Book Review – Perdido Street Station

Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj

It’s a fairly well-known fact to anybody who’s read this blog that I’m poorly read, and that fact has always been something I’ve been trying to change (not going to be much of a writer if you haven’t read anything). So with the aim of developing a reading habit, I decided to start picking up books I’d always wanted to read but had never bought, waiting for that mythical
‘someday’ when I would be in a relaxed mental state to kick back and read a bit. ‘Someday’ turned out to be when I walked by the Fantasy section in Kinokuniya and spotted a paperback of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station recently, not horrendously overpriced as books in Dubai tend to be, and picked it up. Instead of relegating it to the bookshelf like several previous purchases, I cracked the thick tome open and started reading the second I got home.

Perdido Street Station is a book I have been hearing about almost since it first came out in 2000, mostly through the lavish praise and the awards & nominations it was starting to rack up back then. Online friends raved about it (What? My real life friends, and read? Not bloody likely), and I’d hear it or Miéville’s name mentioned every now and then, so it was rarely out of my mind. Alas, I almost never saw it sitting on a shelf at any bookstore I frequented, and nine years passed before I picked it up (there are far too many unread books sitting in my house for me to even dare open up the Pandora’s Box that is easy online shopping, so I tend to limit myself to retail, brick-and-mortar purchases). And in all that time I managed to glean very little about the plot, other than that it was set in a strange, highly detailed Victorian-era steampunk-style city on a world called Bas-Lag.

That city, New Crobuzon, is at the very heart of Perdido Street Station. It permeates every page, described in loving (and often excessive) detail by Miéville. But such is the baroque style of the book’s prose, and as an exercise in worldbuilding it is a sumptuous, if indulgent treat (no wonder there’s a New Crobuzon-set RPG in the works). From the mysterious Glasshouse, home of the Cactacae plant people, to The Ribs — literally the towering bones of some long-demised creature — to the leviathan-like presence of the station itself, and all points in-between, New Crobuzon is a gloomy, rotting hulk of a city. An old city where life just seems to keep on chugging. It becomes less a setting and more a character in itself, its various burroughs and neighbourhoods forming a weird anatomy on which its protaginists and antagonists scurry like insects, rather than inhabit, scarcely in control of events and the city’s whims.

We get to know some of the city through the eyes of Yagharek, a garuda (roughly a bird-man — the name comes from Hindu mythology) from the far desert of the Cymek, who has come to New Crobuzon seeking the solution to a peculiar problem that afflicts him. He zeroes in on the scientist Isaac Dan de Grimnebulin, a maverick, his head brimming with ideas of tapping ‘crisis energy’. Isaac’s cricle of friends is similarly radical; anti-government magazine journalists like Derkhan, and his Khepri sculptor girlfriend Lin (she has a human’s body but the head of a scarab beetle). Isaac’s investigations into Yagharek’s problem inadvertantly leads to him unleashing a near-unstoppable, deadly force upon the city. With everyone from the shadowy government to drug-baron gangsters on his tail — and with the help of some very unusual allies — he must rid New Crobuzon of this threat.

You’d think that a plot as simple as this couldn’t possibly fill out seven hundred pages, and you’d be right. So much of the book is spent in worldbuilding, in laying down the structure of the city, the peculiarities of each neighbourhood (oddly enough they all end up sounding pretty-much the same, with only a little less or a little more gloom here and there), and the characteristics of its myriad non-human races, that the plot and the characters tend to get lost.

Frequently, a character will commute from one part of the city to another, and we get a long, detailed account of every area and lane and neighbourhood the person passed through to get there. After about the fifth time you start to glaze over. It often reminded me of a Monty Python sketch about train timings, but I don’t think Miéville is trying to be funny.

Actually, I’m pretty sure he isn’t trying to be funny, because this is possibly the most humourless novel I’ve ever read. On the surface of it, a book about ravenous flying beasties terrorising a city of weird fantasy folk should be funny, but I can’t for the life of me recall anything in the book that wasn’t meant to be taken in a deathly serious manner. Pretty-much everything in Bas-Lag is horrible, a lurid tabloid newspaper version of life, and this fact is repeatedly brow-beaten into the reader. It doesn’t matter if you forget how hot it’s supposed to be in the city, because there are going to be fifteen more times when the heat will be described — usually in very pretty sentences that should be blown up and stuck on a wall. And yet this enormous mudslide of style is employed in the service of what is the plot equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, and you end up scratching your head wondering, “Is that it?” By the time the plot has cleared away its considerable mountain of clutter, all that it amounts to is an action thriller with overegged production design.

It might be acceptable had Perdido Street Station billed itself as a straight thriller set in a well-decorated fantasy world, but the book tries very hard to seem important. It should be a treat: a book that folds hard Science Fiction and Fantasy with Literary Fiction, Dystopia, Steampunk, Clockpunk, Biopunk and perhaps more variations of punk that I’m not even aware of into one big, juicy steak of a tome — but like most dishes that play with too many ingredients, it just ends up an indifferent heap.

Every interesting thread that you think is going somewhere — Isaac’s crisis engine, the weird Mr. Motley — are turned into the most facile of MacGuffins and deus ex machina solutions later on. So maybe Miéville has some grand plan to use all of these elements ten books down the line (two more Bas-Lag set books have already been released, The Scar & Iron Council) but really, do I need any of this information right now? No, of course not.

There are moments when I really wanted to love Perdido Street Station. Every now and then a beautifully-wrought passage or sequence would make me smile, but then there would be another five pages of how much grime that bit of the city had, or how polluted the river was. And then some bits just made my eyes glaze over; there’s a mid-air fight between flying monsters and people flying in pairs strapped to each other’s backs that was complicated enough without trying to remember what a Sinsitral and a Dextral was, and why I should care.

