Archive for June, 2006

Ganglion

Hypochondria is a wonderful thing, god wot.

Yesterday, I thought I had dislocated my wrist, (because every time I bent it, a little bump popped out of where I imagine my bone socket is, and my skin went taut over it) and if you’ve ever tried typing with one hand, you will realise that watching paint dry can only be thrilling and fascinating in comparison.

Now I’m not ambidextous at all – if my life depended on being able to hold a pencil in my left hand, I’d be dead. Unfortunately for me, the computer, that great equaliser of the postmodern world, has struck again.
It is weird and creepy that when faced with only one hand to type with, something in me decides oh, no, I’m not handicapped enough already, and uses only my index finger to type with. And so, without my non-preferred, borderline spastic hand, I cannot type.

It is a terrible fate.

As it turned out, it was merely a ganglion, a bit of nerve cell that had decided to swell up and act peculiar over my wrist bone. Apparently they happen all the time, and if it truly hurts, my doctor will be pleased to surgically remove it (his phrase, not mine) but otherwise he thinks I can just shut up and learn to live with the bump.

Typing isn’t very comfortable though,(something I will never admit to either my mum or the boy, both of whom have been extremely strident in their opinion that the computer will be the death of me)and I can only hope it doesn’t take it into its head to get any bigger.

All the same, ganglion is a nice word – it has a spring in its step, and it is far less unpleasant than ‘tumour’ and more sophisticated than ‘lump’ and certainly superior to the insipid ‘nodule’.

I try it out: ganglion. gang-lee-on. ganglion, ganglion.

Hello ganglion.

I suppose I can live with it.

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June 22, 2006 at 10:15 am 8 comments

The Case of the Missing Link

I know I just put in not one, but two entries, but still, what the hell, I am indignant.

It happened this way:

Someone (some two, actually) came to Baker Street, when Holmes and I were indisposed, and left offline links to http://www.my_best_new_pics.com with Mrs Hudson. She, good soul that she is, handed them to us, unsuspecting that disaster lurked around the corner.

A very ordinary sounding page, I thought. I clicked on one and was sent to an error page on yahoo photos.
There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace, sniggered Holmes.
Bah to yahoo I said, and logged off.

I was in Chennai for the weekend, and got home one Sunday night. Now two days is a hell of a lot in cyberspace, so I logged straight into my gmail, to be greeted by a mail from yahoo saying my password had been changed.
Idon’t see how that could’ve happened, I complained, it was an uncommon kind of id – I don’t know how he guessed it.

You see Watson, but you do not observe, said Holmes, what one man can invent, another can discover.

I went to yahoo to get my password changed. My id didn’t exist, I was told. I logged all over yahoo – mail, messenger, music – a couple of times each. My ancient yahoo id (which we will call watsonwas12andreadtoomuchtolkien@yahoo.co.in) had been hacked into and then deleted.

The internet, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.
Oh no, Holmes, I cried, disaster has struck! It must be that mysterious napoleon of crime, the professor! Oh no!

Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot. Let us log into your father’s messenger and check you up on his friend list. All will become clear.

I logged in, and found an offline message from my (murdered) account – a link to http://www.my_best_new_pics.com

The man is a monster, Holmes, a very fiend from hell.

Ay, Watson, I must confess myself beaten. By the most dangerous man in cyberspace, it is true, but beaten all the same. You must get a new id.

My dear Holmes, why, enlightened post-gmail citizens that we are, should any one worry about such trivialities as a yahoo id? They are a dime a dozen and pretty useless to boot. I will, instead, get another gmail account. It’ll be one in the eye for the prof!

I have two words for you Watson: stealth and Launchcast.

Stealth is easily acquired along with a new id, but training my Launchcast was a long and arduous process involving listening to hours of crap and rating it “Don’t play again.” It also involved a lot of surfing for favourite artists and rating them.

It is not a task I look forward to doing.

I confess I have been beaten, Watson, said Holmes.
Impossible! I said, hoping to prevent him from falling back on his old standby, cocaine.
It is not impossible, Watson, but merely improbable said he. And how often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

But he will get more ids, Holmes, I cried. As we speak the terrible link is wandering through attacking innocent people!What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?
He shrugged, and said, there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch.

And so Holmes sits in defeat, baffled by the evil genius that is the virus I hereby christen Moriarty. May it fall off the Riechenbach to a gruesome end!

