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Friday, December 21, 2012

In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns by Elizabeth Bear (thoughts by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website 
Read In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns in its entirety 
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of Dust 
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of A Companion To Wolves 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Elizabeth Bear posted about this novella on her twitter feed a couple of days and that is how I came to read “In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns”. It was originally published in Asimov's January 2012 edition and now is featured for free on the author's site. It is a novella that consists of a procedural mystery that is mixed with SF and also deals with the exploration of a foreign culture, in this case India. It is a quintessential Elizabeth Bear story that mixes different genre aspects with some terrific characterization as well a unique-ish setting that confounds partly and yet is completely alluring to those looking for a different world setting.

The story begins in the city of Bengaluru (Banglore) in India of the future with police sub-inspector Ferron (aka Tamanna), and her partner of seven years, senior constable Indrapramit, who are investigating the very perplexing murder of a brilliant but aloof physicist named Dexter Coffin. Coffin's remains are found in his apartment but in a very weird state; his body has been turned inside out—with the end result featuring a pink slimy mess. Their troubles are compounded by the fact that all data related to Coffin’s last few hours has been wiped out and the only witness might be a talking parrot-cat hybrid that was also the physicist’s pet and whose memories have also been tampered with.

In this futuristic version of India, people have developed newer ways of telecommunications and web surfing. Almost everyone is glued into the intenet by means of "feeds" and "skins" that help in instant communication as well as in filtering data about the surroundings as per the person’s requirement. The author has very convincingly built a futuristic society with most of the hi-tech gadgetry that we have come to expect however her unique touch is that she has seamlessly interspersed it with Indian culture and mythology thereby creating a uniquely captivating Indo-SF storyline. As an Indian I was simply stunned at the thoroughness of her research and the depth of the background detail, be it with the Indian police hierarchy or the mythological names and details or with even the names and Indian vocabulary. Elizabeth Bear’s world-building skills and her research has to be applauded thoroughly if not awarded.

Next up is the characterization and it is here that why I fell in love with this story as it’s the characters and the main protagonist that made my read such a captivating one. Ferron is a person who is at odds with her mother and yet she strives to do her “kartavya” towards her mother and her fellow citizens. Her friendship with constable Indrapramit is shown to be a deep one and there are hints at some background troubles faced by Indrapramit however that would be a tale for another time. The procedural aspect of the story is fueled intensely by Ferron’s diligent search for the truth while dealing with her personal issues. This detective duo pairing is entirely fascinating to read about and I hope the author does write more in this milieu and explore what happens beyond the confines of this story.

As a reader and world-building geek, I want to read more about this new age India and see the author explore Bengaluru and other corners of this futuristic Indian subcontinent. Elizabeth Bear’s prose skills are often lauded in her other works but since I’ve not read much of her work, I hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing why others had been in love with it. After reading this novella I can see that I will need to catch up on her remaining bibliography. The story is told with such skill that for a moment one forgets the settings and foreignness of the land and gets drawn into the primary character voice and the world as she views it. Her strengths, her weakness, her inner thoughts, etc. are laid bare with poetic precision and it’s no wonder that the story is stronger because of the author’s skill.

I am absolutely in love with this story and I hope more readers read it as its currently featured free on the author’s website. Discover for yourself why Elizabeth Bear has been nominated in almost every category by all awards under the sun. She has legions of fans and now I count myself one among this rising tide.

NOTE: Image art is of Pegasus fresco from Pompeii by xueexueg on Photoree. Taken from the author's site and used under Creative Commons.

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