The scariest aliens in sci-fi: Prador, The Hive, Lankies and Arachnids

I’ve just finished reading Neal Asher’s Prador Moon (2006), chronologically the first story in his Polity Universe timeline, spanning 16 novels (and counting). In the novel, mankind has spread across the stars, powered by instantaneous travel (using gates called Runcibles) and AIs. The novel begins with the first direct meeting between humans and a sentient alien race, the Prador. The meeting turns out to be an ambush; the Prador demand fealty and when this is naturally refused, they open fire and start an interstellar war. The Prador are a frightening race – carnivorous, crab-like creatures between 2 and 5 meters across. While they have not developed AI tech, they are highly skilled in metallurgy; their spaceships are made of a self-repairing alloy that absorbs energy from projectiles and energy beams, which then powers their own energy weapons. They are extremely cruel and subject captured human prisoners-of-war to a variety of cruel experiments and depredations, after which they eat the surviving humans! The aggressive Prador (they frequently kill their own kind) have absolutely no redeeming qualities and it takes a huge amount of weaponry, technology, luck and smart thinking to destroy even one Prador spaceship. Likewise, in individual combat, they are well protected by their hard, outer carapace and the only sure way to kill them is to attach a mine onto their carapace and blow each one up.

It got me to thinking about other alien races from other scifi books that have posed similar level of threat to humans.

In R.M. Meluch’s fantastic (and also misogynistic and pulpy) Tour of the Merrimack series – six books published from 2005 to 2015 – the good guys are from the US of A, and are engaged in an intergalactic Cold War with the New Roman Empire (yes, you read that right). In the midst of this, humanity encounters a frightening alien species called the Hive. These tentacled aliens appear to be made of some dark amorphous goo-like substance (described by one reviewer as giant space meatballs with tentacles and teeth!). The Hive exist as multiple individuals, called Gorgons, but have a single hive mind, because of which they can communicate instantaneously with each other across light years of space. And they are nearly indestructible – the irony is they can best be killed by swords rather than by projectiles or energy weapons, so that’s what the humans use when the Hive invade their ships. The Hive are semi-sentient beings, whose only reason to live is to attack and eat other forms of life. Their survival instinct is so strong, that they can learn about the enemy’s attack strategy which makes it virtually impossible to hit them twice with the same strategy.

Marko Kloos’ Frontlines series – six novels published from 2013 to 2018 – also has a cold war going on between the USA and the Sino-Russian Alliance. But the human must put aside their hostilities when their colonies start getting attacked by a race of 80-foot tall aliens, nicknamed “Lankies” (disappointing name)’; the space infantry call them “Big Uglies”. The Lankies land on a planet, set up a giant terraforming stations that rapid fill the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and basically ‘smoke’ out the humans from the planet. The Lankies move surprisingly fast for their size and with their height and thick skin, it takes an incredible amount of concentrated firepower to kill them on the battlefield. Destroying their mile-high terraforming structures can only be done with nuclear weapons, which then makes large parts of the planet unfit for human habitation, even if they manage to flush the Lankies out…a losing proposition either way! In five years, humanity’s footprint across space has shrunk from a hundred colonies to less than seventy. Marko Kloos paints a very realistic portrait of life in the military, dealing with war and politics (and in this case, an enemy that’s almost impossible to defeat).

Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 novel Starship Troopers tells the story of an interstellar war between humans and an alien species known as Arachnids or Bugs. The 1997 film by Paul Verhoeven is a somewhat loose adaptation; it was a bit of a box office disappointment, but has risen to cult classic status over time. The Bugs are sub-divided into different castes, and we get to see the warriors as well as the plasma bugs. The Bug attacks in the movie are truly frightening, with the warrior hordes descending in wave after wave, spearing the humans and killed only by highly concentrated large caliber automatic weapons fire.

It’s not a coincidence that the three examples above are all from the military sci-fi sub-genre. I guess you need to create a formidable enough adversary in order to justify the use of substantial firepower!

While this post is about aliens from scifi books, not movies, the most well-known and scary alien in popular culture is the Xenomorph introduced in Ridley Scott’s seminal 1977 space horror film Alien. The plot of Alien is broadly similar to a storyline from the episodic novel Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt, which consists of four different adventures involving the crew of the Space Beagle. In the first adventure, an intelligent alien creature named Coeurl (which looks like a cat with tentacles around its neck) infiltrates the ship and kills off several crewmen one by one. The author of the novel filed a case against the film makers, who denied stealing his idea and ultimately, the two parties settled out of court. When I read the novel in the 80’s, I was immediately struck by the similarity to the film’s plot. And in fact, I found Coeurl to be a more frightening alien than the Xenomorph, because it is cunning, unlike the instinct-driven killing machine that the Xenomorph is portrayed to be.

