Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Archive for July, 2010

Inception: Movie Review

Posted by Ronak M Soni on July 19, 2010

Originally published at PassionforCinema.


Inception (2010), written and directed by Christopher Nolan

Memorable Cast: Leonardo di Caprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe and Cilian Murphy

Plot: Dreams and espionage. The details are not important.

Note: A depressing lack of spoilers abounds below.

Even a day after having watched Inception, I’m not entirely sure how much I liked it. I mean, if you asked me to recommend it or not, I would say that it’s certainly not bad, but not really good either. The problem is, I don’t know what I liked and what I didn’t.

For me, this has been the sort of reaction every one of Nolan’s movies, except Batman Begins — as cut into 4:3 by HBO –, has elicited. While I liked Memento and its structure, the denouement left me strangely underwhelmed, in all probability because we hae the choice completely explained for us when it was completely obvious. Besides, I never really understood how a structure as clean as the one we see is supposed to simulate the feelings of one suffering from short term memory loss (in fact, I would say that I felt that sort of confusion much more strongly in reaction to Surya’s dementedness in the Tamil Gajini, though that performance in many ways makes less sense than Guy Pearce’s). While I thought of The Dark Knight as a good action movie, I always found it hollow in that it didn’t seem to have a morality of its own; again, I’m not sure if this was a good thing. Further, with my recent comic-renaissance, I understood that it wasn’t even a very good representation of the Batman mythos.

So, first thing about Inception, it isn’t anything too smart; as far as the fantastic elements are concerned, the plot isn’t grounded in any larger significance, it’s completely literal (and brainless), and as science fiction, it is chock-full of ideas for good ideas, but the good ideas never blossom, not really.

Second thing, Inception is actually two movies, both rather clichéd, one of which ambles over and plonks its arse on the climax of the other one in a strongly unsavoury manner. The first movie is a straightforward, brainless, and ultimately enjoyable thriller. The second is a somewhat fascinating exploration of the dangers of the dream-mythos Nolan creates. The problem with this one is that it depends on psychology, and Nolan’s writing of the psychology is too clean, too full of Hollywood staples. This is why it is only “somewhat” fascinating. In fact, the only reason it is at all fascinating is di Caprio’s heartfelt and affecting performance.

Third thing, its final shot has an ambiguity that is both emotionally wrong as well as too on-the-nose, in that it only tells us something that’s been obvious for a while (thanks to some shot-mirroring with as early scene, but Nolan seems to think of that as too subtle).

Now that I have given the movie a proper beating over the head, let me tell you that on a moment-to-moment basis, I enjoyed it immensely. I loved, for example, seeing Ellen Page bend a city over itself in di Caprio’s “subconscious” or Joseph Gordon-Levitt… eh, just the guy. The only times I stopped enjoying myself while watching the movie was when it referred to good ideas, or when it looked as if it was heading for a good idea but crash-landed in the desert. To be sure, there were very many of the latter sort of moments, but in general I enjoyed watching it.

In the end, however, I think that Inception’s most important contribution to the film world is to the superhero genre. Rather, its criticism. Now, whenever someone’s angry about Spider-man in a movie, they know exactly who to name in the present actor’s place: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Of course, the ideal Spider-man would be much bulkier, but since in the present climate that is about as likely as Michael Bay making a great animated Batman movie, I look to the supremely flexible, supremely suave and supremely smart Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I can’t find a video of Gordon-Levitt’s fight scene thanks to which I say this, but the choreography of that fight is nothing less than awesome. Meanwhile, you’ll have to be content with this still:


Posted in Movie Reviews, Movies, Nolan, Christopher | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

“The assembled company were elyctrified.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on July 5, 2010

Book Cover: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Click to look inside

The principle difficulty with writing about China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is that one can’t even begin to describe the plot. To even say more than a vague paragraph would be ruining the book; unlike other books, the parts that can be spoiled don’t start when there are fifty pages left in the book, but when you are fifty pages into the book.

