From sinister plans of xenocide to speciesists who have taken it upon themselves to Off-World those unlike them; from simulations that memorialize stories obliterated by a book-burning world to the Master Pain Merchant who is always at hand to administer a dose of long-forgotten sensations; from genetically modified Glow Girls who can kill with a touch to a droid detective actively seeking out justice - this stellar volume of cutting-edge science fiction showcases, in prose and verse, 32 of the most powerful voices in the genre from the Indian Subcontinent.
Taking forward the formidable task achieved to critical acclaim by the first volume of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, the present collection masterfully transports readers to worlds strangely familiar, raises crucial questions about the place of humans in the universe, and testifies to the astonishing range and power of the imaginative mind.
Release date: September 25, 2021
Publisher: Hachette India
Print pages: 488
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The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction Volume 2
THE GOLLANCZ BOOK OF SOUTH ASIAN SCIENCE FICTION
‘The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction is by far the first in this century that is this broad in scope, and definitely the most ambitious, in its intentions… Gollancz is a name that is intimately familiar to any science fiction fan and serious SF reader across the world and...this anthology is a worthy addition to its catalogue.’ – Factor Daily
‘The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction is an instant classic, and has, dare I say it, franchise potential written all over it.’ – The Hindu Business Line
‘A timely tribute to speculative fiction writing from the subcontinent. Immensely well-intentioned, curated with deliberation and hard work, and diverse and flexible in terms of the writers represented.’ – Mint Lounge
‘Refreshing. This anthology by South Asian writers is precisely what the industry needs.’ – Free Press Journal
‘The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction is at its best in the same way SF everywhere is: when it produces sharply realized characters in unfamiliar gardens, and shows us how they got there.’ – Gary K. Wolfe, Locus
‘Propelling itself 70 years into the future, the anthology never lets go of the present political moment in India and, in some cases, America, and the stories imagine totalitarian futures with grim humour.’ – India Today
‘Taken as a whole, the Gollancz anthology is timely and delivers on its promise of “providing a prism refracting the vivid and at times contrarian imaginings of contemporary South Asian SF”.’ – Scroll.in
‘The concepts and themes inventoried in the collection are timelessly radical. It’s the personal stories, exploring the human condition, that really work the best in this collection.’ – The Hindu
‘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.’ – Deccan Herald
‘The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction raises the pertinent question about the challenge of finding a balance between local flavour and hard science that is globally accessible.’ – Firstpost
‘Promising, even in the face of grim portents in the sociocultural domain in the subcontinent and seemingly inexorable transformations of the ecological basis for life that are threatening the very existence of the most vulnerable, not just in South Asia.’ – Outlook
‘This anthology feels like a labour of love, and readers should find it stimulating.’ – Stephen Theaker, Theaker’s Quarterly
SOUTH ASIAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY
CARVING NEW SPACES IN TIME
TARUN K. SAINT
‘But science fiction is the realism of our time. The sense that we are all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together – that’s another sign of the emerging structure of feeling.’
– Kim Stanley Robinson1
Following the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it has been an uncanny experience applying the finishing touches to this anthology as we slipped deeper into the all-too-real situation evoked by a practitioner of climate change fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson. The pandemic has drastically altered the ground realities of our world as well as the language available to describe this event, as at least one of our contributors has noted. Most of our contributions having been received before the outbreak, this volume does not attempt a consolidated view of this still-unfolding disaster. Perhaps future writing in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genre will cover intimately the cataclysmic changes we are witnessing in our culture and society as well as its eventual reverberations across space and time.2
This volume is a follow-up to the first collection titled The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, which appeared in early 2019 as an experiment in building bridges between the different cultures of science fiction in the subcontinent.3 The first omnibus was a foray into an unexplored and neglected domain with a niche readership. It thus served as a useful platform for writers of science fiction (including both hard and soft variants as well as speculative fiction and poetry) from South Asia. For the region’s science fiction and fantasy has a texture and feeling that is different from both Western SFF as well as, say, writing in the genre closer home in Asia – like Chinese science fiction.4 The introduction to the first volume traced the genesis and growth of the genre in this region in broad terms, while acknowledging the need for more intensive work in various languages in which science fiction has been published.5
The second volume amplifies the scope of this project as we bring in stories, incorporating work on the border of science fiction, horror and serious/high concept fantasy by important writers in the space. This time, we were able to reach out to writers from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Tibetan community in exile, as well as bring in both historically significant and contemporary stories from writing in Marathi and Bengali.6 The aim was not to provide a comprehensive report on the SFF scene in this region, nor to assemble a collection with fixed quotas from each country (an accountant’s fantasy), but rather to facilitate the task of mapping the complex contours of a body of work that is emerging from the shadows to claim its rightful place in the sun.
