Boss confronts boy as informant. Shooting breaks out. Boy performs various slow-motion rolls and flips returning fire to numerous bad guys, killing all. Boss runs away. Boy chases. Police chief appears and points gun at boss. Boy relaxes, thinks all is well. Chief shoots boy. (Surprise!!) Chief and boss laugh and start to walk away. Manly detective appears and shoots all bad guys. (Surpr—oh wait, that’s not a surprise, those bro moments…). Detective hoists boy on shoulder and drives pell-mell to hospital.

Scene 23 Boy, looking as handsome as ever, lays in hospital bed. Detective leans over, listens to profound words. Boy dies. (About time!) Detective sullen.

Scene 24 Girl, as usual, waits at home for boy. (Her career as a doctor appears to have been abandoned after her marriage as her only role after is to wait at home dressed sexily.) Detective appears. Breaks news. Slow-motion tears. Makeup remains immaculate. Detective leaves.

Scene 25 Smoke filled bar from opening scenes. Manly detective, sober, goes to pay phone to call wife. Lifts receiver but decides better not call a dead woman.


As can be seen, the producers and directors of Jannat 2 have sold their soul to the devil. There is a less than subliminal message being flashed throughout the film: “We want money, and we want money badly. We want to appease the lowest common denominator. We don’t care about anything else. Thus, our film is crap of the most impure variety.”

Suffice to say, I now understand the appeal of Bollywood: unintentional humor

Review of "The Broken Sword" by Poul Anderson

In fantasy today it’s not uncommon to hear the words “dark” and “gritty” applied to such writers as David Gemmell, Paul Kearney, JoeAbercrombie, George R.R. Martin, or Brian Ruckley.  Each willing to kill favorite characters, portray morally ambiguous heroes, and elucidate more than one gory scene, readers have taken a shine to their rather anti-Tolkien view.  But these writers are still not as dark as Poul Anderson’s and his 1954 classic The Broken Sword.  Bleak in outcome and tone, Anderson’s short epic makes each look like a fairy tale in comparison.  The brooding, black cloud of narrative alone is enough to divide readers.  Thankfully back in print after a lengthy absence from the shelves, this classic of mid 20th century fantasy literature is simply a must read for fans of modern epic fantasy.  The Broken Sword is as dark as it gets.  

Wholly retrospective, The Broken Sword is also as mythic as fantasy gets.  Were the book written 500 years ago, it would be part of the Western canon.  Plot and outcome the focus, setting, dialogue, and philosophical exposition are kept to the barest minimum telling of the ill-fated mortal Skafloc, his evil twin, Valard, and their lives among the elves and trolls of North Sea yesteryear.  Not the immortal angels of Tolkien, Anderson’s elves maintain the grace yet act with impunity.  For the most selfish of reasons, they steal Skafloc from his mother the night he is born, replacing him with the changeling born of an ugly troll, Valard.  One raised by elves, the other humans, trolls, and a witch, their paths to adulthood take two different routes.  Their fate, however, lies in the same place. 
Both being works of epic fantasy published in the mid ‘50s; both using Nordic myth as story foundation; both having trolls, elves, songs and poetry, quests, broken swords, lost kingdoms, and epic battles, the comparison of the The Broken Sword to Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings is inevitable.  One technically a comedy and the other tragedy, there are, however, a far larger number of differences.  Tolkien extrapolates heavily on Volsung Saga and Poetic Edda until the resemblance is minimal.  Anderson, however, tells a story whose blood flows in the same veins as the two famous Nordic myths.  Tolkien’s epic is divided into three lengthy volumes, while Anderson tells his tale in a succinct 274 pages, not a detail amiss. And while Tolkien manipulates characters to avoid confronting loss and tragedy, Anderson embraces the fates of the people in his world, death happening early and often to any and all.  Both are romances, but only Anderson’s ends in tears.
The prose plucked from yesteryear, The Broken Sword’s grand, effortless language is like stepping into the past to read of Achilles battling Hector, or Beowulf, Grendel.  Arcane in syntax and style, readers who dislike “fancy” sentence structure should look elsewhere.  For those who revel in formal yet keen description and dialogue, the book will be a real treat.  Moreover, the distance Anderson maintains from the characters allows the reader to view events with insouciance.  Room for the imagination to color events as it pleases, the author’s spare yet incisive style provides a certain degree of freedom to better participate in the story while being guided effortlessly forward.
In the end, The Broken Sword is a well crafted epic of mythic proportions written in high-quality prose.  Beowulf meets the Iliad, characters are larger than life yet retain an innate connection to humanity so as to remain empathetic.  Power, glory, hubris, the cycle of violence, honor, love, and fate—the main staples of myth—are thus the major themes.  As the classic tales of the Nords is the source medium, a host of related works exist: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Last Light ofthe Sun, Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls series, David Drake’s Northworld, and Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight to name a few.  But when it comes to style, readers will find book has more in common with Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and E.R. Eddison.  Fans of Moorcock’s Elric will find the seed idea for Stormbringer while readers who think The Lord of the Rings pretentious and bloated will enjoy Anderson’s Spartan prose and decisive movement of events.  A well crafted story, The Broken Sword is worthy of being a fantasy masterwork and defines dark fantasy.

