Basking in a terrible light: Jaideep Unudurti reviews ‘The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Volume 2’

The second volume of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction offers a detailed preview of the zeitgeist

Published - January 15, 2022 04:00 pm IST

post apocalypse scene showing the man standing in ruined city and looking at mysterious circle on the ground, digital art style, illustration painting LR and SM

post apocalypse scene showing the man standing in ruined city and looking at mysterious circle on the ground, digital art style, illustration painting LR and SM

Writers of science fiction (SF) are living particle accelerators. In their heads, they accelerate ideas to their extremes, smash them together, and note the results. What these collisions reveal is both a snapshot of the future and the present that led to it.

The second volume of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction , coming after the well-received first instalment released in 2019, is therefore a detailed preview of the zeitgeist. In her preface, Manjula Padmanabhan calls the stories “literary chimeras hatched in the nest of ancient belief systems” while the editor, Tarun H. Saint, dubs this configuration of writers and stories a New Wave of South Asian SF & Fantasy (SFF), comparable to the parallel cinema movement of the 1970s.

Adhbuta rasa

S o what kind of future is discerned in these three poems and 29 stories, from Sri Lankan, Indian, Pakistani, Tibetan and Bangladeshi writers? While Indians have always demonstrated a hunger for the future, usually expressed as wanting to become as ‘hi-tech’ as the West (or Shanghai or Singapore), this segues into a desire for a return to the eternal golden past. It is not a surprise then that the modern retellings of myths are equipped with vimanas driven by jet turbines and brahmastras as the ultimate WMDs.

Indeed, sociologist Shiv Visvanathan has mused, “Maybe the fecundity of our myths made the SF imagi-nation unnecessary”. But, as Saint says, the “ongoing crises” in South Asia have generated “creative and critical responses” from the SF community.

Unravelling world

Past crises had the same effect. Arguably the very first piece of SF by an Indian writing in English was Kylas Chunder Dutt’s A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945, written in 1835. Two decades before the 1857 rebellion, Dutt imagined an armed rebellion against the British in 1945, proving that SF can very much be spoken as a ‘native tongue’, a play of adhbuta rasa . Saint’s assertion that the region’s SFF has a unique “texture and feeling” is borne out by the stories, where all the sub-genres are presented through a unique lens. For example, Jayant Narlikar’s short story ‘Yakshanchi Denagi’ is probably the politest alien invasion story ever written. Though horrific violence is implied, it is always off-screen, and the aliens are as unfailingly courteous as they are implacably evil.

In ‘Paley’s watch’ by Anil Menon, a mysterious alien object is found, similar to the structure of the universe itself, with a

LR and SM

LR and SM

“hyperbolic surface constant negative curvature”. Menon adds some tadka to the dal of this Out-of-Place-Artefact themed story with a youthful cross-cultural romance. Under the hyperpressure exerted by the oncoming future, language itself deforms. In Sami Ahmad Khan’s ‘Biryani Bagh’, a riff on the anti-CAA protests, you have “BiggProtestjeeviBoss subscribers”, “atom-shakti se aatm-shakti” slogans and langarbots. As the economy pivots to Big Data, the “fossil fuel of the new century”, it also becomes the daata (giver) of this new age.

What are the constellations revealed by this map of the future? The tone is hinted at in Vandana Singh’s ‘A Different Sea’, where the protagonist has a vision: “there was no shelter, no safety in an unravelling world.” Certain themes recur — surveillance, climate change and the uses and abuses of memory. For instance, a number of stories feature characters who are in the security services, or subject to panoptic surveillance. Two stories mention a frozen Kolkata and a freezing Dhaka. Many of the stories express the disquiet of the age, but as sci-fi writer Ted Chiang said, “Most of our anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us.” There are instances where the act of remembering is itself an act of rebellion, as a character in Navin Weeraratne’s ‘The Diamond Library’ declaims: “only in being unwritten can the truth be safe.” Then there is the contested past: in Vajra Chandrasekera’s, ‘The Maker of Memorials’, an augmented super-sculptor builds war memorials, even as conflicts rage on, all part of a grand initiative to displace “the strife of history created… with no thought as to the political needs of the future.”

Still, calling this collection pralayic or apocalyptic would be facile. Rather, folded within the idea of dissolution is Yuganta, the end of an aeon as well as the herald of its rebirth. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of a new sub-genre of science-fiction, a Yugantic mode, a fiction that mirrors the collapse of our world as one cycle of time unspools and another opens.

Legend has it that a terrible light is seen at the moment of the world’s dissolution — this collection harnesses that energy, like a reactor stealing from the heart of an atom. The future might not be hopeful, but the energies and innovation shown in the responses to it are.

The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Volume 2; Edited by Tarun K. Saint, Hachette India, ₹699

The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

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