Friday, October 3, 2014

Anand Neelakantan's "Asura" (novel): Retelling Ramayan from the point of view of Ravan!

Cover of the novel Asura by Anand Neelakantan. Shows the picture of 10 headed Ravan.This post may not make a lot of sense for readers outside South Asia. Ramayan is a well known epic here, & my commentary below assumes familiarity with it.

While there have been many retellings of Ramayan, they mostly don't question its premises, heroes & villains. This one is unusual in that it tells Ramayan from the point of view of Ravan, & from the point of view of an ordinary Asura citizen of the period. Apart from questioning a lot of premises of Ramayan, it uses the opportunity to make commentary on modern India - high growth rate that is invisible to poorer & less skilled sections of society, skin color prejudices, politicians claiming & appropriating far more resources & rights compared to ordinary citizens, ... It also devotes a lot of space to caste system, though I find its rigidity completely unfamiliar; may be times have changed!

A few noteworthy departures from conventional Ramayan:
  1. 10 heads of Ravan represent him as a complete man, as against a saint. I don't remember the list of 10 attributes he lists, but they're like one head for lust, another for wisdom, another for greed, ... Ravan is a man, with all the failings it implies, & doesn't aspire to be a God by overcoming what are claimed to be human "shortcomings".
  2. Sita is Ravan & Mandodari's eldest child! Someone foretells that she will bring destruction to the family & clan, so a lot of people want her killed when she's a baby. To protect her, Ravan takes her with him during a campaign north. But those fearful of future conspire to plan her killed even here; only the man charged with disposing her off doesn't have heart to murder a helpless baby & manages to have her found by Janak. Ravan kidnapped her later to protect her from Ram, whom he thinks is unworthy of his daughter.
  3. It sets up the stage as a conflict between Devas & Asuras. India is initially owned by native tribes of Asuras, Kinnars, Nagas, etc. Deva invaders have come from Central Asia, & Indra is the first of the successful raiders. Asuras are a casteless society; Devas have brought casteism with them.
  4. Vanars are half castes - mix of Devas & Asuras, unwanted by both. They inhabit central India, acting mostly as a buffer zone between Asuras & Devas.
  5. Brahma is not a god but a clan of teachers, one of whom will teach Ravan in his young years.
Story isn't always consistent, though. It takes pains to tell us Vanars are nothing but ordinary human half castes, & yet they move up trees & buildings far more nimbly than most men, & are often referred to as "monkey men". I think there is a place before Lanka Dehan where Hanumanji's tail is referred to! And there is reference to steel somewhere during fighting in Lanka; did steel even exist in the period the story is set in?

I found some of the takeaways of the book disturbing:
  1. Dashahara: (Incidentally, today is Dashahara.) What does it tell us about Indians as human beings? That we are a vengeful unforgiving lot? Even assuming everything in classical Ramayan is true, Ravan got death as his punishment. Why do we still keep taking revenge by burning his effigies?
  2. Lanka Dehan: Assume that the Prime Minister does something stupid. As a revenge & to put pressure on him, someone comes & bombs your neighborhood. What would you call this avenger? A lot of innocents must have died when Lanka was set on fire! Why do we never discuss it?
  3. Disfigurement of Soorpnakha at the hands of Lakshman: Why do we simply brush it aside? OK - so she was promiscuous & was trying to entice Lakshman. Does that justify cutting off her nose?
  4. Agni Pareeksha & the exile of a pregnant Sita: I've heard pious explanations for it but never found them convincing. This book imagines the dirty details to make you squirm.
It did however took me a long time to finish - well over a month. I didn't normally get bored reading it, but once I put it down, I usually had to make an effort pick it up again. May be because it's rambling ... or too long ...

Fact sheet.

First published: 2012.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mangalyaan, India's maiden Mars probe, is now orbiting Mars!

@ISRO.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Carson of Venus" (novel, adventure, free): Hero helps win a war

Cover of Argosy magazine issue where the story originally began publishing - first of the 6 parts.This is #3 in author's Venus series. I've not read the earlier books, but it's pretty much an independent adventure. And very readable if you can keep plausibility aside.

Story summary.

Carson Napier, hero of the story, along with his ladylove Duare, is homeless & wanted in many jurisdictions on Venus. But he has an airplane he built that can stay up in the air without maintenance or refueling for 50 years! But he needs to land for food. The duo are seeking a home where they will be wanted.

