Why do we like science fiction?

Science fiction, a genre that was once considered to be just a source of comfort and imaginary friendships for the earlier despised and now celebrated human sub-species known as nerds. I’m not sure exactly when nerds became cool. Maybe when guys who looked like they will never get laid started making million dollar companies from their garages. I personally think Hugh Jackman definitely played a role by making comic book superheroes seem cool, unlike the kids who read the comics before they were made into movies. I was personally unaffected by the anti nerd mentality of the time because of my remarkable lack of respect for academic achievement, but even my friends thought my taste in movies and books was kind of weird.

Nowadays though, superhero movies, Star Trek movies, Star Wars movies are all accepted and mainstream. The big money of course brought bigger on screen explosions and hotter actresses. But there was a time before people got to ogle Megan Fox in a movie about space robots that look like sports cars. In the pilot of the original Star Trek series (which I saw recently on a dull Sunday), a beauty who was stranded on Talos IV did an utterly cringe worthy dance in green paint, which was apparently supposed to be seductive.

Look at her, she's glistening greenI'm glistening green

And yet, there were sci-fi fans even back then. Even now, there are movies which do not have enough action or sex or drama to sell a lot but still get a flock of devotees. What then is the true allure of science fiction books or movies apart from entertainment value, which works universally?

An article I read recently made a distinction between science fiction and fantasy which made me think about this. It argues that true science fiction according to authors of that genre takes up a big scientific advancement or discovery and uses that as a lens to examine the true nature of things we are already used to. Fantasy stories on the other hand merely sets the story in a fantasy world which might or might not be a futuristic one. The key difference is that the science or tech in that is not integral to the story. The article argues that Star Wars is a space fantasy movie and not a science fiction movie, although I think that will be debated to the end of the world and back through a time loop. Leaving aside the debate about which movies qualify, lets focus on the idea that science fiction is a premise to look at our own world and lives.

mild spoilers for Blade Runner 2049 and Her ahead

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When should you take homeopathic medication?

Homeopathic_medicineWhen I was a kid, there was a homeo doctor nearby who we used to go to. Not every time we fell ill, but often enough to call him ‘uncle’. When my sister got chicken pox, my parents took me to him to get preventive meds. When many people in the house fell ill or there was bug going around, we would go again. Sometimes it would work and at other times even the preventive meds wouldn’t stop it. It wasn’t a big deal and I hardly gave any thought to it over the years. Homeopathic medicines and doctors were widely available and accepted in India and still is. You just wouldn’t always go to one. Usually you went for a cold or fever when your parents didn’t want you to keep popping a lot of allopathic pills with side effects.

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Kids These Days ~ Aaj Kal Ke Bacche

If there’s one thing several generations can agree on, its that the next generation is headed down the wrong path. Of course, each successive generation will disagree if they hear the previous one say it but if you manage to get them all to say it at once, you will then get to see them look at each other in shock before the older generation starts admonishing the next one for speaking out of turn, which they never used to do back in the day.

Douglas Adams, genius author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a man who knew where his towel was had this to say about the subject:

“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

I disagree with that last bit. We usually start doing it way before 35. When I was in 2nd year of college, we were talking about how the new kids just don’t get it. But I guess that could be because I didn’t have a way of making a career out of the new stuff that the first years brought with them. Now I’m literally making a career out of technology that was developed after I was 15 so I guess I have another 5 years before I can find my high horse.

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Playing the devil’s advocate for Fakebook/Facebook

Recently I wrote a post blasting Facebook, calling it Fakebook and implying that everyone on it was just trying to win a very shallow popularity contest. I would however like to clarify that I do not believe that everything everyone does on Facebook is meant to make themselves feel better at other people’s expense. I do think a large portion of the user base does log in just for that but I think some people genuinely do not, and another significant portion does it without realizing that they are.

