SF in All Its Glory – A Review of “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction”

My first introduction to SF was Flash Gordon – an old black and white movie my parents took me to, in our tacky local theatre. I think I was five at the time.

It was not a grand success. As soon as those aliens started attacking Flash, I started bawling. I continued this throughout the movie until they were forced to take me home.

But when I met Flash again, in Indrajal Comics, I started liking him despite ‘Mandrake the Magician’ and ‘The Phantom’ being more popular titles in the franchise. Apart from the superhero Flash, I loved the spaceships, the outlandish landscapes, the weird aliens, the obsessive Zarkov, the beautiful Dale Arden – even Ming the Merciless. This was a totally new experience: imagination need not have a boundary.

I was in love with Science Fiction.

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Now I understand that Flash Gordon was nothing but ‘Space Opera’: somewhat looked down on as not sufficiently intellectual by serious purveyors of the form. But it pulled me into the magic of this genre, as it must have thousands of other youngsters.

I learnt that SF can be serious too, however, when I came across Isaac Asimov in my late teens. For a bookish, socially awkward youngster (I don’t know whether the term ‘nerd’ had been coined then) this was the perfect escape – stories written with the precision of science, very less of character conflicts, romance, sentiment and other time-wasting side avenues: there was a problem, there was a solution. Period.

Well, gradually my reading universe expanded, and I found out that the genre contained writers of much greater skill than Dr. Asimov (but I’d still give him top marks for sheer imagination) and it was much more than robots and space exploration. Instead of a genre, SF was a whole new way of forging literature, of tackling philosophical and existential questions, of analysing the impact of science on the human condition… above all, it was exhilarating. It was escapist, yes, but the escape was to a more sharply defined reality.

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The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction examines science fiction under three aspects. The first section examines the history, from its genesis as stories of wonder, through the ‘pulp era’ of American magazine SF, through the intellectual ‘New Wave’ when the boundaries between SF and Fantasy were blurred, on to the current ‘postmodern era’. The second section examines the genre through various critical approaches: Marxist theory, feminist theory, postmodernism and queer theory. The last section examines the various tropes of SF: its icons such as space ships, robots etc; various sub-genres such as space opera, alternate history, utopias, dystopias etc; and how politics, gender, race, religion etc, are handled in SF. Each section contains various chapters, written by well-known authors and critics, and presents a fairly comprehensive view.

The History

The origins of SF can be traced back to the fantastic voyages such as Gulliver’s Travels and dream journeys, where the authors tried to break the shackles of the requirements of realism. However, it was arguably Mary Shelley who wrote the first novel which could be really termed science fiction: Frankenstein is the tale of the quintessential mad scientist, tempting fate by trying to create life and playing God, and quite predictably coming to a sticky end. Edgar Allan Poe also used the tropes of science to expand the horizon of his fantastic stories. And most readers know Jules Verne, the purveyor of extraordinary voyages and H. G. Wells, whose stories are also social statements.

But it was the availability of cheap paper made from wood pulp, which made the publishing of magazines very cheap in the USA, that really contributed to the rapid growth of this genre. The so-called ‘pulp magazines’ gave birth to and nurtured many of the latter day greats like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Hugo Gernsback, whose magazine Amazing Stories was founded in 1926, was the pioneer in the sense that it restricted itself to publishing only SF; the flame was carried forward by the iconic editor John W. Campbell in Astounding Stories, who mentored most of the American greats.

Later on, SF moved away from the blood-and-thunder stories and adventure yarns of yore into more thoughtful fiction, with literary quality and speculative exploration given more importance than action, the so-called ‘new wave’. Currently it has reached the level of meta-fiction and ‘cyberpunk’ (where the action is mostly within virtual realities).

The section also examines film and television, with such iconic shows as ‘Star Trek’, and the still-continuing saga of ‘Star Wars’.

Critical Approaches

This section was a first for me. I never knew one could analyse so much within this genre which – well – most of us consider primarily entertainment. But consider this: from a Marxist viewpoint, isn’t each society imagined in SF conducive to a political analysis? For example, Wells’s The Time Machine is clearly a criticism of bourgeoisie society taken to its logical extreme: same way, his The War of the Worlds is an indirect criticism of British imperialism. However, on the whole, SF believes in a technology-driven society which provides a just society where everybody can thrive – in that it mostly follows the American ideal of free market capitalism. But of late, social criticism has become one of its significant aspects.

SF initially had women only for the aliens to kidnap and be rescued by the swashbuckling hero. But slowly, writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ (to mention two of the prominent authors) brought a distinctive feminine outlook to the field; and now, more and more novels and stories which can be interpreted from a feminist viewpoint are emerging.

This section also analyses postmodernism, where SF moves away from scientific exploration into societal exploration in the current turbulent world – moving beyond the boundaries of the genre itself: and queer theory, where SF’s obsession with the ‘other’ (as different from the normal) is analysed to examine the changing attitudes of society towards ‘deviant’ sexual practices. (I must confess that this section went a bit over my head!)

Sub-genres and Themes

This was the section I enjoyed most, as various critics and writers examine the beloved icons and themes of SF. There are rockets, robots and aliens as brave and pioneering adventurers venture outward; there equally exciting challenges within human biology, mutation and evolution, and the mind-boggling possibilities of genetic engineering as the hardy scientists labour here on earth. There is the ever-present threat of environmental destruction and the tantalising promise of terraforming a hostile planet. There is ‘hard’ science fiction where the problems of science are explored in a future setting and ‘soft’ science fiction where the science is minimal and the human aspect is all-important.

There is the “Space Opera” with intrepid heroes chasing diabolical villains across vast swathes of space: there are alternate histories where authors toy with the idea of what might have been – say – had Hitler won the war, and other such interesting speculations. Here we have the utopias where everything is hunky-dory for humanity, and the dystopias (infinitely more popular!) like 1984 where daily life is a nightmare.

