They stood like trees in the middle of the grasslands: large, white, blind trees. Four legs, and a head, but starched white, and no eyes. There weren’t very many of them around, but, their long heads dangling on their long necks, they’d start tossing them around almost at the same time, just slightly out of loop. Arranged in a row, but a little skewed, they resembled a maze asking you to enter.
We had been at the ramparts for nearly two months now. Hammers in hand, we had made our way through five such doors: giant mahogany entrances progressively leading onto the inner courtyards. We’d passed at least four marble fountains, each providing a clue as to who the inhabitants had once been.
We never lingered on the details. But we’d be lying if we said that it didn’t break us a wee little bit every time we took the blows to them. They crumbled into so many odd pieces, each etched with a part of their strange anatomies.
“Yeah, that’ll be the last of them, if I’m countin’ right”, said Gruy, wiping off sweat. “All the other ones had only four of ’em too.”
“What do you think they mean?”, I said, hoping for something in the way of a detailed reply.
Gruy was a good man, but he was not one for talk. “Who cares anyway”, he said, moving on to the next door, in the midst of the dust hanging in the air. “Strange people who don’t live here no more. Haven’t been seen for ages.”
“But aren’t you curious?”, I asked, hoping I hadn’t used up all of his patience just yet.
“Curious?”, he sneered, theatrically. “What did curiosity ever get us, boy? Did it help you get your dying wife bread, when the plague hit? Did it get you on good terms with those who gave us these”, he held the hammer up, “and asked us to go roamin’ the country, searchin’ for these castles?” He spat on the ground furiously. “Curiosity got us nowhere, and it’ll get us nowhere. If you are gonna ask more questions, you might as well be askin’ them blind buggers at the back.”
I wasn’t one to give up. He was a good man, Gruy was, and I knew he was an old softie at heart. All his family had been hammerheads, but he had that old strain of the storyteller in him. It was dying with time, true, but you sensed it teetering on the edge of his expression. And you swooped right after.
“You suppose they were wardens?”
“Of what?”
“Of these…beasts. They did find more strange critters in the rest of the castles, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, loads. Killed every last one of ’em.”
“But why?”
“Purging the land of the old ways. Legend has it”, he sat down on the patch of grass in front of the next door, “legend has it that they were men, just like you and me, who came to this land before we did, but they studied it.”
Something kindled in me like dry wood.
“Studied it?”
“Yeah. With their graphs and charts and strange machines. Went up and down and recorded events. Where the land had cracked, what beasts, where they made their homes. How old. That kind of stuff.”
“And then?”
“And then”, his voice trailed off. “Well, some say they disappeared. Vanished. Didn’t have no children.”
Outside, the tossing of the heads had increased in their fervency. They almost seemed like they were panicking. A wind has sprung up from nowhere, and if they were trees, their leaves would be swaying to and fro now, violently, greeting the coming storm.
The coming storm…I looked at the small, gray dwellings lining the mountains in the distance. Like so many ants, but dull, uninspired concrete slums turning a painting into a lifeless realm. Here and there, the old castles stood up, remnants of a distant time, soon to be taken down.
“Boy”, Gruy called. I had drifted off in my head. “Boy, you come here now. Enough with the stories. We need to get these done by tonight. Look, sun’s almost down.”
“I’m coming”, I said, listlessly. I’d seen paintings of the courtyards in old books these strange people had left behind, on display in the so called museums we had. The beasts had been all free, roaming around as if it was their home, curious and flattered at the visitors, who were no where to be seen.
In fact, no one knew what they’d looked like. They’d hidden their traces everywhere they’d gone.
Gruy was standing in front of the door, waiting. “I know this is dull, hard work, boy, but orders are orders, and work is rare here anyway”, he said to me, a hairy arm on my shoulder, comforting. “I had questions too, when I’d started out. Roughly your age, in another parta’ the land. Why did they have to kill them beasts? Could have done with a bit more color. Variety.”
“Chin up, old man”, he continued. “If my calculations are correct, right through this one is the main castle entrance. We’ll start on that tomorra’.”
We took to the wall with the same gruff determination that we’d had for the rest. “Just be glad they din’ ask us to do away with these blind, dumb beasts”, he screamed, in between all the commotion of regular blows. “I’ve grown quite fond of ’em, in my own way.”
The wall came crashing down, easily enough. And sure as rain, there stood the main building of the Castle. But we weren’t nearly as thrilled with the discovery as we’d imagined we’d be.
Right in front of it was a blind one, giant, towering, neck wrapped around a tower fondly, like a dog guarding his master’s home.
© Arnab Chakraborty, 2015