We may think of South Asian SFF as a graft, a splicing of a new element into the already extant corpus of South Asian literature, or as a subgenre that is different with new, unusual fruits that taste neither like its progenitors nor quite like anything else. The second volume, thus, invites readers to partake of this flavour, not in the spirit of exoticism but rather as fellow voyagers into new realms of thought and experience. The stories assembled here testify to creative engagements with the myriad challenges posed by structural changes in culture and society, which are primarily a result of technological interventions and developmental initiatives driven by the slogan of progress.
As noted in the introduction to Volume 1, ongoing crises in early twenty-first century South Asia have generated creative and critical responses in the SFF genre which contest the inevitability of destructive development and homogenization of identity.7 These crises include climate change and environmental degradation along with other contingencies posed by media-stoked hyper-nationalism, gender-based violence and religious fundamentalism. As readers of these stories and poems will discover, SFF has thus become a vehicle for dialogue on alternative futures and ways of thinking past our current impasse. Indeed, one could see these anthologies as a channel for forms of intellectual resistance in conditions which are fraught with risk for writers taking on structures of power. In future volumes, we hope to encompass more instances of strong writing from countries not featured so far as such voices become increasingly audible. In the sections to follow I offer some introductory remarks on the pieces included in this volume.
In Seattle-based Shiv Ramdas’s Nebula and Hugo Award-nominated work ‘And Now His Lordship is Laughing’, the horror story is given a fresh twist and historical mooring. Set in the period of the Bengal famine of 1943, which took three million lives, the story imagines an aging doll maker’s ruthless yet calibrated response to a British officer’s command to make a doll for him as she summons up occult powers beyond the grasp of colonial reason. The evocation of details of colonial history and spotlight on the question of coerced suffering on a gigantic scale, besides the sharp focus on Apa the doll maker’s point of view, make the deployment of fantasy/horror tropes in this story even more effective.
Medha Singh is a poet, editor and translator from Delhi who has already made a name for herself with a collection of verse and through a book-length work of translation. Medha’s speculative poem ‘Jupiter, Dark Sister’ invokes the giant planet as metaphor at several levels, including the cosmological and astronomical. The journey through, rather than to, Jupiter enables a surreal form of discovery, including an encounter with the limits to self-perception. As speculative poetry, ‘Jupiter, Dark Sister’ makes us think afresh about space flight and interplanetary exploration, reminding us of the mirroring of such journeys, whether real or imaginative, within the self, where one may be in time left hung by such dark sisters of the sun ‘like a pig. On a pike’.
Tashan Mehta works on the borderline between fantasy and science fiction, and in the story included here we find a traveller making contact with an alien culture.8 Based on stories of the local people, the shipwrecked protagonist begins to draw a map of the islands she has reached. The alternating first person narratives of the visitor and Alka, her local friend, allow for an exploration of the realm of the unknown and an unconventional mapping of an imaginative cartography very different from that used by explorers and geographers of yore. We find here an innovative redoing of the premise of Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven,9 as dreaming becomes a way of reshaping territory and desire.
Muhammed Zafar Iqbal teaches physics in Dhaka and is a pre-eminent writer of science fiction from Bangladesh. His story ‘The Zoo’ is an effective meditation on the workings of power and authoritarianism. We find here an extension of H.G. Wells’s concerns in The Island of Dr Moreau,10 as a cruel experiment involving humans and animals under duress on a remote island is disclosed to a visiting journalist. The allusions to the perverse uses science has been put to in the past century (as in the case of racist archpriest of applied eugenics and ‘Angel of Death’ Dr Josef Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz during the Nazi era)11 lend a chilling edge to the story’s unexpected conclusion.
