Giant monsters are more commonly found on the big screen than in literature. Outside of fairy tale giants and arguably Smaug, I can’t think of any literary giant monster that comes anywhere close to the memorability of King Kong or Godzilla. I think there’s something visceral about seeing a creature far larger than it should be, your sense of scale disrupted by a hand the size of a house, in a way that prose rarely achieves. But J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned Giant is an exception, as is Lucius Shepard’s The Man Who Painted the Dragon Graiule (both of which I should really talk about at some point), and so is today’s.
First off, the name of the creatures: ‘lifecastles’. Doesn’t that conjure up a sense of immensity right there?
The story starts with the characters Tani and Mi having sex in the shadow of one of these shambling mountains. And because lifecastles record what they see as murals along their body, it means this lifecastle is gradually getting covered in images of their trysts. Researchers studying lifecastles later nickname this one ‘Dirty Old Man’.
Under our ikan-smeared soles, the carapace-stone of the lifecastle was almost glassy smooth because it was so fresh. The new presence of kilunpa colonizing it had prompted new carvings along the skin like ornate tracery, arching across the windows in a way the human brain will remind of our own architectures from across history. The skin would become more granular as it aged. Our footsteps along its steep side left flickers of ultraviolet that faded, like phosphenes on its dark surface. Stray kilunpa thumped against our suits, too light for us to feel them. Mi did gasp when one bounced off her faceplate before retreating into a blinking window to lap at the ikan. When I finally reached the mindcarvings of Mi and me, I switched on my headlamp. My arms ached, and sweat collected in itchy trickles under the fabric lining inside the helmet.
I swept the light over the carvings.
The figures were simple but striking, almost life-sized but voluptuous in their exaggerations of human contours. Konark. The two humanoids started off with the round heads and thick limbs of suited and helmeted surveyors, simplistic shapes, then melded together in a melted abstraction that might have been a representation of our camp-tent, or mountains. Then they emerged again to form a chain of entwined bodies, distinctly naked and in the various embraces of sex, sometimes melding into the stratum underneath them. From surveyors to humans, object to animal. Mi and Tani. I could see the grooves where buttocks met, the curve of hips, even the small bumps of nipples on breasts and the dimpled patterns of faces; eyes and noses and lips.
“I’m. Obviously. The taller one,” I said between deep breaths.
As for the story, it’s about their relationship and the growing concern that it will end; partly because their relationship is taboo on this planet, but also because they’re gradually realizing they want different things. It’s an age-old story, well told, and the theme of permanence and impermanence is nicely illustrated (so to speak) by the lifecastle, who will live on and be studied by biologists long after Mi and Tani are gone.
By the way, Indra’s first novel, The Devourers, came out a few months ago from Penguin India. It’s not legally available in the rest of the world yet, but hopefully it will soon.
The Muses of Shuyedan-18 by Indrapramit Das
Word count: 7,300
First published: Asimov’s Magazine, June 2015