And finally, in Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, a chance presence of an energy-based lifeform at the exact moment of the death of a human on an isolated human colony planet accidentally opens a gap between our universe and another dimension, which contains the souls of all humans who have ever lived and died (sort of an eternal purgatory). With the opening of the gap, souls are able to cross over and ‘possess’ live humans, their intrinsic energy imbuing the physical body they possess with tremendous powers. In no time at all, the ‘possessed’ overrun the colony planet and before long are spreading across the galaxy, impervious to normal weapons. Although these are not aliens, the possessed humans in this trilogy are equally scary and unstoppable, posing an existential threat to humanity just like the above-mentioned aliens. The humans also face a moral dilemma, as killing the possessing souls can only be done by killing the host human body, an innocent life (which in turn could potentially come back as a possessing soul!!!). It ultimately requires all the human factions to band together, tap into an obscure and long-lost alien technology and exercise some esoteric quantum science to subdue the extra-dimensional/ supernatural threat and perform a mass exorcism of humanity spanning all populated worlds across the galaxy.

While aliens on TV and in the movies tend to be more well-known, virtually none of them (except the Xenomorphs from Alien and possibly the Borg from Star Trek) are shown to operate at the same scale and lethality as the Prador, The Hive, Lankies or Arachnids. If any of these stories were to be adapted to screen, we would have a whole new pantheon of sci-fi villains to be terrified of.


Eifelheim: Using sci-fi to ponder cultural, religious and philosophical beliefs

We are all familiar with the ‘fish out of water’ trope in fiction. The country bumpkin in the city, the city dweller in the countryside (City Slickers) or the foreigner in another land (Coming to America) – these kinds of stories have used culture clashes as a basis for humor and melodrama. In the 80’s there were some ‘fantasy’ movies in Hollywood which explored this trope from various angles, e.g. Splash (mermaid among land-dwellers; almost literally ‘fish out of water’!), Big (corporate world from a kid’s perspective) and even Cocoon (senior citizens suddenly able to participate in the activities of younger people).

And of course, using time travel as a device opens up many entertaining possibilities. A big part of the charm of the Back to the Future movies was seeing Marty McFly try to navigate a culture from 30 years in his past. Surprisingly, Hollywood didn’t repeat this successful formula in later years; subsequent time travel movies like 12 Monkeys (1995), Source Code (2011) and Looper (2012) have used time displacement as an element in a mystery/ thriller rather than to explore cultural differences.

Given the pressure to pack maximum entertainment into a 2-hour movie, perhaps it’s the written word that provides better opportunities. Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is perhaps one of the earliest such examples. Twain used the time travel device as a satire of feudalism and the monarchy, both concepts that the American ideal is diametrically opposed to.

In modern sci-fi, several novels feature present-day humans sent into the past, usually into times of conflict, thereby giving an opportunity to showcase their superiority in weapons and technology.

In this sub-genre, a very entertaining novel I read some years ago is Eric Flint’s 1632 (published in 2000), in which the fictional town of Grantville in West Virginia (about 3 miles in radius) is mysteriously displaced in time and space, back to the year 1631 and transferred to the German province of Thuringia, right into the midst of the Thirty Years’ War. The book spawned a number of sequels and Eric Flint even encouraged fan fiction set in this universe to the point that several such stories were published from time to time in the anthology series, The Grantville Gazette.

S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time (published 1998) tells of a similar incident in which the island of Nantucket is transported back to the Bronze Age (1250 BC), in fact into the midst of the Trojan War! This novel too spawned sequels and spin-offs.

John Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy (published 2004-07) is the very entertaining story of a US-led naval task force operating in the Pacific theatre in the year 2021, which is accidentally transported back into the midst of World War II, due to the malfunction of an experimental weapon on-board one of their ships.

These three sci-fi series all focus on the impact of introducing modern technology into a historical conflict situation. The modern-day time-travelers inevitably end up taking sides in the existing conflict, their technological advantage partly neutralized by their unfamiliarity with terrain and culture, or perhaps due to one of their own people switching sides to fulfill ambitions of power. There are always sub-plots – people from the different time periods falling in love or misunderstandings resulting from cultural differences, especially related to racial and gender equality. In the hands of a skillful writer, these situations can very effectively force the readers examine their own beliefs and prejudices; aspects of daily life that we take for granted can appear very fragile when seen in the context of a culture where those things are unacceptable.

There’s another group of time-travel books featuring ‘professional’ time-travelers.

Michael Crichton’s Timeline, has a group of scientists using time-travel technology to go back to the year 1357 in the Dordogne region of France.

Similarly, Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel series has Oxford researchers using a time-travel machine to go back and study major events in history.

And, Neal Stephenson’s outstanding The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., is an entertaining romp about the impact of sending people back in time, or even worse, bringing people from the past into our time.

In these books, the protagonists know that they can come back to their own time and this makes their behaviour very different from that of the ‘accidental’ time-travelers. When you have made a one-way trip into the past and you know you have to assimilate yourself into a new culture quickly in order to survive, that makes for a very interesting story dynamic.