Vajra Chandrasekera, from Colombo, is a significant presence in the Sri Lankan science fiction landscape as author, critic and contributing fiction editor at Strange Horizons. His story ‘The Maker of Memorials’ offers a scathing indictment of those who memorialize war in heroic images, reminding us of the themes of Wilfred Owen’s war poems.12 The ironic tone is set at the beginning as an augmented human, virtually indestructible, goes about constructing these war memorials, even in the midst of conflict. Further, the idea of a Rehistory Department meant to make history less messy and more palatable is congruent with trends in the subcontinent today. The question of how to memorialize loss using technology in the wake of traumatic civil strife is broached here in an altogether original way.
Toronto-based writer Senaa Ahmad’s ‘The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls’ has been well-received, winning the Sunburst Award for Short Fiction and the A.C. Bose Grant for South Asian Speculative Literature (2019). This story extrapolates from the historical reality of the radium girls who were assigned the task of painting watches with glow-in-the-dark paint, radioactive effects of which eventually led to their deaths. In this story, told in the first person, a group of girls has been genetically modified into bioweapons, becoming lethal to people they come into contact with. The vulnerability of such experimental subjects of bioengineering and their eventual turning within in the wake of isolation in a world racked by conflict makes the story stand apart from more conventional accounts of teenagers with ‘superpowers’.
In veteran science fiction writer and cartoonist/graphic artist Manjula Padmanabhan’s story ‘The Pain Merchant’, an apprentice learns the skill of restoring the ability to feel pain from a master pain merchant in a world where this faculty has been eliminated. The story works at several levels, as science fiction and as a philosophical fable for the future. The ambiguity of the customers’ motives makes the narrative even more psychologically complex. The ‘dolcache’ instrument that measures the remnants of pain is an innovative novum (or new idea, to use Darko Suvin’s term)13 for this world in which pain appears as a lack rather than a burden.
Mumbai-based Arjun Raj Gaind is a well-known author of genre fiction and a graphic novelist, having made many successful forays into the realm of the whodunit in an Indian setting. In ‘The Ministry of Relevance’, he presents a dark vision of the 2020s, a world where nobody reads, and all citizens are run through draconian checks to prove themselves worthy of domicile. The Kafkaesque scenario that ensues for the protagonist as he struggles to prove his identity is reminiscent of the likely difficulties many may face in the near future in South Asia with bureaucratic rationality running amok.
In Jayaprakash Satyamurthy’s ‘Dimensions of Life under Fascism’, the metaphor of flatness is deployed effectively as a science fiction trope for the transformation of the self under a fascist dispensation. Two dimensionality has set in at various levels of Indian society as a result of the advent of fascist structures, now in their twenty-sixth year, felt especially by a mixed-religion couple, an insight that comes through in telling fashion in the grim conclusion of this tale, with many parallels to the current situation in South Asia.
A recent story from Bengali science fiction in translation by Arunava Sinha is Soham Guha’s ‘The Song of Ice’. This dystopian tale envisages a climatic catastrophe after the eruption of the Yellowstone volcano in the United States. As a contemporary instance of regional climate fiction, or cli-fi-style science fiction, we find an icy winter and unrelenting cold wave descending on Kolkata, decimating the population and forcing people to seek refuge underground, in the Metro tunnels. Besides the vividly etched first-person narrative about survival in this new ice-ravaged world, the story also brings in an element of historical consciousness in its reflections on the legacy of previous cataclysms – whether the Partition, the Naxalbari moment or endemic communal violence – and the sense that the chickens do eventually come home to roost.
