Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”

A date some time in the near future. Technology has made immense progress and humans have started living on the moon, on Mars and other planets. Yet, life is so unbearable, it has necessitated the regular usage of drugs to escape reality and live in an illusion.

In ‘The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch’, Philip K. Dick creates a future that is as fascinating as it is thought provoking. It goes beyond just a view of the future to an actual analysis of the life and times in that future. Barney Mayerson wakes up in his conapt, checks his vidphone, carries his ‘psychiatrist’ in a suitcase … but in a world where at great physical and mental risks, people undergo genetic treatments to become more ‘evolved’ humans; a world where companies hire pre-cogs for the sole purpose of looking into the future to predict what fashions will catch on; a world where people use the drug CAN-D in conjunction with Perky Pat Layouts, to live out their fantasies (pitiably limited to being Pat or her boyfriend Walt, owning everything from the latest Jaguar to the latest in Italian clothing, it always being Saturday and time for a date).

Enter Palmer Eldritch, creator of super drug CHEW-Z, and recently rescued from a crash on Pluto on his way back from the Prox system, and things get really interesting!

This is the greatest reason why I am constantly drawn back to Philip K. Dick’s works: within the fantastic world of science fiction there is the omnipresent factor of conflicting realities, which challenge the reader and never once allow any single reality to emerge as the definitive one! Along with the users of this strong drug, I was not once allowed to settle in comfortably in any given situation. Every time I thought I had finally figured out what was going on, yet another layer of reality was brutally peeled back, and I was faced with one more possibility! Of course the genius of PKD is that the writing is so incredibly masterful, you never ever get confused to the point of losing interest. The more complex the plot got, the more invested I became in the maze!

As is probably obvious from the title, the story also lays great emphasis on the topics of god / religion. What was refreshing was the mature handling of a topic that can easily go off on a very didactic tangent. Through hints - some subtle, some obvious - parallels are drawn between Palmer and Christ. Interesting points of view are brought to light, but after exploring many possibilities, the question is left unanswered … did we meet god or some alien looking for a fulfillment of that most basic need of all life forms: procreation?

Dick’s ‘Ubik’ might still be my favourite, but to be very honest, it is not easy to pick a favourite from among his books. I have read about four or five of his works (including the awesome ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’) and each one brings some new concept to light. True, some questions may never be answered - Why specifically those three stigmata? What was the significance of no one getting Mayerson’s name right? Was Palmer god? And where did the trance end and reality begin? - Regardless however, all his stories hit you with a brand new way of thinking and force you to question reality itself. So, get canned or be choosy, the ultimate analysis is in your mind alone!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Off on a Comet”

I have read some of the more famous works of Jules Verne, including Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (this one is on my list of favourite books of all time). Although lesser known, sci-fi adventure Off on a Comet - the story of 36 inhabitants from Earth who got the ride of a lifetime when a chunk of their planet was transported into space by a passing comet - was, for the most part, a fascinating read, full of the kind of fantastic ideas we can expect from a pioneer of the science fiction genre.

I loved how the story unfolded and the incredible situation was slowly revealed. From an altercation between Captain Hector Servadac and Count Wassili Timascheff over a young widow who had captured both hearts, the story takes off to the stars. Hints are gently dropped along the way - example, when the ‘moon’ doesn’t quite look like a moon and has its own moon around it - and we begin to see what’s going on … that initial build-up was really amazing! (On that point though, I wish the title of this book was something else: had we - along with the three people - not known what was going on, that first meeting with the astronaut would have had so much more impact).

What I also really liked about this story was how different people with varying characteristics came together to form a whole new world when torn away from their home planet. Gallia is created, complete with a population, a Governor General, a Gallian Academy of Science and even a Gallian calendar to accommodate the Gallian month that is twice as long as a terrestrial month, but with a day only half as long. Fighting to survive in a hostile environment on a strange world, this motley crowd comes together and builds a home in a cave guarded by a fantastic curtain of molten lava!