It is exactly that ‘one-way trip’ dynamic which operates in the book I am currently reading, Michael Flynn’s award-winning 2006 novel Eifelheim. It features a very similar situation to that of the novels mentioned earlier, a technologically advanced group of people suddenly appears in a small town in the Black Forest in 1348, just as the Black Death is sweeping through Europe. The twist is that the visitors are not time travelers or even human; they are an insectoid-humanoid species of aliens whose inter-dimensional ship has crash landed in the woods near the village and realize they cannot ever leave. The novel explores many interesting themes. This is a time when Jews are being burned across Europe as many believe that they are poisoning drinking wells or in some other way carrying the cause of the plague. There are some in the village who wonder if these creatures are the cause. Others simply cannot accept their presence, believing that if man is made in the image of God, then surely these non-humans must be representatives of Satan. Naturally, they fall back upon the comfort and security of their religious beliefs as a means of self-preservation. Ironically, the most open-minded of the villagers is  Pastor Dietrich, who tries to analyze how the existence of these creatures impacts his own beliefs and fits into his theological view of the world. Eventually, a couple of the aliens convert to Christianity; this act helps increase their acceptance among the locals, but some, including Dietrich’s own adopted daughter just cannot overcome their prejudices and xenophobia.

As conflict and disease close in on the little town, both humans and aliens are forced to come together in an uneasy alliance for mutual self-preservation. And indeed this is the way of the world. Our lizard brain seems programmed to classify everyone we meet automatically into ‘ally’ or ‘threat’ – Us vs. Them. But when faced with a common external threat, survival instincts kick in and suddenly yesterday’s enemies become today’s allies (not necessarily friends).

I enjoy reading these types of novels, as much for the insight into bygone people and cultures, as for the action-adventure. But after a few books, the experience has become repetitive because in almost all cases, the modern protagonists are transported into Europe (I guess that’s the culture that western authors are familiar with and are confident writing about); the exception is Australian author John Birmingham who chose to place the action in his Axis of Time trilogy close to home, in the waters between Indonesia and Japan. It would be cool if there were stories like this set in Asia, perhaps during the time of Genghis Khan in Central Asia or the Edo period in Japan or the Mughals in India.

Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End – unconditional love across race and gender in the 19th century

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How curious that after reading an extraordinary story of decades-long love and friendship in the cultured environs of a luxury hotel in early 20th century Moscow, I follow up with another extraordinary story of decades-long love and friendship, this one set in the barbaric world of 19th century USA, amidst the Indian massacres and the Civil War . The first book is A Gentleman in Moscow, which I wrote about recently and the second is Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, both published in 2016.

The styles of writing reflect the contrast in setting; while Amor Towles’ prose is nuanced and oh-so-civilized, Sebastian Barry’s narrative is raw and mercurial, like the world that his book’s characters inhabit. Barry’s story is narrated in the first person by a poor Irish immigrant turned soldier, a man who expresses his feelings without thought to the rules of language; an uncensored, unfiltered stream-of-consciousness style that is almost a sort of magical poetry. Initially I found this difficult to ‘process’, but it had a magnetic quality that quickly became both engaging and endearing.

Days Without End is the story of two men – Thomas McNulty and John Cole – who meet in their early teens in the late 1840’s and then go through a series of experiences and adventures over the next 20 odd years. I discovered while writing this post that McNulty’s family has been the subject of three of Barry’s previous novels, criss-crossing generations on either side of the Atlantic. In this book, through McNulty, we are witness to the American nation’s growth pangs as it engages in a bloody war to wrest control of land and resources from Native American tribes, then tears itself apart due to a fundamental disagreement over slavery and black rights (the echoes of which continue to reverberate even today).

The two meet as teenagers in Missouri and are hired by a saloon owner to dress up as girls in the evenings so that his patrons have someone to dance with, there being hardly any women in the mining town to be recruited for this (“It’s just the dancing. No kissing, cuddling, feeling or fondling”, assures the owner Mr. Titus Noone). After some years, the boys, now in their late teens join the Army and go out West along the Oregon Trail. In due course, they participate in brutal warfare and massacres of Native American tribes.

John Cole progressively becomes McNulty’s friend, companion, lover and reason to live. In spite of his status as a co-protagonist of the story, Cole is a distant figure in the book, McNulty’s virtual worship of him elevating him in his narrative to an Olympian level of existence, beyond the daily scrimmages and depredations of ordinary men. Cole’s silent compassion, courage and presence of mind acts as a rudder of stability as the two men traverse the geography and events of turbulent 19th century America through the Indian Wars, the Civil War and continued troubles with the Native Americans thereafter.