Review of "Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance" ed. by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

(Note: this review is for the collection as a whole rather than individual short stories.)

Encomium is a tribute album created in the ‘90s in honor of Led Zeppelin.  (Have patience, this review is about the Dying Earth.) The artists who contributed were given free rein, save repeat performances.  With Zeppelin’s oeuvre the field of choice and all musical interpretations welcome, some of the performers decided to contribute safe, emulative covers much in the vein of the originals, while others chose to experiment, trying their own band’s style on a Zeppelin tune.  The result is an eclectic album that remains listenable for both its differences and similarities to the Zeppelin originals, not to mention the limited number of tributes.  Sadly, Songs of the Dying Earth, the anthology of short stories in honor of Jack Vance, does not parallel this concept. 
Vance being one of the most important writers in sci-fi, the idea of creating a tribute anthology in his honor seems wholly appropriate.  But when actually made a reality, something was lost.  Rather than leave the gates wide open for the all-star cast of writers to contribute as they pleased, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, editors of the 2009 anthology, saw fit to limit them to the Dying Earth.  While this setting alone is imaginative enough to allow an infinite number of yarns, such limitation would be the same as Encomium’s producers preventing bands from interpreting anything other than “Stairway to Heaven”.  What kind of tribute would that be?

Another problem is quantity.  With twenty-three stories in play (almost twice the number of a typical short story collection), it seems anybody who contributed was published, no filter in place to weed out sub-par performances.  With such a large number of writers solicited, surely the editors could have chosen the best of, rather than simply putting them all in the 620 page (620 pages of short stories!) collection?

When these two issues are combined, suffice to say, the individual pieces of Songs of the Dying Earth too quickly meld together, individuality and unique expression muddled in the press.  Every story in the anthology seems to feature a red sun fading on the horizon, wily magicians, pelgranes, roguery, attempts at clever Vancian dialogue, deodands, as well as a dearth of magical-mystical names for spells and places that only sometimes live up to the quality of the originator’s. 
Vance’s oeuvre—Durdane, Alastor, Lyonesse, etc.—would have been a much better playground for Martin and Dozois to allow their talented cast of writers to frolic in.  Vance having probably penned his last, such a collection would give readers one more opportunity to experience the Pnume, check in on what Kirth is doing now, or learn what events have transpired on Blue World since the death of King Kragen.  Creative writers like Dan Simmons, Robert Silverberg, Jeff Vandermeer and the like would have also been free to come up with their own Vancian settings, characters, and motifs.  Alas, such is not the case.  These writers must huddle together, bumping elbows, and drawing lines over one another in the relatively limited space of the Dying Earth.
For readers who indulge only in epic or high fantasy, the length and uniformity of the collection will probably go overlooked, and the similarity of the details, unnoticed.  However, for readers who prefer variety, the never-ending take on the Dying Earth theme may quickly become stale.  For the latter, it’s quickly apparent that reading the book straight through is not the best option.  Taking in a story here and there between other reading projects seems wise if the imagination and individual efforts of the contributors are to truly be appreciated.  Otherwise, the monotony may overwhelm.
And there is imagination.  Reading the stories, there can be no doubt that each of the contributing authors has an affection for Vance.  But like most short story collections, readers will enjoy some and despise others--a point exacerbated by the quantity.  Affection does not automatically translate to quality.  Many attempt to emulate the master but fall flat.  Whether it be dialogue, tone, or plot development, some aspect of Vance’s talents is often missing.  Others succeed mightily, but very few of the contributors actually capture the feel of Vance’s craft, strengthening the argument that the collection should have been culled. What remained would have been a stronger collection--and tribute--for it.