This section also examines how politics, gender, race and religion are treated in SF, with iconic examples like Ursula K. LeGuin’s totally anarchic society of Anarres (The Dispossessed), her planet containing sexless beings who become male or female during breeding season (The Left Hand of Darkness), Orson Scott Card’s strange race of the ‘piggies’ in Speaker for the Dead etc. There are many more, and for an aficionado like me, it was pure pleasure to read the erudite analyses of so many old favourites.

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In short: for an SF fan, this is a book which cannot be missed.

A Review of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay

Australia is a harsh, unforgiving land where the seasons are inverted from what is usually experienced by the world at large, the flora and fauna belong to an evolutionary niche not seen elsewhere and the original settlers are the descendants of deported convicts. Yet over this, an English-ness has been imposed: the carefully cultivated gardens, the finely turned out ladies and gentlemen, the afternoon teas and the elevenses. This contrast often gives rise to a tension between man and nature which has been explored by countless writers and filmmakers. This novel by Joan Lindsay is an outstanding example of one such exploration.

Hanging Rock is a natural volcanic rock formation in Australia near Melbourne. As the story starts, a group of young girls, boarders at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, is excitedly starting for their annual picnic near it, on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day. There is Miranda, beautiful like a Botticelli painting; Irma Leopold, the pretty heiress; Marion Quade, top academic performer; Edith Horton, the college dunce and many others. They are chaperoned by the young and impressionable Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers, the French mistress and the mathematics mistress Greta McCraw who lives virtually in a world of equations. They are driven to the spot by Ben Hussey, the owner of the town’s livery stables, in his trap. The only student left behind is Sara Waybourne, the youngest boarder as a punishment for not learning The Wreck of the Hesperus by heart.

The picnic goes well until teatime, when Miranda, Irma and Marion decide to go closer to the Hanging Rock to properly examine it. Edith tags along. They are seen by the young Hon. Michael Fitzhubert, visiting from England with his uncle and his coachman Albert Crundall. Fitzhubert, captivated by Miranda’s beauty, follows them for a bit then turns back. That is the last anyone sees of them, however – because all except Edith, who rushes back in an attack of hysteria, disappear without a trace; as does the mathematics mistress. The mystery is never solved.

The novel is the chronicle of the fallout from this event – how the lives of all the people connected with it, even the minor characters, are inextricably changed.

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At the outset, the author writes:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year 1900, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

This is the tone set right at the beginning – that of the “true story” – with quotes from letters and reports peppered throughout the narrative, and even footnotes in some places. In many places the writing becomes reportage; in others, it reads like an inexpert author trying to fictionalise historical characters and events. It is only when we realise that none of this happened that we come to appreciate what Joan Lindsay is trying to do – and we acknowledge her mastery of the medium.

If whether something really happened “seems hardly important”, what does it say about the nature of the “story”? Is truth important here, or is there a truth beyond the phenomenal world which we consider rock solid?

As the story progresses, people’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric. The college, a solid bastion of English respectability in the middle of wild Australia, slowly unravels – as does the redoubtable headmistress Appleyard. The tension between her and the orphan Sara (whom she subjects to mental torture mercilessly) is like a taut elastic band which is stretched and stretched until it breaks – with disastrous results. It is also to be noted that Sara idolises Miranda, who is almost a myth, an ethereal vision which fittingly disappears.

But the real protagonist of the story is Hanging Rock, the volcanic formation which is millions and millions of years old, standing ominously tall above all the puny humans crawling around like ants at its base – ephemeral beings whose unimaginably tiny lifetimes it must have surely smiled at, mockingly.

…The plain below was just visible; infinitely vague and distant. Peering down between the boulders Irma could see the glint of water and tiny figures coming and going through drifts of rosy smoke, or mist. ‘Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?’

Marion looked out over her shoulder. ‘A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it’s probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves.’

The elemental power of the Australian landscape here is what is drawing the girls out of their so very English cocoons. Throughout the narrative, this rough land calls out to us in a thousand tongues: through the hissing of snakes, the chirping of birds, the scurrying of lizards, the wind through the trees – and through the silent and impressive presence of Hanging Rock. It finally succeeds in drawing even the stolid Mrs. Appleyard out.

And now, at last, after a lifetime of linoleum and asphalt and Axminster carpets, the heavy flat-footed woman trod the springing earth. Born fifty-seven years ago in a suburban wilderness of smoke-grimed bricks, she knew no more of nature than a scarecrow rigid on a broomstick above a field of waving corn. She who had lived so close to the little forest on the Bendigo Road had never felt the short wiry grass underfoot. Never walked between the straight shaggy stems of the stingybark trees. Never paused to savour the jubilant gustsof spring that carried the scent of wattle and eucalypt right into the front hall of the college. Nor sniffed with foreboding the blast of the north wind, laden in summer with the fine ash of mountain fires…

Nature, in all her raw and pristine glory – nature, come to extract her price from civilisation.

The Search for Meaning in Life

In the film Ikiru (“To Live”), master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a Japanese bureaucrat with stomach cancer. Finding that he has only one year left to live, he initially slides into depression and then into riotous night-life. All that is changed, however, when he meets Toyo, a young girl who takes pleasure in making toys for young children – it gives her a purpose in life. This wakes Watanabe up to what he is missing in his life: and he makes it his purpose to build a playground in the city, cutting across all the bureaucratic tangles. The most haunting image in the movie is of him sitting on a swing in the playground, singing, immediately prior to his death.

I was thinking of this movie all the time I was reading “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl.

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I had heard a lot about this book before I actually got around to reading it – and to tell the truth, I was a bit underwhelmed, especially by the second part. Yet I consider it a significant work, because I think Viktor Frankl has astutely identified the main reason for existential angst – the lack of meaning in one’s life in modern times.