The Fold

The first time they entered the fold, he was all of sixteen, and she was frightened.

The fold was the least frightening place in the world, if you thought about it for a second. Well, technically, it wasn’t in the world, and time kind of stood still, and you never really aged, but you get the drift; you’ve read your science fiction. No, the fold was a peaceful, green land, with acre upon acre of grassland and large stretches of river meandering their way across the plains. The sky there was always blue, the clouds always wispy, and the air always fresh.

It didn’t have much in the way of animals, to be fair. In that sense it was a little dull. But tell that to two young kids from the suburbs in love, growing up in a filthy, choked city.

The first time they entered the fold, he was all of sixteen: full of the hopes, aspirations and energy that age brings with it, but none of the angst. And she found her orderly, usual life shattered by something a shy, lanky boy unassumingly introduced to the both of them.

She — we’ll call her Nina — was remarkably mature for her age, as most sensible girls of sixteen are, compared to their guy counterparts. She was a romantic, but didn’t have her head in the clouds like Gustav. It’s why she fell in love with him; it’s as things go. He meant for her everything she’d always wanted to be but couldn’t, while she, for him, was the bedrock in a world brimming with misguided energy. The two had a stormy, unusual friendship: a self-perpetuating motion machine always threatening to grind to a halt, but never quite getting there. They were in love.

Things started changing in the fold. You could blame time. Time, endless swathes of abandoned, sweet time — does things to a human being. Not so to an animal, mind. An animal is capable of infinite boredom, a profound laxness in the face of endless tedium. A human needs to keep moving. It needs to talk, make love, dance. If nothing else works, at least think.

Gustav and Nina, like most youngsters their age faced with an incredible luxury, opted for the most obvious route. They made love all day.

They frolicked, they gamboled, they kissed. It was never night, and they would much rather it was night at times, with deep purple skies and twin moons and all of that. It’s strange how typical the most perceptive, the most intelligent humans can be. Maybe there is some truth to stereotypes after all, they thought simultaneously, as they licked each others’ skin, and explored one another for the first time, in ways adults can only try for.

All of that lasted a good 6 months. Well, in earth time, that is. It could have been years there, for all you know.

It was then that they came across a dead end in their friendship. For once, back on Earth, things were calm too, almost peaceful. School had gotten over in the meantime, college had begun. Both of them had, predictably enough, landed in the same place. Both of them read like crazy. Both of them made new friends, but different friends. Their graphs approached each other for the first time, and attained a dull equilibrium. It’s the kind of thing that makes or breaks friendship, the kind of time when you need a jolt to the system, a crisis, to need each other again.

Well, there wasn’t any in the real world, and there sure wasn’t any in the fold.

Nowadays, their visits, while in no way infrequent, had become things of unease. What a strange turn of events! Imagine this little, peaceful heaven of space and quiet, become a testing ground for conversation.

Nothing came to their lips, however. The talk was strained, the thought behind it restless with a need to escape. They were recapitulating everything they did in real life, in here as well.

Then one day, as they were sitting together, idly murmuring about dull events back in college, idly brushing at the shrubbery and grass, Gustav’s fingers felt something hard underneath him. “That’s odd”, he thought. In all this time, they’d never come across anything remotely strange, or unfamiliar, in the fold.