In the end, Martin and Dozois’s intentions are beyond reproach. Vance is truly a grand master of the genre and is fully deserving of the recognition.  The manner in which the two pay tribute, however, falls suspect.  By limiting writers like Silverberg, Simmons, Tad Williams, Tanith Lee, and a host of other well-known authors to one setting alone, in addition to including more than twenty stories, their efforts get lost amongst one another.  The pair would have been better off opening the doors to Vance’s oeuvre to allow every sort of adventure its place, space to the fantastic, thus providing the reader a more varied experience, not to mention eliding the less quality contributions.  This would have paved the way for a more justifiable tribute to Vance’s works.  Thus, Songs of the Dying Earth will not be for everybody, including die-hard Vance fans.  The imagination is there, but when funneled into a single bottle, the colors get mixed, producing a uniform rather than varied result. 
…and did I mention the sour notes on which the anthology opens and ends—Dean Koontz’s self-indulgent pity party with Vance pushed to the background for an introduction, bookended by Neil Gaiman’s equally self-indulgent anti-Vance story as a saccharine bow out?  Not very stylish…

Review of "Helliconia Winter" by Brian Aldiss

Like an architect seeing a cathedral they’ve designed have the steeple raised, or an engineer watching the bowsprit attached to a ship they’ve built, so too must Aldiss have felt writing the final chapter of Helliconia Winter.   The orbits within orbits, themes revolving around themes, and characters caught in the cycle of life, come to an end.  But only on the page.
More than a year or two in the making, the series has been millennia.  The third and final book, Helliconia Winter, continues to tell a human scale tale in harmony with the larger forces at play—geology, astrophysics, and biology all heavily influencing the narrative.  This time around, however, Aldiss wields a heavier thematic hammer.  The understated Gaian theme of Spring and Summer is now pressed on the reader in more overt and convincing tones.  Tying into the major concepts presented in earlier volumes, Winter is a genuine capstone to a sublime series.
Like Helliconia Summer, Winter does not pick up the story where the previous volume ended.  It instead jumps roughly 500 Helliconian years into the future.  Steam engines are beginning to replace livestock, a railway network is starting to take shape, and cannons and guns are manufactured with precision and consistency.  The apex of the planet’s blistering summer has passed and the onset of winter moves imminently closer with each technological advance. 
Mankind forever subject to their whim, the elements tighten their grip in Helliconia Winter.  The main character Luterin and his fight to survive radically shifts as the religious and political order adapt to Helliconia’s great winter, wars turning civil as the looming cold threatens men’s principles and shorten tempers.  In the harshening weather, even Luterin’s friends turn against him, and in the end he must choose a new path.  Complicating his plight, plague and its ensuing fear storm the land, forcing Luterin to sacrifice everything to survive.
Luterin’s difficulties are only the surface layer of Helliconia Winter, however.  Removing the casing, the larger cogs and gears Aldiss designed into the system back in Spring and rotated in Summer can still be seen moving in Winter.  Humanity’s subjugation to nature, Sisyphian cycles of life, slavery and man’s willingness to enslave others, anthropology, climate change, disease, geography, evolutionary biology, and a variety of other soft science themes fill the book.  The Gaian theme, however, is the strongest. 
In his 1979 Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock writes: “it can now be demonstrated… that a diverse chain of predators and prey is more stable and a stronger ecosystem than a single self-contained species”.  Though never stated in such explicit terms, Brian Aldiss hammers home a similar point in Helliconia, Winter being the strongest and final blow.  Humans, on the planet, on Avernus (Helliconia’s manmade orbital), and on Earth, are defined within a framework of being subject to nature.  Phagors provide balance planetside, ennui drastically changes life aboard the orbital, while on Earth, the usual mixture of hubris and acumen continue to spin events out of control, the planets revolving ceaselessly all the while.  Mankind is its own best and worst friend.
If the book—or series—has any faults, it’s inconsistency in style.  Helliconia Spring starts with a 150 page narrative that never breaks from linear, then moves to a variety of viewpoints told in anything but linear fashion.  Narrative and viewpoint focused into a regular cadence, Helliconia Summer is the most consistent of the three.  The beginning of Helliconia Winter, however,  suffers from much the same troubles as the latter half of Spring.  Syntax disjointed and storyline never congealing properly at the outset, it isn’t until about a third of the way through that Aldiss settles down and establishes a rhythm.  Another fault is the abrupt change in perspective on gender.  Women often occupying strong roles in the first two books, Winter finds its two main female protagonists submissive like kittens.  Perhaps requiring a re-read to better determine the author’s reasoning behind the choice, at first glance the message does not shine positively.
Before concluding, I would like address reviewer criticisms regarding Helliconia Winter as obviously some misunderstanding has occurred.  Some have commented that the non-Helliconian portions—the narrative devoted to Avernus and events on Earth—are boring and over-philosophized.  A matter of taste, the point remains that without these sections, Helliconia is just another fantasy series.  With them, however, the scope shifts to sci-fi in the short run, and social, geographical, and evolutionary commentary in the long.  These meta-settings are a juxtaposition, a moral contrast, to the primitive worldview of life on Helliconia and are what make the series worthwhile.  The thought-provoking regions of sci-fi rather are touched upon, than just adventurous. 
Still others have commented that Luterin’s story reads like a travelogue with no purpose or climax.  Again, these readers fail to see how events surrounding the main character draw him unwillingly into the fray, highlighting the Gaian theme as a result.  The climax of Luterin’s story, while subtle, is of utmost importance toward emphasizing the fundamental nature of humanity as Aldiss sees it, instinct the name of the day.  Thus, readers who approach the book as mere entertainment will be missing out on a great deal of human insight.
In the end, Helliconia Winter is a more than fitting conclusion.  It is the best of the series and deserving of the BSFA award it won.  Grand in scope and perfectly suited in setting, Aldiss is able to contextualize the planet, the forms of life existing there, and humanity propagating on it in sublime fashion.  The touch of hope and despair regarding humanity’s future closing the novel is icing on the cake.  As the Gaian theme is pressed hard, readers who enjoyed the story elements of the previous books may be a little disappointed by Winter.  However, those who’ve followed Aldiss’s underlying concepts thus far and are curious how he will connect the oh-so human lives on the planet’s surface with those on Earth will be more than satisfied.  Innate to science fiction is the potential for grandeur, and Aldiss has taken full advantage with Helliconia.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Review of "The Wisdom of India" ed. by Lin Yutang

