Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Eden – The Follies and Obscurities of Human-Alien Contact

Polish author Stanislaw Lem is an expert when it comes to writing stories about human space explorers stumbling upon alien worlds and cultures. The inherent human urge to anthropomorphize an alien civilization and the absolutely unbridgeable gap between human and extraterrestrial intelligence (in terms of technical, biological, cultural, etc) is a recurrent theme in Mr. Lem’s works. Eden (published in Polish in 1959 and translated to English in 1989) was the first of the author’s novels to explore the subject of first contact, a theme scrutinized more in his following works, Solaris (1961), The Invincible (1964), and Fiasco (1986). These travelogue plus cautionary tales (set in bizarre alien worlds) largely works due to Lem’s deeply perceptive nature to envision human condition from an outsider’s perspective. Of course, like many of East European and Soviet Union sci-fi writers of the time, Lem’s highly imaginative premise imparted profound social criticism on Stalinist regime and the Iron Curtain.

Eden starts off like a typical SF expedition story with six members of a spaceship, crash-landing on an Earth-like planet, of course named ‘Eden’. All the six men are identified only by their titles: the Captain, the Engineer, the Doctor, the Cyberneticist, the Chemist, and the Physicist (occasionally the Engineer is called by his real name Henry; the meaning of providing name only to Engineer remains inscrutable). Lem’s expertise doesn’t exist in creating character-driven stories, but in place of it he includes strong ideas and theories. Similarly, the six men of Eden are prescribed a certain personality: the Captain being a stern leader, the Doctor exhibiting empathy, the Cyberneticist preoccupied by his defective robots, etc. They remain as ciphers throughout to carry the author’s grave insights about the first-contact. Nevertheless, the profound strangeness swirling in the 'Edenite' atmosphere keeps the characters and readers on the edge.

The spaceship is badly damaged and it would take few weeks to repair it. Previously, only a probe has been sent to the planet. So the crew decides to use the accident to explore the planet which has a breathable earth-like atmosphere, and if possible seek help from the local intelligent alien species. The ship has crash-landed in a knoll that’s situated at the center of a desertscape. In the subsequent days and weeks, the six men go on an expedition in four directions and stumble upon eerie, incomprehensible things. The foremost odd thing they come across is the planet’s vegetation: giant calyxes; spider-like veins; blossoms that takes flight like butterflies. Then they happen upon a broken-down bio-mechanical factory, which manufactures complex, unfathomable products. Odder still are the planet’s intelligent species, called by the six as ‘Doublers’ (since it consist of two symbiotic life-forms). Mass graves, weird skeletons inside glass jars, pits with deformed alien corpses, disk-shaped flying things, taped footage of every-day alien life, Lem’s concoction of the ‘doubler’ society retains an unsettling, harrowing tone.

An illustration of alien called as 'Doubler' [Pic courtesy: Deviant art -- https://www.deviantart.com/spaceexplorer/art/Eden-tribute-to-Stanislaw-Lem-367363511]

 Eden is definitely not one of Lem’s masterpieces. It lacks the deeply philosophical tone of Solaris or Fiasco and far removed from the playfully satiric tone, found in Ijon Tichy stories (a fictional space voyager encounters bizarre civilizations and creatures in cosmos). It isn’t also hard science-fiction like The Invincible. Nevertheless, Eden contains a lot of strangely terrifying scenarios to warrant a read. Moreover, this isn’t an escapist fantasy or space opera with human kind joining hands with alien race to establish brotherhood across cosmos. Lem doesn’t indulge with gratuitous violence, although he keeps alive the fear of unknown. While some of the chapters dealing with the ship’s repair are slow-moving and tedious, there are quite a few spine-chilling situations scattered throughout the expedition. One intriguing confrontation between humans and the alien ‘doublers’ happens at the planet’s metropolis of sorts. The characters’ discovery of the alien structures that leads to feelings of terror and confusion was similar in tone to the ‘discovery’ in Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness.

