Essex County by Jeff Lemire

This book broke me. And then it fixed me.

essexcountyWith Jeff Lemire’s name and this bright artwork on cover, I was expecting something heartwarming. It was warm, in fact a bit too warm that my heart got melted away.

Like the title says, it is the story of Essex County, of it’s people and their lives spanning over generations. There are three separate volumes, that subtly segue between various characters and time periods. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness and longing in every character, be it the introvert boy ‘Lester’, one hit wonder ‘Lou’ or the Nurse. Jeff easily characterizes these emotions through art; through fonts, shadows, inanimate objects, snow and even the eyes of characters. The artwork here is more or less sequential, strictly minimal and monochromatic. And it was impressive how the concatenating narrative unraveled complicated relations in sheer simplicity, evoking strong emotions in the process. To each person Essex means something different, and they all have their passions to hold on to when the world around them slips.

212I found a lot of my confused childhood in ‘Lesters’ eyes, the awkwardness and loneliness and escapism in comic book reality. Even in the absence of colours and detailing, little incoherent circles that formed his eyes, and single line that formed his facial expression, conveyed a lot to me than usual words would. Like brightening of the circles and downward curving of lines, when ‘Lester’ was running around in the farm, in his red cape.

CaptureThe second story was too intense for me, it hit me so hard in my feels that I had to close the book more than a few times. Though it is a singular story line, the sequence is jarred, and we are switched through povs and timelines, almost effortlessly. As depressing as it sounds, I somehow identified myself the most with ‘Lou’ in his loneliness, nonchalance and melancholy. Jeff was honest in his literature and artistic depiction of guilt and loss, and their aftermath. There was a lot of similarity between Lester and Lou, mostly on the pleasant side, and for more than once in the surreal business of flashbacks I suspected the latter being the elder version of former. The simultaneous loss of love and friendship drives Lou to strong guilt, the kind that doesn’t allow you to move on or be happy. He tries to make sense of my his lonely life by holding on to the only thing that matters- Hockey, to which he was a one hit wonder of; yet his life somehow finds its way back to the focal point of tragedy.

Picture1.pngThe subtle difference between grief and guilt was addressed in surprising detail here, like how others move on with their life and you are left with a perpetrator guilt that runs simulations of ‘what if’ scenarios in your head over and over. And even after eons, the first thing that gets to your head about a broken friendship would be that focal point. You will be looking for excuses, trying to fix something that is permanently broken and that no one anymore cares about. Guilt keept Lou in a state of perpetual ‘Merlin Sickness’; shrinking him mentally towards the traumatic past, and physically away from it.

xczscfdasfThe last story, involving the Nurse was the one I connected least with even though it was the most communicative among the three. Yet, in a way, it was the story line I needed most. The whole book is predictable, occasionally surreal and even melancholic. But there is an element of magical realism in it, an unreliability in the narration that bends reality between characters, time zones, dreams and memories. There are moments that make you smile, moments that make you ponder even if it’s something as insignificant as the appearance of a crow, and moments that make you sad, but fills you with hope. Jeff does a great job in making characters as real as possible, they age, they feel and they respond like a normal human being than someone sketched out on a paper. And above all, it is beautiful.

22310023._SX540_As I was nearing the end of my reading, the book had left me devastated, badly in need for a hug. And surprisingly, by the time it all ended, the book itself became the very hug that I badly needed.

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The Drone King by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (newly discovered unpublished short story)

1920

“Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t a woman’s world.”

“How’s that, sir?,” I said.

“Only a female bee can sting,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that about bees.”

“You knew that about females, didn’t you?” he said. He closed one eye, and, with his face already lopsided from the bee sting, he looked crazy as a bedbug. “Law of life!” he said sharply. “If you get yellow fever, you’ll have the female mosquito to thank. If a black widow spider does you in, my boy, again—cherchez la femme.”

There are many superior Vonnegut works on my tbr, but surfacing of a newly discovered short story was too exciting to ignore. This short, though engaging, is a bit bleak in comparison with his other stories, more absurd and less humourous too. But it offers a peak into his early mind, and even with all weirdly specific instructions on bees, that’s a cause worth reading for.

In a Gaal – Hari Seldon styled meeting, we are introduced to an Investment Counselor and his employer Sheldon Quick. Having exhausted his business fortunes, Quick is currently working on a ‘drone based’ revival project which, according to him, will revolutionize communication network. Unlike the UAVs that we are familiar with, here the drones are just male bees. 

The story is also an old school crowd funding campaign, where our leads are trying to pitch ‘Bee-gram’ to their angel investors.
As I was having a real dull day, I did some weird analysis on the story myself.

