Review:The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

sci-fi, short stories

Who would have expected the great Hindi satirist, Harishankar Parsai, to make an appearance here?

The history of science fiction is as interesting as any novel.

In the mid-20th century, the Western world was enraptured by rapid scientific progress and the dreams it showed. Science fiction rose as a response, a way of showing off the possibilities as well as the dangers of science.

As the genre matured, the focus turned from science itself to the society around it, using the framework to show a mirror to society’s dark side. Communism, population growth, the nuclear arms race — all were tackled by these early works.

Over the years, the genre has remained relevant by continuing to focus on the trends that drive us. Today’s sci-fi, for example, focuses on today’s fears: genetic engineering, social media exposure, artificial intelligence, climate change.

Because science and scientists have never really been seen as a ‘new wave’ in the public imagination in India, the framework for mass production and acceptance of science fiction was never present here. True, there has been a small section of the Indian-reading public that enjoys sci-fi here, but nothing close to the readership for, say, social or historical fiction.

Two things are conspiring to change this: the increasing penetration of technology in Indian society, and the steadily increasing base for popular Indian writing in English (sci-fi in regional languages has remained niche largely due to the same reasons). It makes sense, thus, that Gollancz, a leading publisher of sci-fi in the UK, has now published an anthology of short sci-fi written by and based in South Asia.

Tarun Saint, the editor, has made a commendable effort to bring in a wide variety of short fiction and poetry into the volume. There is a mix of works in translation as well as originals in English, and the list of contributing writers is virtually a who’s-who of sci-fi writers in India (as well as some surprises).

For example, who would have expected the great Hindi satirist, Harishankar Parsai, to make an appearance here? Yet he does, with the hilarious Inspector Matadeen on the Moon, where a corrupt policeman proudly teaches all the scuzzy techniques the Indian police are known for, to the innocent moon-police.

Another unexpected presence is a futuristic novel from Rahul Sankrityayan, better known for his travel and philosophical writings in Hindi. These serve to expand the definition of sci-fi by showing the ways science has been used in Indian literature in the past.

On to the newer pieces. There is an interesting mix of the underlying themes here. One set of stories feature the usual suspects that occupy our news media: corruption, communalism, pollution, Partition.

Tarun Saint himself writes A Visit to Partition World, where a family signs up for the world’s first Partition-themed experience park, but finds things not quite going as expected. Shovon Chakraborty writes The Man who turned into Gandhi, a fun story that is exactly what the title says.

Sami Ahmed Khan writes 15004, about a sudden killer frenzy that envelops a train station — a reminder of just how otherworldly riots would seem to an outsider. Manjula Padmanabhan gives a fresh spin to Indian notions of timeliness in her story Flexi-time.

Another set of stories take on more subtle themes through the Indian perspective. S B Divya talks of family and forgiveness, in a tale of prospective space exploration, in Looking Up. Keki Daruwalla gives us the loss of identity and community (and much more besides), in his tale of the last Parsee on Earth, in Naushirwan Shavaksha Sheikh Chilli.

Anil Menon, one of India’s best known speculative-fiction writers, contributes a complex story of sewage management through AI, mathematical jokes, and a scent of alternative timelines. Vandana Singh, another star, has Reunion, an almost-romance that weaves through Earth’s ecological collapse and rebirth.

Mimi Mondal contributes a short, expressionist piece about love and longing with a creature from the sea, set in Mumbai.

These second lot of stories (in my opinion) are all probably the best contenders for being called South Asian Science Fiction, because of their marriage of Indian fictional preoccupations and story arcs, with the framework and prompts that sci-fi provides. For a story to be ‘Indian’/ South Asian, the writing conventions and emotional preoccupations of the region must also make their presence felt, and this volume largely achieves this goal.

Mention must also be made of the high production quality of the book: from the cover itself, to the excellent end-paper illustrations by (I think) Manjula Padmanabhan, to the translation and editing of the pieces. This is a book made with love, and it shows.

This volume provides a good viewpoint of where South Asian sci-fi is and what it’s capable of. Highly recommended to get a feel for the genre and what it means in the Indian context.

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