Lord of the Rings Day

An artist's impression of the iconic One Ring of 'Lord of the Rings' film trilogy.

A happy Lord of the Rings Day to you! (Previous editions: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014)

Every year I pen a commemorative piece about Lord of the Rings, and share something about the books and films that I think about nearly every day week. This year, I don’t have the strength, thanks to the workload due to the coronavirus pandemic, to say anything more than that you should take advantage of the lockdown – and the commute time it has likely saved you – to read more works of fantasy fiction.

It remains the single most rewarding thing in my life, even more than my blog, because fantasy as I’ve said before in quite clumsy terms is fractal. It recapitulates itself, especially its careful – or deliberately and absurdly careless – inventiveness, demanding more answers of the writer than any other form of fiction ever could simply because fantasy brings together three infinities: both what is and what isn’t that are the general attributes of all fiction plus the preserve of ‘are you frigging kidding me’. Reading good fantasy is sure to give you ideas of your own, to push towards (or away from) new worlds and new world-visions.

Fantasy is to my mind ergodic: riding its coattails, I get to visit all possibilities available to visit in the possibility-space of my mind; if I keep reading, I get to solipsistically encompass the worlds and world-visions of my fellow creators as well. Fantasy to me is newness, an endless font of it, in a world that has only been becoming more and more predictable; it is a secret place where goodness still lives, and on occasion even reaches a hand out and nudges me towards the right thing.

If I had been in Faramir’s shoes and stood before Denethor, bearing the full brunt of my father’s derision and being told he’d rather I had been killed instead of my brother, I would have done to him what he did to himself later: set him on fire. But Faramir rode out into a battle that he knew full well he was going to lose. Nothing about it was fair – just as nothing was fair about Anomander Rake’s tortuous, tortuous penance. Ours is a nasty world, and right and wrong aren’t always clear just as they might not have been to Faramir and Rake in moments of profound distress. In fact, the distinction is sometimes so blurry it might as well not be there.

When I’m lost for ideas, when I really don’t know what to do, when I would really like to just be told what I should do instead of having to think it up myself, I often turn to fantasy’s ideas about right and wrong, about what Faramir or Rake might have done, because fantasy is fundamentally empathetic in its alienness: its creations are often apart from this world – just as I feel sometimes, and you probably do too. It’s a place “infused with bright hope now so scarce in the realm of the real,” as a friend put it – a place to go when you don’t like this one (and from there to other places, picking and choosing what you like), and it’s a place that will let you go when you’d like to return, all in peace. The faith it demands is only the faith you’d like to give. What more could one want?

[Takes a break from the typing frenzy]

At least, good fantasy is all I want. And this Lord of the Rings Day, I invite you to take a short dip into a fantastic realm of your choice. If you’d like recommendations, I highly recommend starting with Lord of the Rings itself; if you’ve read that and want to try something more ambitious, try the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson or Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James. If you’d like something that won’t consume the next three to five years of your life, I recommend Exhalation, a collection of short stories by Ted Chiang that I’m currently reading, or all of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.

If you’d like even more recommendations – or titles more gender-balanced, say – I also recommend recommendations by the following souls (all on Twitter):

  • @srividyatadpole
  • @thebekku
  • @dpanjana
  • @chitralekha_tcc
  • @notrueindian
  • @supriyan

There are many, many others, of course, but these people came immediately to mind.

I really need to get back to work now.

Hard sci-fi

Come November, I will be at the Bangalore Literary Festival in conversation with Sri Lankan sci-fi author Navin Weeraratne. I am told Navin – “like you,” according to one of the organisers – is a proponent of hard sci-fi, the science fiction subgenre that draws upon legitimate scientific ideas and principles.

A less obsessive reader might not mind the difference, especially if the author’s invitation to suspend disbelief is smooth. But I draw a thick line between hard and soft sci-fi because science is more than, rather quite different from, technology, and I believe the ‘sci-fi’ label is warranted only if the principles of science are carried over as well, into everything from world-building to character-building. Heck, the act – and art – of deriving consequences from a finite set of first principles in a different universe and for a set of fictitious characters could be the point of a book in itself.

Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, is quite fond of inventing technologies to depict fantastic landscapes and cultures and is closer to fantasy fiction than to sci-fi.

Admittedly these are only lines in the sand but I believe the virtues of sci-fi could be extended to include many kinds of storytelling that the typical sci-fi author, usually dabbling in the softer parts of the subgenre, may not be inclined to explore.

Now, while I’ve expressed this view in public on a few occasions of late, I don’t know enough about the subgenre and its literary, historical and philosophical virtues – certainly not enough to speak to Navin Weeraratne on stage. The man has nine books to his name! Fortunately the event is over a month away and I have time to prepare. I dearly hope I don’t make a fool of myself onstage, in a room full of the ‘literary types’.