Slouching Towards Dystopia

An anthology’s manifesto for the future of South Asian science fiction

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01 June 2019
A stand-out story in the anthology is the famous satirist Harishankar Parsai’s “Inspector Matadeen on the Moon,” originally written in 1968, in Hindi.
A stand-out story in the anthology is the famous satirist Harishankar Parsai’s “Inspector Matadeen on the Moon,” originally written in 1968, in Hindi.

IN 2012, the English-speaking science-fiction world was taken by storm with the publication of AfroSF. A black-jacketed book, its cover featured a ball of rimmed fire, and explicitly proclaimed: “Science fiction by African writers.” In the introduction, the Zimbabwean writer and editor Ivor W Hartmann wrote: “if you can’t see and relay an understandable vision of the future, your future will be co-opted by someone else’s vision.” Six years later, in the introduction to AfroSFv3, the third volume in what had become a series, Hartmann continued the thought: “a thirst for homegrown African SFF, for works that address our unique problems and envision our futures.”

Hartmann’s impulse for creating the AfroSF series has been echoed by other writers from African countries. In a 2017 interview, Ntone Edjabe, the editor of the iconic magazine Chimurenga, located the origins of the genre of “Afrofuturism”—now itself a contested term—in the “response to the absence of black people in white imaginations of the future.” That same year, the South African writer Mandisi Nkomo wondered whether a distinctively African speculative fiction could play a role in decolonisation, and in imagining alternative futures for the continent. Underlying these observations, however, is an older and deeper critique: mainstream English-language science fiction, as we know it today, has been shaped by Anglo-American writers, editors and markets. For example, the origins of modern SF in ideas of colonialism and imperialism are well-known: in a specific entry upon the subject, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction traces this relationship, from the early, proto-SF of Margaret Cavendish and Daniel Defoe to the recent, mainstream examples of the genre, such as Battlestar Galactica. In short, whether it is an obsession with pioneering voyages to other planets, or a more contemporary focus upon the interface between technology and society, SF has reflected the concerns, the preoccupations, the fears, and the dreams and nightmares of twentieth-century Western Europe and the United States. Other parts of the globe have had walk-on roles, either as schematised set-piece villains, or as token diversity hires.

But the world has—finally—begun to write back, in English or through translation. The rise of science-fiction writing from Africa, the critical and commercial success enjoyed by the Afrofuturist SF writer NK Jemisin, the worldwide popularity of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, as well as the works of the Cuban SF writer Yoss, which often invert traditional SF’s colonial gaze, are just a few examples of this phenomenon. And its most recent manifestation is the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, advertised as “one of the first collections of contemporary (and historic) science fiction (SF) from the subcontinent to appear in the twenty-first century.”

In the introduction to the volume, its editor, Tarun K Saint, sets out his stall: a brief account of the genre’s development in Europe and the United States is followed by a familiar critique of SF’s marginalised status in the subcontinent, an excavation of the historically informed critical role that it can serve and a schema of its indigenous roots, in multiple local languages as well as in English. Saint then informs us of the purpose of this anthology, at this present moment:

... a sense of disturbance with the situation in contemporary South Asia ... the idea was to impel contemporary writers to engage with the present and future, using an SF lens, in this seventy-second year of Independence and the Partition. What might the subcontinent look like, about, seventy years from now?

Gautam Bhatia is the senior articles editor at Strange Horizons, an online magazine of speculative fiction. His reviews and essays on science fiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Scroll, and The Wire. His first science-fiction novel, The Time of the Wall, is forthcoming from Harper Collins this year.

Keywords: science fiction South Asian literature postcolonialism
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