There are people who genuinely want to see what their friends and family is up to, see pictures and other evidence of them doing well and genuinely be happy for them. I know a few people like that and I wish I knew more of them but point is, they do exist. You just get overwhelmed by the assholes and don’t notice that they are still around, which is not very encouraging for them I guess. Apart from this altruistic crowd there is also another category of accidental assholes, to which you and I both probably belong. This group is both at the receiving and giving ends of the trauma at different points in their journey.

For convenience, lets take Mr. Pappu as an example (no, not the politician). Pappu fucked up somewhere between high school and college. Or maybe Pappu was born into circumstances that didn’t let him do as well as his peers. Maybe a bit of both. As the days go by, Pappu sees his friends surpass him in every way. That he could still live with, but everyday as he struggles with his demons or to make ends meet, he sees people he once called friends brag about their success, or talking about how traveling fulfills one’s life when Pappu cant even make bus fare. Several of his old friends post about how everyone should follow their dreams, when 1. Pappu needs to pay bills and 2. Pappu doesn’t even know what the fuck his dream is! Maybe he can have one when the nightmares stop.

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Lets reboot the Indian tradition of forced bankruptcy on your birthday

A Birthday Cake With Candles Burning Dollars
Image courtesy: Sandra Schön

Birthdays are very cool when you’re a kid. Your parents will get you a gift, new clothes and a packet of sweets to distribute in school. Every school kid in India looks forward to their ‘happy birthday’ and some of the spoiled ones have several in a year. Other kids and teachers will give you a free pass throughout the day because you’re a special little snowflake for a day.

Fast forward to when you’re an adult. Calendars synced to Facebook lets the whole world know that it’s your day but you get only a handful of calls. Your email inbox has an automated mail from your bank wishing you a good day, just above the one telling you how abysmally low your savings account balance is and another one telling you how much you owe them. And there’s a text from your friend asking you if you are on the other side of 30 yet. Yeah, real special day. But the real problems start when you head out of the house.

As soon as someone hears its your birthday, even if you’ve known them for like 3 hours, they’ll pump both fists in the air and yell “treat!!”. Heads turn and soon you’re buying a whole group of people lunch or dinner. Then you meet another group of people and go through the same thing all over again. If you don’t ‘treat’ a group, someone is sure to call you a miser, cheapo or uncle. Unfortunately, the credit card company doesn’t let you off the hook because it’s your birthday and neither will your landlord, so you suck it up, embrace bankruptcy and make a note to yourself to take your birthday off Facebook next year.

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Why you need Fakebook in your life and how to use it to make people hate theirs

What percentage of your Facebook friends do you actually like? 80%? No come on. 30%? Let’s go with 30% for a second. Out of the remaining 70%, how many would you notice dropping off the surface of earth? 20%? So what exactly is the role of the other 50%? To applaud on cue?

Fakebook-by-Sean MacEntee
CC BY 2.0 Image courtesy of Sean MacEntee on Flickr

I keep asking this question (at least the first part of it) every time a coffee table conversation gets a little dull. The percentages vary of course, but not enough to invalidate the point you’re hoping I’ll eventually get to, which is that Fakebook has a place in our lives, like an abusive boyfriend you never knew you needed before you met him. A little like Edward Cullen in Twilight. Lets break down the reasons:

  1. The eternal wisdom of Sun Tzu/ Niccolò Machiavelli/ Michael Corleone- “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”

You don’t need Fakebook to know what’s going on with that close friend who’s going through a breakup, or the other ones who’s depressed at not getting a job. No, those you hear about, probably more often than you want to. But what about your arch rival from kindergarten who you still secretly hate? What’s that guy up to? Did he buy a new car? That’s the kind of intel you need in order to not be left behind in the rat race.

  1. The Happiness contest 

How do you know you’re happy? What’s that? You would just know? Well if you believe that you are clearly not a very metric driven person. As most of us know, you need some benchmarks for relative grading. The word “happy” is meaningless. You can only be “happier”. And to be happier someone else should be sadder. Just the way it works.