And caring is something I never did for the protagonists either; whom, despite all the text devoted to their actions (and which route they took through which lane & over which bridge to get there), I barely felt I knew as people. They do a lot, and talk a lot, but even I wasn’t sure even they believed any of it. And then there’s the ending, where suddenly everyone who had no problem killing folk left right and centre up until that point suddenly took the moral high ground on things (like I said, Michael Bay movie).

It’s a shame to come to the end of a seven hundred page book, a book of great ideas and occasional beauty, and then conclude that you probably shouldn’t have bothered, but that’s exactly how I felt. Perdido Street Station has everything a fan of speculative fiction could want, from clockwork robots & quantum mechanics to wizards and brain-drinking beasties.

And all of it just seems far less than the sum of its parts.

Section of Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj


This post was included in Book Review Blog Carnival #32. Check it out for more great book review links!

A Short Return to Writing Fiction

Click here for the PDF
I‘ve been trying to get back to writing fiction for a long, long time now. In fact, I’ve spent more time trying than I did actively writing fiction from 2000-2003. It’s not that there’s a dearth of ideas or that I have suddenly lost the ability to string two sentences together, quite the opposite. In the past six years there have been short stories that turned into long stories, long stories that didn’t go anywhere; several aborted novels, even more never begun; scripts and outlines and treatments and everything in between, but not a thing among them has been finished.

Well, today that changed. If only in a small way.

Giving myself the most miniscule of writing deadlines — five hundred whole words — and the challenge of trying to fit an entire story with a beginning, middle & end in that space, I set out. Instead of attempting an isolated scene or a standard flash fiction short, I thought I’d try and stretch my muscles. Could I possibly condense an entire action thriller novel into 500 words? Would it read as anything more than an outline? Would it just be a gimmick and nothing more?

Well, you tell me. Click on the image above or here to download a PDF of the short story/micronovel Pendragon. I’ve released the story on a Creative Commons License, so feel free to pass on the PDF file via email or the link to this page to anyone you think may be interested in reading.

I’m fairly satisfied with the way Pendragon has turned out. I don’t think it quite achieves the ambitious ‘novel in 500 words’ goal I set for it, but it does have a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps in one thousand words I would have been able to squeeze in as many thrills & spills as the average airport thriller.

But you can be assured of two things. One: I am back to writing fiction (and soon, in ways that are bigger than you might think).

And, two: Dirk Cleft will return!


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Book Excerpt Tag Meme

I was preparing the photos for this week’s Ten Rupee Book Club post when I remembered that Dan was tagged with this meme, and I hadn’t done it yet. The Rules:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people and post a comment here once you post it to your blog so I can come see!

Now, having not just one but seven at hand posed something of a problem. They were all technically ‘nearest’ to me, and all but one of them had enough pages to satisfy criterion no. 2. None of the books had the same problem Maija encountered with Good Omens either, so I was stuck. Having to look through them for the book post anyway, I figured I’d do quotes from all seven books, subsituting a quote from page 12 rather than 123 from the one that was slim. Consider this a teaser for the whole post (which should be done by tomorrow). Here goes:

1. Our Friend the Atom

“Before Biologists had tracer-atoms it was difficult for them to study living organisms. To do this they had to kill their test animals, and test plants had to be cut up. With tracer-atoms they can now study the living body in action.”

(On tracer atoms and their uses in food science)

2. Paracelsus: Magic into Science

“One was the most balanced mind of his time, scrupulously weighing each word, the other a mystic, rash of judgement and fond of speculation. The one lived with books, the other considered life the only book of value. Necessarily their relations were cool.”

(On the differing characters of Erasmus and Paracelsus)

3. Penguin Science Survey 1965

(Unfortunately this is a table regarding a Orbiting Geophysical Observatory, but I’ll see what I can do)

“Stabilization and Attitude control

Weight (lb.): 138

Main body orientated towards earth and space.
Solar paddles point towards sun.
Inertial wheels, gas jets, horizon scanners and sun sensors.

4. Science: The Soviet Union, Today and Tomorrow

“Antitritium and Antihelium are substances of the anti-world, which existed only in science fiction until they were obtained with the help of the Serpukhov accelerator near Moscow. Georgi Flyorov’s laboratory is the birth place of elements 104, 105, 106 and 107 of the Mendeleyev Periodic Table, chemical elements unknown in nature. The list of such major scientific advances in the Soviet Union is a fairly long one.”

(This is from page 12 of the slim, mostly-pictures book)

5. Giants of Science

“Water is a compound of two gases, oxygen and hydrogen. This was too much to accept for the scientists of the day, one of whom said, “This arch magician so imposed on our credulity as to persuade us that water, the most powerful natural antiphlogistic we possess, is a compound of two gases, one of which surpasses all other substances in inflammability!”

(From the chapter on Antoine Laurent Lavoisier)

6. A New School Biology

“The achenes fall apart, and are dispersed by the action of the wind upon the awns. The fruit of many Compositae (a cypsela) bear an apical ring of fine hairs (the pappus) which enables them to be wind-dispersed. In the Dandelion a long pappus stalk develops as the fruit ripens, and this lifts the pappus above the top of the fruit.”

(From the Chapter, ‘Dispersal of Fruit and Seeds’)

7. The Experiment

“He imagined her lovely head dutifully bowed, as though praying, over a microscope, a long yellow lock of hair prettily swinging down beside the brass eyepiece, her impatient fingers combing the hair back, out of the way. He envisioned her as a shining Joan of Arc of science, unselfishly dedicated to a cause, tired to the bone but unflagging — stubbornly brave. He remembered the fair silken down on the slender nape of her neck and felt a sweet pang of lust mingled with pity.”

Come back soon for the next Ten Rupee Book Club post!

The Ten Rupee Book Club 001

Stack of Ten Rupee Books 001
Over the past five years I’ve been amassing an eclectic collection of cheap used books on my trips to Bombay. At Rs.10 apiece (around $0.25 US) they aren’t expensive or significant (most of them are, in fact, the very opposite), but they are valuable to me, insomuch as they are weird — and I love weird. I have read very few of them; Of the hundreds (and by now, thousands), I have only finished a handful. There have been plans ever since I started blogging to talk about them, to read and review them, but this has so far not happened.