Along the way, the two become three. McNulty and Cole are joined by a young Native American girl who is the survivor of yet another massacre initiated by trigger-happy soldiers. She along with other surviving children from the tribe are taken in by Mrs. Neale, the wife of the US Army commander and schooled in the ‘Christian Way’. This girl, Winona is then assigned to be a servant to these soldiers (the commander’s wife making it very clear that she is not be abused in any way) and the two men get permission to take her along with them, when they resign their commission and set off to seek civilian employment back in Missouri. Just as in Gentleman in Moscow, this novel comes alive with the arrival of a young child into the lives of the protagonist/s; she unlocks degrees of love and parental instinct that these characters did not know they possessed and which in the natural course of life they could not have experienced (Count Rostov as a lifelong bachelor enduring house arrest in Russia and McNulty/ Cole as gay lovers in 19th century America).

In the following years, the little ‘family’ live through a roller coaster of experiences and emotions – happy times, times of separation and times of extreme stress and persecution. They stay sane and alive and together through their unstinting and unconditional love for each other. The twists and turns in the plot elevate the story to almost thriller-like levels of anxiety and anticipation; at one point, I was convinced that one or the other of the three would not make it to the end of the story alive. Suffice to say that there is indeed a happy ending, although one cannot say to what extent the physical and psychological scars will impact the trio over the remainder of their lives.

I mentioned earlier about the magical quality of the first person narrative. As in the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, there were many lines and passages I highlighted while reading the book that I went back and read again, some of which I have listed below.

When meeting their old benefactor Titus Noone after a gap of many years, McNulty remarks how well old Mr. Noone looks – “His skin is made of the aftermaths of smiles.”

Marveling at the beauty of his adopted daughter Winona, McNulty says,”Goddamned beautiful black hair. Blue eyes like a mackerel’s blue back. Or a duck’s wing feathers. Sweet little face cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead.”

Later in the book, describing Winona’s singing voice,”Such a sweet clear note she keeps in her breast. Pours out like something valuable and sparse into the old soul of the year.”

Days Without End has won both the 2016 Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread Book Award) and the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction from the UK. As with A Gentleman in Moscow, this is a book that reminds us what it means to be human!

Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow – House arrest in the good old days

It’s not often that I take a break from my steady diet of scifi and even when I do, it’s usually to read a travelogue or a biography. So I surprised even myself, when I decided to pick Amor Towles’ highly acclaimed 2nd novel A Gentleman in Moscow as my next read. All I knew about the book was the blurb I read on Goodreads. At the time, I had never heard of Amor Towles and knew nothing about him (graduated from Yale, lives in NYC, investment professional for 20 years).

What a good decision it was! I tend to carried away with praise for a book I really like; especially immediately after I’ve finished it, I’ll go around saying “this is one of the best books I’ve ever read!”. That’s why I waited a week after I finished the book and after that, I skimmed through the entire book a second time (stopping at various passages which I had highlighted during the first read) to check if I still felt the same way. I do. This IS one of the best books I’ve ever read!

This is a story of a member of the Russian aristocracy who in 1922 is sentenced by THE EMERGENCY COMMITTEE OF THE PEOPLE’S COMMISSARIAT FOR INTERNAL AFFAIRS to live the rest of his life under house arrest for writing a poem which was considered to be disruptive to the spirit of the Revolution. With immediate effect, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is escorted back to the luxurious Hotel Metropol in Moscow, which is where he had been in residence for the previous 4 years, using it as a sort of serviced apartment as was the practice of the wealthy in those days. When he goes upstairs to his room, he discovers that he has been moved into a tiny attic, which can only accommodate his massive writing table, a chair, a bed and his large collection of books. Everything else has been confiscated by the State.

From this point, we become intimately familiar with the landscape of the hotel where this entire story plays out. The restaurants – the Piazza and The Boyarsky, the Shalyapin Bar (where he has his nightly aperitif), the barbershop, the kitchen, the card room, the florist’s room, the seamstress’ room (yes!) and of course, staircases, corridors and storerooms.

This is a character-based rather than plot-based novel, woven around a series of vignettes, the author dipping in every few years into specific events.

The first major event happens when the Count meets 9-year-old Nina Kulikova, the daughter of a widowed Ukranian bureaucrat, who is resident at the hotel. Nina’s governess has chosen not to send her to a regular school, nevertheless she is incredibly well-informed for her age (in their first meeting, she sagely proclaims that “a woman is always involved” when talking about duels between gentlemen). The Count and Nina quickly form a partnership of equals. While he educates her on the ways of the world (especially her desire to know “how to become a princess”), she teaches him how to navigate the various hidden and forgotten passageways of the hotel…a skill that will be immensely helpful to him in the decades to come.

This young and enterprising girl stays at the hotel until her teens. Some years later, the Count sees her walking through the hotel lobby with a couple of acquaintances. She has become an intense, passionate, but utterly humorless young woman with many idealistic thoughts and an activist nature. At this point, I shared the Count’s deep disappointment that this little girl whose wisdom was so charming in her youth had grown up into this serious, boring young woman. As the Count says to one of the hotel staff when describing the encounter, “I fear that the force of her convictions will interfere with the joys of her youth.” I felt sad that the story had been deprived of their entertaining relationship.