It is hard to ignore the fact that Kurt is rather curt about females in his writing here. The title ‘Drone King‘ is literally the exact opposite of ‘Queen Bee‘, for starters. There are no female characters anywhere in this story, and a strong reason for rejection of anything feminine is asserted at the very start itself.

“Oh,” I said. “Huh. I guess that’s why the female workers knock off the males, eh? The males are nothing but a drain on the community.”

The color left Quick’s fine face. “What’s so wonderful about making honey?” he said.

“Can you make honey?”

“Nope,” I said.

He was excited, upset. “Is that any reason to condemn you to death?” he said.

“Nope—heck no,” I said.

I see a critique on marginalisation of men’s rights, in this bee business; but that would be embarrassingly far fetching from my side. What my puny mind garnered is this, and there is no other way to say it than come out as a fool. Repeated experience of unrequited affection, or rejection over for someone high up the food chain, and this story being Vonnegut’s salty way of dealing with it.

The story lacks humour and satire, atleast in first look, but it is really fun to dive into his early mind. In a way the narrator radiates young Vonnegut himself, who is skeptical, extra careful and reluctant to experiment in his new (writing) career. Quick on the other hand is this crazy version of Vonnegut who isn’t afraid of weird ideas and risks. At one point Quick compares himself with Scarlet Pimpernel(a rather curious analogy considering the name being synonymous with a flower, given the bee business) of French Revolution- the chivalrous medieval vigilante. Pimpernel is actually the literary precursor for masked vigilantism and double life heroism from Zorro to Batman. I couldn’t help but extrapolate this towards Vonnegut‘s famous alter ego and my favorite science fiction writer who doesn’t exist- Kilgore Trout. Throughout his career Vonnegut had always stayed in his safe space, while he had let Trout do the fourth wall breaking and crazy experimentation.

So it goes.

A free copy and an animated excerpt can be found here. I have heard that four more stories are on their way.

The Hound by HP Lovecraft

​This ghastly tale of two tomb raiders marks the very first appearance of Lovecraft’s infamous forbidden book, Necronomicon.

Two seemingly low life robbers, St. John and the narrator, who shares this vile interest in defiling centuried graves for logical pelfs, goes to Netherlands (literally!) to excavate/rob an ancient ghoul. Though their nocturnal expedition is repeatedly disturbed by bayings of a hound in background, they unearth an old jaded amulet(semi canine faced) with sinister inscriptions that can be traced to those of old Arab daemonologist, Abdul Alhazred. Pulling it from the eerily fresh and torn carcass of ghoul, they flee home with the souvenir. With it came strange sounds and happenings.

‘the expression on its features was repellent in the extreme, savouring at once of death, bestiality and malevolence’

Narrative took a turn from there, atleast for me. The classic horror storyline that my mind had framed from this halfway reading wasn’t able to reduce the engaging experience. Initial reluctant first person account suggestedthe grave excavations not being a profession of choice, but lack of options. I was wrong to judge that. As story progressed the complex and perverse nature of narrator and St. John’s relationship brought a new outlook to the happenings. For once, the narrator felt somewhat reliable to me. Though their deeper obsession towards occult and their own reculse cult of necrophilia suggested otherwise, I was inclined to read them with Lovecraft’s life and company(thanks to Paul La Farge’s Night Ocean); and to focus more on ‘material constants’ of the story than perceptions of narrator. Also it would be safe to admit that much of my thoughts changed after finishing the story.

apologies for this unholy comparison

The ending, now that I think back, shared a strong resemblance with my first lovecraftian tale ‘The Dagon‘ and I couldn’t help but read it along with his opening line from The Call of Cthulhu, “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents“. The more I thought about the hound, the more it started to appear like the bed rock for modern cursed artifact adventures(ignoring the crude morale) from Indiana Jones to Nathan Drake, mostly due to my limited reading. After expedition experience and narrator’s paranoia held strong resemblances with that of Truant and even Zampano from House of Leaves, with the foreign languages and sense of haunting. My mind went a step further and somehow made a vampirish connection with Lovecraft‘s ‘The Alchemist‘, thanks to the baroque descriptions, and that grisly second grave encounter. 

Nevertheless, terror inscribed in the writing made the story all the more atmospheric if not a bit Poe-esque. Or like Howard might say, ‘it’s a charnel premise of abhorrence and cosmicism‘ . 

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki

18465566This beautiful graphic novel is a slice of life in its literal sense; the whole thing seems to have been sliced off from a bigger plot. Artwork is dream like, its overall cheerful, monochromatic and yet somehow very colourful.