The remarkable energy of the Bengaluru science fiction subculture is reflected in the work of Lavanya Lakshminarayan in general, as well as in the story included here, ‘Goodbye is the Shape of a Palm Pressed to the Sky’. In this futuristic projection, we find the protagonist journeying back into history to discover the story of her ‘space pirate’ grandmother through the latter’s recently unearthed journal and, in the process, some hard truths about her mother. There is a recognizably feminist perspective on the retrieval of memory here, as well as an innovative deployment of sense-perception-oriented future technology in the service of re-storying the past, even while coming to terms with a vexed inheritance.
Kehkashan Khalid is an artist and science fiction writer of Pakistani origin who works as a senior librarian in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Her story ‘Almost Human’ uses the technique of extrapolation from current trends in surveillance technology in its world building. In this science fiction detective story, Inspector Mansoor, one of the protagonists, approaches a neural conceptualization hub, more commonly known as the Forge, where droids can be accessed by the police when in need of extra hands, where he is assigned a now-deactivated first-generation robot to help in a homicide investigation. The unfolding of the clue-puzzle structure takes on a new dimension (somewhat reminiscent of Asimov’s Robot stories yet squarely grounded in Pakistani terrain)14 in the depiction of the robot’s personal quest for the killer’s identity and the prospect of justice.
Bina Shah’s earlier work, the feminist dystopia Before She Sleeps,15 is set in the wake of a nuclear exchange in the subcontinent that culminates in rising gender disparity. Next, a virus affecting women’s fertility in particular becomes widespread, while ‘corrective’ measures are sought by the states affected as fewer women are able to bear children. Shah’s account of the imposition of these strictures elaborates, although with a different emphasis, the subjugation of women in procreative roles in Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale.16 In this volume, Shah’s story ‘Looney ka Tabadla’ brings in a dimension of the absurd in its description of the exchange of ‘looneys’ in 2050, an echo of Sa’adat Hasan Manto’s classic Partition story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’.17 In the story, in the wake of the South Asian Disarmament Treaty, it is decided to exchange peace-and-order offenders at the border of India and Pakistan. The offenders in question are those who use both conventional and social media to propagate their goals of destabilizing the peace between the countries. The black humour underpinning the tale echoes Manto as Shah sharpens her satirical take on today’s manufacturers of hate speech.
Software engineer and writer Anil Menon has made the transition to speculative fiction in recent works such as Half of What I Say,18 as further evidenced in his story ‘Paley’s Watch’. The discovery of an artefact in the ocean, the eponymous Paley’s watch, leads to a whimsical journey through intellectual disciplines such as mathematics, physics, philosophy and narratology as the object’s significance and meaning are sought to be unravelled, by, among others, Tommy, the sassy and brilliant protagonist. The subplot featuring Tommy’s crush on his mentor’s daughter, Tara Godbole, brings in a dimension of comic relief with some witty reflections on racial and sexual difference revealed in the byplay between them. Tommy’s occasional ineptitude as lover and techie whiz-kid make him an endearing and yet fragile figure as the artefact’s mysteries are sought to be deciphered, perhaps in vain by anyone but him.
Mumbai-based Aparna Ramachandran is an engineer-turned-media executive and writer. Her story ‘Elsewhere’ has a futuristic setting, which is well-anchored in the Indian milieu by its use of place names like Kasara (a town near Almora). The idea of accessing the fourth dimension to enable time travel, and eventually a departure from the dystopian present, is explored through the vicissitudes of the relationship between Yra and Avan. Yet, the transition with the aid of ‘prana’ to the transcendental plane of ‘Elsewhere’ may take a toll on the material, all-too-human self and has a potentially tragic dimension at the level of the interpersonal.