Watson, said he, if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper “yahoo” in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.

And so endeth the case of the Missing link.

June 13, 2006 at 10:06 am 10 comments

Whew

That was remarkably long. I feel catharised. And a bit sheepish.

June 12, 2006 at 4:44 pm Leave a comment

It has been a while – partly because I’m lazy, and partly because i honestly haven’t had access to internet for the last month or so.

But there are somethings which must be shared immediately. Steven Erikson’s The Malazon Book of the Fallen has been among the highlights of the last few months for me, and finally relinquishing Book VI of it, The Bonehunters, (Thanks Ro. My eternal gratitude and Peter Wimseys are yours for the asking.) made me realise how overdue this is. You send me the Communist manifesto, I now present to you:

THE STEVEN ERIKSON MANIFESTO

The world of The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a bleak and difficult one. It is war-ridden in the most frightening way so that war is the only way of life. And as we read further, we realise that this has always been so. The word fantasy is clearly a misnomer – this is not the kind of world you want to fantasise about.

In the present, the Malazan Empire – the all-powerful force, against whom so many of our protagonists are pitted – is largely a background force; but one who is repeatedly revealed to be behind some large bit of the action. It controls vast amounts of land and people, yet its existence is as precarious as that of any of the millions of individual soldiers dying in its armies. (Not surprisingly, the army is pivotal – most of the action and the deep thinking happen in the camps.)

Intrigue levels are so high that the first three or four chapters of every book are completely baffling – you read blind, in the expectation of learning to see if you do it long enough. This isn’t a bad thing, though – Erikson drops enough hints to keep you fully occupied, so it’s like doing a cryptic crossword where if you get enough clues, you can begin to see the letters and fill in the last, tough ones.

Only, it turns out, this entire crossword is just one tenth of the big one.

We all know – theoretically – how important backstory is to a fantasy world, for without it there is no motivation, and the characters and plot become irrelevant to themselves. Very much like a detective novel, in fact. History is one of Erikson’s strong suits – he uses it to enrich and legitimise his books, just as the books themselves flesh it out.

In some ways the Malazan series is like a giant detective story, where each book is one chapter, dropping tantalising clues, and building up to the denouement in the last book.

Since we are only at book 6 now, I see little point in elaborating on the plot-lines – which are many and hugely complicated, and only getting more so with each successive book. A lot of the reading is merely figuring out which of the millions of sub-plots and strands is a red-herring, and which is important to the bigger picture. As it turns out, they all are.

The various strands come together, satisfyingly, in the end, pushing the series plot further. The books aren’t chronological – some happen simultaneously, and there is a lot of back-and-forth-ing, but the picture that emerges when they are put together is breathtaking.

But unlike a detective story, morality in the Malazan books is muddied and sticky and compelling. Imagine quicksand so fascinating you wilfully struggle harder in the hope of digging yourself in deeper and deeper, faster and faster, consumed by an urgent need to get to the bottom.

There is no one murderer (or even two) who is to be discovered at the end of the book – though there are plenty all along the way. Instead, the world is one of Kafkaesque helplessness – with every character plotting stubbornly towards an unknown goal – often at cross-purposes, sometimes together – though even then they maintain their own motives. And though against the large morass that is their world (pardon the repeated bog-metaphors) they are small and powerless, they all insist on plotting furiously, anyway. No one is Evil, and even if they were, no one is all Good either. Even the least likeable characters are provided with enough motivation to make them, if not sympathetic, at least empathetic.

As far as I am concerned, the characterisation is perfect – even though there are so many of them, Erikson makes every single one recognisable. It is not the kind of book where you can, say, name five distinguishing characteristics for each person. But then, I can’t name five distinguishing characteristics for any of my friends either. Instead of a set of characteristics, you come to recognise real people – you may not entirely understand them, you probably don’t agree about a lot of stuff, but you enjoy their company; they change, you change, it doesn’t matter; they are still distinct people to you. If you ran into even the most insignificant character on the road, you’d recognise it and go up to talk to it – though if you are spotting Erikson characters on the road, you might want to consider seeing a shrink.

And when they die (And they are always dying – it is a book of the fallen, after all) it is as if a real person is dead. You don’t cry and wallow and say that was beautiful, what an affecting book – you cringe and swallow and make funeral preparations, and wonder what they left you in their will.

There are Houses – of Dark, Light, Shadow, Death, Life, and so on – but these aren’t necessarily antagonistic, in fact as the series progresses so do the various alliances.