Book vaguely deals with family drama, depression, teenage angst, love, friendship and the likes. But none of them forms the main theme, they are just there, laid out in open. The characters, happenings, premise and the illustrations, feel very natural and thereby are refreshing to a great extend. Story has nothing compelling to offer, in fact, the sense of more to be said and done prevails during the narrative. Still, somehow, I didn’t want to let go of it.

one last summer

In artwork and paneling style, the book reminded me of Craig Thompson’s Blankets. It was very cinematic in depiction; some pages were solely dedicated for character sketch and in that black and white environment, absence of colours didn’t handicap it from transferring emotions. If you like those feel good simple movies, which revolve around silly incidents, roughly toughing through complex topics, this may be for you. If you are a reserved person with inclination for a well structured work with proper pacing and conclusion, prepare to be disappointed. Whatever be the case, artwork will be compensatory for the effort.

Book in itself is the ‘summer’ vacation, that one has to part with in time, with the takeaway of experiences and memories to cherish. And that act both as critique and praise for this novel.

A Descent into Maelstorm by Edgar Alan Poe and Maelstorm II by Arthur C Clarke

A Descent into Maelstorm by Edgar Alan Poe

A-Descent-Into-the-Maelstrom-SDL174885084-1-b9b8cTianming‘s Fairy Tales from Death’s End bought me to this 1884 born extended grandfather of science fiction.

In this proto science fiction story, Poe’s Narrator recalls his miraculous escape from a whirlpool(Moskstraumen), with chilling accounts of his terror and helplessness against natural forces. But instead of succumbing to the morbidness, narrator tries to make sense of the danger he is in, with reason, hence the sci fi / math fi categorization. Readers do have the usual incentive and freedom to consider this as a horror story in conventional sense, or to question the reliability of narration, with its prevailing story inside a story structure.

O_AlexandreSerrano_Maelstrom_5b.gifPoe even star notes an Archimedian work (obviously fake), as his reference material for floating body dynamics in fluid vortex. Still, I somehow kept expecting some weird supernatural or unknown horror from Nordland, till the last word, like in Algernon‘s Willows of Danube.

——

Maelstorm II by Arthur C Clarke

This short is Clarke’s space homage for Poe’s proto sci-fi survival story A Descent Into the Maelstorm. Due to some electric failure on launch rail, the freight catapult is handicapped from attaining lunar escape velocity and Cliff Leyland, the sole passenger on board is stranded on moon. While he is contemplating on life, universe and everything, Ground Station engineers a daring escape plan that could turn his hair white.

tumblr_om8bbzO7ta1r2aobgo1_r1_500.gifFor some reason, Clarke’s agrarian reminded me more of Weir’s Watney than Poe’s fisherman in this brief space caste away. The short story can be found in the compilation edition –The Wind from the Sun.

And it is undoubtedly one of his best.

The Light of Other Days by Bob Shaw

bob-shaw-other-days-other-eyesThis short story is centered around Slow Glass- a futuristic glass that slows down light passing through it, there by enabling people to save old memories and places in them, like a live painting. The story deals with human emotions, sense of loss and art of letting go; than the implications of slow glass on a global scale.

Refraction_photoSlow Glass sounds like a realistic sci fi plot, something that might​ happen in future, though I am an absolute dummy on how. Maybe a futuristic metamaterial with tinkered refractive index. Light traverse differently through different medium and refractive index(the ratio of the velocity of light in a vacuum to its velocity in a specified medium) is the property of the material that determines its propagation. With a metamaterial of negative refractive index and stuff, the slowing down of light is probable. The science I postulated above is very primitive and probably a weird explanation as I mostly flunked my masters, yet keyword searches would help you pelt along.

If you strain yourself a little more, slow glass is an earthbound black domain, an escape strategy explained in Death’s End that involves slowing the speed of light below solar system’s escape velocity and thereby creating a hypothetical shrouded Dyson sphere for humanity to escape to . Though spoiled midway, this short story will leave an everlasting impact on you.

————–

“Light of Other Days” is the title of a 1966 Hugo– and Nebula-nominated short story by Bob Shaw. It was incorporated into a novel in 1972, Other Days, Other Eyes, which also dealt with issues of surveillance and privacy. The title for both the novel and the short story is drawn from the poem “Light of Other Days” by Thomas Moore.

It was also developed into a novel under same name by Stephen Baxter based on a synopsis by Arthur C. Clarke

Death’s End by Cixin Liu

DeathsEnd_titleDeath’s End is by far the darkest, longest and the most expansive of three books and is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, but in its own terms. When you wrap your head around the scope of this cosmic saga and ruminate on it like the title says, the intricately engineered story line, where everything was seeded in with careful future consideration, feels all the more epic.