I was reminded of this recently when Dan blogged about his bookshelf, and in the comments I lamented that most of my books were in boxes (he suggested I just take a picture of the box). “That’s it,” I said to myself, “enough dawdling!” I looked through a small box of them and chose seven — none of which I have read — but which I think are interesting. Maybe this will give me the impetus to actually read some, but for now I will talk of their weird and wonderful subjects, their pretty and often breathtaking covers, and their all-round coolness. I hope you find them as fun as I do.

A Bit of Background

Used Booksellers 01Used Booksellers 02
India has a huge English-speaking population, especially in the cities. In a culture that values education and knowledge as much as we do, it stands to reason that books and reading are still a significant part of life (at least among the urban middle class). So nothing is thrown away, old books move from private collections into small neighbourhood libraries where they get read by thousands of people over dozens of years, and eventually when they’re tattered and worn, or riddled with worm holes, they end up in raddi.

‘Raddi’ literally means ‘scrap’ and raddi merchants deal in paper and other valuable things like copper and metals. They buy in bulk by weight, and pick and sort things by hand into various piles in their usually hole-in-the-wall shops. The loose paper ends up in things like newsprint, and single-side printed matter is cut and bound into cheap notepads, while some of it even ends up as sandwich wrapping from roadside vendors. It’s a fun game to read the scrap on which you get your sandwich; usually it’s some kind of internal documents from companies — memos and letters and photocopied invoices — and sometimes it’s even old school textbooks (which are crap anyway, so no big loss).


The books, however, are kept aside and resold. In raddi shops the price is not fixed and is negotiable; you choose a book, ask the vendor how much he wants for it; he inspects it and quotes something ridiculous (5-10 times what it’s worth) and then you haggle. In South Bombay where time is money and people just want to get from their office to the train station and vice-versa, things are a little more advanced, and in addition to the stack of negotiable old tomes, there will usually be a display of fixed price 10 Rupee books.

Remember, these people buy by weight, not title (and most of the hawkers don’t know English, but can read the words), so it’s quite common to find something you might pay a hundred rupees for just sitting in that pile because it’s too worn or the cover/author’s name is uninteresting. Many bargains are to be found. And below are just seven:

(Oh, and you can click on the front covers for larger versions)

1. Envoy to New Worlds/Flight From Yesterday

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer - Click to EmbiggenFlight From Yesterday by Robert Moore Williams - Click to Embiggen
Our first book is even greater value for money than the others, because it’s actually two books. Published by Ace Books’ ‘Ace Double’ imprint, this is two novels for the price of one. When you get to the end of one, just flip it over and continue reading! It’s a gorgeous format from a design point of view alone, and there were hundreds of these, including this which was published in 1963.

Of the two tales, Keith Laumer’s Envoy to New Worlds is significant because it marks the first appearance (in a novel) of Jame Retief, ‘The Machiavelli of Cosmic Diplomacy’ as it states on the cover. He’s apparently an intergalactic diplomat, a role modeled somewhat after the experiences of his author in the United States Foreign Service. Retief would go on to star in upwards of sixteen books. The absence of a back cover summary prevents me from making any guesses as to the plot of this first adventure (I’m guessing there will be diplomacy), but any cover that depicts a man who has descended from a ladder with a cape, a gun, and a cummerbund, has piqued my interest.

Not your average flip-bookOn the flip side (haw haw), the slightly less well-known Robert Moore Williams (his name is so plain he couldn’t have made it up) gives us Flight From Yesterday. ‘Yesterday in America, tomorrow in Atlantis’ the cover blurb reads. Surely, hey must be talking about lost airport luggage. No? Oh well. Keith Ard (‘es well ‘ard, I hope) is an unemployed test pilot who answers a mysterious classified ad and apparently meets up with vanishing men in togas (or is it vanishing togas?) and girls with literally flaming hair. If this is any kind of good SF, the man with the vanishing toga teaches him stuff, and he gets off with the truly hot hottie. If this is progressive SF, then the roles of the man and the girl are switched. Either way, Keith Ard!

The cover reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth movie, which is one of the reasons this book caught my eye. Sadly, no artists are credited on either of the covers. The books themselves are slim (Flight From Yesterday is 120 small pages, 11 pages longer than its ‘book-mate’) and both have a certain charming brevity to the narrative. For instance:

“How’d you get this, Keith?” he asked.
“I was struck in the back by something that felt like a hot wind made in part of living electricity,” Keith said.
Dr. Riker made no comment.

I love old SF.

2. Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles

Mushrooms, Molds and Miracles, by Lucy Kavaler - Click to EmbiggenMushrooms, Molds and Miracles, by Lucy Kavaler - Back Cover
To say that author Lucy Kavaler’s work is eclectic would be an understatement. Anybody who writes books called The Private World of High Society, The Artificial World Around Us and The Wonders of Algae deserves to be taken seriously, and by all accounts, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles is a very well received and regarded book. It covers everything from fungi as miracle foods and medicines to yes, even hallucinogens and extra terrestrial speculations. The writing style is a perfect mix of conversational and academic; not shying away from big words when it needs to, but eschewing them when something simpler will suffice.

Mushroom book interiorIf it still aren’t convinced, here’s the first section of the back cover copy:

Martinis and the secret of heredity, Penicillin and The Angel of Death, Truffles and L.S.D., the Irish Potato Famine and the Fall of the Roman Empire, Astronauts, Gourmets, Scientists, and Indian Medicine Men
What does this wildly assorted list have in common? The answer is Fungi.

How could I not pick this book up?

3. A Dictionary of Geography

A Dictionary of Geography by W.G. Moore - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenA Dictionary of Geography by W.G. Moore - Back Cover
All this talk of mushrooms should get you in the mood for the great outdoors, yearning to fulfill that romantic ideal of going out into the nearest wood and poking around under a rotting tree bark. It might help, therefore, to have a handy guide to tell you the difference between a gryke and a gulch; to be able to properly interpret the hachures on your map and to watch out for precarious talus.

