Saturday, January 28, 2006

The "Cadaeic Cadenza": A Work of Genius

I was browsing through Wikipedia, trying to teach myself something new, and came across an article on "Constrained Writing". Basically, in this form of writing, the writer constrains himself (herself) by various means and rules, such as:

  • the usage of acrostics
  • the prohibition of certain letters (such as e), known, engagingly enough, as lipograms
  • the usage of certain letters in every word (reverse lipograms)
There are various such rules; however, the one work of sheer genius that I came across is the Cadaeic Cadenza, by Mike Keith. It's available online right here: The Cadaeic Cadenza. For a hint as to what it contains, look at the first word "Cadaeic", and try and get the pattern.

Moments such as this are what life is for!

The Night Land: A Partial Review

Imagine, if you will, a future so distant that the very existence of the Sun is but a legend of ancient times, where the last dregs of humanity live in cowering fear inside a single Pyramid reaching 7 miles into the heavens, surrounded by monsters and half-breed mutants.
Imagine a million years of silence emanating from the Last Redoubt (for that is what the Pyramid is known as), and the host of silent Watchers of stone waiting for the last defences to collapse so that the faint spark of humanity that lies within can be finally extinguished.

Thus lies the basic premise of William Hope Hodgson's "The Night Land", a novel which I've just finished reading. And more than anything else, I have found it to be pretty disappointing. Let me start at the very beginning.

STYLE: Hodgson uses stilted prose like a crazed dwarf swinging a greataxe. He literally bludgeons one to death with his over-use of the literary styles of the late 17th century.

DEVICES: Considering that this was one of the first science-fiction novels ever written (1912), belonging to the Dawn Age of Imperial SF, one can sympathize with his choice of subject - the last citadel of Noble Humanity being battered down by the savage Hordes of sub-humans, a theme which has been tackled in various subtle as well as non-subtle ways by writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, the recurrent theme of the Others. Hodgson, however, cannot be forgiven for his misuse of the tacky literary device of being "warp-zoned" to the future in a dream. Yes, matey, the hero simply dreams of the far future, in such utter vividness that the mind boggles. Literary devices and constructions such as this should be tackled, nailed to the ground, and shot in the head with extremely fine-caliber rifles.

NARRATIVE: Or the lack of it. Hodgson describes, in excruciating detail, how the Hero (whose name we fail to discover) walks from one place to another, over a matter of fifty pages. Fifty pages of descriptive prose concerning how scared he felt, how tired he was, how the grass was long and the night was dark, until one wishes that the Hero would simply get discovered by one of the ScaryMonsters(TM) and get eaten. A fitting end to one of the most boring characters to have ever graced the pages of a novel.

POSITIVE POINTS: A lot. Which is why the disappointment, simply because I had expected much more from someone considered to be one of the greatest writers of science fiction. One catches glimpses of sheer genius in some parts of his prose, for example in the extract below:

Before me ran the Road Where The Silent Ones Walk; and I searched it, as many a time in my earlier youth had I, with the spy-glass; for my heart was always stirred mightily by the sight of those Silent Ones.
And, presently, alone in all the miles of that night-grey road, I saw one in the field of my glass--a quiet, cloaked figure, moving along, shrouded, and looking neither to right nor left. And thus was it with these beings ever. It was told about in the Redoubt that they would harm no human, if but the human did keep a fair distance from them; but that it were wise never to come close upon one. And this I can well believe.
And so, searching the road with my gaze, I passed beyond this Silent One, and past the place where the road, sweeping vastly to the South-East, was lit a space, strangely, by the light from the Silver-fire Holes. And thus at last to where it swayed to the South of the Dark Palace, and thence Southward still, until it passed round to the Westward, beyond the mountain bulk of the Watching Thing in the South--the hugest monster in all the visible Night Lands. My spy-glass showed it to me with clearness--a living hill of watchfulness, known to us as The Watcher Of The South. It brooded there, squat and tremendous, hunched over the pale radiance of the Glowing Dome.
Much, I know, had been writ concerning this Odd, Vast Watcher; for it had grown out of the blackness of the South Unknown Lands a million years gone; and the steady growing nearness of it had been noted and set out at length by the men they called Monstruwacans; so that it was possible to search in our libraries, and learn of the very coming of this Beast in the olden-time.