I also loved the humour! One classic example was the endless chess game between Colonel Heneage Finch Murphy and Major Sir John Temple Oliphant. Having lasted months, a long silence was broken with, ““Then I take your bishop, major,” said Colonel Murphy, as he made a move that he had taken since the previous evening to consider. “I was afraid you would,” replied Major Oliphant, looking intently at the chess-board.”

If there was one thing that took away from my enjoyment of the story, it was the focus on facts and figures. While it was definitely interesting to see how boiling eggs indicated atmospheric pressure, some sections read more like a science journal: such as, the chapter completely dedicated to the exact steps involved in calculating the weight of the comet.

Verne’s treatment of the Jewish character, Isaac Hakkabut, also made me quite uncomfortable. The German trader is seen to be materialistic to ridiculous limits. Having read a lot of books written in the late 19th / early 20th centuries, I have grown to expect a certain degree of racism; but this book seemed to be overly so.

However, there is no question that Jules Verne was a person with an endless imagination and this book bears testimony to that fact. Remember, this book was published in 1877 … take a moment to think about the scientific creativity of a mind that was born in 1828!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Willows”

I had mentioned this by way of passing in a previous blog: anyone can scare you in the dead of the night; but if someone can put eternal fear in the very core of your being on a bright hot day with sunlight pouring in on a gorgeous island … now that’s art! With not a hint of gore, this horror story - one of Algernon Blackwood’s best known short stories - is a work of pure genius, and one of my favourites - not just in the horror / weird genre (I haven’t read enough in that category to make an informed judgement anyway), but across all genres.

The Willows is the story of two friends (interestingly, both anonymous to the end) on a canoe trip down the Danube River, and their weird experiences in a world cloistered in masses of menacing willows forming “an ever-moving plain of bewildering beauty”.

What I really like about Blackwood’s writing is his fascinating combination of two seemingly opposing tones - yes, this is a horror story with fear at its base - but at the same time the narrative is sheer poetry, which elevates the reading experience to a whole new level. “Midway in my delight of the wild beauty, there crept, unbidden and unexplained, a curious feeling of disquietude, almost of alarm … acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting, listening.”

Clothed in as much a nameless sense of awe as a vague feeling of terror, this haunted and primeval world presented everything from a man on a boat shouting and gesticulating at them from a distance, to the inexplicable sounds of the gongs that seemed to emanate from every direction, to the shrinking island, to the possibility that they were at the weakest point between two worlds: a point of contact with a “fourth dimension” being watched by aliens, to that horrific moment of mental breakdown where a sacrifice was suggested as the only way to escape the terror of the world of the willows.

And therein lay the brilliance of this story; in a story where it would be hard to say in concrete terms, “what happens in this story is…” it was fascinating to see how many ideas were presented and how many emotions those gave rise to. Reminiscent of Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”, neither were there any specific events or frantic action scenes, nor was the ambiguity of the story, including the mysterious ending, ever clearly explained. More so, therefore, it is fascinating how such a story could somehow transport you to a whole new world of thought and idea, and finally leave you captivated by that constricting yet nameless fear that reigned constant and supreme.

“Yet what I felt of dread was no ordinary ghostly fear. It was infinitely greater, stranger, and seemed to arise from some dim ancestral sense of terror more profoundly disturbing than anything I had known or dreamed of.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Island of Doctor Moreau”

“What could it all mean? A locked enclosure on a lonely island, a notorious vivisector, and these crippled and distorted men?”

Prima facie, this science fiction novel by H. G. Wells is about Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked man rescued by a passing boat and left on the island home of the notorious Doctor Moreau, who vivisects animals to create humanoids out of them. Shocking as that theme might be, the novel actually deals with some very interesting themes, from the concept of pain to the question of human identity.

A grotesque bestial manservant named M’ling; terrifying howls from a puma; humans that look like hogs; an Ape-Man, a Leopard-Man, a Hyena-Swine, a Dog-Man; and a bizarre colony of half-human/half-animal creatures, led by ‘Sayer of the Law’, all denouncing bestial behaviour. It would be very easy to feel violated and judge or condemn the Frankenstein-like Doctor Moreau … but this story (and especially the chapter entitled ‘Doctor Moreau Explains All’) has such extraordinary ideas, it is worth fighting off the horror and going beneath the surface.