He took to brushing away the soil, the feeling of anticipation mounting in him. She helped too, although she didn’t know to what end. They scrambled and dug and brushed, almost feverishly, trying to get at some truth. It was almost as if all the pent up energies of theirs in the fold was now manifesting itself in a useless gesture.

They found a finger. Then a hand attached to the finger. Then a limb, and a body.

Then several bodies.

Several bodies of two sixteen year old kids, who looked suspiciously like Gustav and Nina.

All the memories came flooding back then, caught in a moment of profound unease. There was no smell, the bodies showed no signs of decomposition. They could almost have been sleeping, but they knew they were really quite dead.

Their faces, however, were all smiling. An innocent something they suddenly remembered, memories suddenly flooding back inexorably.

Gustav and Nina fled the fold that day, but what they felt wasn’t fear. Not quite. I don’t think I can quite put in words what it was that they felt, because a place as incongruous and as illogical as the fold brings with it sensations even more incongruous and illogical. Emotions entirely unique.

They never returned. But they needed each other, suddenly, and they wanted to build something together again. Anything.

As long as it didn’t involve escape.

© Arnab Chakraborty, 2015

We Are Completely Besides Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

Over the last year or so, I had been steadily building a niche for myself when it came to the kind of science fiction I most enjoyed, and almost every one of these stories dealt either with animals, or aliens who could easily pass for animals. I am reminded, for instance, of Molly Gloss’s Lambing Season, or James Tiptree Jr.’s famous Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death. The former is a study of the alien through that very different lens of a shepherd, used to loneliness, dogs, sheep and the rolling, green hills. The latter is a stream of consciousness take on spider like beings who live, mate, die, but in Tiptree’s unique style, the matter of living — crude bodily functions, the visceral nature of the beast — is brought home in spectacular fashion. The mind-body duality is absent. Tiptree’s creature is one, cohesive, whole.

This latter aspect us humans are quite jealous of, I imagine. It’s a lost paradise for us – one at the expense of the other. So even when we live, we don’t really feel the sun on our skin, and the breath in our lungs like, say, a tiger would. Or even a dog for that matter. We can only write about it, imagine it into full being, but the true fullness of being, the living-with-every-molecule-in-your-body is not for us.

I think Fowler’s novel is an attempt at bridging that gap by having a truly unique protagonist narrate the tale, a woman brought up like very few. Revealing anything more about the story would be doing a grave disservice to how, for once, the twist actually is an essential part of the telling, much like in Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory. Fowler’s novel, like Banks’s, is about slow revelation as well, and as, if not more, disturbing. Especially so because all of the crimes against animals written about in the book is unfortunately true.

In the telling of this rather special tale, we get a glimpse at a kind of life that could have been, that just might be possible, and of a relationship that speaks volumes more about who we are as a species than any one tome on psychology.

I loved it.

Molly Gloss’s The Grinnell Method, and other thoughts

It’s so difficult to not sound grand when you begin something. Especially when you write. That, if anything, is the prime marker for our times, and the central source of conflict: avoiding sounding like you’re about to change the world with your sentences. If anyone still labours under such an idea, I have difficulty imagining what could drive them to write, or think that way.

It’s easier said than done, however, for intrinsic to any kind of writing is a desire to produce a sequence of words, and various strings of meaning, that is different from anything else that has come before. And any kind of desire is utopian in some way or the other, even when it seeks self-effacement. 

The literature of self-effacement is often mistaken for the impulse for non-involvement. The only way you can make sense of the bewildering array of data today accosting you from every direction is detachment. It’s a dicey game: you veer too much in one direction and you’re prone to miss what is lying under your nose. You involve yourself too much and again, you’re liable to miss out on seemingly smaller details, which might reveal themselves later to be more relevant than you’d initially thought.