But I needn’t have worried. Soon after this incident, the author brings in a new source of charm, innocence and youthful wisdom. The very same Nina returns furtively to the Metropol, specifically to meet the Count. She is now married and her husband has been sent off to some correctional facility and she has decided to follow him there in the hope of being able to secure his release. She leaves her 6-year-old daughter Sofia in the Count’s care, until she returns. And this is a significant event, because Nina never comes back. The Count effectively adopts the little girl and brings her up as his own daughter. This relationship between the Count and Sofia forms the emotional core of the story.

By this point, the Count has become fast friends with the Chef Emile Zhukovsky and Andrey, the maître d’ at the Boyarsky. This triumvirate eventually become a cohesive parent/ guardian unit for the girl, frequently assisted by Marina the seamstress.

And into this already rich mix of relationships that the Count develops, there has been another addition: Miss Anna Urbanova, a fast-rising actress, who clashes with the Count when they first meet (there is quite a commotion caused by her two dogs chasing the resident cat across the lobby and the Count chastises her for not controlling her pets) but eventually reappears in his life years later and goes on to have a long-term relationship with him.

All these key characters, as well as others like the bartender Audrius, the desk captain Arkady, the old handyman Abram who cultivates a honeybee nest on the roof, the concierge Vasily, form the human landscape of this story.

And indeed it is a story of retaining one’s humanity and being civilized in the midst of some of the most turbulent times in the history of Russia. And above all, it is a story of love. Strangely, the author that I was most reminded of while reading this book was J.R.R. Tolkien. Although Tolkien wrote of elves and dwarves, his books too were full of sincere, good people who cared for each other and helped their friends through difficult times. The style of narrative of both books is evocative of an earlier, simpler age when good people didn’t have shades of grey.

And running throughout the book is Towles’ sensitive, intelligent, witty and cultured dialogue. Was it really like this among the educated classes in Russia at that time? Perhaps so, given this was the land of Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin and countless other world-renowned wordsmiths. Take for instance, this description of the conversation between the Count and Sofia after he fails to find an object that she has hidden in a room during a game:

Sofia: “Are you giving up?”
“I am conceding,” said the Count
“Is that the same as giving up?”

“Yes, it is the same as giving up.”
“Then you should say so.”
Naturally. His humiliation must be brought to its full realization.
“I give up,” he said.

There were so many such passages in the book and I found myself quietly chuckling away every few minutes. I was tempted to include more examples in this post, but had to give up the plan as I’d have ended up putting half the book in, especially since the wit works best within the larger context of the scene and not necessarily when just quoted as a standalone sentence or phrase.

In a strange way, this was also a coming-of-age story. Not the normal sort about teenagers or young adults, but of a cultured gentleman of leisure who in keeping with the times, never actually did anything prior to his house arrest (as he informs the committee at the start of the book “it is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations”). In due course, his intrinsic humanity helps him become a hardworking, contributing member of the closed society within the Metropol.

While reading it, I started thinking that in the hands of a good director, with great casting, this would make an eminently watchable movie. And so I searched and was thrilled to read that a few months ago indie production company Entertainment One secured the rights to adapt the book into a TV series to be directed by Tom Harper (War & Peace, Peaky Blinders). Very much looking forward to that!

PS: Here’s a short interview with Amor Towles by the Wall Street Journal in which explains how he came to write the novel. After watching this, please go read the book!

The history of Istanbul by Thomas Madden is as gripping and entertaining as Game of Thrones

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How do you compress the 2700-year history of a city (and empire) into 450 pages without losing any of the drama or human stories nor reducing it into a dry listing of events and dates? Thomas F. Madden, the 56-year-old American historian shows you how with his extraordinary 2016 publication, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Mr. Madden is the Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University and has been known for years as a specialist on the Crusades, so it seems only fitting that he write this history of the city that was the focal point of the war between Christian and Muslim armies for centuries.

I have always been fascinated by Istanbul/ Constantinople – its breath-taking architecture, its unique geographic position between Asia & Europe, the fiction it has inspired such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and even its cuisine including the Baklava and Turkish delight. I’ve not yet had a chance to visit this iconic city, so to prepare myself for a future journey (and perhaps to compensate for not having visited it before it became like any other modern world city), I searched for a comprehensive yet compact history of Constantinople which brought me to Mr. Madden’s recent publication.

By the time I finished the book, I was convinced that much of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones must have been inspired by people, events and settings from this city’s history! Even the Unsullied, the slave-soldiers of Astapor sound a lot like the elite Janissaries of the Ottoman ruler.