And, by Murphy’s Law, it is practically inevitable that in any self-respecting book of this sort, the characters will be so radically different by the end of the book that any description of the parts a reviewer is allowed to reveal will feel hollow and incomplete to the reviewer.

So, what am I allowed to say? There’s a suggestively named renegade scientist called Isaac who lives in a fantasy city called New Crobuzon. He is having an affair with a bug-headed woman, belonging to a race called the khepri, called Lin, who is a sculptor. One day, he is approached by a garuda — garudas are a human-shaped, bird-featured race of xenians (a term for all non-human sentient beings in Miéville’s world) —  called Yagharek, whose wings have been cut-off. Yagharek wants to fly again, and came to Isaac because he has heard that Isaac is something of a genius. Isaac accepts the commission. And then things spin out of control. LibraryThing lists twenty-six important characters, and I feel as if I have intimate knowledge of all of them; and let’s not forget, that list itself is a spoiler.

So, I’ll try to talk about the book trying to stay away from its characters and plot, as impossible as that is.

And, before I launch into a discussion — listing might be a more appropriate word in this case — of the book’s themes and concerns, let me make an interesting observation: the beginning of Chapter One of this book has been practically plagiarised by Vikram Chandra for the beginning of his Sacred Games, which I wrote about here. Of course, knowing Chandra, it’s significantly more likely that he’s trying to use it to make a point, albeit one that I can’t see.

Finally, we come to the book and what I thought of it. Let me begin by saying that I have little or no conception of Miéville’s vision, or even some random vision that I can feel comfortable ascribing to Miéville. Also, I don’t blame this on him; he obviously has something truly awesome in mind, so awesome that I’m too stupid to see it. But, if I had to say something at gunpoint, I would say that this book is about separation and unification, not of the physical kind but of the kind that happens in our minds. Of course, one must note that this leaves at least one major plot element and one other major aspect pf the book unexplained.

Isaac grabbed a pencil and wrote words at the three points of the triangle. He turned the diagram to face Yagharek. The top point was labelled Occult/thaumaturgical; the bottom left Material; the bottom right Social/sapiential.

“Righto, now, don’t get too bogged down with this diagram, Yag old son, it’s supposed to be an aid to thought, nothing more. What you’ve got here is a depiction of the three points within which all scholarship, all knowledge, is located.

“Down here, there’s material. That’s the actual physical stuff, atoms and the like. Everything from fundamental femtoscopic particles like elyctrons, up to big fuck-off volcanos. Rocks, elyctromagnetism, chymical reaction . . . All that sort of thing.

“Opposite, that’s social. Sentient creatures, of which there’s no shortage on Bas-Lag, can’t just be studied like stones. By reflecting on the world and on their own reflections, humans and garuda and cactacae and whatnot create a different order of organization, right? So it’s got to be studied in its own terms—but at the same time it’s also obviously linked to the physical stuff that makes everything up. That’s what this nice line is here, connecting the two.

“Up top is occult. Now we’re cooking. Occult: ‘hidden.’Takes in the various forces and dynamics and the like that aren’t just to do with physical bits and bobs interacting, and aren’t just the thoughts of thinkers. Spirits, dæmons, gods if you want to call them that, thaumaturgy . . . you get the idea. That’s up at that end. But it’s linked to the other two. First off, thaumaturgic techniques, invocation, shamanism and so on, they all affect—and are affected by—the social relations that surround them. And then the physical aspect: hexes and charms are mostly the manipulation of theoretical particles—the ‘enchanted particles’— called thaumaturgons. Now, some scientists—” he thumped his chest “—think they’re essentially the same sort of thing as protons and all the physical particles.

“This . . .” said Isaac slyly, his voice slowing right down, “is where stuff gets really interesting.

“If you think of any arena of study or knowledge, it lies somewhere in this triangle, but not squarely on one corner. Take sociology, or psychology, or xenthropology. Pretty simple, right? It’s down here, in the ‘Social’ corner? Well, yes and no. That’s definitely its closest node, but you can’t study societies without thinking about the questions of physical resources. Right? So straight away, the physical aspect is kicking in. So we have to move sociology along the bottom axis a little bit.” He slid his finger a fraction of an inch to the left. “But then, how can you understand,
say, cactacae culture without understanding their solar-focus, or khepri culture without their deities, or vodyanoi culture without understanding shamanic channelling? You can’t,” he concluded triumphantly. “So we have to shift things up towards the occult.” His finger moved a little, accordingly.