Now, proving that you are in fact happier than your old friends and rivals used to be incredibly complicated before 2006. For starters, you had to work hard at looking better or making more money or both. Then once you do that, you had to let them know you had done it, not an easy task when you’re not all in school together anymore. You needed to attend a lot of alumni meetings and weddings just to let people know how well you are doing. If that wasn’t an option, you sometimes had to figure out which one of your schoolmates are still secretly reliving high school in their heads and get in touch with them in the hope that they will spread the word about your success. As you can see, all this was quite difficult and again had the measurability problem. No feedback loop- no way to find out if it worked or if that little walrus lied and told everyone you’re broke and pot-bellied now.

2006, enter Fakebook. Suddenly, you don’t need to travel across state or national borders to dress up at a wedding. You can attend a local wedding, hold your breath and stand a couple of steps above other people and get a picture clicked. You no longer need that guy who’s trapped in a time loop. In fact, you don’t need to call anyone or send your picture to anybody. You just post it on your wall and act like you didn’t know people were eavesdropping. Real classy. You don’t even need to actually look good or make money. Just starve for a day and buy a coffee at Starbucks and edit the picture. A lot.

Fakebook opens up a whole new battlefield and provides you multiple new strategies for winning the happiness contest, such as:

  1. My mom’s better than your mom:

Pre-2006, it was difficult to walk up to people and tell them that your mom/dad/husband/wife is cooler/more loving/rich than theirs. Sometimes you would go to their homes and you could sense from their smug faces that they thought theirs was better but you had no socially acceptable way to counter it. Now, you can thank yours on their wall for the world’s best anniversary dinner, or use their birthday (and wall) to explain how they make you feel special every day and how lucky you are. Applause/likes are guaranteed from two families.

  1. Airport check-ins:

Self explanatory utility. Potential tactics:

  • Check in at the airport and post a joke about how you thought the Fakebook check in was enough to get on the flight
  • Review the facilities, new terminal, rest room, sugar level in the cafe, etc. Mix it up next time by comparing and contrasting different airports and how each one made you feel
  1. Weekend wars:

There was once a time when the only way to make a single guy or girl depressed about their boring or lonely weekend was to ask them ‘what plans?’ and then make a face. This is one of the few offline tactics which are still effective but Fakebook lets you do it at scale and make a much bigger set of people feel bad about their lives.

Mass reach tactics:

  • Take trophy photos of the steaks and ice creams you hunted down and ate
  • Refer to pub hopping using pictures or multi check ins

The possibilities are endless and I am unable to think of a conclusion to this post so let me end this with a question to the reader. How do you think you can use Fakebook to be ‘happier’?

If this was Fakebook, you could read this and smugly hover over the like button and not click it to make me feel bad about the lack of engagement I got. But guess what. This is my blog and no one knows it exists and I’m just talking to myself anyway so fuck you and your like button.

But you’ll comment right?

The Apathetic Indian

In December 2012, I was on vacation, traveling from one town to another in my home state of Kerala after visiting some friends. I tried to get an AC chair car but the train was too packed, and the TTE (Train Ticket Examiner) refused to let me convert my ticket. So I decided not to take the train and went to get an AC Volvo instead. The bus was late for hours, and then they told me it got canceled, so I ended up traveling in a normal bus. But as I waited and sweated in the sweltering heat, and watched people go about their daily lives around me, I started to see a side of my country I had chosen to forget. A good looking and fashionably dressed girl passed by. I noticed her, yes, but so did a group of guys standing there. I overheard the way they leered at her, the language they used to describe her in detail, a manner of talk that took passing appreciation and turned it into something vile. I saw the root cause of the outrage caused by the recent Delhi rape case. It wasn’t lack of strong laws or commitment from the cops. Yes, those had a part to play but the problem was more deep rooted than that. It was rooted in the degeneration of the moral fiber of a nation, the defilement of a legacy left by great men and women. It was rooted in the desperation of the collective consciousness of a nation of one billion people who no longer had anything to believe in.

I felt an outrage, a suppressed scream in my soul that needed an outlet. But the tragedy was that this too would pass. I thought of writing this then but true to the title of this write up, I didn’t do it for the next four months. For I am the Apathetic Indian..

