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Why ‘Darklands’ fulfils the basic task of sci-fi genre but falls short of making a landing

A bracing reimagining of a dystopian world in Arnav Das Sharma's debut novel loses its punch because of lacklustre editing

Written by Aakash Joshi |
Updated: March 28, 2021 9:22:50 am
darklands, arnav das sharma. bookDarklands By Arnav Das Sharma Penguin Books 256 pages Rs 250

Nerds around the world — and movie fans generally, really — have been losing it. Zack Snyder’s Justice League it seems, by broad critical consensus, has redeemed the sins of Joss Whedon, who quit the project as director due to a personal tragedy.

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Arnav Das Sharma’s Darklands is a first novel that declares the potential of the writer. Its themes have all the hallmarks of a science-fiction work that fulfil the basic task of the genre — to serve as a thought experiment for the times we live in; to act as a warning for the world to come. Climate change, polarising, intense inequality, and love as a form of tragic redemption — Das Sharma’s work is an ambitious one. And, in part, Darklands rises to the promise of its premise. However, like Whedon’s Justice League, it is let down by its editing. What it really needs is a “Snyder cut”.

Darklands is, like Wuthering Heights (Das Sharma’s is a self-confessed re-telling of Emily Bronte’s novel), a tale of class, caste and forbidden love. In many ways, it echoes the disorder of the 1847 classic; the doubt and pain of transgression. Set in a post-apocalyptic Delhi and its landlocked environs, Haksh has all the doubts and pathos of a Heathcliff. As a genetically-engineered (non) human, he is subject to violence and stigma, his pathos and rumination on God, life and the world are both relatable as well as ethereal and his transgressive love for Chhaya, his admiration of his adoptive pater, Easwaran, his friendships and the violence and bigotry he endures have an honest, visceral quality to them. If for no other reason, Darklands ought to be read for Haksh’s journey as well as the character of Easwaran — he is an apparent moral centre in a dystopic world where decency could well mean death.

Does Das Sharma mean to capture the intricacies of caste with his portrayal of the have-nots’ hate for the outcaste? Is his novel an Ambedkarite exploration of the nature of hierarchy, of graded inequality where identity and dignity are based more on those who are below us on the ladder than those who are above? Unfortunately, Darklands fails to answer these questions, to rise to the full potential of its initial promise.

To be honest, part of what makes the novel fall off in its second half is not its themes or the development of the characters. Das Sharma manages the balance that all competent science fiction requires: The leaps of imagination on which his dystopia is based are close enough to the world we live in today — arid, polluted, bigoted and riven with inequality. Yet, after a promising start, the novel suffers from poor editing.

Perhaps, it is merely a form of nit-picking, the editor’s eye hard at work even when it’s off duty. But as the novel progresses, there are just too many loose sentences and superfluous phrases. That a book brought out by a reputed publisher, page after page, is filled with simple, glaring errors — like a lack of subject-verb agreement — is inexcusable.
This weak editing, after a point, takes away from what could otherwise have been a pleasant read; it makes an episode of Black Mirror into a screening of Jaani Dushman.

The deeper a reader ventures into the novel, the more it seems lacking. It’s almost as though what it really needed was another draft, “one more pass at it”, as the Americans would say. Aspects of the narrative that can be tightened, characters that can be cut out, and others that need to be fleshed out could have been worked on.

Yet, for all its technical faults, the honesty of its characters, its evocation of the transgressive power of love and the subtle warnings of a future that awaits, make Darklands a creative achievement. Perhaps, it is a testament to our times that forbidden love — a la Romeo and Juliet or Heathcliff and Catherine — seems revolutionary. But that doesn’t take away from Das Sharma’s capturing of that theme. He has creatively applied his training as a sociologist, giving readers a disturbing fictional anthropology of our possible future.

Perhaps, with more careful editing and another draft, Darklands could have marked the arrival of a fresh literary voice, one who captured in science fiction the politics, insecurity and pathos of our time. As it stands, it is a first book that makes the reader cautiously optimistic about the writer’s second.

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