Originally coming off the press as The Wisdom of China and India, publishers have since chosen to split the 1,100 pages of fine print into its natural two halves.  For the Indian half, Lin Yutang, editor of the anthology, chooses to focus on the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Thus, readers looking for a practical outlay of the day to day ritual and ceremony of Hindu and Buddhist worship should be aware that the book’s focus is the wisdom, mythology, and mysticism of the two Eastern worldviews instead, save ancient words on yoga and meditation.  As a result, perhaps no better introduction to Indian perennial philosophy exists in one book.

The Wisdom of India contains a profound selection of texts from the Indian canon.  Representing Hinduism are the complete Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, and Ramayana, as well as selections from the Rigveda and yoga aphorisms of Patanjali.  Representing Buddhism are the Dhammapada, three sermons by Buddha, Edwin Arnold’s Life of Buddha, the Surangama Sutra, and a selection of Buddhist parables and legends.  Topping off the book is a selection of fables from the Panchatantra and the Enchanted Parrot that have a egalitarian feel similar to 1001 Arabian Nights.  Giving free rein to the texts to speak for themselves, Lin acts solely as editor.  His introductions brief (a handful of pages for each text) and his commentary almost non-existent, he forgoes the technical or academic approach and allows the reader to form their own thoughts.
A milestone at its publishing in 1942, The Wisdom of India has since become one of many books attempting to bring the mindset of the East to the West.  Born and raised in China, Lin offers something that most scholars of European descent cannot, however.  His own culture influenced and in turn influencing Indian’s,  the parallels of Chinese and Indian thought run much closer than any of the West’s big three: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Thus Lin’s introductions and commentary to the selections offer nuggets of insight typically not available to the Western mind.  Secondly, that Lin is very selective, using translations of the texts by Indian writers when available, a more in depth view of perennial Indian philosophy is presented.
In the end, the reader would be hard pressed to find a better compilation of the Indian canon in a single volume.  Analysis light, readers should not expect an academic text loaded with footnotes and commentary, nor a look into the daily practices of each religion.  Unfortunately, for reasons of length in the original edition, Lin was unable to include the Mahabharata, which remains the lone blemish on the book.  However, that what remains is considered the most important and sacred of Indian texts should speak for itself.  At turns wise, satirical, philosophical, sacred, spiritual, and funny, the greatest quantity of not only Indian but universal wisdom can be found in the book--bar locating the individual texts themselves.  Anyone looking for an introduction to Indian philosophy or a place where nearly all the most important texts are gathered under one roof should look no further.  (As a side note, the other half, The Wisdom of China, is equally good.)

