Apart From Ourselves

What underlies the popular genre of speculative fiction? Righteousness and redemption or brutality and truth?

01 January, 2012

ADULT SPECULATIVE FICTION is a dwarfed genre in India, though the market for such fiction has exploded in the past two decades. The HBO adaptation of George RR Martin’s AGame of Thrones was a success on Indian screens, as were the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. The digital era, moreover, fosters cross-continental fandom, and the Internet is awash with Indians reading, and writing about, the genre.

But perhaps because our epics themselves remain alive, Indian writers have shied away from the topic of this essay: “epic fantasy” or “swords and sorcery”. As AK Ramanujan argues in his essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas’, our tradition thrives on rehabilitating ancient tales rather than replacing them. Most Indians grow up on a steady diet of the Panchatantra, Jataka Tales, Arabian Nights and Amar Chitra Kathas. The ‘mythological’ is as prevalent in adult writing. An English translation of the complete Adventures of Amir Hamza was published in 2007 to much acclaim. Aubrey Menen retold the Ramayana in 1954; this year’s Sita’s Ramayana written by Samhita Arni and illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar combines folklore and tribal art; Zubaan Books is publishing a ‘speculative’ anthology inspired by the epic next year. The Mahabharata, too, inspires legions of retellings and interpretations. Some of the best, as Jai Arjun Singh pointed out recently in these pages, are to be found in translation: Irawati Karve’s Yuganta (Marathi), Pratibha Ray’s Yajnaseni (Oriya), Prem Panicker’s Bhimsen, an adaptation of the Malayalam Randamoozham.

A few Indian writers have broken through this reticence regarding imported tropes. Aubrey Menen’s speculative satire, The Prevalence of Witches (1947), explores the encroachment of colonial civilisation upon native populations. Set within the “Federated States of Limbo”, the novel is haunted by an acute sense of dislocation and cross purposes. More recently, Samit Basu’s books draw their stories from across genre and geography. Last year, he wrote the superhero thriller Turbulence as well as Terror on the Titanic, which was partially inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894). His GameWorld Trilogy (2004-07) takes its cue from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, treading very lightly upon epic territory. Of course it’s swords and sorcery, I remember insisting to a friend, it has dragons and dark towers. Bah, came the retort, not enough people die. The poet Sridala Swami articulated it better. Basu is an ironist, she told me; he teases, but he never despairs.

The physicist JC Bose began writing speculative stories in 1896, and his legacy is evident in the work of writers such as Amitav Ghosh (The Calcutta Chromosome, 1995) and Salman Rushdie (Grimus, 1975, allowing for ‘magical realism’ as a separate genre). His true heir, however, is Vandana Singh, whose The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories (2008) combines stories, novellas and a ‘speculative manifesto’. Such fiction, she writes in the final essay, is humanity’s chance to rise above its “pathologically solipsistic view”, to escape into the broader universe. Before anyone can speculate, they must dream.

So Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain, dreaming of the liberation of women back at the start of the 20th century, writes her utopia, Sultana’s Dream. So Ursula K. Le Guin, imagining a peaceful anarchic community, writes The Dispossessed. As Sahir Ludhianvi said, “Ao koi khwab bune, kal ke vaste” (Come let us weave dreams for tomorrow’s sake).

Are we dreaming enough? To live in urban India is to be caught between worlds, so why don’t we talk about them? Why do we read so much fantasy and write so little of it? Each of the readers I asked had their pet theory. Some blamed an impoverished infrastructure, a biased industry, a traditional literary culture uneasy around experiments. Embittered sorts blamed the English elite’s newfound faith in progress. So long as you look steadily ahead, they claimed, you remain blinkered. Many readers talked about the roles they assign to assorted languages: English for work, the vernacular for dreams. This is why, they reasoned, speculative thought remains alive in all the regional tongues. A few critics suggested it was because the hubris involved in reconfiguring the entire world worries Indian writers, who prefer a more local canvas. Others claimed it was because we live enough fantasy without seeking out more on the page. Writing about India, especially in English, is already a wildly speculative exercise. How can you iron away all this vibrant chaos to engage in the frivolity of utopia?