Geography book interiorAll these and more things can be found in the Revised an Enlarged edition of Penguin’s A Dictionary of Geography by W.H. Moore. This surprisingly weighty paperback does exactly what it says on the cover, and even has a bunch of pretty black and white pictures in the middle. It’s fun enough if you are a closet geography nerd like me, but is also useful as an idea mine (there are several terms I’m going to steal for story titles already). We’ve all been at a dinner party where we’ve needed to know the difference between a Mercator’s Projection and a Sanson-Flamsteed Sinusoidal one, haven’t we? Well now we can be ignorant no longer.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the top of that there drumlin to see if I can spot that dingle I’ve been trying to find all day.

4. Our Language

Our Language by Simeon Potter - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenOur Language by Simeon Potter - Back Cover
Big words scare people. It’s the truth. But big words needn’t scare you any more after you’ve read (Prof.) Simeon Potter’s Our Language. The beautiful Romek Marber cover was enough to convince me to buy this book long before I opened it. Its ambition of telling the history, structure, dialectic branches, trends and future of the English Language (also known as ‘Merican’), and that too in only 200 pages, sealed the deal.

Our language book interiorThis is the kind of book that publishers seemed to just pop out on a lark back in the 1950s and 60s, and is now unjustly forgotten. They do not make them like this anymore. Here’s something that doesn’t claim to have the answer to everything, is not a trendy pop-culture phenomenon, the latest gee-whiz-ain’t-it-spiffy nonfiction breeze that gets blogged to death and launches a thousand speaking tours (even though I greatly respect and love things like Tipping Point and Freakonomics). It’s just a simple, well-researched, intelligent account of a subject, and we’re all busy reading about Britney’s navel grit.

Shame on you, human race.

5. Teen-Age Vice/Designs in Scarlet

Teen-Age Vice or Designs in Scarlet by Courtney Ryley Cooper - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenTeen-Age Vice or Designs in Scarlet by Courtney Ryley Cooper - Back Cover
Speaking of the human race…

Oh, where do I begin? This 1939 (but 1957 edition) book is so deliciously cheesy. Told in a Bob-Woodward-channeling-Raymond-Chandler style, only bad, it apparently took Cooper eighteen months of “relentless, coast-to-coast personal investigation to ferret out the facts. If you are shocked by what he found, remember — he meant you to be.”(!) — this from the inside flap.

The entire book is like this. I should probably point out here that the author started his career as a clown, and at the time of his suicide in 1940 was the chief publicist for a circus. Of course, nothing I could say about this book could match the back cover copy, so I’ll just let it do the talking:

teen-age vice interiorWhat makes them do it?
Who is to blame?

They hold orgies in cellar clubs, go on juke-joint “honeymoons.” They get hopped up on liquor and dope, then rob and rape and murder. They are the young people under 21 who commit more than half the major crimes in the U.S.A.

Inspired by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Courtney Ryley Cooper gives you the grim and tragic answers in this brilliant and blistering exposé of TEEN-AGE VICE.

…To paraphrase Renée Zellwegger, “You had me at ‘Hoover.'”

6. Cool Kids with Hot Ideas

Cool Kids with Hot Ideas by Jules Archer - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenCool Kids with Hot Ideas by Jules Archer - Back Cover
Likewise, this book had me the second I saw its cover. No, I’m not just talking about the naked girl on the bike (although it is a well-posed photo, and she isn’t bad either). The cover design is remarkable, though entirely uncredited (and in a rare instance, they paid attention to the back too. Cover, that is). I routinely pick up books I have no interest in if the cover is particularly good. Being a graphic designer (with the emphasis on graphic), strong stark covers like these have always appealed to me over today’s wispy, layered and overworked Photoshop monstrosities.

cool kids with hot ideas interiorThe text itself is a lot less sensationalist than the cover would have you believe; certainly, it’s not as SHOCKING(!) as Teen-Age Vice. A compilation of articles, Cool Girls… may have lost its edge when viewed from our media-saturated times. Perhaps, in 1968, this boook chronicled the kind of shocking behaviour people associated with fringe sorts like hippies and beatniks, not ordinary teenage daughters. Most stories deal with unplanned pregnancies, unwed mothers, and illegal abortions (remember, Roe Vs Wade only happened in 1973). The others deal with drugs and teenage prostitution, and none of them are made to look sexy.

It’s interesting that a book with such an unabashedly titillating cover disguises what is fairly straightforward, even depressing, content. I could go on and on about how news has always been latently pornographic, but that’s another story. This book is the perfect example of ‘Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover.’

But what a cover.

7. How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home

How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home, by Harry Walton - Front Cover - Click to EmbiggenHow to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home, by Harry Walton - Back Cover
“Enough!” I hear you say, “all this teenage vice is too much for anyone to take. Can’t we talk about those nice mushrooms or sexy dingles again?”

Well, sure, I’d love to, and if you do want to chuck it all and move to the farthest wood, it would be a good idea to have some place to live when you go there. The first thing that strikes you about this Popular Science Skill Book (other than the splendid Bauhaus cover by Frederick Charles) is the little note on the inside that says it’s printed on 100% recycled paper. Somehow I never imagined that people highlighted that fact before the 1980s.

How to Build a Cabin InteriorThis is an honest to goodness 160 page attempt to teach you how to build a cabin. It’s pretty successful too, and I have little doubt that a person of average intelligence might actually end up with a functioning home in the woods if he used it as a rough guide. The genius of the book lays in the fact that it doesn’t just show you ‘four methods of supporting rafters on top plates in gable-roof construction’, but also covers things like ‘how to develop a spring’ (as a reliable water source), how to choose a site for your home in the hills, and an overview of the tools you might use (of chainsaws it says: “Gas-powered chainsaw speeds log-cabin building. It is strictly for outdoor use.“).