I am 26 years old, educated and working in a big IT company. I sit in my air conditioned office and come home to my well-kept apartment. I catch up with friends over a beer or a cup of coffee in a pub or a cafe, probably air conditioned. And yet, every day, on my way to work or to a movie, I see the underbelly of our great and growing economy. On my way to the gym in the morning, I pass through a slum, where kids play in the dust, in close proximity to several pigs. I see people fighting on the road. I see trees cut down. I’m thinking of buying a plant and sheltering it inside my apartment, watered every day in a bit of dirt that nobody will dig up to make an illegal water connection, because that is the only place where I am not powerless to guard things which must be guarded. From my balcony, I saw a four year old child breaking bricks with a hammer. At first I thought he was working but then I saw his parents building a wall nearby. It was his version of make believe play, on a Thursday morning when other kids his age would be in school. I felt powerless again and took a few pictures to bear witness.

Every day I see my country limp on while bleeding from a thousand wounds. I know that this country was built on lofty ideals and the sacrifices of heroes, because I have read about it in history classes. I know that men and women gave up their lives for the country and thought it an honor to do so. But I have only read about it. My teachers told me that this was the legacy I inherited from my forefathers. And now, every day I see that legacy tarnished but I have learnt not to notice it on most days.

I live a cocooned life. I’m part of ‘modern’ India. In the places I studied and worked, there are people in charge, cabs to drop the girl’s home, with security guards as escorts. We have Ombudsmen to investigate any instances of sexual harassment. We try to be green. We turn off unnecessary lights and conduct CSR drives to clean up lakes. We have charity sales; even I donate personally from time to time. We do our bit, with more will than the government at least but I know it is not enough.

The country bleeds from a thousand wounds and good people across the country do their bit to dress up the wounds. Their scattered efforts keep the country limping along but they are losing. We are all losing. When we are faced with such a vast problem, and feel helpless to do anything, we retreat to our shells, as a defense mechanism. We try to protect our families, our friends. We try to clean up our apartments and offices. We try to get a semblance of control in a world that seems out of our control, but once in a while something like the Delhi rape happens. And we all understand how unsafe we really are, even in our cocoons. We realize that the ground is falling away under us, just like it is falling away from under the poor and the downtrodden.

Some of my friends and family commented about how they can’t understand some parts of the Delhi protests. The sympathized with the cause but they were wondering why people are protesting after the accused were arrested and trials had started. Protests are supposed to have a specific objective or demand, they said. I told them they are not campaigning for a specific objective. They are congregating with placards and slogans because they saw somebody raising a voice and they had a chance to rally behind a cause. The slogans might be about the Delhi rape but it was about more than that. It was the outcry of a generation that felt helpless as they saw their world crumble around them. It was the guilt of a people who knew they were doing nothing to stop the desecration of their inheritance and knew that the dreams of their ancestors were falling apart on their watch. They lent their voices when they finally saw some cause to believe in, even if it addresses only some of their problems. They protested as long as they could, before that voice would fade as well.

There is an old quote, “The only thing required for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing”. The recent spates of protests were the confessions of a generation who did nothing. Even when they want to, they do not know how to. Elections are now a deliberate exercise to vote for the lesser evil, unless they decide they are all equally bad and stay at home to watch a movie
They say that people who want power never deserve power and people who deserve power never want it. But maybe we have a responsibility to take up responsibility when the ones we put in charge have neither the will nor the moral fiber to act. I put off writing this for months because I retreated into my apathy. Then today, a friend of mine, as powerless as I am spoke up in a Facebook post. I finally felt the chains of complacency loosen their hold a little.

I thought, if I can lend my voice to his, and someone else can lend a voice to mine, maybe we won’t be as powerless. In each other’s sense of outrage, maybe we can find hope. In each other’s voice, maybe we can find something to believe in again.

(Originally written in 2013. The response to this post inspired me to take up writing more seriously but true to the title, I stopped again for years)