It seems that Dr. Frankl has been engaged in what he calls “logotherapy”, where the patient is asked to concentrate outward rather than inward. As opposed to Freud who wanted people to dig deep into their psyches to locate childhood neuroses, Frankl asks them look into the world they live in to find the root of their existential crisis. The root of his philosophy is that most of man’s existential crisis rises from a search for meaning in life. In this, it is opposed to two other famous theories from the Viennese school of psychotherapy – Freud’s, based on the quest for pleasure and Adler’s based on the quest for power.

Frankl has his gruelling experiences in Nazi concentration camps to prove his theory. This comprises more than half of the book, and is really a torture to get through – not because of bad writing, but because he convinces us to accompany him on that nightmare journey. There is no hope, no mercy and no shred of human dignity in these hells on earth. The inmates are stripped of all their possessions including clothes, underfed to the level of starvation and overworked to the extent that many fall down dead from sheer exhaustion. Apart from this, they live in constant fear of being selected for the gas chambers.

The gateway to the dreaded Auschwitz Concentration Camp

What happens to people in this situation? They lose hope, and many of them give up on life. Others become cruel exploiters themselves (the Capos, the guards who are chosen from the ranks of prisoners themselves). Some try to survive by being smarter than others: and yet others find that extra something to pull them through – a meaning for their suffering, something to look forward to in life even in the midst endless misery. They become the rare beacons of light in the pitch darkness. Most of them don’t survive, because of their altruism – as Dr. Frankl says, “the best of us didn’t come back”.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

For Frankl, it was the image of his young wife and his love for her which suddenly gave him a purpose in life.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

He kept on having conversations with her in his mind; even though he knew that she may be dead (she was, in fact). This gave him conviction to go ahead even when death stared him in the face. Dr. Frankl genuinely believes that it is this which helped carry him through, and on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him.

Such a purpose does not necessarily mean salvation – but it does give one the power to endure it until it all ends. Viktor Frankl tells us the story of a young woman, whose vision of a tree branch through the window of the hut in which she lay dying, gave her sustenance.

This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. “I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”

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One curious fact I noticed was that Frankl’s concept of ‘self-transcendence’, which seemed remarkably close to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’. Also, the three paths which he mentions – through achievement, through selfless love and through cathartic suffering (when unavoidable, not masochistically chosen) – are applicable to the godhead from three different religions. The path of achievement of the Greek hero: selfless love to the level of dissolution of one’s self in god, that of Radha and Mira Bai for Krishna: and the suffering which cleanses, the way of the cross, the passion of Jesus Christ.


Life Etched in Spare Lines – A Review of “Dear Life” by Alice Munro

alice-munroYou know, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly makes Alice Munro so fascinating. Her writing is without frills – she does not use flowery language or dazzling metaphors. Her stories can be read by any schoolkid without referring a dictionary. Ms. Munro does not write about extraordinary events; her characters are middle class men and women of Canada, going about their humdrum lives. It is Ernest Hemingway plus Jane Austen.

The first story in this collection sort of had me saying: “Is this the Nobel Prize winner? Oh come on!” but something in that bland narrative pulled me in, enticing me to try one more – then one more – then… well, you know. It was like a box of chocolates when you promise to stop after the next, and soon the box is empty.

The power of Alice Munro is not in what she says – but what she leaves unsaid: and that is quite a lot. The reader is asked to fill in the gaps, and I think most readers would do it in their own particular way, moulding the story to his or her own fashion. In most stories, the narrator is a child in the first person; a child who grows up as the story progresses. As we all know children see more of life and interpret it less. There is a disconcerting truthfulness to their viewpoints which makes adults uncomfortable. And when the child grows up and understands what she has experienced before she put on her adult glasses, this dichotomy of vision provides the tension which keeps the story on a knife’s edge.

The unwritten story was what had me returning again and again to this collection.

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The “child’s-eye-view” is most effectively used in the stories “Gravel” and “Voices”. In the first, a broken-up marriage is described in the voice of a child too young to form clear memories of events but has vivid recollections of things. When the story suddenly escalates to tragedy without warning, the kid suddenly grows up; and we realise that we have been hearing this child-woman all along – because in a sense, she has been trapped at the point of her tragedy. Her vision is crystal clear until the actual event, but the moment the adult takes over, analysis starts and we are now dealing with conjectures instead of concrete certainties.

In the second, the situation is more prosaic. In a country dance, the narrator and her mother meet a prostitute. The child is entranced by the elegant lady but the mum is understandably outraged. Sent upstairs to get her coat so that she and her mum can leave, the girl meets a girl called Peggy, who is visibly upset and crying, and her two suitors on the stairs. Peggy is part of the prostitute’s entourage and the men are quite obviously trying to pacify her. They are talking to her as the child-narrator had never heard a woman talked to before.

For a long time I remembered the voices. I pondered over the voices. Not Peggy’s. The men’s. I know now that some of the Air Force men stationed at Port Albert early in the war had come out from England, and were training there to fight the Germans. So I wonder if it was the accent of some part of Britain that I was finding so mild and entrancing. It was certainly true that I had never in my life heard a man speak in that way, treating a woman as if she was so fine and valued a creature that whatever it was, whatever unkindness had come near her, was somehow a breach of law, a sin.

It is obvious to us adults who read the story that Peggy has been somehow slighted by the “respectable” ladies at the dance – the child sees only the consideration she obtains from men, something that is forever withheld from her.

Nameless child narrators (who seem alter egos of the novelist herself) are central to the stories “Haven”, “The Eye”and “Night” also; and other stories such as “Leaving Maverly”, “Pride”and “Dear Life” also deal in part with childhood. In fact, most of these stories involve the shifting of human relations as people grow up, and they seem to wander all over the place without coming to a point. Many contain snippets of information that are seemingly irrelevant to what the author is trying to convey but then, as Ms. Munro’s narrator says in “Dear Life”

…And even farther away, on another hillside, was another house, quite small at that distance, facing ours, that we would never visit or know and that was to me like a dwarf’s house in a story. But we knew the name of the man who lived there, or had lived there at one time, for he might have died by now. Roly Grain, his name was, and he does not have any further part in what I am writing now, in spite of his troll’s name, because this is not a story, only life.