My favourite part has to be an early chapter showcasing classic and avant-garde cabin designs to inspire you. I have half a mind to buy a plot of land and try one out, but I think I’ll start in miniature with ice-cream sticks. The fun doesn’t stop there, though; the back cover gives the names of several related titles, including How to Work with Concrete and Masonry (for my closet brutalist, of course) and How to Build Your Own Furniture (I’m also vaguely intrigued by How to Do Your Own Wood Finishing by Jackson Hand, but only so that I can giggle like a schoolboy).

How to Build Your Cabin or Modern Vacation Home is strange; it’s set up almost exactly like every book on drawing I have ever seen or purchased, only at the end of it you get a house. How cool is that?

In Conclusion

Used Booksellers
I hope you’ve enjoyed this short trip through a little corner of my book collection. Even though I didn’t look through the majority of them, there were enough good ones that I was spoilt for choice, and could even group them by theme. This first one was a pick-and-mix of strangeness to whet the appetite, an amuse-bouche for your bibiomaniacal palette.


Neat stack of books.

When You Kissed Atmo

Oh my.

Steven Brust, he of the magnificent Vlad Taltos books, has just released a Firefly novel.

The best thing is, My Own Kind of Freedom is a fanfic. Yup, completely unauthorised, and released under a Creative Commons licence. Apparently it ‘demanded’ to be written, which always results in the best stories, I find.

Your moral and religious standpoint on Fan Fiction may preclude you from greeting such news with joy. Me? New Steven Brust work. New Firefly work. For FREE. How can that be a bad thing?


Spring Cleaning in Winter

Image Courtesy New York Public LibraryThe cousins are coming! The Cousins are coming! For the first time since, um, 1992, there are to be guests in the house whom I actually like. Now, ordinarily we’d just leave the house in the mess (read: disaster zone) that it is, but since we haven’t cleaned any of our homes thoroughly since about 1992 (we’ve just shifted piles of junk into boxes, then from house to house and even country to country) we figured it was about time.

So, over the past week or two, Intrepid Elder Sibling Samir and I have been trying to look through the hundreds of boxes and piles of things that litter the house in order to reduce them somewhat.


We’ve found a whole lot of books, hundreds of which have been bought over the past five years on various trips to India, and almost none of which have been read yet. If I just took one a day, photographed the cover and wrote fifty words about what I think the book is about, I’d have about three or four years of blog posts right there.

Don’t even begin to ask about the hundreds of books that are safely stored in boxes from before 2002. No, I wouldn’t get rid of most of them. Yes, I have seen that lovely 25 shelf bookcase in IKEA, and when the dust settles you can bet I’ll be forking over $200 for one.

Make that three.

So currently the house looks like a disaster zone. It seems that for every trunkload of old newspapers and plastics that go off to the recycler, no volume is lost from the pile of stuff in the house itself. Stuff expands to fill the space it’s in.

But today I’m leaving the books and the old He-Man action figures and the suddenly rediscovered drawings from when we were 5 to Samir, because today I’m going to lock myself in the kitchen and not come out until I figure out what every single bottle of arcane masala and every single funny looking utensil my mother had was used for, and neatly rearrange it.

Wish me luck.


Norton and Fenroy’s Most Excellent Used Book Dealership

Savant Booksellers SketchThe further illustrated (and mundane) adventures of Mister Savant! Still after books, this time he seems to be negotiating the price on a tome. Typical, the man is so obsessed with cheap and obscure paperbacks when he should be trying to get his hosts to part with their hats!

This drawing started off in my 15x18cm notebook with a vague idea in my head late one night, and so I ended up tackling it a little differently. I didn’t thumbnail or roughly draw in the entire scene, instead finishing the pencils on one character entirely and then moving onto the next.

The result is apparent (to me at least); the quality and styles of the figures vary wildly. Savant (back to us) was drawn in first, hence the lines are tentative and ‘noodly’, lacking definition. The short man (is it Norton or Fenroy, I haven’t decided) came next, and by now I was warming up and starting to have some fun; the snow globe hats, for instance, were a last second addition. The pink fairy was next, and since her pose was somewhat unconventional the lines are a bit uneven here too, although I’m happy with the way she turned out.


In order to fill the rest of the space I wondered if I should perhaps draw in some background material such as stacks of books or shelves, but since I’m not very comfortable drawing backgrounds (and I’d already drawn more than enough books in Mister Savant’s Stupid Quest for the Book Whose Name He Simply, Well.. Forgot!), I decided a couple more figures might fill in the page nicely. I had the most fun drawing these two figures, namely the tall man and Sophie, and I think it shows. The lines are the most confident here. Indeed, the visual difference between Savant and Sophie makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to rub it out and start over. It’s only a sketch!

The second fairy was added in as an afterthought as I had by then decided on having no background elements whatsoever, and to put in some kind of chandelier or something in that space to balance the composition would have seemed out of place.

As usual with my sketches, I left in the construction lines. I scanned it in and coloured it in GIMP; just a simple flat colour pass and one for adding in dodge/burn highlights and shadows. Not the most elegant job I’ve done (probably has something to do with the fact that I only used fuzzy round brushes) but satisfactory.

I like doing these Savant sketches. They’re a lot of fun and even as I completed this one I thought up a bunch more to do. I like them even more when they have a bit of colour on them. I’ve mostly always been a black-and-white sketch person, leaving colour for more finished pieces, but I’m starting to see its merits even in quick work. Also it’s one more place to practice colour theory and hone my skills.

I think that on the next ones I should definitely ‘rough in’ the scene before going to finished pencils to avoid those awkward style changes. Im not practiced or proficient enough a cartoonist to even have a style yet, so I should remember that warmup time is needed.

Oh, and next time I promise he won’t be doing anything boring.


Mister Savant’s Stupid Quest for the Book whose Name he simply, well… Forgot!

Mister Savant's Stupid Quest for the Book whose Name he simply, well... Forgot!

This pic is both in Sketch Machine and Illustration because it started off as a pencil sketch in my little notebook, and by the time it was done I figured I might as well colour it up in the GIMP.

I did a bit of cleanup to the pencil work, which was actually a lot harder than I thought because I couldn’t just erase things like construction lines without destroying the texture of the paper that was also scanned in. So, I ended up using the clone brush, and it worked out. I mainly got rid of, as I said, construction lines (which I never bother to erase until I ink something) and especially Xaria’s eyes, which were originally open but horribly done.

I have left the construction lines in on the typography, however, mostly because I think it adds character to it and contributes to the sketch/underground comic art look that I love.

Or I’m just lazy.


“Interview Me!” Meme

The concept is simple. You read one of these posts. You put in a comment at the end that says, “Interview me!” and the author of the post sends you five questions — any five questions — to answer on your own blog or site. Dan answered some, and a bunch of us asked him to interview us (Spyder, Caren and Big Tony have answered already). Click on read more for my answers, which are, as usual, long and hence have to be broken into multiple pages:

1) Other than yourself, do you have an intended audience in mind when you write?

Saying “Everyone!” here would be a bit of a cop out, despite the fact that any human would (I hope) like to exert some kind of positive influence on all other humans (especially hot chicks).

I think I like to write for geeks. I’m especially interested in entertaining polymaths like myself (All polymaths are geeks, but the reverse is not true). I like to write stories that have the particular kind of chaos-embracing, seven-hundred-genres-in-a-single-bound style that I find completely satisfying. I don’t think there’s enough of it, and I’m sure there are others like me who think the same.

It’s a tricky thing to write well, because despite the fact that it very often has something for everybody, the lack of a traditional focus and a religious adherence to the tropes of a genre puts off a lot of people (this is especially annoying in Speculative Fiction genres because, hell, it’s supposed to mess with your preconcieved notions, not stroke it until a dull orgasm is reached).

The paradox of omnifiction — well, omnipunk — is that it’s the smallest genre in the world.

The only genre that has been wrestled by its very nature into being omnifiction friendly is conman and caper stories. All of them involve characters performing tasks of various skills from physical to mental and social.

I love con and caper movies.

2) If a Savant story had a soundtrack, what would it sound like?

Hmm, I think I came up with a songlist around the time I was writing Tale of a Thousand Savants (I think I still have it, …somewhere). It was basically a lot of Japanese Anime and video game soundtracks mixed in with modern Indian pop and other influences. So basically lots of Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Kanno and A.R. Rahman.

If I had to describe it now, I would say that like Savant and like the multiverse he plays around in, any soundtrack would have to be complex and varied. It would probably not be angsty (not even when he’s angsty), but it would be soulful. The kind of music that fills you both with joy and wonder. It would embrace genres but experiment, take bits from here and there and put them together in strange, unexpected and wonderful ways. No genre or type of music would be off limits, and no type of music would be treated like a sacred cow.

The three composers I mentioned earlier do exactly that. I find that composers who come from cultures other than the one in which a genre is born and settled, do wonders with it. For example, I think the work of The Teriyaki Boys and The Streets is much more interesting than any American hip-hop I’ve heard. Mitsuda does Celtic stuff with aplomb. A.R.Rahman does wonders with the entire gamut of Indian music (and beyond) because he’s a strange South Indian man with no Pavlovian training in the ‘right way’ to do a bhangra song (also, he’s A.R. Freaking Rahman, and sometimes genius can’t be explained).

3) What inspiration do you most wish Hollywood would take from the Indian film industry?

I wish they’d do things on a smaller budget. Seriously. Have you seen those Dead Man’s Chest DVD extras? Not only do they build a huge marina (a ‘tank’) to shoot boat scenes in, but on another untouched island they built a road across it and shuttle their small city of crew to the other end because the location scouts thought the palm trees looked cool there. Do you really need three hundred people on set to make a movie about a bunch of mangy pirates?

The philosophy in Hollywood seems to be, “Let’s just throw money at it!” rather than actually thinking a shoot through and doing it with the minimal impact. I’m not saying people should be walking two hours to their set, but really, when movies have “million dollar shooting days” something is seriously whacko.

And after all that, they still deliver a movie with no soul whatsoever, which, given all the mucking about with the Caribbean they did, is both a tragedy and exactly what they deserve.

Indian films are nowhere are sophisticated, we have sucky special effects and spotty technical work, but minute for minute I find myself being entertained more by the super-expensive 25 million dollar Indian film than the average budget 125 million dollar American one.

The unfortunate truth is that more Indian movies are starting to follow the Hollywood philosophy of money conquers all, but there are still a good bunch of people around who make nice movies. Also, all the good American movies are the ones made for relatively low budgets, so there is hope there too. Anything Wes Anderson does is bound to be less expensive than the average blockbuster, and is in no way lacking in the imagination and guts departments.

(And yes, I do know that the next Wes Anderson movie is set and shot in India, and I. Can’t. Wait.)

4) You have something of a knack for spotting plot holes and other problems in story structure. What advice would you give writers to help them avoid losing readers like you?

(Until this question was posed I never really thought of myself as being plot and structure sensitive, but after thinking about it — and noting the number of times I’ve discussed it in my old blog entries vis a vis both my own and others’ work — I guess it’s true: I’m a Plot Nazi!)

I’ve reached a point where I can watch a movie as a consumer of cinema parallel to appraising it on a technical level. So while I’m going, “Ooh!” at the latest special effects wizards (and/or Jessica Biel’s behind) I’m also thinking about whether or not the effect is working on a design level, a technical level and so on. I’m not one of those anal retentive people who submit things like, “His finger moves one inch between shots!” to movie mistake sites, but I tend to notice when there’s a sudden drop in pace (Casino Royale), characters behave inconsistently (Dead Man’s Chest), or that the director is masturbating behind the camera (Skull Island and everything after, Peter Jackson’s King Kong).

Weak plot points can be overcome with great characters, so keep your characters doing solid work and people may not notice the rough spots (which there inevitably tend to be). Last year’s Casino Royale did the stupid mistake of not only dropping the pace for no reason whatsoever (preceeding it was a poker game, and it despite being the most boring ‘sport’ in the world next to motor racing, was still written well), but after this drop the characters start spouting the most inane dialogue. Suddenly they’re going all Mills & Boons with cheesy lines about stripping off armour and all that. This is a James Bond movie — you can and should be romantic at times, but at least do it in character!

The Matador is a great example of good characters breezing past a few plot holes and structural inconsistencies with aplomb. So is, on a more magnified level, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Shaun of the Dead is pretty-much perfect and you can study that film to see why it works.

I think in all this seperation of plot, structure and character, I’ve failed to mention that absolutely everything in your story should be treated as these three things. Your protagonist is as much a character as he is the plot and the structure; the latter two are defined and shaped — and will appeal to you audience — based on how much they gel with and seem to be extrapolated from that character. Your world is also more than just a stage to put your stuff in. Describing it, in an indirect and abstract way, also shapes your structure, plot and character. Transmetropolitan and Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram spring to mind.

Most of these aren’t things you can plan ahead, but if you are a writer and have written enough shit you start to have strange hunches and gut feelings that won’t make sense, such as, “My character shouldn’t be eating pie here, he doesn’t like pie.” Stuff like that is your inner supercomputer crunching things far beyond your conscious thought, and you’re well on your way to being better writer.

Or, maybe you’re just a sick bastard who doesn’t like pie.

As far as technical advice is concerned, keep things consistent, first and foremost. If people speak a certain way, have them speak that way unless you wish to use a different style to generate comedy or surprise. Understand that the audience’s imagination doesn’t enjoy being thrown around, and that language is key to that: if your character is in the upper canopy of a tree don’t use language that describes the tree from the bottom up for one line. It immediately puts the mental camera at the ground level and throws the reader out of the story.

Storytelling is a magic trick. You’re using words and language to form pictures and sounds and people and smells in someone else’s head. Any magic trick needs to be well done or it won’t be as effective, even if the audience doesn’t consciously percieve it. The sloppier it is, the more attention your audience is going to pay to the funny lump in your sleeve.

Don’t limit your idea of plot structure to a particular genre. What I’m trying to say here is that you don’t necessarily need to learn all of storytelling by reading more novels. Comics can teach you a whole lot about the economy of storytelling, and both comics and movies can teach you about the way imagery affects perception, about pace. There’s a reason a panel may be seen from an askew angle (it unsettles you without saying “SHOCK!” in big red letters), and a large close up that takes up much of the page can be translated into prose structure as a large, descriptive paragraph.

Storytelling is a lot like graphic design: you’re using the symbology and syntax of a medium to deliver information in a smooth, interesting and pleasing way (while also hopefully being unexpected and engaging).

Songs are a great way to learn plot structure too. I’m not just talking about single guy with guitar wailing about his love life and the state of the world type songs that use polysyllabic words (singer-songwriter stuff as it’s called) — you can get good stories in techno!

A song appeals to us on an abstract level, just like a good story does. Try to take a song and write it as a story, and usually, if you can manage it, there you will find a well-structured plot.

The basic advice here is write, write, write. Everything you write is gold, and everything you write is shit. Look for plot, structure and character in your emails. Observe and try to deduce why some real-world conversations are memorable and entertaining without being in any way literary or theatrical. Sooner or later you’ll be able to tell what in a given story is shit and what is gold, and then rearrange the shit to enhance the look of the gold.

Then you’ll write another story and be back to square one.


5) Despite already being a skilled polymath (Gosh, thanks!), what talent do you most wish you could add to your repertoire?

This is the kind of question a polymath will never give a single answer to, but off the top of my head I’ll say I’d love to be able to tailor my own clothes. (Being able to sing, super yogic powers or growing my own food were my first answers, but Spyder already beat me to the last one!)

Three Things Tag Trouble

Aishwarya got tagged with this and then proceeded to tag ‘You’. “Hey,” I said, “I’m a’You’! Or am I a ‘Me’? And if she would have tagged “Me” would she have been referring to me or her?”

Anyway, after I took my medication…

3 books

  1. Bikini Planet by David S. Garnett
  2. Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg
  3. Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar (article), Dave Johnson et al

3 albums

  1. Let’s Go Classics by Takeshi Terauchi (MP3s at link)
  2. A Different Class by Pulp
  3. Xenogears: Creid by Yasunori Mitsuda and Millennial Fair

3 movies

  1. Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl
  2. Party 7
  3. The Taste of Tea

(all of these are by Katsuhito Ishii)

3 thoughts

  1. I have far too many old computer mice.
  2. Switching the ball of the newest one with the oldest one has made the new one much smoother.
  3. I must recommend ball-switching for added smoothness to people, and keep a straight face while doing it

book thing

I’ve been tagged!

How could this happen, I just run a blog which three people visit — in blogosphere terms, I’m the equivalent of a hermit! Perhaps because of this, Dan tagged me. Also, he knows I’ve only ever read four books in my life, the spoony bard.

Just you wait, Dan, soon this will turn into one of those real blogs, the ones with the multiple chatboards and weather widgets for Botswana and pictures of random furry animals to indicate moods such as ‘obfuscated’ and ‘shiny purple’.

On to the tag meme, which, if you haven’t put two and two together by now, involves books (I’m going to try and stay away from comics as much as I can — that deserves a separate tag meme, methinks).

1. One book that changed your life: Somewhere around the turn of the century I was very depressed indeed, and utterly bored. If I wasn’t much of a reader to begin with, then at that point in time the circumstances had worked themselves in such a way that it had been years since I’d read any book, even if there were stacks of them laying around the house.