While the 3BP opened with Red revolution and Dark Forest with detailed scanning of Chinese alphabets, Death’s End prefaced on a more familiar non eastern account – the fall of Constantinople. This western centric or rather international approach was a prevailing characteristic of the narrative, though story kept transcending inter gallactically. Wake of the novel is the failure of deterrence between Earth and Trisolaris under the new ‘sword-holder’ Cheng Xin, a female rocket scientist, and humanity’s efforts to evade annihilation in the Dark Forest universe. ‘The Staircase project’ is the first brain child out of this desperation, which sends a human brain for Trisolaris to intercept. Like the propagation mechanism of staircase project, readers are taken through the splintered timeline of Universe’s history, via main protagonist’s hibernation cycles, with divulged informations and throwbacks to previous legacies.

I didn’t have much patience after Liu’s direct reference to Bester-‘The Stars our Destination’ project, and my initial taking a sip of the book got elevated into full course dinner. Destruction of 187J3X1 by Luo Ji’s spell reminded me of Clarke’s Star, the Twilight Zone version in Dark Forest and original interpretation in this installment. The message in the bottle and unfolding of Universe from Garden of Eden state were reminiscent of The Last Question, though not directly referenced. Jovian space stations resembled Cooper Station of Interstellar or Rama in construction, and Liu traced it as far back as Poe’s Maelstrom. The initial existential questions of how natural nature is, and how much life has structured the universe offered interesting pov’s to the way we usually see things. The beauty of Liu’s writing was incorporation of all its Gordian knots into a comprehensive narrative, with invitation to view them from both sides of the equation. The obvious setback of this centenarian narrative was neglect for infos on galactic humans or decision making of humanity or relationships where the previous installments did well. And though imparted with understandable metaphors and detailing, much of book’s science felt like expositions.
tumblr_nxts9ykV9n1unyz5qo1_500
For a book about higher dimensions, characters were a bit 2D. I actually prefer story/idea driven book where plots are way bigger than characters, but here, Cheng Xin and AA had little flesh on them. Unlike Ye Wenjie or Luo Ji, who propelled the plot, Cheng Xni felt like a badly written trope with a cardboard sidekick, whose sole existence was to provide a narrative perspective. Acknowledging the sheer scale of story might be one way to evade this, for the Deterrence, Bunker and Galaxy Eras were highly different from Crisis Era of previous installments, which shared a lot with the CE we are in, both in terms of science and events. But the pity I felt for Xin’s mother like attitude to hang in and avoid risk probabilities, changed eventually after getting through the brand new universe, brand new life concept. Like the first person who send out the message towards Trisolaris out of her frustration towards cultural revolution, one cannot blame Xin solely for her decisions without considering the circumstances and cultural eras she was in. Like Yifan puts it “A single individual cannot destroy a world. If that world was doomed, it was the result of the efforts of everyone, including those living and those who had already died”.

Tianming’s fairy tales deserves a special mention, for if read individually, they are quite Hugo worthy. Though well elucidated later, Liu urges readers to form a educated view, along with characters trying to debunk it. The metaphors in the story made great sense and offered an enriching experience on possible evasion strategies for humanity with black domain, curvature travel or using laws of physics as weapons, when revisited after finishing the book.

renaissanceI couldn’t help but look back and wonder how perfectly titled the books in this were. In this retrospection, the title of trilogy, is all the more spectacular. Though the immediate response would be to attribute it with Cheng Xin’s ‘a past outside of time’ epitaph, Liu has been remembering or paying homage to epochal moments of Earth’s past as we know it, as well. The Great Ravine was a visible metaphor for Industrialization and Renaissance in general, Dark Forest deterrence stood for the nuclear stalemate and cold war history, Resettlement of humanity in Australia represented colonialism and genealogical migration. Sophones standing for Totalitarian regimes and welfare states, and the whole Trisolaran thing offering existential questions in Theocracy, were few other accounts where I suspected philosophical implications. The multitudes of universe was staggering as well, offering unlimited possibilities of ideas and persons, like diversity within a civilization, and in this grand scale Death itself wasn’t any fair or an ending for that matter.

3BP and The Dark Forest were slow burners for me, which I savoured over considerable time, but Death’s End hit me like a Trisolaran droplet. There was a part of me that wanted the darkness to be done with, and another part that couldn’t put the book down due to the cliffhangers and constantly mind blowing concepts. And, towards the end of the read, I found myself more eager to interpret the light at the end of tunnel as a speeding train than rescue dawn.

“The ultimate fate of all intelligent beings has always been to become as grand as their thoughts.”

Considering ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ series, Cixin Liu is more close to this ultimate fate, by vacillating his ideas with probability and game theory, urging readers to think scientifically while constantly blowing their mind off.


Three Body Problem

The Dark Forest