I believe some of the explanation lies within the format itself. Writing Tolkienian ‘high’ fantasy demands a certitude Indian novelists rarely cultivate: an ability to relate to the righteous.

Chronos, the dragon, drew from himself a threefold seed: moist Ether, limitless Chaos, misty Erebus. Under them, he laid an egg, from which the world was to hatch.

—the Neoplatonist Damascius (born roughly AD 480),

Difficulties and Solutions of First Principles, as recorded

by Jorge Luis Borges in The Book of Imaginary Beings

THE FIRST DRAGON I met was Smaug the Vastly Snug, denizen of the Lonely Mountain on Middle-earth. It is to vanquish him that the wizard Gandalf the Grey and 13 dwarves befriend Bilbo Baggins in JRR Tolkien’s 1937 classic The Hobbit. Bilbo riddles his way into possession of an invisibility ring, which helps him sneak into Smaug’s lair and awaken the slothful dragon. Bilbo gives the ring to his nephew Frodo, whose quest to destroy the baleful ornament is described in The Lord of the Rings. The ring, we are told, was forged by Sauron the Dark Lord, and it is his most puissant weapon because it binds all the magic in the land. It is, to use a Harry Potter analogy, Sauron’s sole Horcrux, a sliver of his withered soul. Whenever his power is in abeyance the ring slips through history, hiding as it awaits the return of its master.

The ring enervates its bearer even as it imparts invisibility and immortality, which is why it remains Frodo’s burden alone. A humble hobbit must bear it, the logic runs, for the valorous would succumb to the ring’s seduction. Even Aragorn, Tolkien’s hardy prince, is cowed by the ring’s reputation for lethal malice. By The Return of the King (1955), Frodo has made his way deep into Sauron’s realm, to ensure that the ring is melted by the volcanic fires that annealed it. In light of these events, it grows obvious that the One Ring’s efficient genius was behind its baffling choice of Bilbo Baggins. Nothing screams blistering heat like dragons’ breath. Eliminate the last dragon left on Middle-earth, and the next generation of interfering busybodies are forced to trek to Mount Doom to locate a suitable fire (or face the dismal prospect of begging a Balrog). Hitch a ride, kill a dragon, wait for the next book. All things considered, a sound strategy.

Tolkien founded the genre of epic fantasy in order to focus and organise the overwhelming ambition of drafting an alternate dimension. Middle-earth has a mythos, a cartography, a bestiary and many dictionaries. TheLord of the Rings, despite its abundance, is only the final tale from the sprawling textual tradition of Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion. Across the body of his work, Tolkien tells the story of a depleting world, of the fading of Faerie. By the Third Age of Middle-earth, when the events of The Lord of the Rings are unravelling, magic has been irrevocably tainted by the ring’s terrible will. The last Elven ship sails at the end of the trilogy, finally releasing magic from the world. Tolkien’s entire point was that each time the world is fractured, it comes back less resilient.

For Tolkien, the wonder of fantasy—sub-creation or worldbuilding—was distinct from its justification. He believed deeply in an ideal of redemption in his fiction, derived from what he called “Eucatastrophe”: a cleansing violence; the very opposite of tragedy. To him, any instance of making in fiction, whether it was a world or a people, was an act of homage to the Maker. Middle-earth was to be a playground that God could be proud of, in which every place and every person was aware of their role and content within it. Hobbits were farmers, Elves were craftsmen, Dwarves were miners. It was the Order of Things, and it was an order that everyone who was “good” would strive, at whatever personal cost, to maintain. The purpose of fantasy, Tolkien would tell you, is solace for the fugitive spirit: however messy the real world is, we can imagine utopia, and that alone makes us worthy of saving.

Salvation isn’t a new theme in fantasy. The growth of fantasy in the popular imagination was accelerated by the German Romantics of the 18th and 19th centuries who had a passion for the quaint and the mystic. As their influence spread, so did their fascination with folklore and fairy tales. The famous anthologists of European fables—The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang—were products of this ethos. Soon, the ‘gothic’ was a pursuit in its own right, evoked by writers as diverse as Honoré de Balzac, Nikolai Gogol and Nathaniel Hawthorne. These writers delved into the odd, the grotesque and the surreal; Victor Hugo was the voice of a generation when he exclaimed, “I love monsters and I love mountebanks!” In some senses, thus, the literary Fantastic bridges a paradox: a yearning for the old ways grafted onto a period of tumultuous change. How do you reconcile rapid social and scientific change with timeless contemplation and the “wisdom of the ancients”?  Doesn’t the antiquated deserve to be celebrated for its very survival, even as the novel must be embraced? How do you accommodate the comforts of civilisation against a landscape of dark, satanic mills?

Across the past two centuries, the Modern Fantastic—speculative fiction—has grappled with this inheritance from romanticism. Tolkien represents one powerful strain within it, and the breadth of his imagination was only matched by the narrowness of his vision. TheLord of the Rings brought fantasy into the light, but the true heart of the genre lies in dim borderlands and the limits of human experience. As Ursula K Le Guin, who recovered fantasy for feminism, wrote in her essay ‘World-Making’ (1981), “the dance of renewal, the dance that made the world, was always danced here at the edge of things, on the brink, on the foggy coast.” Ten years after The Return of the King, with Michael Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ chronicles, heroes in epic fantasy were back to being deranged maniacs on doomed quests. They were back to being, if you will, tragic. In the decades since, several writers have borrowed Tolkien’s passion for sub-creation, even as they dismantle his moral edifice.

In this inheritance of wealth, there may be a danger of boredom or of anxiety to be original, and that may lead to a distaste for fine drawing, delicate pattern, and pretty colours, or else to mere manipulation and over elaboration of old material, clever and heartless. But the true road of escape from such weariness is not to be found in the wilfully awkward, clumsy, or misshapen, not in making all things dark and unremittingly violent; nor in mixing of colours on through subtlety to drabness, and the fantastical complication of shapes to the point of silliness and on towards delirium. Before we reach such states, we need recovery … the regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them—as things apart from ourselves.

—JRR Tolkien in ‘On Fairy-Stories’

GEORGE RR MARTIN IS ONE CONTEMPORARY novelist who abandons Tolkienian ethics with fierce enthusiasm. His bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire series is rife with betrayal and ripe with vice. There are few Aragorns on the subcontinent of Westeros (its many kings are all despots), and no Gandalf the Grey. Honest and upstanding characters are generally fated an untimely death. Any morality that exists depends on the reader and their sympathies. I like shapeshifters, sand snakes and mammoths, so I cheer along their plots. Others might prefer dwarves, or rapists, or long-suffering children. Sometimes these forces are in alliance, often they aren’t. Any side you choose is bound to be filled with characters and motives you consider despicable.

Similarly, Martin doesn’t set much store by dragon-lore. Stripped of speech, his dragons parade around the plot throwing other people’s tantrums. (Basic dragon facts: they are wise friends, loyal guardians, formidable enemies. Too arrogant for ambush and siege, dragons always attack after ample warning. A dragon’s infamous guile is reserved for her conversation, a quality that makes some dragons splendid tutors and all of them terrible soldiers. Most dragons will debate you to death long before they attempt fire, strangulation, or decapitation.) By the fifth and latest book, A Dance with Dragons (2011), they have become so pitiful I was left wondering what Smaug would make of being treated like a glorified stallion.


Martin’s mute dragons are, to compound a reader’s misery, symptomatic of the failure of most matters magical in the land of Westeros. Its magic, conflated with religion, lacks both predictability and autonomy. Sorcery is to fantasy what technology is to science fiction and crime is to detective fiction. It is the currency of fantasy, its defining metaphor. The essential face of the fairy story, Tolkien wrote, is enchantment. Without the distance from ‘reality’ that magic enables, fantasy retreats from speculation into allegory. To bridge this gap, however, it must inhabit a discernible structure with hierarchies and customs and taboos, not mere whimsy. Otherwise it remains a mere commodity, conferring writers and their gods with omnipotence. To Martin’s dubious credit, his gods are as notional as his dragons. They might exist, but they don’t do anything either. Five books into pious Westeros, the equations of worship are as little explored as those of magic. It is a truism of any religion, for instance, that nothing is given where nothing is lost. Grant every god a finger, sense suggests, if only to ensure none of them snatch an entire hand. Martin insists, rather, that you bathe your chosen god in blood, and let the heathens perish. By this marker, Martin’s books aren’t fantasy at all. The controlling fantasy of Westeros, seemingly the only fantasy of Westeros, is its unbridled misogyny. If dragons float about looking dangerous, women float about looking disingenuous. Rape, Martin’s eager to assure his reader, is a warrior’s birthright. Unlike Middle-earth, Westeros doesn’t extrapolate from our world; it diminishes and distorts it.

So she spins who was monarch of the loom,

Reduced indeed, she lets out a fine

And delicate, yet tough and tensile line

That catches full day in the little room,

Then sways minutely, suddenly out of sight,

And then again the thread invents the light.

—Thom Gunn, ‘Arachne’

STEVEN ERIKSON IS MORE TALENTED at blowing up cant and canon than George RR Martin. The Crippled God (2011), the 10th and final volume of his Malazan Book of the Fallen, is my favourite book of the year. Malazan books, to my infinite embarrassment at social gatherings, have been my favourite new books for five years. They create countless worlds: some from geography, others from memory and mystery. Together, they weave the skein of spacetime. In this world, cosmic events have cosmic causes, and magic is as dangerous as it is ubiquitous. Human magic is drawn from dragons and funnelled through gods, and both species flourish on Erikson’s many continents. People share their planet, besides, with dinosaurs, aliens and trolls.

Erikson’s theme, beneath multifold layers of intrigue, is as simple as Tolkien’s or Martin’s: for humans to thrive, the wild must die. Unlike both, Erikson challenges the validity, even necessity, of that truth. His books examine the implacable justice of the land, the costs of the belief that we are entitled to every square inch of open earth. Humans win their Pyrrhic victory, yet Erikson treats his reader to the orc’s side of the story. The orcs here are marines—men and women alike—fighting to expand an assassin’s empire. We meet first the Bridgeburners, who serve the mysterious empress Laseen. Once they are decimated to everyone’s satisfaction, we are introduced to the Bonehunters. They carry the war deeper into the wilderness under the command of another enigmatic woman, the Adjunct Tavore. These soldiers form the continuity between books, though any given novel has plenty of other folk jostling for space. The marines meet nobler foes and make for cruel allies, yet it is their resolve—and their cunning—that finally wins the day. People, Erikson is telling us, are more orc than elf. And that is what makes us worth saving.

Epic fantasy is the mythology of futility. You will be miserable, such fantasy informs its reader, and conditions will be ever so gruesome, but continue anyway. So long as you take courage from small victories and refuse to be enslaved, things will get no worse. All good fantasy, however subaltern, retains that spirit. It’s written, quoting the Bridgeburners, from a stance of “wide-eyed stupid”. The Queen of Dreams, another Erikson character, explains the mindset better: “It’s the endless retracing of paths … for the path has proved itself a circle. Yet—here is the true pathos—that knowledge never slows our steps.” Nor, in Erikson’s deft hands, does it render them trite. It is his great gift that each trip around the mulberry bush is enchanting. The devil, Tolkien would agree, is in the detail. Malazan books are a fine example of Tolkien’s understanding of mooreeffoc: fantasy as “it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day … a time-telescope focused on one spot.” Despite this enticing prospect, Tolkien finds himself forced to disapprove. Mooreeffoc, he scolds his reader, has limited power. Creative fantasy is intended to exalt, it must release tropes, not gather them. He forgets, in his zeal, that time-telescopes also see everything between there and back again.

This slow spider dragging itself towards the light of the moon and that same moonlight, and you and I whispering of eternal things, haven’t we already coincided in the past? And won’t we happen again on the long road, on this long tremulous road, won’t we recur eternally?

—Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra

GEORGE RR MARTIN DAWDLES on Nietzsche’s ‘long tremulous road’ and Steven Erikson squats upon it. China Miéville, by contrast, simply ignores it. In trying to save epic fantasy, his Bas-Lag trilogy married it to steampunk and revived the ‘Weird’ movement within speculative fiction. His books, while demonstrably fantastic, break radically with Tolkien in both terrain and theme. The city of New Crobuzon is the setting for the first novel in the trilogy, Perdido Street Station (2000), and much of the final book, Iron Council (2004). The Scar (2002) sets sail in search of the abyss. There are few gods and no dragons on Bas-Lag, though there are plenty of other organic monsters. The orcs of Bas-Lag, however, are humans Remade in punishment factories reminiscent of Isengard in Middle-earth. Sometimes the Remaking is practical, and augments human affinities; oftentimes, it is petty brutality. One haunting scene in Iron Council features a woman with baby arms attached to her face, “like spiders’ pedilaps”, as penalty for killing her child. Other Remade are grafted backwards onto horses, transformed into lizard-men, have chitinous feet crawling across their neck and tentacles across their chest—the punishments are as diverse as they are profuse. These Remade are press-ganged for life into industry and warfare, and thus prisoners become slaves. When slaves revolt—as they do subtly in The Scar and more actively in Iron Council—they revert to being criminals, and a vicious circle is renewed.

The Bas-Lag novels are loosely connected and resolutely anticlimactic. They occur decades apart, each furnished with an independent cast and different sociopolitical obsessions: The Scar is fascinated by freedom and possibility; Iron Council by duty and intervention; Perdido is about invention itself. It is not plot they lack—Perdido is so tightly wound as to induce vertigo—but that prized Tolkienian virtue, solace. If Tolkien believed that magic provided an escape from the squalor of technology, Bas-Lag was born with the recognition that sorcery and science are sister disciplines. Both magic and technology, Italo Calvino once argued, are techniques of ‘privation’. They were invented to abstract the weight of living, to make material existence more compliant to human will. Speculative fiction, boiled down, is alternate kinds of myth separated by tense. Science fiction, convention holds, is the womb of things to be; fantasy is the tomb of things that were.

The foundation of a mythological view of the world, the premise of magic, is that there are older forces working upon human destiny than those we perceive. Salvation and liberation; energy and entropy; retribution and forgiveness; escape and consolation; memory and novelty; cause and chance: these are the values of thought experiments. They are the dichotomies all speculative fiction negotiates, fantasy and science fiction alike. Despite Miéville’s genre-bending sensibilities, thus, his heroes are familiar faces for a fantasy nerd. My favourite Miéville hero, as an example, is a pirate from The Scar. He wields a “Possibility Sword” that flickers between realities and enhances each thrust and parry until it becomes every stroke a trained fighter might make whilst defending himself against a dozen enemies. Attach this feral skill to a liquid man with melancholy eyes, and you discover Miéville has invented a punk Aragorn. Despite his deadly grace, Uther Doul is as ruthless a pragmatist as any Malazan marine. He might fight to the bitter end but he will always choose survival over honour. Uther Doul is wide-eyed stupid. He sees all the truth, but he sees it slant. And so, to conclude, should you.