Life, unlike a story, is never neatly rounded off. Life leaves a lot of its story on unwritten pages – like Ms. Munro.

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dear-lifeThe characters in this author’s fictional universe are often jarringly disconnected from one another. In “Train”, the protagonist (unusually, a male) is on the run from a relationship: but not for the reason one thinks, as becomes shockingly clear at the denouement: in “Amundsen”, a relationship develops and unfurls with frightening speed. The characters seem to take it all in their stride, especially when narrated in Ms. Munro’s extremely spare prose. Sometimes, this alienation results in unlikely alliances too, as in “Corrie” and “Pride”. Many a time, core plot elements are hidden or only fleetingly mentioned. In the hands of a less skilled author, it would have been a disaster; here, it is what gives the stories their pith.

Because at the centre of it all, there lies hope. As Neal, a character in “Gravel”, says:

“The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that. You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how good it is. Accept everything and then tragedy disappears. Or tragedy lightens, anyway, and you’re just there, going along easy in the world.”

 

Yes, indeed.

A “Biblio-Centric” Look at the Year That Was

As far reading goes, this year has only been so-so: mainly because of upheavals on the personal front.

I lost my job of ten years in the United Arab Emirates. The blow fell in February, when the management told me that I would have to leave by end of May. It was literally a catastrophe: my son was moving on to grade 10, and the last thing we wanted was disturbance in his studies. However, it had to be, as it is impossible to stay on the Middle East without a visa. Thankfully, after two months of turmoil, things were settled by the end of April, with my family settled back home in India and my son admitted to an excellent school in our town. I also managed to land a job in Mumbai by June, so things all worked out in the end (like an Indian “family” movie).

On the reading front, I was surprised to find that my average rating on Goodreads follows an almost perfect normal distribution, a bit skewed towards the upper limit: 4 1-stars, 7 2-stars, 23 3-stars, 32 4-stars and 4 5-stars. My arithmetic average for ratings this year (3.36) also closely matches my all-time average, 3.46. So statistically, this has been just another average year. However, my reading has dropped considerably since July – maybe a natural effect of settling down in the new job and city. I have just only rediscovered my reading groove.

It has been a mixed bag of reading material, Fiction and Nonfiction almost equally distributed. I managed to read 9 Malayalam books, which is way beneath my target – but at least I’ve made a start. The heartening thing is that I have read a lot of plays, and a lot of Indian books in translation: a trend which I plan to continue in future.

Books

The best:

ആരാച്ചാര്‍ AARACHAR by K.R. Meera -no doubt about it. This book was an absolutely mind-blowing experience, truly deserving the Sahitya Akademi award it won. For those who can’t read Malayalam, it has been translated as “Hangwoman” in English. I’d recommend it to all who love good literature.

Ray Bradbury’s photo by Alan Light

The Silver Locusts (better known as “Martian Chronicles”) by Ray Bradbury. I was able to pick this classic up for a song at a charity sale, and it did live up to all its hype. This one is a real SF classic.

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home should be a must-read for all fiction lovers. Susan Hill loves her reading, and it shows in the passionate way she writes about them.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell increased my esteem for this author who likes to hunt off the beaten track (however, his The Bone Clocks left me rather cold).

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a brilliant adaptation of a bittersweet Russian fairy tale to the early twentieth century Alaska, without losing any of its poignancy.


Other significant reads:

The Crucible and Inherit the Wind are two plays which have topical relevance today, with the vociferous right hell-bent on snuffing out individual freedoms and inciting religious paranoia.

I have been a fan of J. B. Priestley ever since I read An Inspector Calls. I could locate a collection of four plays by him, and they did not disappoint. Also, I picked up a collection of four plays by an old favourite of mine, Eugene O’Neill: his Desire Under the Elms is a masterpiece of how the play can be structured for the proscenium stage.


I was extremely lucky to find The Thurber Carnival – James Thurber, the creator of Walter Mitty, is an unbelievable wordsmith. This collection contains many of his gems – a delight to read and reread.

Cartoons by James Thurber

Last but not least – you Poirot fans out there, you can’t afford to miss Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot: The Life And Times Of Hercule Poirot by Anne Hart!

poirot

Personal Milestones

I got acquainted with the works of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar for the first time. His views are a necessary counterpoint to Gandhi’s and repays attention. Sadly, his voice has been buried under the Indian need to deify Gandhi.

I read Indian literature in translation after a long time. The Ghosts of Meenambakkam by Ashokamitran and I Take This Woman (Ek Chadar Maili Si) by Rajinder Singh Bedi were worthwhile reads. Must do more of the same in 2017!

A Christmas Fable for All Times

18Heart-warming: that is my one word review for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

This has to be one of the most read and loved stories of all time. It works, whether one views it as a Christian allegory or a simple fantasy. I studied it in middle school and loved it: I was laughing along with Scrooge in the last chapter. I was wondering whether the magic would still work with a moderately cynical middle-aged man. It did.

The story could have been maudlin, sentimental, didactic and moralising. That it is none of this is due to Dickens’ mastery of the medium. From the beginning to end, there is hardly a word out of place: and the narrative is structured so meticulously that one simply floats through the story, along with Scrooge and the ghosts.