Review of "Consider Phlebas" by Iain M. Banks

There are a few writers who, upon succeeding within a genre, show guts to try another.  That a writer expands from realism to science fiction, however, is a rare case indeed.  Yet this is exactly what Iain Banks has done.  Achieving good sales from his first three novels, all realist, Banks suddenly decided to try a hand at sci-fi.  The genre—and certainly Banks sale’s figures since—have not looked back.  The author’s vision of sci-fi not only in line with nerds’, he has also carved a space for himself with the Culture, making the genre jump all the more remarkable.  Consider Phlebas, while not as bold as Banks’ later leaps into space, is that first step.
The title taken from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Banks does not leave his literary roots far behind with Consider Phlebas.  The novel being the story of a changeling, Horza, and the fight against his galactic oppressors, the author’s first step treads familiar sci-fi ground.  Hyperspace, plasma guns, warp speeds, standard units, and an overall Star WarTrek-ish tone to the story do not possess the creative playfulness which earmarks later Culture novels like Excession or Look to Windward
To Banks’ credit, however, he wisely avoids most pitfalls of space opera.  Horza’s fight is not simply good vs. evil.  The decisions he makes trying to uphold his own self-respect have more in common with William Gibson than George Lucas.  The astute positioned alongside the more licentious, Banks takes full advantage of morally ambiguous characterization in telling the story.  But that is only one positive facet of the book.
Consider Phlebas features a plot that moves briskly from the start, though slowing slightly toward the finish.  Horza is a secret agent for the Idirans, a group attempting to both conquer as much of the galaxy as possible while at the same time prevent their rivals, the Culture, from doing the same.  Moving from pirate ships to orbital belts, abandoned mines to desert islands, Horza’s espionage keeps him in a constant struggle to balance morals with the vision of his ideals.  Far from the perfect spy, the concessions Horza makes to his enemies never seem to add up to the fire fights, captures, and macabre/sticky/wholly unpredictable situations he gets himself into.  There are thus two major themes to Consider Phlebas
The first is singular in nature, namely the futility of war.  Forever looking ahead and forgetting to look behind, Eliot’s Phlebas is caught in the moment and fails to learn history’s lessons.  Horza’s ideological stubbornness is much the same.  The second major theme of the novel is a juxtaposition: natural life vs. life saturated with technology to the point life itself is difficult to define.  The Idirans religious zealots, of utmost importance is the precocity of the heartbeat and braggadocio in protecting and maintaining a spiritual connection to it.  It goes without saying that their war, including Horza’s, is foremost one of principle.  The Culture, particularly its post-scarcity/post-human promulgation of utopia, is anathema to the Idirans.  The Culture’s wholly rational, perfectly structured society could not be further from idyll—Brave New World chiming in the background.  The novel is thus on firm thematic footing.
Competently but not lyrically written, Banks’ prose fits the sci-fi adventure bill rather than literary realism’s.  The digressive elements do as well.  There are occasional side stories which have no real place in the narrative and seem to exist for reasons of color only.  Additional shortcomings of the novel include a forced ending.  Obviously planned like an architect does a home, the unraveling of final events does not have the natural feel later Culture  climaxes possess.  The suspense and surprise are there, but must be dealt with one deliberate, plodding step at a time.
In the end, Consider Phlebas is a solid sci-fi debut which gives every indication of the complexity and appeal later Culture novels would cultivate.  The scope kept at a human rather than galaxy level, readers should expect a character and plot driven novel that does the little things correctly, a few gratuitous motifs of mainstream literature thrown in for good measure.  The space ship and the crew with which Horza spends his time has a strong Schismatrix feel, thus readers of Sterling may want to have a read. Likewise, readers of later Culture novels will not be disappointed at the setting’s first offering if it hasn’t already been read.  Banks a huge fan of Simmons, those who enjoyed Hyperion may also want to try out the Culture.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Culture Corner: The Dirty Left Hand

At heart an optimist, until now I’ve tried to post the nicer side of India and gloss over the omnipresent evils. Fortunately, I’m also a realist, which means intentional ignorance cannot go unheeded for long. The dirt and filth simply must be discussed.

Let it be known, I do not find fault with the lower castes for the terrible situation they find themselves in. I place blame squarely on the shoulders of the upper caste, in particular those who have the ability to invest in their country’s waste water, waste removal, and clean water infrastructures, but don’t. The Louis Vitton and Nike shops I saw in New Delhi’s Connaught Place have no place among the hundreds of millions of poor and destitute. But as it stands, the caste system remains interminably oppressive, leaving the majority of Indians without hope to rise above animal status. Hence, I would like to dedicate this post to the largest facet of India I witnessed: the slap-in-the-face squalor.

India’s lowest caste often defecates openly in public. There is perhaps nothing more revolting than watching another human produce a steaming pile of feces arm’s length from the train you’re passing in. Contrary to popular belief, I witnessed both left and right hands being used to clean themselves after, not a drop of water or soap in sight. Making matters worse, railroad officials do not lock bathroom doors while trains are stopped at stations, thus providing a view of splattered human feces and pools of urine for passengers waiting on the platform, the reek eye-burning. Even the shadowy corners of Agra’s Red Fort, a Unesco World Heritage site, stank of urine, some Indians unwilling to walk twenty steps to the public bathrooms nearby. Open sewage. Every city’s water channels and canals feature a grayish sludge with milky streaks that meanders alongside dwellings and through parks, smelling as foul as anything can. And the cows. How can a place be civilized when cows walk and shit wherever they please? We have health regulations against this in the West for a reason. Sorry, but I’ll take science over religion on the open air feces debate.

With such an intimate connection between untreated waste and disease, one would expect Indian cultural eating habits to distance the less savory from the more savory. Unfortunately, people are using the same hands they clean their anus with to mop sauce and rice into their mouths. Hunched over plates and trays, people wad food in their hands and stuff greasy, filthy fingers into their mouths. It was sometimes like watching pigs at a trough. Yes, we eat with our hands in the west, but it’s objects naturally hand held; gravy and potatoes hold fork and spoon status for us.

If this connection to animality is not deep enough, I also witnessed women picking insects from the hair of others, their squatting posture exactly like National Geographic’s Congo. And drinking water? Well, the only water I dared touch in India was bottled, and even that I was told to be wary of. The Ganges in Varanasi is considered a holy river. But it’s treated as anything but. One person’s water buffalo urinates while a man a pace away takes a deep drink from the river. Upstream a fresh corpse is set adrift in the current, while downstream a mother washes her baby—plastic bottles and bags, rotten unmentionables, and rubbish of all variety floating in the space between. The temples, places of holy worship? No, they are as dirty as the streets. Walking through Kolkata’s most sacred Kali temple, I had to wave clouds of flies away, mounds of rubbish pushed to the sides of the walk. Nothing speaks of reverence and piety like maggots and trash.

Great drifts and piles of refuse blight India. Like snow, people dispose of it everywhere and anywhere they can, the world their landfill. Unbelievable until one sees it, the trash is a playground for children, a bed for dogs, and lunch for cows. Like the emaciated man laying in his own waste outside the Patna train station, nobody seems to care, and India gets dirtier, one empty chip bag and Coke bottle at a time.

Suffice to say, I was blown away by the hygiene standards of India. I expected bad, but the filth and squalor I witnessed was depressing. I lived in China for four years—another country featuring a billion of mostly poor. But like Sisyphus, the Chinese employ street cleaners and place rubbish receptacles in public areas. Toilet paper is a common and cheap commodity and chopsticks, perhaps the world’s most sophisticated eating device (much more refined than the stab and cut of Western knives and forks), is employed at every meal. Yes, the Chinese may not place limitations on the egress of gas from the orifices, but at least this can be spun into a compliment, i.e., the louder the belch, the more delicious the meal.

But I digress. I will let the following photos speak for themselves.
 Sitting on randomly thrown rubbish, no problem!
This man is not in gentle repose, taking in the morning light.  He’s one of hundreds of people I saw shitting in plain view beside our trains.
Said man at the Patna train station.  Pictures are truly worth a thousand words, sometimes.
This is standing on the platform at Agra’s main station, the tracks pooling with urine, rubbish, and gods know what else.  The smell was overpowering.  With 2 million people passing through Agra to visit the Taj Mahal every year, it’s obvious station maintenance is high on the list of local officials' priorities…
Yet one more cow happily munching rubbish.  Such is the price of freedom for the city cow.
The endless slums of New Delhi.  At least these people have a brick “home”, unlike the tarpaulin and rope structures I witnessed on the outskirts of Kolkata.
The less holy—or more holy, depending on perspective—streets of Varanasi.  These cows are ensuring next year’s sidewalk crops are well fertilized.  (People walk barefoot through this!!)
More slums.  I included this photo as I thought it represented the slums well.  There's a little of everything, a stream—I mean, sewage channel—tarpaulin shacks, mound of drying cow paddies, strewn rubbish, concrete, dust, etc., etc..  The Taj Mahal is but the painted pinky toenail of the dog.
These Ganges boatmen must not have wanted their boat getting dirty.  (Sorry, bad joke.)
More slums of New Delhi.  I’m guessing the upper caste does not use the cell phone tower in the background as a means to discuss the state of life for those living below…
A nightmare for a person with allergies, this is an inner city street of New Delhi.  The swirling dust and exhaust fumes only making things worse, how electricians make sense of the overhead wires is beyond me.
The dust and smog rise above, as well. New Delhi’s skyline is a beautiful dirt brown.

