One of the finest works of science fiction I have read is a short story called All Fall Down . It was written by two friends of mine, back from college, when we were still there, and was published in a publication called Science Today, edited by Mukul Sharma. I have since heard that Djang and Punya, the two authors, are respected professors, one at a leading international B-school, and another at a well-thought-of American engineering college. The title of their story was borrowed from the last line of the nursery rhyme Ring Around the Roses (or Rosie, depending on which version you’ve heard).
People endowed with Pope’s little-knowledge will tell you that the rhyme is about the plague, but that is actually not the case (despite the telling evidence: People used to carry posies in their pockets to protect themselves against the plague, and infected people would often sneeze a lot—making the ashes-ashes sound; and, of course, they would all fall down and die).
Both Djang and Punya would have likely known that the rhyme was just that—a harmless children’s song endowed with a false note of the macabre. Still, they went ahead and named their story thus. The story, set on the campus of an engineering school quite similar to the one we all went to, was about the fourth wrath of God, after floods (or was it syphilis), plague and HIV/AIDS. It was a mysterious disease that affected people who were emotionally involved with others. It was, like many books of the time, a tale about love, despair and growing up.
I thought of Djang and Punya a year and a half ago when I picked up Charles Burns’ Black Hole . I had heard of the book, thanks to an RSS feed from Fantagraphics, a comics publisher that had originally published the book in 12 parts between 1995 and 2005, and from an excerpt in the 13th volume of McSweeney’s Quarterly .
Black Hole is set in the US of the 1970s (well after the beatnik era) and is about a mysterious disease that affects only teenagers and which is transmitted through sexual intercourse. There are details on the exact nature of the illness and what it does to people, but Black Hole isn’t about that. Burns’ book is about what the illness does to others, people who already have it, people who don’t, and people who have it, but are in denial.
Given the universal urge among teenagers to belong, and to ostracize anyone who doesn’t, this is also a book about peer pressure and alienation—the “you’re either on the bus or off it” kind of moments most of us have experienced. The illustrations in Black Hole are richly textured black-and-white ones, and although the book ends on a halfway hopeful note, it reeks of despair and dystopia in a Holden-Caulfield-meets-Lord-of- the-Flies-meets- Philip-K-Dick sort of way. The story isn’t real, but the feeling of dread and anxiety you’re left with after reading Black Hole is.
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