“So that’s roughly where sociology and psychology and the like are. Bottom right-hand corner, little bit up, little bit along.

“Physics? Biology? Should be right over by material sciences, yeah? Only, if you say that biology has an effect on society, the reverse is also true, so biology’s actually a tiny bit to the right of the ‘Material’ corner. And what about the flight of wind-polyps? The feeding of soul trees? That stuff’s occult, so we’ve moved it again, up this time. Physics includes the efficacy of certain substances in thaumaturgic hexes. You take my point? Even the most ‘pure’ subject’s actually somewhere between the three.

“Then there’s a whole bunch of subjects that define themselves by their mongrel nature. Socio-biology? Halfway along the bottom and a little bit up. Hypnotology? Halfway up the right flank. Social/psychological and occult, but with a bit of brain chymistry thrown in, so that’s over a bit . . .”

Isaac’s diagram was now covered in little crosses where he located the various disciplines. He looked at Yagharek and drew a neat, final, careful x in the very centre of the triangle.

“Now what are we looking at right here? What’s bang in the middle?
“Some people think that’s mathematics there. Fine. But if maths is the study that best allows you to think your way to the centre, what’re the forces you’re investigating? Maths is totally abstract, at one level, square roots of minus one and the like; but the world is nothing if not rigorously mathematical. So this is a way of looking at the world which unifies all the forces: mental, social, physical.

I apologise for the length of the excerpt, but it is necessary for my purposes. Anyway, readers who have read a more than insignificant amount of fantasy will be somewhat surprised: it is exceedingly rare for a book’s world to include magic in its scientific system. In general, magic is treated, in fantasy, as fantastical and, in science fiction, as either non-existent or explainable using more conventional science. Perdido Street Station is, in fact, the first book I’ve ever read that looks at magic with the eye of a writer of science fiction. And, because this is too conventional a goal for Miéville, he also looks at his science through the more abstract lens of the city the book is set in (Perdido Street Station is the center of New Crobuzon), and — in the form of silently yet surely ascribing Perdido Street Station and another area called simply The Ribs as points of power — uses a fantastical metaphor for his city as a living, breathing organism.

But this trichotomy of science fiction, fantasy and city fiction is only the simplest and most general of all the separations Miéville breaks, and that’s forgetting the separations he creates. Probably the most important example of the latter is in what he does with consciousness.

And his dreams of unification aren’t that of just treating one or two sets of disparate, connected elements; the method he uses for unification that is at least as important in this book as the first-level method of insight and imagination is unification by treatment in this book. In fact, if I believed that mine was a complete understanding of this book, I would confidently say that the only reason he stopped his book was that he had to, an illustration of problematic my incomplete understanding is even without thinking too much about the book itself.

It really is interesting how much he does with this general idea. We have inroads into politics and economics, a re-invention of physics, a love story (?), questions about justice, questions about prejudice in a multiethnic city, questions about identity when one leaves one’s roots, ideas about cities, peoples and the relation between cities and their people, death, all handled somehow or the other with this basic template. And let me tell you, that list came out of one brainstorm; further sessions will certainly reveal more.

Unexplained Aspects

It turns out that at least two of the major aspects unexplained by my theory of unificationa and separation are allowed here.

The first would be the epigraph:

“I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.”

-Philip K. Dick, We Can Build You

It only relates to a rather small number of the aspects of this book. Two explanations are possible. The first would be that the name of the book is important, for that would greatly increase the amount of relation that the quote has to the book. The second is that Miéville is using this quote to elevate the importance of the city as a world, specifically a world encapsulating the aspects of this book. However, both explanations feel hollow and rationalised, and that’s forgetting that the first one is rather inadequate.