While I hope for drastic changes to India's social system, changes that would spell good news for human rights and environmental mitigation, little seems to exist. No matter how bad our lives may be in the West, nothing compares to millions of poor living in India--hand to mouth in more ways than one. How can India have the 10th largest GDP, yet allow 95% of its citizens to live in such deprived conditions?


Culture Corner: The Architecture of Agra

While the Taj Mahal rightfully hogs Agra’s glory, there are more worthwhile sites in the area to be seen.   The city itself forgettable, Shah Jahan and other moghuls before and after erected not only the Taj, but several other glorious tombs, as well as a huge fort, later converted into a palace.  But I'll let the photos speak for themselves.
Its real name Itimad-ud-Daulah, most people just call it the “Baby Taj”.  The details of its stonework often more intricate than the father’s, this 'little' tomb was blessedly void of tourists and could be examined at leisure.
Some of those details.  Truly sublime.
 A carved marble screen.
Another detail.  The stonework is phenomenal, each little piece having to be hand carved and fit into place.
Yours truly standing in front of the Baby Taj, ready to compare it to the granddaddy.
This is a portion of the Red Fort, another Unesco World Heritage site in Agra well worth the distinction.
Called a palace by most, the Red Fort was also a prison for Shah Jahan in the final years of his life.  Though unable to be seen here, his view from the windows was of his home after death: the Taj Mahal.  I suppose his immediate surrounds--the harem, menagerie of exotic animals, dried fruits and nuts, etc.--were enough to ignore that little constant reminder...
Only dreams can be more exotic...
Even the gratuitous postcard view is almost surreal.
The Taj is worth every word of praise heaped upon it.
The colors of women’s saris against the white marble was fantastic--the only place in India such a clean contrast could be made!
Sorry, couldn’t resist one more--the sunset view!

Culture Corner: The Holy City of Varanasi

Many of the cities we passed through in India were mirror images of each other.  The dust, poverty, filth, and heat of Siliguri, Patna and Kolkata was universally depressing for the simple fact nothing could be done to dispel the lifeless pall permeating each.  Varanasi, while possessing every inch of the crust and grime of these cities—if not more—nevertheless presents a positive side to the world.  And it’s the Hindus who make it possible.  Being one of several holy cities alongside the Ganges River, the people who call the city home and pilgrims come from all around to bathe in the holy water provide a spark of color and life that other places in India we visited simply did't have.  And so despite entropy’s active resolve to dismantle the city, one dusty temple at a time, the reds and yellows of pilgrim robes, beards and exposed ribs of reposed swamis flicker while time grinds the city to ruins.
Varanasi on the Ganges, the holy Hindu city.
Entropy at work on one of the many small and fast deteriorating temples in Varanasi.
A be-all, end-all, the people of Varanasi use the river’s waters for everything.  Swimming, bathing, boating, trash disposal, corpse disposal, animals, religious ceremonies, and dishwater are just some of the uses we saw.
I don’t know exactly what accommodations these cousins of the cow are granted in India, but at least they too can escape the heat and have a swim in the river.
Every evening—and I mean every evening—the Hindus hold sunset ceremonies along the banks of the river.  Crowds gather on shore and in boats to watch the Brahmins wave their candles and censers in rhythm with monotonous bells and drums.
 We were lucky enough to be in the city while the moon was full, here seen rising above the river from our hotel room.
 And, the next morning’s sunrise...
The heat oppressive, one must wake up early to take in the activity of the people along the river in the morning, the afternoons for escape.  Not exactly sure the religious status of this man, I can only pass along the things I witnessed him doing.  After collecting some water from the Ganges in his small silver bowl, he proceeded to incant the stone, splash some water, then arrange these objects--shells, combs, mirrors, rocks, in some particular feng-shui order.  Later, after men of the city finished their morning’s bath, some would approach to borrow a comb and mirror, receive a blessing, and have a fresh dot planted on their forehead.  Barber-sage is the best title I can come up with.  I really need to read more.
 Street food.  (Potential for stomach trouble without meat: 3 out of 10; with meat: 8 out of 10.)
More pilgrims on the waterfront.  These rolled what was either dough or clay into small balls, and after performed a small ceremony.  I really, really need to read more…
 A cow in Varanasi's side streets stopping by to say “Good morning” to a neighbor.
This is one of Varanasi's main burning ghats .  Corpses wrapped in colorful cloth are brought here and readied for cremation.  Wood is weighed and paid for by the surviving family prior to setting the pyre alight.  Afterwards, the ashes are dumped in the Ganges. Kindly note the cows munching rubbish happily on the shore.
It is only in a trance-like state that one can be unaware of the trash, cremated ashes, and bloated bodies of dead cows in the “holy” Ganges.
A pilgrim on his way to who knows where.  I suppose, neither do I...