They'll end up on a large island (Korva) with war going on - a common soldier has usurped power & has imprisoned the king. All of Korva has fallen except one holdout, the walled city of Sanara. The city is now under seize.

Carson will end up befriending the holdouts, & help them win the war by bombing enemy from his plane & by playing a spy in usurper's city.

Notes.

There is also an unrelated short story length adventure at the beginning of the novel - tribals kidnap Duare & Carson will rescue her.

Fact sheet.

First published: As a serial in 6 parts in Argosy, Jan 8, 15, 22, 29, & Feb 5 & 12 issues, 1938.
Download full text from Project Gutenberg of Australia or Feedbooks.
Rating: A.
Nominated for Retro Hugo Awards 1939 in novel category.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Henry Kuttner's "The Time Trap" (novella, adventure, free)

This is readable enough, but in a mindless sort of way.

Story summary.

A disparate group of apparently good samaritans come together from several eras - hero from 1930s, heroine & hero's sidekick from 5000 years ago from what is now Arabia, & a friend from sometime in future. They're chasing two villains - both from future - through time. In the process, they'll have lot of adventures in exotic locales & among exotic species at different times in earth's history.

Two curious things stood out for me. One is a factual error - in the story, the moon has come much closer to earth in far future; I thought it is going away a few centimeters every year. Other is something you see a lot on pulp magazine covers but not in actual stories - here, heroine is nude at least a half dozen times - sometimes an object of lust, other times as part of torture, yet another time as part of worship! I haven't read many stories from Marvel, but I wonder if the magazine specialized in titillation?

Title refers a metallic device that looks like a pair of obelisks, planted in some remote corner of Arabia by the main villain. The device will live to the end of earth, & is a trap: whenever someone is within range of device &, simultaneously, lightening strikes the device, the person is sent to about 3000 BC!

Fact sheet.

First published: Marvel Science Stories, November 1938.
Download full text from AlfaLib.
Rating: B.
Nominated for Retro Hugo Awards 1939 in novella category.
Related: Stories of Henry Kuttner.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

C L Moore's "Werewoman" (novelette, free)

Among the most boring of author's Northwest Smith series; I completed it only because it is C L Moore.

Northwest Smith, unarmed, hurt, & being chased by unnamed adversaries, walks into the cursed ruins of a long dead city, & will free it from its curse.

Fact sheet.

First published: Leaves #2, Winter 1938.
Download full text from AlfaLib.
Rating: C.
Nominated for Retro Hugo Awards 1939 in novelette category.
Related: Stories of C L Moore.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

John W Campbell's "Dead Knowledge" (as by Don A Stuart) (novelette, alien invasion): "Molecular", microscopic, space traveling, light-eating alien invaders want to control us as tools!

one of the uncredited illustrations accompanying the original publication in Astounding magazine of short story Dead Knowledge by John Campbell
Three human star travelers have arrived at a new world 27 light years from earth, only to find that it once harbored intelligent, highly developed, humanoid civilization that is now dead. And, curiously, it's long dead residents have their bodies well preserved & they all apparently committed suicide!!

It drags on for a while, until the visitors themselves start committing suicide - first one, then other. It's the final one who will enlighten us on the nature of infection before himself committing suicide.

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding, January 1938.
Rating: B.
Nominated for Retro Hugo Awards 1939 in novelette category.
Among the stories from Astounding/Analog issues edited by John Campbell.
Related: Works of John Campbell (as by Don A Stuart).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Clifford D Simak's "Rule 18" (novelette, humor): How earth won it's first football match against Martians in decades

One of the illustrations accompanying the original publication in Astounding magazine of short story Rule 18 by Clifford D Simak. Image shows the victory procession through New York of Martian football team after its latest win against earth.Martians have been beating earth in annual football match for a long time. And the diagnosis is: earth-men have become soft because of too much automation here; they never get a chance to exercise their muscles. But things are about to change as a cool newly invented gadget, the earth team's coach sick of losing too long, & a betting syndicate come together...

Title comes from one of the rules of the game that requires a player of the team to not only be natives of his world, but his 9 preceding generations should have been native of this world too. Coach will twist this rule in a curious way to win.

Update 21 July 2014Marooned has a note on an Isaac Asimov connection to this story.

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding, July 1938.
Rating: B.
Nominated for Retro Hugo Awards 1939 in novelette category.
Among the stories from Astounding/Analog issues edited by John Campbell.
Related: Stories of Clifford D Simak.