The book starts off with the founding of the city in 667 BC as Byzantion, a north-eastern trading outpost of the Greek city-state of Megara (now a small town about 40 km west of Athens). The outpost was about 600 km from Megara as the crow flies and the voyage by ship would have taken the Megarans across the Aegean Sea, through the narrow Dardanelles strait, past Gallipoli peninsula into the Sea of Marmara before arriving at the Bosporus straits. The Bosporus linked through to the Black Sea and was the key source for goods and grain from Central Asia. The control of this key trade route eventually made Byzantion the most powerful city in the world for close to two millennia.

It’s easy to think of this sea route as a straightforward journey when viewed on Google maps today, but I was amazed at how these ancient seafarers could have discovered this particular route from among all the hundreds of other possible combinations they could have taken on the open seas!

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From this point, the book takes us through the many rulers and dynasties which shaped the destiny of this city which became the seat of the Greek (Byzantion), Roman (Constantinople) and Ottoman (Istanbul) empires before emerging as the modern, secular city it is today.

There are many fascinating characters who have played a role in the city’s history. As in Game of Thrones, one realizes how the ambition, courage or foolhardiness of a single individual can influence the fate of empires and millions of subjects. This is a story of intrigue, betrayal, blindings (a common way of dealing with a rival to the throne was to gouge his eyes out), beheadings, massacres, pillage and destruction. But also a story of the creation of incredible artefacts and architecture, much of which have been destroyed over time and many of which have survived till today.

In particular, the individuals whose stories have stayed in my memory are:

Constantine I “the Great”: By AD 285, the Roman empire had grown so vast that it was divided into two halves, with the Western empire governed from Rome and the Eastern empire based in Byzantion, which had been “liberated” from Greek rule in 196 BC. This was the time when a new religion called Christianity had taken hold among the poor and downtrodden. After an initial period of peaceful co-existence, Christianity came under fire and was outlawed in AD 302 leading to large scale persecution of Christians. But then a new Western emperor came to power in AD 312 called Constantine. During an earlier military campaign, he had a vision that his victory would be assured by Jesus Christ and after coming to power he formally converted to Christianity. This led to the stoppage of the persecution and the elevation of Christianity as a religion of the emperor. In AD 324, Constantine defeated the Eastern emperor, unified the Roman empire and chose to live on in the East rather than return to Rome. He rebuilt and expanded Byzantion, renaming it as Constantinople. It became – along with Rome – the heart of the Christian world for the next thousand years.

Justinian and Theodora: In AD 532, Emperor Justinian was on the verge of being overthrown by a rival faction in what is now referred to as the Nika revolt. There were violent riots between the two factions for nearly a week with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. Justinian and his advisors were on the verge of fleeing the city when his wife Theodora made an impassioned plea to stay and fight. Theodora came from humble beginnings; her father was a bear trainer at the famous Hippodrome which held chariot races of the sort shown in Ben-Hur. She then worked as an actress and a prostitute (the two professions were interchangeable in those days) before coming to the attention of Justinian while he was heir to the throne. It was this former prostitute turned empress who prevailed on the ruling elite to resist the rebellion. Inspired by her words and spirit, Justinian did so and went on to rule Constantinople with Theodora for several more years, building aqueducts, bridges and churches including the famous Hagia Sophia.

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Andronikos Komnenos: Perhaps one of the most colourful of the Byzantine rulers, Andronikos was supposedly a handsome and striking personality, a general and statesman who lived a charmed life of debauchery, seduction and intrigue. He rose to the Byzantine throne in 1183 at the advanced age of 65. His rule was marked by murders, massacres and terror. He was eventually overthrown and handed over to furious mobs who tortured him publicly for several days; his right hand was cut off, his teeth and hair pulled out, one of his eyes gouged out, animal dung and boiling water thrown on his face. Finally, he was hung by his feet between two pillars and two soldiers competed to see whose sword would penetrate his body most deeply!

Alexsios IV Angelos: The machinations of Alexios IV to reclaim the Byzantine throne on behalf of his deposed and blinded father Isaac II resulted in four different emperors on the throne from July 1203 to April 1204. In a ridiculous turn of events, the Fourth Crusade which was organized to reconquer Jerusalem from the Muslims ended up sacking, looting and destroying Constantinople, the capital of the 2nd largest Christian empire! These events would lead to the eventual weakening of the Byzantine empire and 250 years later it would fall to the armies of 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in May 1453.

Suleiman the Magnificent and Hurrem Sultan: In the 1530s, Sultan Suleiman (the great-grandson of Mehmed) sent shockwaves through the empire by marrying his Ukranian concubine Roxelana (later named Hurrem, “the cheerful one”). Previous Sultans never married, but fathered children from the many women in their harem, rarely sleeping with the same woman twice (there was a strong preference for virgins). However Suleiman became captivated by Hurrem and the two became true soulmates, effectively ruling the empire together for two decades. This was the Golden Age of the Ottoman empire, which saw the reform of education, taxation and criminal law. Suleiman’s brilliant architect Mimar Sinan supervised the construction of nearly 500 buildings, including the famous Blue Mosque and the even more impressive Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, one of the greatest achievements of Islamic architecture. Hurram’s partnership with Suleiman led to the 130-year period known as the Sultanate of Women, during which the wives and mothers of sultans exerted considerable political influence in the running of the empire.