The last few chapters are equally brilliant and disturbing. The chapters where the men eventually establish a communication of sorts with the astronomer 'doubler' is absolutely riveting and demonstrates why Lem is a gifted sci-fi master. The story of anonymity, oppression, censorship, biological experimentation, and internment pieced through the clumsy mode of communication established with the Doubler stays grimly fascinating (possesses certain parallels from modern human history). Lem also contemplates the ethical issues of imposing values and interpretations on situations humans can’t understand (“…these are beings with a physiology, psychology, and history different from ours. You can’t transplant a model of our civilization here…”, the Captain remarks). Furthermore, the author makes a valid argument against the naivety of humankind with dreams of interfering upon the culture & politics of intelligent alien civilization (an allusion to Fermi Paradox and the concept of otherness). Altogether, Eden isn’t a great SF novel, but definitely worth reading to experience Stanislaw Lem’s mesmerizing excursion through strangely captivating milieus and life-forms. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Primeval and Other Times – An Intense & Deeply Poetic Fiction

“God sees. Time escapes. Death pursues. Eternity waits.”

On the outset, Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeval and Other Times (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) looks like a historical novel, chronicling the turbulent century of war and political transition in the Polish countryside. But after relishing few pages of Tokarczuk’s prose, one filled with deftness and lyrical grace, it would be natural to hail the novel as a complex parable of human condition on the whole. The novel’s mystical note very much resides in the title ‘Primeval’. This imaginary village is described to exist near the Poland-Czech border and the tale spans between the World War I period (1914) and the beginning of Solidarity Movement (in 1980s). Yet the village name ‘Primeval’ and the early description of its surroundings bring up a sacred, mythical feeling as if the place itself stands outside the constraints of time and space. The borders of the provincial village are said to be guarded by the four archangels Michael, Uriel, Raphael and Gabriel, and two rivers – Black and White River – flow through the village, which remains as a symbol of dichotomy that preoccupies human existence (joy & sorrow, masculine & feminine, light & darkness, etc).

Primeval describes the trials and tribulations of three generations of Polish families in a morally, socially, and physically transitioning landscape of the Polish countryside. The story consists of numerous characters and each chapter unfurls from the perspective of these different individuals. Each characters showcase how the bucolic lives of the people of Primeval was tainted by the First and the Second World War, the Nazi and Russian occupation. The collective voices reflect the complex reality as the fate of one individual narrator is casually expressed in the words of another narrator and so on. Niebieski & Boski families occupy a prominent place in the narrative. Nevertheless, even spirits and objects turn into omniscient narrators, telling us their observation of humans. All chapters start with the word ‘The Time of…..’ which conveys the limitations and unfettered desires of people with respect to time. But after reading the lives of these different generations of people portrayed within 200 plus pages, we get a sense of timelessness; almost as if the events of past, present, and future exists in the same plane and the people repeatedly gets torn part by the malevolent forces of history.  

 Olga Tokarczuk

While the experiences of the peasants, squires, Jews, Catholics, children, etc are captivating, what sets it apart is Tokarczuk's inquisitory language, her magnificent metaphors, her wealth of imagination, which rejects many of the conventional traits of historical and cultural narratives. The author's whimsical and rueful prose reminds us of the magical realist techniques of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and dirtiest, distorted-realism of Laszlo Krasznahorkai. With one beguiling episode after another, 'Primeval' interestingly re-imagines history, ruminates on the cyclical nature of time, man's relationship with God, and death's inevitability.

Originally published in 1996, Primeval was translated to English in 2009 (by Twisted Spoon Press). The release immediately established Tokarczuk’s international reputation, which is bound to soar higher after the recent Man Booker International Prize (for ‘Flights’, shared with translator Jennifer Croft). In 2014, the author published an epic novel Ksiegi jakubowe’ (‘The Book of Jacob'), which despite receiving acclaims and awards also attracted hostile reactions from Polish national-conservative groups. Amidst controversies, hate mails, and death threats, the craving for Olga Tokarczuk’s novels among readers around the world has increased substantially. Primeval is my introduction to the author’s mythical tone of writing and has initiated a fixation to hunt down for all of her translated works and read it as soon as possible. Overall, Primeval and Other Times (248 pages) is a pretty mesmerizing novel which withholds the nuggets of historical and existential truths.


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Thirteenth Tale – A Well-Written but an Emotionally Unsatisfying Gothic Mystery

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.

British author Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale (published September 2006) has an interesting set-up that would appeal to the book-lovers. Margaret Lea, a woman so besotted with reading that she makes sure she is sitting down, or else would fall over and hurt herself while plunging deep into the story. Margaret works in her father’s humble bookshop near Cambridge. She spends time at the store, meticulously arranging the books, studying worn-out long forgotten volumes, do research in order to write biographies on obscure literary and historical figures, and attends to small number of visitors. When Margaret is not working, she retreats back to her abode above the bookshop, and gets engulfed in the world of words, lighting her reading space with circle of candles. Just when we start to wonder how one could sustain a life-style with such an economically inadequate arrangement, Margaret tells us about her father’s antiquarian book-dealer job. As she says, the bookshop is her father’s slightly expensive indulgence.