The passage extracted above reminds me, somehow, of H. G. Wells at the peak of his writing.

BOTTOMLINE: How I wish that Hodgson had been gifted with the power of story-telling to match his visionary imagination. How enriched literature would have been!

As for me, I'm on to the next novel. Will get back to you as soon as possible.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Semester-Long Spree

I just finished reading A Trillion Year Spree, by Brian Aldiss, a work which outlines the history of science fiction as well as the books which led to its current state of development.
I'm impressed.
And, as a young orphan once so pitifully queried of an eviller, crueller generation: "Please, Sir, can I have some more?"
So, I made a list of the books that I need to read during the course of this semester. The entire list consists of over 50 books, which is why I've broken it into more digestible list-chunks of about 6-7 books each. Sadly enough, most of the books that I plan to peruse are not available in India. The only solution thus left to a penniless semi-literate subcontinental geek is to download 'em tomes off IRC.
In any case, here's the first list-chunk of books that I intend reading. Let's see how quickly I'm able to finish them. After I finish one list, I plan on posting reviews of each book, most of which I guess will be painfully personal.
But then, such is life.

Without further ado, here are the books:
  1. The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson
  2. The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson
  3. The Trial, by Franz Kafka
  4. The Castle, by Franz Kafka
  5. Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon
  6. The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
  7. The Inverted World, by Christopher Priest

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Urban legends portray the surrealist painter Dali as one possessed by inner demons who haunted him with their nightmarish visions. Dali, they say, employed one particular method of capturing his dreamscapes - before a painting session, he apparently used to go to sleep in a particularly uncomfortable position, with a plate in his hand. Soon, he would be dreaming, his muscles would relax, and the plate would clatter down to the floor. Dali would then wake up hearing the noise, and with the dream fresh in his mind, would start painting.
Inspired by this example, I tried setting an alarm clock to wake me up at 3 a.m. in the night, a calculated four hours of sleep guaranteed to give me inspiring visions upon which to base a story. I woke up to a fleeting impression of blinding snow and skeletons. I got up, wrote the story which follows, and then kept myself awake, because I was too scared to fall asleep again.

We sit facing each other, Timmy and I. I stare at Timmy. Timmy stares right back, eyes bright, gleaming, the smell of tobacco and nervousness mingling. I make the first move.
"That was a nice one, Timmy!" He gives a faint smile, stares right into my eyes.
"Thanks", he says. Turns back, looks at the window.

Snow, falling gently, without a care in the world, regardless of sun and shadow, of the change of seasons, of happiness and sorrow.
Regardless of man itself.
Dr. Zhivago, anyone?
I laugh, a hollow sound echoing through our room. Eyes whip back; Timmy stares at me, uneasy, very uneasy.
"Where is Jakobssen?" I ask.
Yes, Jakobssen, the famous explorer, the first to stay alone in an Antarctic cabin for a year and still emerge unscathed, intact.

Timmy laughs, a bitter laugh. Makes my hackles rise, that kind of a laugh. Sick.
"I don't know."
And Timmy walks out of the room.
Something's wrong.


Still no sign of Jakobssen. Could he be in danger? I look out the window.

Snow, whipping the ground outside into a raging sea of white, clouds of crystal forming all along the cabin.

And then Timmy walks in, a food packet in each hand. "Here's your lunch," he says. Perfect day for a hot lunch. I sit down to eat, measuring carefully each word that I am going to say.
"What's wrong with you, Timmy? Are you feeling all right?" I gently touch his shoulder with my left hand.
Up he goes, like a rocket, yes, jumps up and away. Eyes popping out of his sockets, tongue hanging out, panting. "Don't you ever touch me like that!"
I stare at him. Heck. It's his problem. I continue eating my lunch.

Timmy sits down again, far away from me. I feel eyes boring into me, that odd sort of feeling you get when you walk down a deserted corridor at midnight. Eyes, some hostile, some friendly, most cold, very cold, hating the warmth of your soul, yet seeking it like a moth seeks a flame.
I shudder, continue eating.