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Incidentally, it was a failed invasion of Vienna by Suleiman during 1529-32 that convinced Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire not to burn Martin Luther at the stake as he needed the help of the Protestant leaders against the Ottoman threat. Thus the Protestant Reformation thrived and was saved from being snuffed out.

Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’: The father of modern day Turkey, Ataturk was an Army commander who went on to become the 1st President of Turkey, abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and bringing to an end 2500 years of empire in Byzantion/ Constantinople/ Istanbul. Mustafa Kemal was responsible for establishing Turkey as a modern secular nation, adopting the Western calendar and the Roman script to re-integrate the nation into the global economy after decades of decline, recognizing and celebrating the pre-Islamic history of the city including conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum.

And so, I came to the end of this fascinating book which has got me even more excited about visiting this city one day soon. The complexity of Istanbul is perhaps best represented through this 16th century illustration of the city by Danish renaissance painter Melchior Lorck.

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Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is a thrilling trip through time

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I’ve just finished reading my 26th Stephen King book, 11.22.63; I read my first – It – in 1988. I’ve read more of his stories than I have of any other author, with Isaac Asimov next at 18.

Stephen King doesn’t give the reader any easy rides. His protagonists go through pain. Lots of it. There are lots of lead characters in popular culture who get hurt, like Indiana Jones and John McClane; but those guys mainly experience physical pain and they are still strong enough to bounce back in the next action scene a few minutes later. King’s characters on the other hand, keep hurting for a long time because the pain is physical, emotional and psychological. Like in real life. I think this is the real reason he is classified as a horror author, because we know that life’s realities can be more horrifying than any ghost, monster or supernatural phenomenon.

11.22.63 falls into the scifi spectrum of Stephen King stories, like Under the Dome. In 2011, a small town high school teacher Jake Epping is invited by long-time acquaintance Al Templeton to his house, where he learns that Templeton has been using a secret time portal to travel back in time; the portal opens into a specific day in 1958. Templeton extracts from Epping a promise that he will go back and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a pivotal moment in American history which Templeton believes led to America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War and many other ills the world has suffered since. Epping agrees, goes through the portal and then travels down south to Texas where he has to get through the next 5 years, find Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent the foul deed. In the hands of any other author, this would have become a typical suspense thriller, but King is interested as much in the journey as the destination and takes us on a tour of America in the late 50s and early 60s, a nation that has gone past the post-war baby boom and is now dealing with urban decay and social cynicism. Along the way, Epping meets some memorable characters, falls in love, gets into some heart-stopping dangerous situations and eventually faces his destiny as the man who has the power to change the course of history.

One key plot mechanic used – kind of like the opposite of a deus ex machina (apparently the term is ‘diabolus ex machina’) – is that the past does everything possible to prevent its course from being changed. And so, Epping has to battle all sorts of people and incidents that pop up, like Murphy’s Law, to stop him from getting to Oswald before he fires that gun. And afterwards, Epping finds out that even if you do manage to change the course of events, Time has a way of taking revenge.

This is a fascinating story that stays in the memory well after the last page has been turned. I would love to watch the mini-series featuring James Franco as Jake Epping, which premiered on Hulu earlier this year and see if it does justice to King’s writing. If it weren’t for the fact that King writes horror/ fantasy/ scifi, he would certainly have been celebrated as one of America’s great modern writers of fiction.

Which is worse? Living in a radioactive airship or inside a giant bio-engineered lizard?

I recently read two very different scifi books, with a similar theme – people living part or all of their lives on the move, inside an unusual, cramped and unpleasant form of transportation. Both stories are set about 250 years in the future on a post-apocalyptic Earth operating under militarized society.

First, let me talk about James Barclay’s Heart of Granite. The book begins with this quote from fictional scientist Dr. David Wong – “History will record that the discovery of alien technology and DNA on asteroid X34-102-401 brought us to a predictable catastrophe. Governments perverted our greatest gift to synthesise vehicles of destruction. Global conflict was inevitable.”

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The story takes place during the mid-23rd century in the midst of a world war involving three major global powers – United Europe (UE), Middle East & Africa (the Mid-Afs or Mafs) and Latin America (the Sambas). All three parties use alien DNA technology for their weapons.