The second thing that I can’t explain is the language. I’ve already mentioned that Miéville reinvents physics for his world, but what I have before now failed to mention is that he seems to be doing something similar with language. In most fantasies, it is safe to assume that as long as it isn’t our world, it’s not our language. That is certainly true of New Crobuzon, whose human language is called Ragamoll. Other fantasy writers I’ve read who are especially interested in language, notably J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan, prefer to create their own arcane languages and translate the common one into standard English, giving only space for style. Miéville, however, carries over a lot of Ragamoll into his ‘translation.’ For example, the word ‘elyctrified’ in the title of this review (which, incidentally, would also describe rather well a group reading this book together), among other slightly changed words. Another example is the vocabulary. Vocabulary changes from time to time, words go in and out of vogue, and so on. The words in vogue in translated Ragamoll include such… urm… arcana as ‘salubrious,’ ‘ostentatious’ and ‘tenacious.’ Common enough words, but their counts in the book range in the double digits, which isn’t exactly normal. I don’t have much of a grasp over liguistics, so more than an aspect that I can’t explain, it’s an aspect I don’t understand.

Now that you’ve seen a fraction of the reasons the last two thousand words were meandering, pointless bullshit, it’s time to tell you how brilliant the writing is. In many ways, it’s structured like an action thriller. Especially in the parts that are the most science fiction heavy.

In the science-y parts, the writing is straightforward enough, and the ideas are amazing enough to make life such that you don’t breathe for a while (and eventually have to stop for a while because the world’s gone black all of a sudden).

But it is in the action parts where the prose shows its face from behind the content and gains a life of its own. I would love to quote one (and practically double the amount that I’m asking you to read), but it’s been over two thousand words, so I’ll just describe to you what makes it so breathtaking. Miéville doesn’t just describe the action, with a periodic interjection that “time went slow.” No, for his characters, and therefore for his readers too, time does go slow. Snail-pace. We aren’t told “he went and stabbed the damn thing;” we are told the exact place he reached after every agonising step leading up to the stabbing.

To be sure, I described using a straw man, but I’m just trying to illustrate a point; if other writers slow down to half-speed, Miéville slows down to tenth speed. Literally.

And I haven’t even told you about the times the action is an illustration of ideas, and how, by the end, you’re left fully comfortable with not one of the characters, but you’re still have with them complete emotional involvement, making it emotionally cathartic in the extreme.

To conclude, I’ll quote Jerry Seinfeld, “Big boom! Big, bada boom!!”

A couple of things before you go:

If you do decide to read this book, and I do highly recommend it, please try and read the 2003 Del Rey edition (ISBN 978-0345459404), which I read it in. For one, it is really small and cheap, which distracts from the fact that the book is over six hundred pages long, not to mention the pleasure you get when you realise how much you actually have left of it. Second, it has the feel of pulp of the sort that originated the name, which very nicely supplements the book. And finally, none of the other English covers seem to really understand this book and its atmosphere (even this one doesn’t really, but at least it gets the colours right).

I thank shigekuni and Jayaprakash for recommending it to me.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Miéville, China | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments »

“The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick, casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on July 2, 2010 and Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts and an Epilogue, by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Foreword by Richard Pevear

“I’m convinced that many people in Petersburg talk to themselves as they walk. This is a city of half-crazy people. If we had any science, then physicians, lawyers, and philosophers could do the most valuable research on Petersburg, each in his own field. One seldom finds a place where there are so many gloomy, sharp, and strange influences on the soul of man as in Petersburg. The climatic influences alone are already worth something! And at the same time this is the administrative center of the whole of Russia, and its character must be reflected in everything.”

-Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is about a natural disaster, a massive, thunderous clash roaring in the skies above, and streets below, the hallowed city of St. Petersburg; it is about the clash between two worlds, the world of Dostoevsky’s inhuman masterpiece the Underground Man and the world of the city of St. Petersburg.

“I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.”