It's my turn to check the barbwires. Outside.
I walk all around the compound, checking for holes.
Polar bears can be very dangerous, especially when cornered.

Three days have passed by. Still no sign of Jakobssen. Nervousness grips me like a vise. Timmy's still acting strangely. Yesterday, he refused to sleep in the same room with me. He says I scare him to death sometimes. Hah!

The snow storm outside has decreased considerably. I come inside, sit back, take a deep breath, and think. Why has Jakobssen not returned yet? What could have happened to him?
And why is Timmy behaving so strangely?

I stare out of the window at the snow.
Snow, pure as winter's heart, sublime, melts-when-you-touch-it. Tasteless, odourless, harmless. God's infinite mercy tickling our fur-caps.
And everything clicks into place.

Jakobssen must have got into some danger. Something life-threatening.
And Timmy suspects me.


It happens quite suddenly.
Here I am, lying on my bunk, sleeping, dreaming of a land far away where there is no snow, no darkness.
I get up with a start. And a shadow passes, right behind my ears. Sweep.
Quo vadis?

I lift myself off the bunk. Quietly put on my socks, tread gently towards the door of my room. Still swinging.
Something just went out of my room.
Or went inside.

I turn quickly, pick up the seal-skin lamp, watch carefully. No one inside.

I walk out of the room, into the corridor. Quietly open Timmy's room. It's pitch-dark, not a single sound from anywhere. I hear the soft snore of a tired soul sleeping soundly. I light the lamp.
The snoring stops.
There's no one inside.


Snow, softly getting crunched under my snowboots. Human beings, turning pure snow into puddles of dirty slime. I give a grim chuckle, walk on further.
I finally see it.
A big hole in the barbwire, cut cleanly, about the size of a man. I stumble back.
Stumble back and fall.

A grave. Somebody's grave. Somebody's empty grave.
I climb out, wheezing and panting.
Look at a piece of wood stuck to the ground.
"Armaund Jakobssen, 1878-19__."

The truth dawns upon me.


Rush back into the cabin, panting.
Timmy's sitting on the table. Eyes big as saucers, full of terror.

I give him a big grin.

"Thought you could hide it from me, Timmy?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You killed him, didn't you? You killed Jakobssen, didn't you?"
"Are you feeling all right?"

I see the lie written on his face. So, pull down my snowpack, take out a rope, and look at him.


We sit facing each other, Timmy and I. I stare at Timmy. Timmy stares right back, eyes full of terror. Staring at me, staring at my hand.
Staring at the Peacemaker I'm pointing at him.

"Why did you do it, Timmy?"
Probably the hundredth time I've asked him this question.

And finally he answers, with a smile, sad, mysterious, a smile of death.

"Because I was always jealous of you, Armaund."

Why is the Peacemaker in my hand shaking?

I stare at my right hand. Bits of skin, still clinging on to gleaming white bone, skeletal fingers snaking around the trigger..

I look outside. Snow. Always.
Snow. The pi and iota of my life. The biggest fundamental constant..

I look back at myself. Six months inside the ground can get anyone out of shape. Hmm. But I have a job to do.

A Peacemaker's a very good gun. Very effective. Very silent.


We sit facing each other, Timmy and I. I stare at Timmy. Timmy stares right back, eyeless sockets mirroring mine, lack of nose coupled with mine, earless skull just like mine.

I look out of the window.

Snow, falling, gently, beyond the puny hopes of humanity, colourless, odourless, noiseless, tasteless. Pure. Nature shall win. Eventually.

Dr. Zhivago, anyone?



Here's a short-short story I once wrote, imagining how it would have been, in a perfectly fantastical world, to woo Her like in the good ol' days, when men were men and did their own wooing with a rose.
Of course, like the mystic yarn spinners and campfire story-tellers of yore, let me assure you of one thing: this is exactly how it happened, give or take a few details.
The story starts, like many others of its ilk, in a House.

I walked out of the House, hoping against hope that this would be the day. Looked up at the sky, and stared in disbelief. Clouds. Ponderous, heavy, gray.
I chuckled. Broke into a grin.
For every cloud has a silver lining.

