Aspiring polymath since 1982

Delving Into Fantasy

For the longest time imaginable, I have been fascinated by fantasy – whether it be the science-fiction staples of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick or the lands of elves, dragons, and gods as laid down by writers like JRR Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Neil Gaiman and so many others. As a person who spent most of his classroom hours staring out the window daydreaming, its obvious on hindsight that stories of alternate realities and worlds would have a special hold on me.

The reason for writing this post now is that as my collection of fantasy books has grown, I find that I’m less and less enamored by the stories I read. A certain kind of fatigue has crept in, an allergic reaction if you will to the same hackneyed portrayal of squat dwarves, lithe & androgynous elves, certain mystical objects which tie the whole tale together etc etc. If you have read any decent amount of fantasy, you would know what I’m talking about. My bile has especially been raised by the fact that I was unfortunate enough to read the latest Christopher Paolini book, Brisingr.

Now, I do not hold any great opinion about his earlier books titled Eragon and Inheritance. It’s just that I have this unfortunate affliction of not being able to resist buying the remaining books in the series once I have started the first one. Let me tell you, it results in severe economic and logistical challenges if you have this affliction and you have to shift. Back to the topic, I bought Brisingr despite my earnest attempts to avoid doing so. And what awaited me when I opened the book? The news that Paoloni has decided to expand the “Inheritance Trilogy” to an “Inheritance Cycle”, which means I still have to buy one more book!

I remember jokingly posting in a forum that there should be a Fantasy Regulatory Commission which would ensure that the interests of the readers are looked after, and that fantasy series are capped at a maximum of 3 books unless extraordinary talent has been exhibited. After all, not anyone can write like a Robert Jordan (I have all 12 of his books, and looking forward to the 13th which will sadly not be entirely his) or George RR Martin (all four of his from the “Ice & Fire” series).

Therefore, what I have been assiduously doing for the past two odd months is to get my hands on as many different types of fantasy as I can, steadfastly avoiding the usual cliched staples. Think of it as taking as a running jump into the deep end of the fantasy pool with no lifeguard in sight. To what end you might ask. Simple, to understand what makes me tick as a reader and to expand my horizon beyond the usually read and recommended. Thanks to the efforts of friends and some nice bookstores, my tally stands as follows (in no particular order):

  1. Orphans of Chaos – John Wright
  2. Fugitives of Chaos – John Wright
  3. Titans of Chaos – John Wright
  4. Consider Phlebas – Iain Banks
  5. His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
  6. Throne of Jade – Naomi Novik
  7. Black Powder War – Naomi Novik
  8. Empire of Ivory – Naomi Novik
  9. Victory of Eagles – Naomi Novik
  10. The Sword of Shannara – Terry Brooks
  11. The Elfstones of Shannara – Terry Brooks
  12. The Wishsong of Shannara – Terry Brooks
  13. Nine Princes in Amber – Roger Zelazny
  14. Guns of Avalon – Roger Zelazny
  15. Sign of the Unicorn – Roger Zelazny
  16. Hand of Oberon – Roger Zelazny
  17. The Courts of Chaos – Roger Zelazny
  18. River of Gods – Ian McDonald
  19. Anathem – Neal Stephenson
  20. Brisingr – Christopher Paolini
  21. Nightside of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  22. Lake of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  23. Calde of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  24. Exodus from the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe
  25. The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe
  26. The Claw of the Conciliator – Gene Wolfe
  27. The Sword of the Lictor – Gene Wolfe
  28. The Urth of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe
  29. On Blue’s Waters – Gene Wolfe
  30. The Good Fairies of New York – Martin Millar
  31. Pavane – Keith Roberts
  32. The Blade Itself – Joe Abercrombie
  33. Before They Are Hanged – Joe Abercrombie
  34. Last Argument of Kings – Joe Abercrombie

Another good resource for free ebooks (of the legal kind) is which for the past six odd months has been generously giving out two ebooks every fortnight as a promotion for the launch of their new website. Through Tor and again in no particular order, I was able to read the following books:

  1. The Outstretched Shadow – Mercedes Lackey, James Mallory
  2. Mistborn – Brandon Sanderson
  3. Farthing – Jo Walton
  4. Spin – Robert Charles Wilson
  5. Crystal Rain – Tobias Buckell
  6. Lord of the Isles – David Drake
  7. Through Wolf’s Eyes – Jane Lindskold
  8. The Disunited States of America – Harry Turtledove
  9. Reffein’s Choice – S.C. Butler
  10. Sun of Suns – Karl Schroeder
  11. Four and Twenty Blackbirds – Cherie Priest
  12. Spirit Gate – Kate Elliott
  13. Starfish – Peter Watts
  14. A Shadow in Summer – Daniel Abraham
  15. Touch of Evil – C.T. Adams, Cathy Clamp
  16. In The Garden of Iden – Kage Barker
  17. Flash – L.E. Modesitt
  18. In the Midnight Hour – Patti O’Shea
  19. Soul – Tobsha Learner
  20. Darkness of the Light – Peter David
  21. Butcher Bird – Richard Kadrey

What lessons have I learnt other than the simple fact that I have a lot of free time on my hands? The first is that yes, fantasy as a genre is heavily weighted by the usual cliches of dwarves, elves, trolls and their numerous other anthropomorphic equivalents. And this is definitely something that excludes a lot of potential readers because of the juvenile connotations that it arouses in their minds. The result of this is that a lot of radically different, well-written works of fantasy get left by the roadside except in the minds of enthusiasts.

Secondly, my own tastes I see have changed from a liking for Tolkien-ish worlds with their focus on languages, cultures and creatures rather than on the story, to novels where the story has to be heading somewhere by the second chapter if it does not want to face the risk of summary dismissal. I think this is because as a reader and as an employed person (instead of as a student, where most of my fantasy reading happened), I need a quick fix. I just cannot be bothered now to learn the lingua franca of the fantasy world, its theology and cultural evolution just to be able to appreciate the novel.

Thirdly, I find that books based on alternative realities keep me quite engrossed. Novels like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series with its dragons set in a realistic Napoleonic era are engrossing because of the heavy element of realism that they imbue. As a reader, the mind does not have to stretch its imagination beyond accepting that there are dragons in that era to enjoy the novel. It’s because the characters in the novels, whether human or dragon are fleshed out so well that all the reader has to do is just read along with the author and enjoy the story.

Alternative fiction would also include novels like Farthing by Jo Walton which is a story about the successful rise of fascism in England during World War 2, or Harry Tutrledove’s The Disunited States of America which is a part science fiction, part alternative reality tale of the failure of the federal structure of the United States of America and how each state becomes a country in its own right with a separate military, currency and patois. I would also recommend Pavane by Keith Roberts which is a novel based on the English being defeated by the Spanish Armada and the entrenchment of Catholicism in 20th century England.

Finally, I think my taste has shifted towards characters who are painted with shades of grey rather than the usual monochromatic cast of characters we find in fantasy novels. Some works which have characters that fit this bill exactly are Joe Abercrombie’s series, Daniel Abraham’s first novel from his Long Price Quartet and Gene Wolfe’s “Tales of the New Sun” series. What makes these novels so attractive is that the characters are real human beings, with fears and desires, circumspect and wavering. If there are heroes, they are anti-heroes or very reluctant at donning the mantle of the hero. All these combine to make a narrative which is easy for the reader to get subsumed into.

There definitely is a lot of good fantasy out there for any reader to lose himself in. The problem I think most face is finding it and appreciating it. As mentioned above, is a good resource that people can look at for recommendations though its obviously limited to Tor authors. Browsing through Librarything I have found is a good way to find new recommendations as is Amazon. In the end, the best recommendation I can give is that if it has elves and dwarves in it, just push it away. You will end up reading a lot more good fantasy if you follow that simple maxim.


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The Indian Trinity

A few weeks back I got my hands on a book that shook my perspective on how engaging non-fiction could be. That book happened to be Richard Rhodes‘ “Making of the Atomic Bomb“. A 900-odd page look into the genesis of the idea of the bomb and its actual birth in the parched womb of New Mexico as Trinity, the first atomic bomb to ever be set off on the face of the planet. Its a fascinating look also into the lives of the bombs’ midwives, from Teller, Oppenheimer, Szilard, and a host of others.

I have always been a fan of the genre called “historical reimagined fiction”, a genre that blurs the line between fiction and reality to an extent where you start accepting the author’s account of historical events and narratives. One of my favorite authors and series in this genre happens to be Neal Stephenson‘s “The Baroque Cycle” trilogy. Another favorite was Patrick O’Brian‘s “Master and Commander” series, starting from the eponymous book to the final one in the series.

