June 29, 2019 12:07:12 am
HISTORIANS STUDY the past because it illuminates the present, and writers of science fiction examine the future for precisely the same reason – it is a glass in which we see ourselves more clearly, with the benefit of foresight. But until very recent times, science fiction has flourished sporadically in India, not as a genre. Perhaps it’s because the ancients had exhausted the possibilities of the collective unconscious, and readers are satisfied with the classics in new formats, like comic books and animation films. Or perhaps because here, contemporary truth is stranger than fiction. In India, 1984 does not only recall George Orwell. As Tarun K Saint notes, the year was a real, lived-in dystopia featuring insurgency, the slaying of a prime minister, a pogrom and Bhopal’s industrial disaster.
But the almost simultaneous publication of two very different but extremely readable collections of short stories shows that despite sporadic production, there is a lot of engaging work here. Vinayak Varma’s Strange Worlds! Strange Times! ranges from Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose to Srinath Perur, while Saint’s Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction ventures even further afield, with a gamut encompassing Harishankar Parsai, Rahul Sankrityayan and Kaiser Haq, the Bangladeshi poet. Vandana Singh and Manjula Padmanabhan are the only contributors in common, with stories concerning the appearance of a portal in Delhi, the stretchability of Indian time and a takeover by machines in a connected universe.
Both titles have wisely ventured into languages other than English, where much of India’s best literature lies. Both have faltered on their cover art. The Gollancz cover recalls the Golden Age of sci-fi, while the cover of Strange Worlds is plain awful. It’s a surprising lapse, because contemporary art has been as essential for selling sci-fi as it has been for promoting music albums. Before good cover art appeared, in the pulp era which predated the emergence of science fiction as a popular genre, publication in luridly designed magazines had reduced many promising writers to obscurity. This awful waste was personified in the obscure writer Kilgore Trout in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Trout’s work appeared as fillers in pornographic magazines and he had precisely one fan in the world, a wealthy lunatic.
But never mind the covers, the contents between them are excellent and generally conform to a text that I consider to be the clearest manifesto of science fiction ever written – the introduction that Ursula K Le Guin inserted in the 1976 edition of The Left Hand of Darkness. It states that writing about the future is not predictive, as is intuitively believed, but descriptive: “Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honoured in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying. …and when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, ‘There! That’s the truth!”
The science fiction writer’s true lies are set in the future, but located in the present. George Orwell’s dystopias actually depicted Stalinism. The NKVD, led by men like Lavrentiy Beria, was already a reality. And 1984 was not really predictive, because while omnipresent screens and cameras are popular with repressive states (China’s troubled provinces are fairly teeming with them), mass surveillance doesn’t really work without the internet, which Orwell could not have foreseen. In these collections, Sami Ahmad Khan’s 15004 depicts the Chauri Chaura Express in the grip of a murderous madness at Deoria Sadar Station, but the reader instantly recalls Godhra in 2002 and with 1984, when trains on the main line through Deoria became mobile abattoirs.
The most unusual story in these collections is a scrupulously redacted translation of the Bengali Palatak Toofan by Jagadish Chandra Bose, an early work in the genre. It is illuminating to learn that Bose, famed for his research on radio, microwaves and the “nervous system” of plants, wrote the story for a competition to promote a popular hair oil, Kuntal Keshari. Its inventor, Hemedramohan Basu, had instituted an annual prize for stories in which the product figured. And Bose, a polymath who was considered to be a peer of Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi, was happy to enter the competition with a story in which the cooling hair oil calms a raging cyclone. It speaks well of those times.
The 39 stories in these two volumes are too diverse to be catalogued here, but Saint and Varma must be commended for going beyond literary giants like Premendra Mitra and Rahul Sankrityayan, and contemporary established writers like Vandana Singh, Priya Sarukkai-Chhabria, Keki N Daruwalla, Rukmini Bhaya Nair and the much younger Mimi Mondal, to feature writers who are not so well-known. Equally laudable is their preference for work that is literary, rather than ‘hard’ sci-fi (focused on science, technology and accuracy, as in The Martian), which has become an unhealthy obsession in publishing. The “hard” genre speaks only to the already converted and baffles readers without a grounding in science, who can’t readily distinguish between “albumin” and “albedo”. In 2014, Ursula K Le Guin had accepted her US National Book Award in the name of “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for 50 years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.” Recognition now comes readily for science fiction, but its complete acceptance in the canon of literature depends primarily on writers of the imagination, who let us see ourselves with the benefit of foresight.
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