-Philp K. Dick, We Can Build You. Found in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station

St. Petersburg, more commonly known as Petersburg, was an important symbol in Notes from Underground; it was a city that had been completely planned, an utterly unnatural organism, but an organism nonetheless. How such a city lives was, in fact, a wonderment central to the previous book, as central as the man/mouse duality that Underground Man (still one of my favourite characters in all of fiction) talks about in this passage:

if, for example, one takes the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of heightened consciousness, who came, of course, not from the bosom of nature but from a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect that, too), this retort man sometimes folds before his antithesis so far that he honestly regards himself, with all his heightened consciousness, as a mouse and not a man. A highly conscious mouse, perhaps, but a mouse all the same, whereas here we have a man, and consequently . . . and so on . . . And, above all, it is he, he himself, who regards himself as a mouse; no one asks him to; and that is an important point.

One of the central conceits of C&P is basically that these two concerns are in reality one and the same, that the breaching of one of the concerns (the edict againt action) results in a breach of the other (Petersburg).

All my readers, I’m guessing, know – or at least have a vague idea – that the story tells of the murder that a young man called Rodyon Romanovych Raskolnikov commits, and its aftermath.

The book, on the other hand, tells of tensions; tensions between four of the five central characters, tensions born not out of everyday mundanities such as plot but out of ideologies, which one might even without much hesitation call philosophies (and they have been called as such by others, under various names, like nihilism, existentialism and objectivism), tensions so complex that any attempt to recount them will double, maybe even triple, the length of this essay.

The first thing that struck me as I started reading the book was that Raskolnikov was, in fact, Underground Man. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong, but then I couldn’t have been more right either. See, Raskolnikov is the man Underground Man once was, and the book is nothing but the tale of his transformation into that which Underground Man could have been, if only he had acted.

For, truly, if Notes from Underground was along the lines of a tragic morality play in which the central puzzle for the reader was to but name our character, Crime and Punishment is the play which an angry viewer wrote in criticism, yet admiration, of the original writer; in admiration of the vision of the first writer, but in angry, scared, criticism of the fate to which the vision is assigned.

There is so much more I would like to say about this marvellous, but that, as I’ve already mentioned, will exponentially increase the size of this essay. And that is why, dear readers, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment will be the subject of my first blog series, in which spoilers will truly abound, as I discuss each aspect of the story in minute, loving detail. Call it an essay in six parts and an epilogue, with an attached foreword.

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Why post-modernists have better sex (and other such post-post-modernist felonies)

Posted by Ronak M Soni on July 1, 2010

[Health Warning] I won’t say why it’s here though, just so that curiosity can kill you, CAT!

“Mwuha hahaha,” he’d said, as if all his actions had been just “evil,” not really evil.

Here we had a young man — a boy even — who wished to be taken seriously. What do you suggest we do with him? Hah, yes, a good suggestion, sir, and very good you whispered it to me! And what do you, sir, suggest? Yes, you, you brainless victim of modernity who purports to be a reader!

Mwuha hahaha. Mwuha HAHAHA! “Mwuha hahaha” was the scourge of the earth, “mwuha hahaha” was why post-modernists had better sex…

“You are a post-modernist, fuck-ass,” said he, coming in.

Me? No I’m a post-post-modernist!

At this point, I suggest we zoom out of the (deliberately engrossing) dialogue and have a look at our movement-ridden [prot]agonist. Well, here he is, a smile across his face, his arms spread and his eyes closed, what with the fright that would show otherwise.

“Reverse reverse psychology is still a type of reverse psychology.”

Post- is not a negatory suffix, you … YOU!

“Yea, you guys deserve to be called non-nodernists anyway.”

Seriously, you need to right now stop fucking around with ‘n’s and ‘m’s.

“What? Dostoevsky did it!”

No, he nicknamed …

“I can hear your thoughts, you lifeless turd.”

Only when I articulate them.

Right? Right?

He smiled, “.”

But how is it possible to hear what is not in words?

Again, let us zoom out, and look at the face of a man contemplating the idea of perfect communication… while I go out for a coffee.

Posted in My Own Fiction, Prose | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »