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The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction takes region's writing into new territory, but stops short of genius

In terms of the literary canons it has spawned over the last century, South Asia can be compared to a spoon chucked out of batter made up of tragedy and aspiration. Much of the history of this region is embroiled in conflict, as well as the purge of violence that inevitably ties it to an end. The future, on the other hand, seems perpetually out of grasp. There is aspiration to get there, but not the necessary commitment or vision.

Even those willing to imagine far and wide seem to be handicapped, which partly explains the relatively underwhelming science fiction circuit of the region. Perhaps it requires both a psychological push as well as an editorial one, but attempts to brave this rarely tread path are always welcome. Enter Gollancz, a popular sci-fi imprint that has just launched its first anthology of fiction from the region, titled The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction.

 The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction takes regions writing into new territory, but stops short of genius

Edited by Tarun K Saint, the anthology doesn’t really cover the entire geography of South Asia, which means it is limited in voices to begin with, perhaps even a tad misleading then, on account of its title. It brings together stories of various sizes, some poems, and translations from more than a couple of languages. A large chunk of these stories are historical fictions, or were long ago. Clearly, Saint doesn’t only want to offer the concerns of the present day, but also wants to chart a path through the development of the genre. Rahul Sankrityayan’s Baisvin Sadi (The Twenty-Second Century) for example, describes a socialist utopia that is a stark contrast to the present-day paranoia of other stories. A large chunk of offerings here are more satirical, more political than they are scientific.

How does one define science fiction (SF) then, and does that definition change within the margins of region and language? “At its best, SF can be a powerful tool for imagining the future of humanity — and by imagining, perhaps, creating that future. But any genre can be trivialised or repurposed to ill-effect. Poetry can be used for selling peanut butter, for instance, and classical music can be used to accompany vicious and horrific films. I don’t know if the definitions 'need to' change from culture to culture, but I do think it’s worthwhile to wonder why some cultures have been slower to approach SF than other cultures,” says Manjula Padmanabhan, who has written the foreword for this anthology. India has been especially slow, as Padmanabhan points in her piece, too slow perhaps to grasp the possibilities of SF.

Is it because of the near universal presence of mythology in the country? “Mythology may seem a lot like SF, but I believe it’s fundamentally different — it develops out of faith and mystical beliefs rather than, say, a curiosity about the world and reality, or a mischievous desire to bend the rules that govern the Universe,” Padmanabhan says. The two can perhaps overlap, but thankfully mythology is given a skip in this collection entirely. Even though not all of the stories would qualify as SF, they do stand on their own as whimsical, wondrous and at times, absurd. Harishankar Parsai’s translated satirical story about an Inspector Matadeen who travels to the moon is graciously funny. ‘Science always loses out to Inspector Matadeen,’ it says at one point. The story even mentions a ‘Ram Rajya’. Asif Aslam Farrukhi’s Stealing the Sea is an incredibly absurd story about a sea that goes missing. It ends not with a twist, but a philosophical punch and is perhaps the most memorable of the lot.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Dreaming of The Cool Green River is one of the more lyrically disturbing stories of the collection. And here is where the potential of SF shines through: From ‘men’s penises as thick as arms’ to ‘training to withstand solitude’, Chabria wraps her language with a kind of alien membrane that we must view our memory and experience through. Its weirdness, its gooey-ness leaves an imprint that cannot always be measured in terms of shock and awe — something popular culture has come to convince us that SF is all about. Padmanabhan’s own story Flexi-Time describes a woman ‘with the polished ebony skin and dense halo of orange hair, representing the combined Americas’. The irony of this description constructs worlds that are either alternate, or reside far down the line which the reader must approach on their own, willing or not. It is like a multi-directional slingshot.

No collection can ever be exhaustive, for even this one doesn’t have the inimitable Urdu writer Naiyer Masud in it. But there are some pure SF stories too, like Sami Ahmad Khan’s 15004 that speaks of an alien invasion aboard a train in Uttar Pradesh. All of this is lip-smacking, except SF, despite its possibilities, comes with the challenge of finding a balance between Indianisms and hard science that really is globally accessible; a problem that Padmanabhan also writes about in her foreword. Khan’s use of halwa, litti chokha and other italicised words embody this conundrum of using both the native and the global as tools.

“We do resort all too easily to 'common' names which merely reflect what is common to the author and/or whoever the author believes to be his/her/their audience. I think that one way is to be true to what one knows — each author has to strive towards a realistic awareness of self and of personal context, then move forward based on that self-knowledge,” Padmanabhan says. These aren’t exactly deterrents but they do come loaded with a splotch of exotic misplacements. “Names and local references are a form of literary spice and must be used with care and sensitivity,” she adds. The Gollancz anthology is perhaps as needed as it still feels under-cooked. It might not be outrageously inventive or imaginative, but it still warrants being read, and perhaps, being renewed for another edition.

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Updated Date: Apr 12, 2019 09:43:58 IST