Astrophysicist Jayant V. Narlikar has been a major presence in Indian science fiction for decades, writing in Marathi and often speaking in public forums such as the Sahitya Akademi about the genre and its significance. On one such occasion, he shared an experience of his days at King’s College, Cambridge, when, in 1963, he happened to be living next door to E.M. Forster, and he had the chance to discuss Forster’s only science fiction story ‘The Machine Stops’ (written in 1908) with the writer himself.19 Later, Narlikar studied under astrophysicist and science fiction author Fred Hoyle, author of The Black Cloud, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).20 This volume features his story ‘The Gift of Angels’ (translated from the Marathi ‘Yaksophar’ by Archana Mirajkar, who is also the author of a science fiction novel).21 This vintage story features Vijay Singh, an Indian scientist, as the protagonist, and his introduction to advanced technology that proves to be the precursor to an X-Files-style conspiracy by alien entities. The description of life in the scientific community, whether at an American university or at a research institute in India, draws on the author’s own experiences as a distinguished astrophysicist. What is notable is the willingness of the researcher-protagonist to push the boundaries of knowledge to discover the basis for advanced technologies that may not be within the public ken at present, despite the magnitude of the possible risks.
Vandana Singh is a physicist and the author of several collections of science fiction stories. Her story ‘Reunion’ appeared in the first volume of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and has been included in an anthology of 2020’s best science fiction, edited by Jonathan Strahan.22 The influence of the late science fiction great Ursula Le Guin is palpable in the story ‘A Different Sea’, which features an unconventional friendship between the protagonist and an alien she names Khatru. We find here a profound reflection on death and the possibly different meaning this may have for an alien species. In the process, this poetic tale also makes us think about death as a metaphor, especially in the context of intricate and at times failed personal relationships with events set in a faraway planet allowing for a degree of cognitive distancing. The unearthing of the lost history of Gyana, a Bengali woman poet of an earlier time, is a key element to this narrative, as the protagonist finds her voice through a rediscovery of the significance of such mutilated voices. Indeed, such reconstitution of crucial civilizational patterns that might have otherwise been lost become possible as a result of the narrator’s contact with Khatru.23
Delhi-based constitutional law expert Gautam Bhatia is a science fiction critic and senior articles editor with Strange Horizons. His contribution in the volume, ‘The List’, is a space opera-style story which addresses the critical question of what it means to be human in a futuristic setting of contact between different species, some of which have an exclusivist view of identity. The eponymous ‘list’, which invokes logic and life, is a counter to the tendencies towards speciesism, with its insistence on uniformity and drive toward offworlding, a resonant science fiction metaphor for our times. The use of innovative narrative devices such as italicized personal reflections by characters and poetic language accentuates the critique of homogenization and dominance over the ‘other’, in particular those deemed different and consigned to work in the viriconium caves.24
‘2020-nKarV’ by the poet, essayist and translator from Bangladesh Kaiser Haq is an ironic reflection on the difficult moment we are living through in the early 2020s. In this speculative poem, the spread of a karuna virus (‘karuna’ meaning compassion in Hindi) causes puzzlement and dismay, with echoes of the predicament humanity faces with the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus today. The quarantine established for the carriers of compassion, especially animal lovers and poets, even as the absence of compassion is normalized, has an all-too familiar edge in today’s South Asia. There is an ethical meditation here on the effects on language and expression of authoritarian measures taken by states in times of crisis in the name of the public good, based on purported science.
Kalsang Yangzom is a young India-based writer, teacher and blogger of Tibetan origin. In her story ‘The Crossing’, she extrapolates from the experience of several generations of Tibetans who have crossed over the Himalaya into India while envisaging a future in which a microchip is injected in every Indian at birth to prove their identity, and which such migrants must have implanted after reaching their destination. While there is no explicit reference to China or Tibet, the Anisians who defeat the ‘theocratic government’, causing many to flee, are recognizable to those familiar with this history, reconfigured here in the science fiction genre. There is a restrained urgency underlying the portrayal of the experience of exile as well as the imminent possibility of betrayal.
Poet, novelist, scholar and short story writer Giti Chandra’s ‘A Species of Least Concern’ projects current concerns about species extinction into a futuristic setting in a tale with more than a touch of black comedy. In a setting where the concept of ‘nature’ has to be explained to a young child and fabrichines provide every comfort, including the best research articles on climate change and the history of species loss, the ‘species of least concern’ (whether women or honey badgers) are those not yet placed in the at-risk category, given that they are assumed to be indestructible. A mother’s attempt to ensure her daughter’s survival by endowing her with strengths from different species takes a darkly comic turn as protagonist Melli touches down on a planet where hybridity is unwelcome. The underlying seriousness of the feminist critique of human self-destructiveness and disregard of the most vulnerable cannot be missed.