Take the first paragraph:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

This sets the whole tone of the novel. The conversational style with its mock serious tone of voice; Dickens is sitting near to you, with a tankard of ale in front of him, on a cold December day in the neighbourhood pub. He is entertaining you with a Christmas tale. It is not to be taken very seriously, but the teller’s heart is in it-if you listen to it carefully, it may work wonders for you.

dickens_gurney_headThe handful of characters are finely etched: true to its fairytale nature, the “good” and “bad” are strongly bifurcated without any shades of grey, yet we find ourselves loving even the bad characters. Scrooge, for all his miserly and cantankerous nature, can never be taken seriously: his “bah!” and “humbug!”, we feel, are most applicable to the persona he presents to the world. And as we visit the lonely boy in the classroom, we get an idea how Scrooge turned out to be the man he is: the colossal insecurity of the impoverished child, developing into the worship of money for its own sake, and building a barrier of hatred against society so that it can never hurt him.

marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_blLike a five-act play, time and space are compressed into an evening, night and the next day. As we sweep through the narrative at breakneck speed, Scrooge’s character undergoes a tremendous transformation which is possible only in fables and fairy tales: however, the author has already set the stage for it in the opening chapter itself by showing us the chinks in his armour. The development of the miser of the first chapter into the loving philanthropist of the last chapter seems not only possible, but natural.

A perfect Christmas fable for everybody. Recommended for young and old alike.

A Review of “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

There is a special kind of emptiness in a marriage, when both the partners long for a child without success. Their private moments change from solitude to loneliness: intimate chatter degenerates into monosyllables before ultimately descending into dark silence. The carefree laughter of a child, the picture of a smiling cherubic face, or the pitter-patter of small feet on the road all become exquisite torture – reminders of some esoteric happiness forever out of reach.

I know… I have been there.

It must be (at least in part) to tackle this anxiety creatively that fairy-tales use the trope of the childless couple quite frequently. The story is quite formulaic: there will be an old couple (mostly on the edge of a wood) who would have been longing for a child without success for ages. Finally out of desperation, the woman (or in some cases, both the partners together) would fashion a child’s likeness out of some unlikely object such as wood or mud, treat it like a human child for one night, and – hey presto! – it would become human overnight. The overjoyed couple would raise it as their own, but the story would usually end badly, with the breaking of some taboo resulting in the child going away.

“Snegurochka” (Snow Maiden) is a Russian fairy tale where the child is fashioned out of snow by a childless woodcutter and his wife, and subsequently brought to life by Father Frost, the spirit of the winter, who takes pity on them. The snow maiden lives with her foster parents quite happily until she falls for a human boy against the express admonitions of Father Frost – the warmth inside melts her, and she fades away bringing spring to the countryside in the process.

From myths.e2bn.org:
sneg-teachAs the snow maiden faded away, spring spread over the land: the frost retreated and the small flowers of the fields began to bloom. Everyone was cheered by the return of spring. Everyone that is except, the young shepherd who felt desolate and cold, despite the warmth of the sun.

As for the old couple, they felt their loss deeply but, in their hearts, they had always known the magic could not last. They were just thankful for the beautiful snow maiden who had brought such warmth and joy to their lives and given them hope in the depths of winter.

But what of the snow maiden? Well, it is said that, as she melted away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who retreated to far lands with the advance of Mother Spring. He took the spirit of his daughter across the stars to the frozen lands of the north, where she again took the form of a beautiful young woman. Here she plays all through the summer – on the frozen seas.

But, each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh). And they continue to work their magic, as they did long ago for the woodcutter and his wife, for those who are good and kind, particularly the children, bringing them small gifts and helping to make their dreams come true.
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Eowyn Ivey has taken this bittersweet story, transplanted it to the rural Alaska of 1920’s, and woven a tale which is every bit as magical as the original. Her protagonists are Mabel and Jack, who are trying to make a living on their farm, fighting against the unforgiving climate as well as life, which has given them only the memory of a stillborn child to live on. The couple are slowly moving apart, and Mabel is on the verge of suicide when, in one blustery night of mad gaiety they a fashion a girl out of snow in front of their cabin. Next day, the child is gone – and a wild girl starts visiting them, clandestinely at first, then more and more openly.

The girl, Faina, is more or less adopted by the couple soon. Their close friends George and Esther initially consider the unseen girl as a hallucination conjured up by Mabel, but after the initial shock of meeting her in person, comes to accept her as she is. Their youngest son, Garrett, a boy of the forest himself is initially antagonistic. Well, as so often happens, antagonism changes to fascination, mutual attraction and love… and the story moves towards its expected climax (and no, this is not a spoiler!).

The beauty of this novel is that it does not follow the trope of the fairy tale blindly. Faina (the child) has a mysterious past as the daughter of an eccentric trapper who died in the forest. She lives off the wild, hunting and eating animals in a strangely feral manner. It is left to us to decide whether Faina is real or a phantasm. While such a style could easily become contrived, Ivey walks the tightrope expertly. There are times when we feel that the novelist is slipping into the realms of fantasy, but every time she pulls back just in time.

Contrasted with Faina are Mabel and Jack, who are very real. Mabel, with her cultured upbringing and artistic tendencies, is the bridge that links the gritty and unromantic world of rural America to the poesy of the snowy slopes of the far north. In fact, the story is almost self-referential in the sense that Mabel owns a book telling the story of the snow maiden, which her father (a literature professor) used to read to her: however, she learns as an adult that he only pretended to read, because the tale is in Russian! Only the pictures make sense, including the terrifying last one of the melted maiden.

We follow the characters with bated breath as they move along their pre-ordained paths – but the end, when it comes, is refreshingly different from yet absolutely faithful to the original. I will leave it at that.

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From myths.e2bn.org:
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In countries that had long harsh winters, the coming of spring was also an immensely important event, particularly to the poor for whom the winters could be extremely harsh. The Russian story of the Snow Maiden sees the battle between the eternal forces of nature (Father Frost and Mother Spring) for warmth to return to the land. And for spring to return, winter has to die. The theme and the interaction of these mythical characters with mortal people like Kupava and Mizgir through the character of the Snow Maiden, would have been very meaningful to people, who longed for and celebrated the return of spring.

Birth, death, rebirth – these are the themes of ageless tales. There are no full stops in life, but an endless cycle of seasons through which we eke out our existence – brief candles, whose flames are ephemeral yet eternal at some level.