Explaining the reasoning behind his project, Moreau points out that, “ … the possibility of vivisection does not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis.” He talks about his goal of “ … superseding old inherent instincts by new suggestions, grafting upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas.” And he destroys accepted norms of what we call ‘moral education’ as “ … such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct; pugnacity is trained into courageous self-sacrifice, and suppressed sexuality into religious emotion.”

“Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us … Then with men, the more intelligent they become, the more intelligently they will see after their own welfare, and the less they will need the goad to keep them out of danger.” Moreau truly saw the sense of pain as something needless - cravings, instincts and desires being emotions that actually harm humanity, which is why he was driven to create a being that was above such archaic reins. Triumphantly he declares, “But I will conquer yet! Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, ‘This time I will burn out all the animal; this time I will make a rational creature of my own!’” - At the heart of a grotesque experiment lay a heightened desire to create the perfect human being, free of all bestiality. Twisted and morbid, or lucid and fascinating?

What was also really very interesting was Prendick’s view of people when he finally returned to the safety of England, with the horrors of the island of Doctor Moreau firmly behind him. He may well have been shocked when the bestial natures of man-made humans on a remote island broke through, but in the heart of the city, on civilized humans, he saw a myriad of faces, some “keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere - none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them.” And that, right there, was an interesting blurring of the line between the insane Doctor Moreau and the rest of the civilized world.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Lady Bracknell.  Are your parents living?
Jack.  I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell.  To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

- And that is just one of many, many sparkling gems in this funny, absurd and absurdly funny play by Oscar Wilde! ‘The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People’ is the story of John Worthing a.k.a. Jack a.k.a. Ernest and Algernon Moncrieff - ‘a’.a.k.a. Ernest, and the ridiculous extents they go to in order to combat archaic social obligations in this satirical, farcical comedy!

First of all, I have to say; I really enjoyed reading a play. For some reason, after college I did not read any … but as soon as I read, “FIRST ACT. SCENE Morning-room in …” I was immediately hooked!

I also really liked the theme and the presentation of the theme - this play is an obvious comment on the social conventions of the day, but presented (unlike The Picture of Dorian Gray - which, by the way, is one of my favourite books of all time) in such a witty and humorous manner, it made this a very refreshing read!

Creating this impossible world are such fantastic characters as the besotted Jack/John Worthing who believes pleasure is the only thing that “should bring one anywhere”; the irrepressible Algernon Moncrieff who sees nothing romantic in proposing, as that takes the excitement out of the relationship, and who is a staunch ‘Bunburyist’ - his “poor friend Bunbury” being the one thing that lets him out of any number of uncomfortable situations and into an equal number of pleasant ones; the forceful Lady Bracknell, who is always surrounded by an air of icy coldness, who knows that behaving well and feeling well never mean the same thing, and who does not “in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids” - being of the view that people should make up their minds if they were going to live or die; the prim and proper Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax who would rather not be called ‘perfect’ by an adoring lover, as “It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions”; the outspoken Miss Cecily Cardew who, in the words of Jack Worthing “is not a silly romantic girl … has got a capital appetite, goes on long walks, and pays no attention at all to her lessons”; and Lane, the Jeeves-like manservant, who has unwavering loyalty to his employer Algernon, and will concur with him in all matters from explaining missing cucumber sandwiches to agreeing not to talk of his own family as “it is not a very interesting subject”.

From an addiction to cucumber sandwiches, to the curiously bad health of Mr. Bunbury; from Lady Bracknell’s interview of Mr. Worthing backed by a note-book and pencil and a list of eligible young men, to a baby found in a black leather hand-bag in the cloak-room at Victoria Station on the Brighton line … and at the heart of it all - the supreme importance of being named Ernest in a world where no one really is in earnest … I really enjoyed this book a lot, and can see myself reading it many times over in the future!