Scholar and author Haris A. Durrani, who is of part-Pakistani and part-Dominican descent, brings his intercultural background effectively into play in ‘Champollion’s Foot’. The allusions to ciguapas, shape-shifting creatures from Dominican legends, and jinns as creatures capable of possession of human hosts are lightly interwoven into this space opera about xenocide, the obliteration of an alien species. The references to Champollion’s discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the ensuing systematic study of ancient Egypt, leading to an ironic erasure of this ancient system of knowledge, form a template for later reflections on the implications of being the ‘other’. Yet, there may be a way out of the historical trajectory leading towards decimation of alien cultures and knowledge systems, the story indicates.
Usman T. Malik, who practices medicine, is a writer from Pakistan who has created space for his distinctive variant of SFF, which often delves into jinn lore and the realm of the weird and the occult.25 In his story ‘Resurrection Points’, Malik brings to bear the precision and understanding of a qualified rheumatologist and medical writer as well as deep empathy with the plight of beleaguered minority communities such as Christians living in ghettos in Pakistan. There is a productive tension evoked here between the young protagonist’s extraordinary ability to resurrect the dead and the toxic exclusionary effects of invidious social and religious pressures now at work in our variegated societies, with their multiple fault lines.
Writer, creative director and editor Salik Shah is based in India (though he was brought up in Nepal and often draws upon this formative experience). Shah has made a long-standing contribution to the world of Asian SFF through his role as founding editor of Mithila Review, an SFF journal. His speculative story ‘Shambhala’ is unusual in its evocation in a lyrical yet political mode of the predicament of Tibetan exiles. The existential dilemmas of the movement for a free Tibet and the complex relationship with mainland China are presented with sensitivity in the depiction of the Tibetan narrator’s childhood memories of his Chinese teacher who taught them Mandarin. The forced migration into Nepal as a result of state oppression culminates in exile, in a situation all too familiar to many Tibetans poetically evoked here through memory.26 This story is, thus, an instance of locally rooted cosmopolitanism, transcending narrow definitions of identity in its empathetic account of political exile.
Sri Lankan science fiction has come into the spotlight in recent times with a novelette co-authored by science fiction author and data scientist Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and Indian American R.R. Virdi being nominated for a Nebula award in 2018.27 Wijeratne is also the author of ‘The Ricepunk Manifesto’, which outlines a different, culturally grounded science fiction sensibility as a variant of and modification of cyberpunk.28 We are glad to be able to include here Wijeratne’s story ‘Confessor’, placed in a futuristic context of violation of human rights and freedom of expression. This story, taking its cue from contemporary experiences of imprisonment of journalists and activists in Sri Lanka, has a bearing on the situation emerging across South Asia, and perhaps even more widely, in its candid depiction of state intimidation of dissenters. The use of implants such as memory chips for artists sought to be recruited for propaganda purposes takes us a sinister step beyond George Orwell’s 1984.29 ‘Confessor’ is grim in its anticipation of the ruthless instrumentalization of violence using sophisticated technologies to turn those deemed a threat to the powers that be.
Accomplished poet, translator and science fiction writer Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s speculative poem ‘Scavenger’ brings an element of formal experimentation in its out-of-the-box response to prevalent trends in society. Readers may note the evocative use of images to capture a fragmented post-apocalyptic scenario, in which time and history seem to have been irrevocably dislocated from their moorings. The poetic persona, nonetheless, continues to dream, perchance in a post-human register, all too aware of the displacement and emptying out of the human by ‘AI-weeders’ and the ravages of climate change. Even so, the lyrical quest for alternatives persists amidst the wreckage with the possibility of redemption at the end.
Extending the world building initiated in his novel Aliens in Delhi,30 science fiction scholar, editor and writer Sami Ahmad Khan’s story ‘Biryani Bagh’ takes its cue from contemporary protests and resistance movements as it constructs its novel take on the role played by flavou
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