(All images courtesy myths.e2bn.org)

A Review of “The Martian” by Andy Weir

The art of engineering is finding solutions.

Engineering is applied science. The scientist will find out that a high enough force applied over a small area will provide tremendous pressure: the engineer will use the knowledge to fashion the sword. The scientist will discover that magnetic fields, when cut by cables, will produce electricity: the engineer will design the generator with this information. The scientist will posit e=mc2: the engineer… (Well, you get the drift. No need to go into that.)

Mark Watney is an astronaut, a botanist and an engineer – but primarily an engineer, as evinced by his sheer glee of fiddling with machinery and recording his antics faithfully in a laconic fashion, even when faced with the prospect of a lonely death on Mars. The Martian is Mark’s valiant tale of survival in an inhospitable terrain beyond imagination. I would have called it Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but old Rob had nothing as challenging Mark had in odds against survival – so calling Mark Crusoe would, I feel, be sort of demeaning.

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Watney is part of the Mars mission Ares 3, and is left for dead when the crew does an emergency evacuation in the face of a sudden deadly dust storm. The good news is that he does not die – the bad news is that he is the only person in the universe who is aware of it.
Actually, this is the backstory. The novel properly begins with Mark alone on the red planet, opening his log with the following passage:

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Of course, being the engineer he is, Mark is not willing to let go of life without giving it a shot at staying alive. What follows is his attempt to do so, and makes up pretty much the lion’s share of the story.

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From an engineer’s point of view, the novel is terrifically exciting – as Mark ponders each problem threatening his continued existence and works out solutions to each one of them. I was pulled into the tale, and literally devoured each technical tidbit, rooting for Mark as I did so. But I think someone with a non-technical background might get lost unless they skip all the details and take it on faith that whatever the protagonist did was within the realms of possibility. With my Chemical Engineering background, I can assure you that almost all the engineering described in this book is not even stretching the imagination – most of it is business as usual (I especially loved the making of water inside the hab).

Suspense is maintained throughout by making the survival neither too difficult nor too easy – and the helplessness of NASA, even after spotting their man on Mars, to do anything urgent due to the sheer distances involved. Andy Weir has put in a lot of effort to make his world believable.

And therein lies the novel’s major weakness – it’s all Mark Watney and Mars. The other characters, even though tantalizingly sketched, are never fully fleshed out. We don’t know what makes them tick. Commander Lewis, Martinez, Vogel, Beck , Johanssen, Venkat Kapoor, Mitch, Bruce Ng – we feel that these characters have a life, but that Weir was not much interested in showing it to us.

Oh well – maybe it’s too much to expect characterisation in SF.

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Four Plays by J. B. Priestly

Time is an entity writers, thinkers and scientists have struggled with ever since… well, the beginning of time! (Sorry for the bad pun.) Well, not exactly, but the nature of time has been an indispensable part of creative literature ever since stories began to be told. In Indian mythology, time is cyclic, with past, present and future recurring ad infinitum whereas in the Occident “time’s arrow” – its apparently unidimensional movement in the forward direction – is an absolute concept with an “end of days” fast approaching. As science progressed, time’s apparent rigidity was first destroyed by Einstein by the theory of relativity: with the arrival of quantum theory, it became a very fluid concept. (According to Stephen Hawking, time is spherical, but wrap my head around that concept I need to go back and read his book once again.)

In the present collection of four plays by J. B. Priestly (<i>Time and the Conways and Other Plays), time takes centre stage in three: in three different ways. The title play, Time and the Conways, uses the possibilities of the stage to mishmash time: in the second one (I Have Been Here Before), the possibilities of static or cyclic time are explored in a narrative which borders on fantasy. In the last play, The Linden Tree, the effect of the passage of time on human beings and families is explored in a conventional manner, making it the most “ordinary” of the lot. An Inspector Calls, the most powerful play among the lot (in my opinion) does not play with time but with possibilities.

Time and the Conways

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Courtesy: World Stage Design

The Conways are prosperous family comprising the charming but shallow Mrs. Conway, her sons happy-go-lucky son Robin and quiet and perceptive Alan; daughters Hazel (pretty and rather silly), Madge (serious and political), Kay (creative and sensitive) and Carol(an exhilarating free spirit). We meet them at Kay’s twenty-first birthday party as the family are playing a game of dumb charades. It is 1919 and the first world-war is ending: Robin, who has been away in the army is due to arrive. There is also Joan Helford who is in love with Robin, Gerald Thornton who is a young man who is a friend of the the family and Ernest Beevers, Gerald’s friend, who is enamoured of Hazel who can’t stand his sight.

This could be any drawing room comedy of the fifties: pleasant and mediocre. But Priestly expertly wrong-foots us by breaking the scene in-between and taking nineteen years forward in time in the second act. It’s once again Kay’s birthday party, this time the fortieth, but the occasion is far from pleasant: the Conways have lost their wealth, relationships have formed and broken down, and most of the family (except Alan) have become disillusioned and embittered. The euphoria of the roaring twenties have given way to the despondency of the forties, and a second war is looming on the horizon.

This itself would have provided a stunningly good play: but the playwright tricks us yet again! In the third act, we go back to where we have left off in the first act – but now, each and every line becomes loaded as we see the shambles of the second act being foreshadowed: and we realise how little events leave long shadows on the path of time. But according to Alan, the trouble is due to how we view ourselves.

Alan: …You know, I believe half our trouble now is because we think that Time’s ticking our lives away. That’s why we snatch and grab and hurt each other.

Kay: As if we were all in a panic on a sinking ship.

Alan: Yes, like that.

Kay: [smiling at him] But you don’t do these things – bless you!

Alan: I think it’s easier not to – if you take a long view.

Kay: As if we’re – immortal beings?

Alan: Yes, and in for a tremendous adventure.