I walked along the Street, staring at people going by. Cycles, buses, motorcars - the finished magic wonders of our post-modern Age.
Finished is right. Our lives, devoid of meaning. The little joy that we feel, like dew before a roaring sun. And still the merciless Road goes on and on.
Save me Bilbo, my heart cried that day.
Oh yes it wept.
The Road led me on and on, through shanties and skyscrapers, through sparkling boulevards and stinking garbage dumps, through playgrounds and graveyards. Busy people with busy lives.
My City had it all.
It set me wondering then, as I traipsed along a path set in stone. Set me thinking of the choices taken by the Road as it worked its winding way through my City, of its blatant eagerness to see the latest movie. Of the inherent taste of necrophilia exhibited by its burrowing through, nay bisecting, every cemetery.
Do roads remember people? After we have trod across them, worker ants without a moment to spare?
I'm sure this Road did.

And so I walked that day, driven by a desperate desire, peering at every face that zipped past. Searching, searching.
Ask and it shall be given unto you. Seek and you shall find.
I saw Her finally. Standing under a pink umbrella (of course).
Thank you Road, I cried out. Gave a whoop of joy.
Went up to Her, out of breath, panting.
"Excuse me ma'am," I said, gasping for air.
She turned around, looked at me, calm, considering.
I went down on my knees.
Eyebrows arched up. Almost instantly.
My face was out of control, emotions breaking through and bubbling out into the open.
"Will you marry me?"
A crack of lightning.
A raindrop fell on my cheek.

Road. Pointed out my goal, took me so-close and yet-so-far. I started walking back to the House.
Dejection does not come naturally. You have to work at it, pick away at your heart.
Slush. Downpour. More slush.
Somehow reminded me, so weirdly, of rich dark brown filledwithcreamygoodness...
It was a regular thunderstorm, thumping the Beaufort scale into a wriggly earthworm of figures. The pitter-patter of tiny raindrops turning into a roar, a fusillade of tiny droplets hitting the ground with vengeance. A million Cains hitting out blindly.
It was a regular war. And Earth was getting ready to surrender.
I reached the House. Shut myself up. Opened the refrigerator. And grabbed -
It was the first day, you see.

A pattern was forming. I could feel it.
An Oracle I became, mysticism and hope mingled with a Cassandra-sense-of-foreboding.
The priestesses of Apollo would have approved.
Life became obvious. Against the laws of nature, against the laws of Earth and Man, against entropy itself, the jigsaw puzzle of my life was aligning itself rapidly, forming a statement which I refused to read.
And so it went.
Walk. Road.
Road. Walk. Slush. House.
And the gentle draughts of Morpheus.
On and on and on and on. Just like the Road.
Was Bilbo trying to help me out there?

I walked out of the House, hoping against hope that this would be the day. Looked up at the sky. And stared in disbelief.
White, flying in the rain. (How how how?)
It was a dove.
Dropped something into my hands and flew away. (Where where?)
I looked at my hands.
Chuckled. Broke into a grin.
And shook a fist at the sky.

There She was. The same pink umbrealla. The same intrigued look on Her face.
And yet, there was something different.
"Excuse me, ma'am," I said, confidently.
She turned around, looked at me, a slight smile on Her lips.
I went down on my knees.
A sigh escaped from Her lips, almost involuntarily.
I looked up at Her.
Pulled out my hand from behind by back.
"Will you marry me?"
And I gave her the Rose; the petals so perfect, raindrops glistening shyly.
She smiled.
"What's your name?" she asked. (Oh, couldn't you guess it?)
"Noah," I said.
"How long has it been, since you started?" (Oh, she knew it, she knew it all along.)
"Forty days and forty nights."

Measure for measure. I looked up at Her.
"You haven't answered my question."
She looked at me, held my hand.
And the rain stopped.

I walked onto the Road with Her.
"Where's everybody gone?" she asked, surprised. Staring at the empty City.
I glanced up at the sky, smiled at -
It was a pact. A covenant.
Between me, Her, God and Bilbo.
And the Road of course.

Of course, caveat emptor and all that... a vast chasm of space and time separates us from each other; we still haven't had a chance to re-populate Earth.
As for me, I'll try beating Methushelah's record.