I’m not sure why I picked up Alex Garland’s The Beach when my brother brought it home from his college library, but from that moment I was suddenly pulled head first into it, and only put it down a day and a half-later when I finished it. There was a certain immediacy to the language, an immersiveness that unfortunately is still elusive to most writers. There are scores of books that paint pretty pictures and which I consider great books, but very few inject themselves into your body and soul for the duration of their pages so that you aren’t sitting in your bedroom, you’re running through a marijuana crop on some long-lost island in Asia, tanned and sweating with a ghost for a guide.

The Beach may not be a particularly great plot (straight out of an eighties B/TV movie), it may have already antiquated mid-1990s cultural references (is anyone but my generation going to understand — truly understand — the Tekken 2 Devil Kazuya passage?), but that little pile of pressed dead trees is nothing short of a teleportation device.

2. One book you have read more than once: The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton (prounced by most Indians as, of course, “Nnid BlITton”). Growing up, I never warmed to the other big Enid Blyton series like The Famous Five (who always seemed a bit, well, irritating). I barely read any books at all, and so all of my strange cultural input was relegated to late eighties DC comic books, blurry B-movies on video, Hardy Boys (Not only was Nancy Drew always on vacation thereby killing the verisimilitude, but there was also no hot teen sex. oh well.), and of course the unusual abundance of tween-targeted SF cartoons like Transformers, Centurions, Thundercats and Dungeons and Dragons that we had growing up in the 1980s (today’s cartoons are… blech, except maybe Megas XLR which has a quirky charm).

I had already devoured much of this stuff several times, I knew each and every way the mythic formulas worked and for some reason no library or shop I can recall had a copy of The Lord of the Rings around.

So, The Magic Faraway Tree was my introduction to fantasy in literature, and I think its influence is readily evident in my writing today. Ask me to come up with a movie and I’m sure to reach for the nearest plot involving an epic adventure quest along the lines of Star Wars (i.e. a tale that follows the typical mythic hero story such as Lord of The Rings or most of its High Fantasy bretheren that youngsters read), but if you ask me to write a novel, then I am going to write a strange tale featuring not-quite heroic, not-so serious protagonist in an ever-changing setting with no clearly defined villain or end to a quest. Pretty much every Savant story follows this template, and the journey from the Faraway Tree’s endless variety of realms at its summit, to Savant’s infinite dimensions, is not a far trip at all.

I probably read each of the books separately at least once, and then have read the omnibus version I picked up many, many times. Even so, it has been a while, close to eight years, in fact, since I last read it, so I probably should do that again.

3. One book you would want on a desert island: How to Survive on a Desert Island for Less Than a Coconut a Day. No, seriously, I’m a real sucker for those 50s and 60s pocket handbooks that try to teach you everything and anything accompanied by helpful line drawings. Today’s “Dummies” books seem a bit tame compared to those bizarre tomes. I have in my possession pocket books on both (Operation) Theatre Techniques and (Stage) Theatre Techniques, for instance. I love the stuff, and one of my secret ambitions is to have a small book brand that does crazy help books like that. So, yes, How to Survive on a Desert Island for Less Than a Coconut a Day.

4. One book that made you laugh: The entire Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams didn’t just make me laugh, it forged new veins of humour in my soul. If Faraway Tree was my introduction to fantasy literature, then ‘The Guide’ was my introduction to all-out humour writing. That it somehow managed to inject a perfectly good science fiction plot into the proceedings only made me love it more.

Of the entire five part trilogy, I love the fourth book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, because it retained the humour and strangeness of the series while being mostly set on Earth (the ‘inverted house’ still makes my spine tingle). You know that bit in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie when  Elizabeth Swann says, “There will come a time when you’ll have the chance to do the right thing.”, and Jack Sparrow replies, “I love those moments. I love to wave at them as they pass by.” — Can’t confirm this, but it’s probably inspired by a Douglas Adams quote that goes, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”, which he apparently said around the time he was locked up in a hotel room with an editor and forced to finish that book.

5. One book that made you cry: Hmm. Can’t recall any book that made me actually, physically cry, but I suppose that in a weird way reading the end of Mostly Harmless made me go, “Why, Douglas? What’s wrong?” and feel very sad.

6. One book you wish had been written: One more Hitchhikers’ Guide book.

7. One book you wish had never had been written: Don’t really have strong enough feelings about any book that I don’t like, but if I had to wipe one, I’d do the whole series of Ashok Banker’s Ramayana novelisation. I’ve picked these books up many times at the bookstore, looked through them and read a random passage or two and they’re… bad. Bad. If you ever spot one of these, I suggest you do the same and tell me your reaction, because if you somehow think that the prose of these books can be considered anything close to coherent language, then please tell me how, and how many narcotic substances were involved. Needless to say, I’m not looking forward to his nine part Mahabharata.

8. One book you are currently reading: The Conspiracy, by John Hersey. It’s about the so called ‘Pisonian Conspiracy’ to assassinate Emperor Nero, but told entirely through pilfered letters and secret notes between Nero’s head of security/royal household administrator and the secret police. Once in a while he fires off a letter or three to various other arms of the royal machine to request, for instance, a hundred swans to be tehered to an ornate raft for a party, and other elaborate schemes. If you liked HBO’s ROME, then this should be right up your alley. I don’t care much for Roman politics, but this is just so well written (like ROME) that I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

9. One book you have been meaning to read: Always wanted to read one of the big two Indian epics (the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) but in Sanskrit or whatever oldest language they survive in. Ramanand Sagar television serials with their campy, over-the-top style just don’t do it for me, and as stated above, neither does Ashok Banker. I have a lot to read, all the biggies, so add things like Lord of the Rings, Foundation etc. to the list. Also, Alan Moore has written a novel, I think.

10. Now tag five people: Considering that the three or so people who visit this blog have already been tagged, and that everyone else who I’d like to see answer these questions do not have blogs, I’m just going to leave this open. If you read this and have a blog, you’re tagged. Leave a link in the comments if you do your own, I’d love to read it, whoever you are.


where I get most of the books I own