I Have Been Here Before

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Courtesy: Theatremania

 

Literally, this is the feeling of deja vu: where you know that you have never been in a place or situation before, but still it all seems all too familiar. Reincarnation and cyclic time all have been used as explanations for this phenomenon which modern science sees as an anomaly of memory. In the hands of a gifted writer, it makes for the premise of an intriguing play.

The concept of seemingly insignificant events of the present which can have lasting impact on one’s life examined in the previous play is used here too, but with the question asked: if we knew what could happen, can we change it? Or in another sense, can we go back and change the past?

Doctor Gortler, a displaced German scientist, arrives at the Double Bull Inn run by Sam Shipley and his widowed daughter Sally Pratt in Grindle Moor, North Yorkshire. Apparently, he seems to know that the industrialist Ormund and his wife Janet are due to arrive there – and also about the drama to be played out between them and Oliver Farrant, a schoolmaster teaching at one of the Ormund schools. As the events play out in their inevitability, Dr. Gottler acts as a sort of deus ex machina to resolve them.

If one leaves aside the fantasy/ science fiction premise, this play is rather insipid to read. But one can easily appreciate the power it would have had on stage when it was staged in 1937.

Dr. Gortler: You say that you have been happy here?

Sam: Yes, I can’t grumble at all. I have never made much out o’ this place, but I’ve had all I want. I’d ask for naught better – If I had my time over again.

Dr. Gortler: [interested] Do you often say that?

Sam: Say what?

Dr. Gortler: [slowly] If you had your time over again.

An Inspector Calls

This play uses the advantages (and limitations) of the proscenium stage to the maximum extent possible: to produce a play which is a very good mystery (in the Agatha Christie tradition), a social statement (very much like Ibsen) and a final twist which takes it into the realm of fantasy. I read the play, then watched the BBC adaptation… you have to see it performed to appreciate the power packed into ninety minutes of stage-time.

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Courtesy: Little Baddow Drama Club

Warning: the following passage is a spoiler.  Read only if you are familiar with the play.

The Birlings (the industrialist Arthur Birling, his wife Sybil, daughter Sheila and son Eric) are having a quiet little dinner at their home to celebrate Sheila’s engagement to Gerald Croft, son of Sir George and Lady Croft. Gerald is also present. For Arthur Birling, the occasion is doubly joyful, as Birling and Company are the less powerful competitors of Crofts Limited, and the marriage will mean a profitable business deal as well as a social coup d’état. It is the pre-World War I era, and Birling is acutely consciousness of his social backwardness-something he is trying hard to rectify through his financial and political clout. He has been rather successful as he hints to Gerald, because a knighthood is on the way.

Into this haven of bourgeois comfort and security walks in Inspector Goole, unannounced, and goes about destroying it piece by piece. He is apparently there to conduct an enquiry into the suicide of a girl, Eva Smith, who has been admitted into the infirmary after drinking disinfectant. According to the inspector, the Birlings have a hand in the girl’s death. Initially Birling is haughty and superior; being still “on the bench” and a friend of Chief Constable Colonel Roberts, he can afford to be short with a mere inspector. Goole, however, goes about his business ruthlessly and ultimately succeeds in grinding them down, one by one.

It comes out that the girl has been mistreated by all of them. Birling initially fired her from his factory for organising a strike; Sheila got her dismissed from her subsequent job at a dress shop out of pure jealousy and Gerald “kept” her for a year at a friend’s flat, after picking her up from a bar which she was frequenting in her desperation. This last revelation leads to Sheila breaking off her engagement, and Gerald goes out to be alone for a while. But the Birling’s evening of woe is far from over.

Inspector Goole establishes that a couple of weeks before, Eva Smith had approached Mrs. Birling in her capacity of the chairman of a charitable society. She was pregnant and in desperate need of assistance. Initially she had lied that she was a married woman and that her name was Birling (!); however, the truth soon came out that the baby was out of wedlock. Eva did not want to approach her lover because he was an immature boy who is an alcoholic and had stolen money to support her. Mrs. Birling, however, was adamant that the baby’s father must be made solely responsible, and succeeded to influence the society to turn her out without a penny.

However much the inspector bullies her, Mrs. Birling is adamant – now that the woman has committed suicide, her lover must be dealt with very severely. Then Goole drops his final bomb: the culprit is none other than Eric, her son, an accusation which the young man accepts. He also admits stealing money from his father’s firm.

The family is in a total shambles now: a son who has committed adultery and theft, a daughter whose engagement has ended the same day it started and a father in the hope of a knighthood, faced with public scandal and disgrace. Eric is almost ready to murder his mother, because as he says, she is “responsible for the death of her own grandchild”. It is at this point that the inspector begins to behave very peculiarly. After rubbing in the fact that they all have got blood on their hands, he makes this speech and leaves.

 


One Eva Smith has gone… but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths still left with us, with their lives, their hopes and fears, their suffering and chance of happiness, all intertwined with our lives, with what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when if men do not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. We don’t live alone. Good night.

 

It is into the situation that Gerald comes back, and he comes with some welcome information – he has just confirmed that there is no Inspector Goole in the police department! With cold logic, he establishes that they have no reason to believe that the girl in each of the incidents mentioned by Goole is the same one – true, he produced a photograph, but it was shown to each of them individually. The hoax is confirmed when they call the infirmary and confirm that there has been no suicide that night.

It is time for a pat on the back for Gerald, a sigh of relief from Mrs. And Mr. Birling, and a jolly round of drinks. Sheila and Eric, though initially reluctant to return to “normalcy” are on the way to being persuaded when the phone rings.
It is from the infirmary. A girl has just died on the way there after drinking disinfectant, and a policeman is on the way to question them… and the curtain descends. (hide spoiler)]

The depth of the play is truly amazing. Only when we encounter the conversation again can we understand its depth, and how cleverly it is constructed. The story takes off smoothly from a drawing room farce to a darkly philosophical tragicomedy, which is sure to draw the viewers into the middle of it without them noticing: and to leave them drained at the end.