To actually then read a work like “Making of the Atomic Bomb”, where you know that there is no line to be blurred, that what is actually being narrated is reality, transcribed and collated from thousands of hours of interviews and research, is to take a look into the mind of genius. I also happen to have Richard Rhodes’ book on writing called, well, “How To Write“, where he mentions taking five years to pen this work. If you were to take a look at the bibliography at the end of the book, you would have a pretty good picture of where those five years went.

I am yet to come across any work taking the erudition and detail present in Richard Rhodes’ work to the subject of the Indian nuclear-military-space complex. As an Indian, its a fascinating topic which few people have ever explored, in terms of matter for books as well as for personal exploration. For a newly-independent nation to develop a competent nuclear power and associated research sector, create a whole military complex based on the principle of self-sufficiency, and also setup a space research organization that is one of the cheapest space launch providers out there, is a laudable feat.

So where are the books then? Now, I’m aware that there are biographies/hagiographies of the people who fathered and sustained these complexes, people like Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, APJ Abdul Kalam, MGK Menon and others. There obviously is a reason that most people have not read any of these (excepting numerous ones on Kalam that must have got publicity during his stint as President). Some reasons that come to mind are poor or dry writing, little or no publicity, and little or no availability.

I’ve gone ferreting around in some of the biggest bookstores in India but have yet to come across any book on this topic. There are one or two writen by foreign authors though but available only through Amazon. It’s sad that some of the most inventive and self-sufficient stories to come out of Independent India are out of sight and out of mind of the Indian public because there aren’t authors talented or interested enough to take this chapter in our nation’s history and convert into a compelling narrative that would interest readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Of course, a criticism that most people would aim at me for shortlisting Indian achievements in the nuclear, space and military sciences is that it totally neglects the work done by our agricultural scientists such as MS Swaminathan and supporters like C Subramaniam. What of the achievements of Indian scientists in radio astronomy, neutrino detection and other esoteric fields? In my defence, all I can say is that these are the three areas that I’ve followed closely and am most able to say something about which won’t be moronic. It’s times like these when I really wish I had the gift and more importantly the patience required to write.

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1001 Books To Read Before You Die

I came across a post about a list of 1000 books that you have to read before you die on one of my daily stops on the Internet, Kottke. The full list is available here. Out of the 1001 books, I have read a total of 128. I have marked my favorites with an asterisk.

Some of the authors that I think I have egregiously missed out on reading are Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, JM Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and Italo Calvino. Lots of reading to catch up on.

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood *

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson *

The Ground Beneath Her Feet – Salman Rushdie

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Underworld – Don DeLillo

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie

A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry *

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres

The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx *

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

The Robber Bride – Margaret Atwood

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul – Douglas Adams

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

Watchmen – Alan Moore & David Gibbons *

Contact – Carl Sagan *

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Neuromancer – William Gibson

Rabbit is Rich – John Updike

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco *

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams *

The World According to Garp – John Irving

Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

Rabbit Redux – John Updike

The Godfather – Mario Puzo

Cancer Ward – Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez *

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John Le Carré

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey *

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Franny and Zooey – J.D. Salinger

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Rabbit, Run – John Updike

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

The Last Temptation of Christ – Nikos Kazantzákis *

Lord of the Flies – William Golding

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway *

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

The Rebel – Albert Camus

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

Animal Farm – George Orwell *

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

Thank You, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway

Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D.H. Lawrence

The Castle – Franz Kafka

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Siddhartha – Herman Hesse

Tarzan of the Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Nostromo – Joseph Conrad

Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Kim – Rudyard Kipling

The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells

The Island of Dr. Moreau – H.G. Wells

The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne

Erewhon – Samuel Butler

Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There – Lewis Carroll

The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoevsky

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy *

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Les Misérables – Victor Hugo

Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev *

Silas Marner – George Eliot

Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

Walden – Henry David Thoreau

Bleak House – Charles Dickens

Moby-Dick – Herman Melville

David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

The Count of Monte-Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allan Poe

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo

Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper

Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott

Emma – Jane Austen

Mansfield Park – Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

Candide – Voltaire

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

The Thousand and One Nights – Anonymous

Aesop’s Fables – Aesopus

Some more “lists” to peruse if you have the time are:

Update: Came across another interesting list on Spread The Word. They have a list of 50 books under a shortlist for their 2009 “Books To Talk About” competition. You can see the full list here.

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