These opening passages mesmerizingly guides us deep into the world of a book-lover, her ruminations on the joy of reading, inhaling the smell of old books, her preference of books over people, all such ingrained thought-process a solitude-loving bibliophile could easily relate to. Diane Setterfield perfectly uses this hook to establish her Gothic suspense narration. Despite living the life of a hermit, an outsider reaches Margaret in the form of a letter. The letter is from Miss Vida Winters, a celebrated author whose novels have bewitched readers across the world for decades. Unfortunately, Margaret hasn’t read one of her novels. How could she be a book-lover and not read the book of a renowned contemporary author? Margaret has an answer for that too: she only reads the works of 19th century works (“There are too many books in the world to read in a single lifetime; you have to draw the line somewhere”). Nevertheless, Winters’ prose in the letter enamors Margaret so much that she hunts through her father’s treasured collection and starts reading Winters’ debut work; a collection of short stories titled ‘The Thirteen Tales’.

Miss Vida Winters’ personal life and past have always been a mystery to the reporters and her fans. Twenty two biographers have tried to tell the story of Winters’ life but totally failed. Moreover, being a storyteller, Miss Winters herself spins different stories about her past and feeds it to journalists (in one she is aristocrat, in another a poor orphan, and so on). But now in her 70s, Winters has asked Margaret Lea to pen the veritable biography. While Margaret instantly falls in love with the way Miss Winters conjures words like a sorcerer, she wonders why would the famous writer chose her – the obscure biography author – to tell the truth. Nevertheless, Margaret decides to travel and meet-up with Winters as mentioned in the letter. Even before meeting the great writer, Margaret discovers an oddity about her first book.

 Veteran British actress Vanessa Redgrave played Miss Vida Winters and Olivia Colman played Margaret Lea in the TV movie based on the novel

Though titled as ‘Thirteen Tales’, there’s only 12 stories in the book. In the latter, well-publicized editions, the title has been changed to ‘Tales of Change and Desperation’. The stories were profound retelling of classic fairy tales, which Margaret terms it as ‘'brutal, sharp and heartbreaking’. Connoisseurs of Miss Winters’ stories have long speculated that the missing thirteenth tale may contain clue to the writer’s cryptic past. Subsequently, Margaret arrives at the designated Gothic mansion and immerses herself into the mystery of who Vida Winter is. She is irresistibly drawn to the Angelfield house at Yorkshire, home to generations of patricians and where Miss Winter supposedly grown-up with her identical twin sister. And as the tale unfolds, constantly interspersed with Margaret’s thoughts, the Angelfield house’ nasty, chilling secrets slowly comes to light. Furthermore, Margaret’s troubled life and her own family secret she bears like a scar, persistently haunts her.

Diana Setterfield tries to incorporate Victorian themes of sibling relationships, liberation, and identity. The story of Miss Winters contains clear parallels to the classic gothic novels: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Turn of the Screw, etc. Sudden twists, intriguing mystery, hint of perverse behavior, rambunctious children, and emotionally-broken adults, the novel has all the atmosphere and elements to deftly unravel the threads and provide the answers. Yet something feels amiss in the story-telling; something which keeps us at a distance, rendering the developments in the middle portions either uninteresting or tedious. Although Setterfield teases us with the spectacle of haunting, there’s no eerie, uncomfortable feeling. The initially fascinating premise becomes repetitive in certain areas (especially when it comes to explaining the twin sibling relationship and Margaret’s deep sense of loss).

Setterfield bestows information from different points and even includes a damaged diary towards the end to closely scrutinize Miss Winters’ truth. But for all the information carefully spread throughout the book, the ending seems a bit rushed and the twist remains very thin (irrespective of its credibility). It’s a smart decision to keep us guessing the time period Miss Winters’ tale is set, but Setterfield’s writing somewhat lacks the real Victorian or Edwardian feel, which was elegantly brought out by contemporary writers like Sarah Waters and A.S. Byatt. Nevertheless, the author’s lively prose kept me engrossed, even when I was emotionally detached from the characters. There are quite a few quote-worthy excerpts, championing the pleasure of reading and the power of story-telling. Altogether, The Thirteenth Tale has an interesting premise and it is beautifully written, whilst I wasn’t thoroughly swept up by the gothic atmosphere and dubious character sketches.