Our hero, Max Halloran is a maverick pilot (think Tom Cruise in Top Gun), fighting on the side of United Europe. Operating under the call sign ‘Hal-X’ he flies with the Inferno squadron. So far, so normal. Except that he flies an artificially grown dragon (called a Drake), synthesized from alien DNA and terrestrial lizard DNA. The drakes have a pouch which the pilot climbs into. It then fills with fluid to protect the pilot from g-forces and also neurally connects him/ her to the drake’s brain so that it can be controlled by thought. The drakes, pilots and a few thousand other military combatants are transported inside the body cavity of a kilometer long giant lizard (called a Behemoth), which lumbers along the devastated battlefield on 30-odd pairs of legs. The Behemoth inside which Max and his crew are based is the eponymous Heart of Granite (or HoG for short). The military also uses other genetically modified lizards as troop carriers (Komodos), ground assault vehicles with missile launchers (Geckos), support carriers (Iguanas) and high speed patrol vehicles (Basilisks), some of which are also transported aboard the giant Behemoths.

Heart of Granite plays out like a standard pulp fiction military thriller. There are spectacular air battles, heartless superior officers, rivalry between hotheaded pilots, plus the usual mix of sex, drugs and alcohol.

But what made the book special for me was the description of life aboard the HoG, which operates like a typical military base. The author goes into tremendous detail about the internal structures of the Behemoth. There’s the main bridge inside the head cavity with its large screen monitors and sophisticated communication equipment; the flight deck from which the drakes are launched – a giant ramp opens out under the Behemoth’s tail from which they take off; the hidden passageways and rooms occupied by black marketeers and drug peddlers; the giant brain of the Behemoth which can be accessed in the case of an emergency to reset the electrical, mechanical and biological systems. Some parts of the Behemoth are particularly smelly or occasionally leak body fluid through cracks in the flesh, which then pool on the floor in a squelchy mess. It’s anything but glamorous, but the men and women aboard the HoG take it all in their stride as they fight for their nation and for glory. There’s also a somewhat convoluted plotline involving a government and military conspiracy, which Max gets sucked into. Eventually, he has to save himself, his friends and the HoG, while evading the higher-ups in the military who are trying to silence him.


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The second book I read was Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s Hell Divers. About 250 years after World War III turned the surface of the earth into a radioactive wasteland, all that remains of humanity is a population of less than a thousand people, who live aboard two helium airships – the Hive and the Ares.  Once upon a time, there were dozens of such airships, but now only these two survive. The rest fell to the poisoned earth one by one, as their ageing nuclear systems failed or the ships were struck by giant bolts of lightning from the perpetual mega-storms which circle the planet. Generation after generation of airship captains circle the globe, looking in vain for a single spot on the planet which is not radioactive, where they can touch down and start a normal life. Meanwhile, over more than two centuries, they have learned how to survive inside the airship, with plants grown inside farms, systems constantly patched up and repaired, living in cramped quarters with stinking toilets, everything recycled and citizens suffering from cancer due to the leaking radiation from the on-board nuclear reactors.

The protagonist of this book is Xavier Rodriguez, or X for short. X is a Hell Diver, an elite member of the military on board the Hive. They specialize in doing parachute drops into ruined cities, looking for precious spare parts or other pieces of technology which are required to keep the ships functioning and airborne. The author starts off by telling us that the average life expectancy of a Hell Diver is 15 jumps, but X is about to do his 96th. Beating the statistical odds comes with a price – most of X’s Hell Diver friends have perished over the years, his own wife has recently died and X keeps himself going by drowning himself in alcohol.

In this story, the airship Ares attempts a desperate retrieval mission for a large cache of critical nuclear reactor parts. The ship chooses to go to Hades (Chicago of old earth) which was the HQ of the company that built these airships and is rumoured to have a warehouse filled with pristine spare parts. Unfortunately, Hades is racked by the most violent thunderstorms on the planet and no airship’s Hell Diver team has ever returned from a dive there. Not surprisingly, the Ares is badly damaged and sends out an SOS; Captain Ash of the Hive decides to respond, her conscience winning out against the advice of her subordinates. She turns to her most experienced Hell Diver and it’s up to X and his crew to save the day. Most of them survive the jump against all odds, but once on the surface, they discover that Hades is overrun by a host of mutated creatures which are able to survive in the radiation. It becomes a desperate race against time to find the cache of parts, escape the marauding creatures and get back to the ship before it too falls victim to the brutal weather above the ruined city.

There are a couple of subplots which lift the story above standard military scifi fare. One involves the orphaned and traumatized son of X’s deceased colleague who now comes under his care. Just as the boy warms up to X’s attempts to build a rapport, he has to deal with the possibility that X will not return from his dive into Hades. The other subplot involves a group of citizens who are fed up with the squalid conditions on the lower decks of the Hive and decide to start a rebellion at the same time that the ship enters the perilous skies above Hades.

I’m not a particularly fast reader, but I managed to finish each of these books in less than four hours, which is an indication of how quickly-paced both stories are and how easy it is to digest the conversational language of both authors, in spite of lots of technical details thrown in.