Culture Corner: Sikkim

Sikkim a kingdom for centuries, in the 70s their two much larger neighbors to the north and south began pressing for takeover. The king fled and India, falling on the most advantageous side of the Himalayas, took control. Firefights still supposedly occur between India and China deep in the mountains, but we witnessed none of the hostility, and in fact were pleasantly surprised by the multi-cultural and effervescent atmosphere of what is now a province.  Cool climes and steep vistas, the former kingdom is a surprisingly interesting place to spend several days.  At the crossroads of Bhutan, Tibet, China, Nepal, Burma, and of course India, a huge mix of culture can be found.  Noticeably cleaner and possessing verve, Gangtok, Sikkims capitol, has a feel for life that Calcutta and many other cities of India’s heartland simply do not.  Entry at roughly 500m (1,600 ft.), during our time in the former kingdom we ascended to approximately 4,000m (13,100 ft.) in Yumthang Valley and there were able to enjoy the mighty Himalayas.  Here are some photos of this portion of our trip.
Gangtok, one of the word’s most vertical cities, occasionally has a view to the world’s third highest peak.  Unfortunately here it is occluded by clouds.  Despite several opportunities, we saw the peak only for the briefest of moments as we prepared to leave the city early-early our last day.
Bordering Nepal and Tibet, Buddhism is the predominant religion of Sikkim.  (Sikh worship is now centered roughly in the regions north of New Delhi).  Painted in vivid detail, above is one of the door guardians of Rungtek monastery.  Real life Indian soldiers wielding automatic weapons also served as door guardians here.  At impassse, both Indian and Nepali sides claim to have located the most recent reincarnation of the monastery’s karmapa.  We were told by the locals that more than 90% of the people in the region support the Nepali (we saw numerous posters and stickers to support this opinion).  However, as the Indian government wields political power, their 10% is just as valuable, hence the impasse.   Like us, all the door guardian can do is look on while humans be humans pretending to be religious.
One of civilization’s guardians… Sorry, couldn’t resist.  This is a poster advertising one of the many retro cinemas that have become retro only because they haven’t stopped operating since the time such entertainment was considered groundbreaking.  Nothing is more congruous with Indian culture than a leather vest, shotgun-wielding action hero with paint splashed on his forehead.  If ever proof of globalization was needed…
At the risk of putting my cultural foot in my mouth, I will say only that this is a girl living in Sikkim, leaving her cultural background for the more erudite.
A portion of the “normal” road temporarily blocked by landslide, our alternative route to Yumthang Valley didn’t inspire any further confidence.
Cutting through the ice and snow of glaciers, the road to the Valley was far from hospitable.  On several occasions our vehicles and others required manual assistance over the rough spots.
And voila, Yumthang Valley!
Prayer flags and a beautiful meadow of mountain wild flowers, the Valley is a very nice place to spend a day.
What goes up, must come down.  Here is part of our return trip to flat land – a better presentation of the extreme hazard posed by our road.  When encountering these obstacles, the vehicles simply drive over the landslides (when possible), in effect compacting and recreating the road as they go.
One wrong turn and, well, you see…
Not for the faint of heart.
Truck drivers in Sikkim loved to paint their trucks a kaleidoscope of colors, religious symbols, and company logos. Looking closely at this truck you will find dolphins (in the Himalayas!), a Puma logo (the driver’s undying love in the company motivating the free advertising), the Buddhist wheel of life, and the eyes of what is probably some Hindu god.
Even the monkeys came to see us out, properly.