The Linden Tree

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Courtesy: Vanemuine

This is the most straightforward play among the lot, describing a situation similar to the one in Time and the Conways, but with a much nicer family, and relatively a more pleasant resolution.

Professor Robert Linden is a history professor at the university in the provincial town of Burmanley. The new vice-chancellor wants to retire him – the play opens on the day of his sixty-fifth birthday, the official retirement age – and the professor’s wife also agrees: she wants out! Linden’s wheeler-dealer son Rex has managed to buy a county estate, and she wants to move there to spend their declining years in peace. His daughters, the serious Dr. Jean and the social climber Marion (married to a French aristocrat), agree – only his youngest daughter, Dinah, is with the Professor who plans to fight tooth and nail to stick on.

Dr. Jean here is a rehash of Madge in the first play, and Dinah is Carol. Marion is a more aggressive Hazel and we can find shades of Robin in Rex. For this reason, reading the plays in succession, it felt repetitive to me – maybe it’s different on stage, however.

Again, time makes its entrance here in the form of history, on which Professor Linden has his own refreshingly different views.

‘History, to be worthy of the name, should bring us a stereoscopic view of man’s life. Without that extra dimension, strangely poignant as well as vivid, it is flat and because it is flat, it is false. There are two patterns, endlessly being superimposed on one another. The first pattern is that of man reproducing himself, finding food and shelter, tilling the land, building cities, crossing the seas. It is the picture we understand now with ease, perhaps too easily. For the other pattern is still there, waiting to be interpreted. It is the record of man as a spiritual creature, with a whole world of unknown continents and strange seas, gardens of Paradise and cities lit with hell-fire, within the depths of his own soul. History that ignores the god and the altar is as false as history that could forget the sword and the wheel…’

Thankfully, we have the artists and writers to record the second pattern.

Fantasy and Allegory – A New Reading of a Timeless Favourite

Narnia1I don’t think there will be many who do not know the story of The Chronicles of Narnia, even if they have not actually read the books. The stories of the four Pevensie children who discover the magical land of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe is the stuff of legend in literary circles – a land which they rule over as kings and queens after freeing it from the enchantment of the White Witch, under the benign yet firm supervision of Aslan the lion.

As fantasies for children go, this is a terrific universe filled with possibilities. There are talking animals, magical creatures from Greek mythology and English fairy-lore, and suitably satisfying and mysterious landscape worthy of exploration again and again. So one feels that if only the author in C. S. Lewis had let himself go he could have produced something similar to the The Lord of the Rings.

Unfortunately, he does not do that. The author sublimates himself to the Christian, so that the story becomes allegory – and mostly allegory. The spirit of gung-ho adventure is coated over with sickly-sweet preachiness which becomes so cloying towards the end that one almost feels like throwing up.

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The edition I read contained all the novels in the chronological order as regards the story:

1. The Magician’s Nephew
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
3. The Horse and His Boy
4. Prince Caspian
5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6. The Silver Chair
7. The Last Battle

However, the actual order in which the books were published is:

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
2. Prince Caspian
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4. The Silver Chair
5. The Magician’s Nephew
6. The Horse and His Boy
7. The Last Battle

It seems that there is a hot dispute going on about the order in which the books should be read. After reading them in the chronological sequence, I would advise reading them in the sequence of publication. In my personal opinion, the last two – The Horse and His Boy, and The Last Battle – are better left unread, especially the last one. More about that later.

Aslan2005Aslan the Lion is Christ – this becomes evident in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe itself. The White Witch (and later, the Queen of the Underworld) are embodiments of Evil with a capital E.

(I was a bit surprised that there was no sign of the gentleman with the horns and the forked tail. Evil is entirely feminine – that too, with a perverse sort of sexual attractiveness. It seems Lewis was genuinely frightened of woman’s sexuality: Susan becomes a “non-friend of Narnia” the moment she becomes a nubile young woman. Lewis’s protagonists, like that of Lewis Carroll, are prepubescent girls.)

The Christian world view is evident from the word go – for example, the animals and birds can all be killed and eaten, provided that they are not “talking animals”! (They have been specially blessed as such by Aslan, we are told, in the story of the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew.) This evidently comes from the Bible where Man is given dominion over every living thing on earth. In case we don’t get it, Aslan continuously addresses the boys as “Sons of Adam” and the girls as “Daughters of Eve” and says that only they can rule over Narnia. As the story progresses, it becomes more prevalent – and now racism and intolerance of the heathens also come into play.

The Calormenes – dark-skinned foreigners who worship a savage god Tash, wear turbans and carry scimitar-like swords – are an Englishman’s fantasy of the bloodthirsty and lecherous Turk. In their country, young girls are routinely married off to old codgers, and they wage war on the free countries like Narnia to rape and pillage. Their God Tash, however, is a pagan deity who is loosely associated with the gentleman I mentioned earlier – the guy with horns.

The unlikeable brat Eustace Scrubb is the son of liberal parents who are pacifists and vegetarians. He studies in a school which does not have corporal punishment and which does not teach the Bible – and is therefore full of bullies who are encouraged by the Principal! However, Eustace reforms after a visit to Narnia, and returns back to the school and hammers the living daylights out of the bullies. The Principal is removed from the school and ultimately becomes a Member of Parliament, where she lives happily ever after (note the point: M. P. ‘s are failed schoolteachers who fail to put the fear of God into children).

It is in the last book that Lewis outdoes himself. There is an ape who presents a donkey as Aslan. The ape is part of a conspiracy with the Caloremenes who present their God Tash and Aslan as the same, but don’t believe in either. Also, the ending is patently silly and for me, it was disgusting.

But…

If you can ignore the allegory and the preachiness, there are some pretty interesting adventures here. The first three books are rather well-written (although a bit simplistic) and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is your classic sea adventure. The Magician’s Nephew is extremely funny in parts. One advice to prospective readers though – please give the last book a miss.