Monday, January 5, 2015

C H Robinson's "Longhead: The story of the first fire" (novella, free): Down of human civilization

Cover of the 1913 novella Longhead, by C H Robinson. Image shows a long ago human ancestor intrigued by a fire started by lightening.Longhead, a man from a time before there were homo sapiens, accidentally discovers fire & helps kickstart the ideas that would start the humans on their journey to civilized life...

Fact sheet.

First published: 1913.
Download full text from Project Gutenberg.
Rating: B.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Jules Verne's "Ticket No '9672'" aka "The Lottery Ticket" (novel, non-genre, free): Introducing idyllic Norwegian countryside

Cover of novel Ticket No 9672 by Jules VerneI actually picked it up expecting an adventure, & got disappointed. It's readable enough, if you are in mood for a slow moving story in scenic locations with far too much descriptions & far too little dialogs or action.

Story summary.

Story is mostly set in Dal, a small town in Norway. A family of 3 Hansens - mother, daughter, & son, running an inn. Daughter's fiance has gone on a fishing expedition to Newfoundland, & the marriage is expected on his return; only his ship gets wrecked at sea, with all presumed dead.

Eventually, a bottle is found at sea, containing a lottery ticket bearing the number of story's title, & a farewell message at its back for the girl from fiance. News spreads, people get superstitious about the number, & begin sending bids to buy it. Add an influential man who'll get fond of the family & will move mountains to get positive proof of the sailor's death.

Eventually happy ending.

Fact sheet.

First published: 1886.
Download full text from Project Gutenberg, Feedbooks.
Rating: B.
Related: Stories of Jules Verne.

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.
Rating: A.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

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


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.


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.