Take Molly Gloss’s novella ‘The Grinnell Method’ as a case in point: it is littered with references to birds, techniques and a way of measuring the world that might seem irrelevant to people who are too busy with other things to pay much heed to them. The story is about a woman who takes notes and makes sketches of birds systematically. She does not betray much in the way of emotion if the tone of the novella is anything to go by. But in her systematic approach, and in her very detachment, we find a deeper need to negate the self when encountering the Other. It might not be entirely possible, and language, in its very nature, precludes absolute interference with the world. But she tries. And in trying, she bares an essential side to her being that transcends the scientist, the note-maker, the recluse: she is trying to make sense of the world by paying meticulous attention to those who are voiceless: the birds, and the waterfowl. In them is a key to understanding not just her predicament as a woman who desperately wants to be heard in an establishment that actively ignores woman voices, but also something much larger, more inscrutable: the silence, that blessed silence that permeates everything, that can be ‘heard’ in a sense if we are to just root the small silences out of everything that goes unrepresented and unnoticed under the heft of more ‘pressing’ concerns.

Molly Gloss’s timely novella – timely, in spite of being published in 2012 – brings to mind something more recent. In the school shootouts at Peshawar, Pakistan, some 180 school children died as they were murdered by insurgents seeking revenge. Calling the act ‘unprecedented’ would be damning those very children who were its victims with sensationalist brand of media mystique. Any thinking and reasonably aware human being knows that such events have been happening, are happening, in various guises across the globe. This is not to take away from the gravity of the situation, but merely to drive home the callousness of the adjectives showered upon such incidents. They are nothing new. Whether they could have been avoided or not is a different matter altogether, and will depend upon your own ideologies.

Nevertheless, it was thought provoking, even more so in light of yet another event that took place almost parallely: an oil spill at the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans in West Bengal, home to several rare species of animals and plants, chief among them perhaps the Bengal Tiger and a certain rare species of Dolphin. 

There have been countless deaths since, I’m certain, but the social networks had been awash with news of just the former. Not a single ‘status update’ seemed concerned with the latter. As an aside, I’d like to point out that that’s exactly what it feels like nowadays: the status updates are divorced from the people themselves in their throwaway quality, emerging as entities as if of their own volition, with the recklessness and exuberance of human emotion. It’s as if the social collective are all simply machines trying out all the possible permutations and combinations, like that age old fable of monkeys trapped in a room with typewriters, churning out all the works of literature by pure probability.

One would expect even a single such proclamation to be sympathetic to the plight of the ecological life in the Sunderbans, but sadly that was not the case. I am aware of the dangers of taking such a view. I had not made such a notion public, not out of fear at a backlash, the possibility of which was certain, but because I’d come across as being yet another soulless activist about to use a sensitive event as an excuse to have my say about the general indifference plaguing the masses when it comes to matters concerning the non-human world.

But isn’t it a sign of political naivete to ignore one at the cost of the other? The media would have us believe that whatever it sees fit to be news is all the news there is,but we know better, ironically enough thanks to these very social networks which have been such a boon in dispensing with disparate chinks of information, eclectic as they are.

All of these bits and pieces form an elaborate, beautiful, often bewildering tapestry that begs to be evaluated as a whole. It is only then that the individual pieces can be interpreted in relief. I do not think I am unfair in my analysis of this plight, despite being certain that I am guilty of ignoring far too much that falls outside my current intellectual radar.

We return then to Molly Gloss’s novella, which I’d initially meant to be the chief subject of this article, but look how I’ve deviated. I am now sitting in a bus chock full of people. I wanted to say ‘cackling’, ‘sonorous’, ‘bombastic’, but then I’d be falling victim to that same wrongheaded fascination with adjectives. How many of them are bothered about Peshawar? How many with dolphins in some backwater region populated with thousands eking out a frugal existence, co-existing with Nature? If I am to stay sane, I have to tell myself, and I have to believe: several. Or at least enough. ‘Enough’ will do, for now.

Women and Science Fiction

I don’t know the next thing about beginning an article that talks about women, leave alone how women write, or how they write science fiction. Do women write differently? I have no idea. Unless I answer this question, I cannot get around to answering whether they write science fiction differently.