The methods employed by Light are as horrific as those employed by Dark – war.

In fact, the immortal Tiste Andii, the Children of the Dark (and their leader, Anomander Rake) are in many ways more pitiable than the humans – they have been so battered by their history, they have lost the will to live. Though war is common in these books, it never loses its horrific-ness. There is no attempt to legitimise war – even though most of Erikson’s most likeable characters are soldiers (in this world, Everyman is a soldier – a frightening metaphor for the saying that to live is to fight). Instead, the only stable moralities are those of necessity and compassion. I have deliberately avoided calling the book gritty – a phrase that, to me, implies a general hardening and detachment in the characters ability to deal with suffering. For Erikson, war is uniformly gruelling, there is no suggestion of sado-masochism, of pleasure in pain – killing is a soul-destroying thing, yet it is the only thing people can do in their desperate attempt to stay alive. The heroic bit of war is not in victory, but in the soldiers’ acceptance of its necessity, even as they see its inherent wrongness. This makes the books war scenes much more potent and disturbing than those of many other fantasy novels. (Don’t shrug innocently, Terry Goodkind – I am pointing at you.)

A dying soldier in most books has the (dubious) satisfaction of dying for a Cause. A dying soldier in The Malazan Books of the Fallen knows only that for him, the killing has finally ended, and that Hood will get him. It is a world Yossarian would approve of in its frightening meaninglessness. There is always a superficial reason for a death – usually because of one or more of the plots laid by all the powerful characters. But it is still eventually meaningless, nothing is achieved except a complexifying of the intrigue – the stakes are raised again, new alliances are formed, new players enter, but nothing changes for the soldiers.

There is an inexorability to the dying that is more powerful than anything Hood, the king of House Death – possibly, paradoxically, the least intimidating (and sympathetic) of the ascendants – can do. (Terry Pratchett’s Death, on the other hand would be much more understanding, I suspect. Forgive me, Steven, but there is nothing your Hood can do to supersede Pratchett’s Death as the real one in my head.)

The gods in this world (also called Ascendants) are not very omnipotent. And we soon realise that they are only a little more powerful than the humans, and the barriers between mortals, immortals and ascendants are not so much walls as much as thin lines that are regularly stepped across by the ambitious. (In fact, the last emperor of the Malazan Empire and his assassin seem to have ascended to become the big-wigs of House Shadow, just to escape being assassinated by the new Empress.)

The Empress is a (so far) shadowy figure; we learn of her only via other characters, tantalising fragments that help build up her mystique, rather than make her more tangible – no doubt at her own instigation. We know she was the head of the Claw (the deadly Malazan assassin squad) before she took over the throne. We know she is skilled enough at intrigue to pre-empt and dissuade attempts on her life and her power, to make all the most powerful people we have met so far wary of her. We know that even the immortals regard her as a viable threat to their freedom. (In one extremely poignant scene, the ascendant Anomander Rake explains to his ally (and ascendant) Caladan Brood that the reason for their antagonism to the empire is that they like a certain amount of chaos, to them it is freedom, while to the Empress and her kind, the immortals’ freedom threatens the ordered well-being of their human citizens. Plus, he adds wryly, they are automatically antagonised by the very fact that it is someone else, not them, who will rule the new stability.) It is a legitimate fear – the unravelling history shows us countless examples of new beings destroying the old ones in their search for a peaceful existence.

But we soon realise that some of this is coming to a head. Knowing the world as we do, it is unlikely that there will be a happy end where the High King is restored and everyone will live a peaceful rural existence, or even that there will be world peace. Since there was never a paradise, there is none to go back to.

There is after all, no true evil to be defeated – all the combatants are equally confused, hurt, and vulnerable.

The best the soldiers can hope for is that the Empire stabilises (and as a postcolonial member of an erstwhile colony, you will appreciate that this is a horrifying thing for me to say), concentrating on governance rather than expansion, so that it finds some peace – and so other races can find their own peaces too. Perhaps the gods and ascendants will find a realm truly separate from that of the other beings, so they will no longer use them in their manoeuvrings for power.

I like to think the mesemerising anarchy will go on for ever.

All we can say for certain is that since Good cannot triumph over Evil, there is one less Happy End in the world. But that’s not to say it won’t be a good end.

June 12, 2006 at 4:01 pm 3 comments


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