Let’s take for starters the following belief: women favor individual experience over collective experience when it comes to writing. Women prefer characterization over outright scientific, or sociological speculation. Women would much rather take us through what a single person faces over the period of a story than what a single person thinks is wrong with the establishment, or a method, or a technique, and what that person goes on to do or say about it in a story.

I might be very wrong in suggesting that that is an actual belief. Again, I’m at a loss, because I don’t know whether generalization is bad, or good. I don’t know whether there is any truth to stereotypes. From personal experience, I will say that I have seen women veer both ways, but admittedly, more so in the direction favoring outright emotion over rigorous extrapolation.

But then again, I have known too few women, and too many of those few came from similar financial and social backgrounds.

When it comes to science fiction, you can either choose to blur the distinction between experience and the conceit, or not. If you blur it too much, some people would cease calling it science fiction, because structurally it chooses to betray the genre’s strength, that is, an explicit working through of an argument. Most of the women writers I have come across seek to do the former.

Let’s create an example. Here’s the skeleton of a possible science fiction story.

1. Alien A crash lands on Earth.

2. Alien A decides to befriend woman.

3. Since Alien A befriends a white Caucasian woman, Alien A has decided to shape shift into white Caucasian Man, someone whom the woman presumably might find attractive.

4. Alien A spends a long time with her at a local carnival, trying out the rides and candy floss and popcorn.

5. Alien A sees the woman having a good time, and is pleased to elicit a response in her. He decides he is having a good time too.

6. Alien A sees woman home, and since he has no idea of what a good night kiss means, he doesn’t bother. Neither does the woman.

7. Alien A walks down road on cold winter night, hoping to see her again.

8. Woman heads to bed, but as she does, she changes into a different form, that of Alien B. Unbeknownst to her, she has hung out with a member of her own species. Unbeknownst to Alien A, he has done the same.

So, this could be a typical ‘Golden Age’ SF plot. How would Male Writer Stereotype (we’ll call him Maws) handle this story?

Well, he would handle the story in much the same way that it’s laid out up there. He would take us through the motions, and have the Big Reveal hit us like a brick in the end. Presumably with a reveal of how the alien looks (gills, tentacles, webbed hands, tails, etc.)

How would Female Writer Stereotype (we’ll call her Faws) deal with this plot?

Well, she might approach it either from the perspective of the man or the woman, but get this: she might not be too interested in how alien the Aliens really are. The way she might begin the story could be read as any other story that deals with how someone alien to White Caucasian Culture tries to date a White Caucasian Woman. Him looking like a White Caucasian Male could simultaneously be real (within the confines of the story), but also a metaphor for a foreigner trying very hard to act like a local.

In approaching the story from such an angle, she would be steering the science fiction conceit of something that isn’t human adapting to human life towards something different entirely: instead of speculating upon what makes us human, she would transform the time-worn plot of the culture-clash into something new, namely, how a conflict of cultures gain a fresh resonance when seen through the angle of gender politics. She might also provide enough hints for the reader to assume that both people are Aliens, and not resort to a surprise ending.

What this achieves is essentially transfusing what could otherwise be considered ‘literary’ with a strength that is very much science fiction’s, only having shed the 12 year old’s fascination for how the alien might actually look. Whether he has blue skin, or gills, or tentacles.

Therefore, what this would achieve is twofold. One, the pleasure to be had is not in the twist ending, it is in the actual interactions between ‘man’ and ‘woman’. And two, if she is passionate about science fiction, and has pulled the story off successfully, it can also be read as a story about someone who is not human trying to be human.

But this begs the question: what is wrong with a literary fascination for the imaginative and the colorful? Is such detail escapism?

I will try to answer that question in a second blog post.

For actual stories with similar treatments, check out: Standing Room Only, by Karen Joy Fowler; Lambing Season, by Molly Gloss; Seven American Nights, by Gene Wolfe; Passengers, by Robert Silverberg; Frankenstein’s Daughter, by Maureen McHugh; Sur, by Ursula LeGuin; Beam Me Home, by James Tiptree Jr.