Slouching Towards Dystopia

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

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.
Gautam Bhatia Illustration by Namaah Kumar
01 June, 2019

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?

I will return later to the problems of representation contained in this statement. (It is trite to note that it is the seventy-second year of Independence only for India and Pakistan, not for the whole of South Asia.) Saint goes on to list a series of “crises” that have rocked “the subcontinent, and India in particular,” in recent years, such as the 1984 massacre, the Bhopal disaster and growing intolerance. In this light, he continues:

It is the tension between the implicit utopian imaginings of alternative South Asian futures and the representation of stark dystopias that makes these thought experiments in the SF mode so interesting.

There are two ways, I think, in which one may understand this passage. One way is to read the purpose of the anthology as responding to this chronology of crisis, by using the “SF mode.” If this is the ambition, however, then it is unduly niggardly. SF is too plural and diverse a genre to be restricted to a crisis-response sequence. It is also an approach set up to fall short, as it does little more than use SF as a vehicle for political or social commentary. And lastly, there is something uncomfortably reductive about limiting the “South Asian experience” to a discrete set of crises, marked only by a deepening spiral of political violence.

I prefer to understand this passage another way: the role of the crises is to provide a starting point—a launch pad, if you will—to thinking about the underlying commonalities that constitute a “South Asian experience,” which can be expressed through science fiction. The search for such commonalities, of course, is fraught with peril: if one frames them too abstractly, they are of little use. If one descends too far down into the weeds, however, problems of exclusion and limited horizons crop up immediately.

Once again, perhaps, the debates around Afrofuturism might provide us with a guiding light. In an essay titled “What is Afrofuturism?” the Ivorian writer Yann-Cedric Agbodan-Aolio identified many strains of Afrofuturisms, which were nonetheless united by “a more or less profound reflection on the problems encountered by African populations and Afrodescendants in the course of history, in society (colonialism, apartheid, corruption, poverty, mass migration, children soldiers, access to drinking water...).” In a similar vein, the specific crises set out by Saint can perhaps be centred around three distinctively “South Asian” themes: first,a shared history of violent and extractive British colonialism; second—a legacy of the first—a set of distinctive social fault lines, predominantly organised around religion, caste and class; and third, a postcolonial “developmental” trajectory that cannot seem to free itself from large-scale environmental degradation and displacement.

AMONG THE 28 SHORT STORIES in the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, the theme of colonialism, and the legacy of colonialism upon the trajectory of the post-colony, predominate. It has often been remarked that for an event as traumatic as Partition, there has been surprisingly little English-language writing—or public discourse—that squarely addresses the topic, warts and all. This has begun to change recently. The opening of the Partition Museum in Amritsar, for example, is one of the more visible signs of an emerging public desire to reckon with an unhealed past. It is hardly surprising, then, that SF has taken up the mantle. Saint’s own story, “A Visit to Partition World,” is set around the hundredth anniversary of Independence, where a Partition World now allows individuals to relive the moment of rupture, with all the attendant problems surrounding the contemporary reception of a contested past. Kaiser Haq takes us forty years further into the future, in verse form. We are also allowed a glimpse of what might have been: in “The Twenty-Second Century,” the legendary left-wing Hindi writer Rahul Sankrityayan appears here in the unfamiliar role of a futuristic-utopian SF writer-in-translation, imagining a twenty-second-century India at peace with itself, from the vantage point of the 1920s.

As is often the case, however, the most memorable tales are the ones that approach the subject through a glass, darkly. A stand-out story in the collection, for example, is the famous mid-twentieth-century satirist Harishankar Parsai’s “Inspector Matadeen on the Moon,” originally written in 1968, and translated from Hindi a few decades later. In Parsai’s story, the “advanced civilization” of the moon is having problems with law enforcement, and writes to the Indian government, “we understand you have established Ram Rajya in your country. Please send us one of your police officers to give our men proper training.” Inspector Matadeen is sent to the moon to represent the “glorious traditions of the Indian Police.” He promptly diagnoses the problems, and implements sweeping changes, such as cutting the salaries of the police officers—who immediately begin to register more cases—reverse-engineering convictions, manufacturing stock witnesses, and substituting first-information reports, or FIRs. Matadeen is eventually sent back, but not before he has turned the lunar society upside down.

There are many ideas at work in this story, and it is perhaps an exemplar of the kind of “South Asian science fiction” that I alluded to before. To start with, Matadeen’s conduct is grimly familiar to anyone in the subcontinent who has seen how law enforcement engages with the vulnerable and the marginalised. More specifically, it is a legacy of the venal and corrupt police force that flourished under the British regime, and scarcely changed with the transition to independence. Parsai’s story, however, adds a twist: in counterpoint to the traditional colonialist narratives that underpin mainstream mid-twentieth-century SF, here, it is a newly independent country exporting the worst of the colonial practices—now indigenised under the cruelly satirical moniker, “Ram Rajya”—to a benign and unsuspecting world. The story reads as a classic example of South Asian SF in dialogue with the metropolitan centre of mainstream SF, on equal terms.

Shovon Chowdhury provides us with a more contemporary riff on the same theme, with the darkly hilarious “The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi.” Reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” or of the works of Franz Kafka, Chowdhury’s story is perhaps more magical realist than SF, but borderline enough to justify its inclusion in the volume. (Its quality does the rest.) A nondescript man in a north Indian village finds himself gradually metamorphosing into Gandhi, much to the delight of the villagers and of tourists, but to the deep displeasure of political functionaries, including the right wing and the Naxals, who find his presence in their midst to be a signal inconvenience. A grimly funny Mexican standoff follows, with an unexpected twist.

A number of stories in the book address, as well, a particular form of social conflict that appears endemic to South Asian societies, again a product of the British colonial strategy of governance through identifying and deepening communal fault lines. This theme is at its starkest in Sami Ahmed Khan’s “15004,” where an alien species carries on the British legacy by inflaming social cleavages into brutal violence, only this time through technical and chemical means. Other stories approach the subject in more indirect ways. Priya Chabria’s “Dreaming of the Cool Green River” explores the archiving of “objectionable art”; Manjula Padmanabhan’s “Flexi-Time” takes the conflict outwards, pitting the more expansive sense of time contained in Indian philosophy against other, more limited conceptions, in the context of a First Contact; Payal Dhar’s “The Other Side” casts a grim lens upon that neglected—but perhaps the most structurally and institutionally violent—of fault lines, class. Somewhat reminiscent of Prayaag Akbar’s Leila, “The Other Side” features the glaring inequalities of present-day South Asia taken to their absolute extreme, an India marked by spatial and social segregation, and violently policed borders. These are not dystopias, exactly, as much as they represent SF’s bleakly pessimistic streak, this time in the context of South Asia: a conviction that neither technological advancement nor social evolution will ever straighten out the crooked timber of humanity.

The third—and final—overarching theme is that of environmental degradation. Indeed, in a region where the narratives of overpopulation, “development,” the “mainstreaming” of indigenous populations and environmental protection have often been in competition—if not in open conflict—any collection of South Asian SF would scarcely be complete without attention to this unavoidable feature of the South Asian post-colony. Anil Menon’s “Shit Flower,” written in his appropriately gritty style, takes us to a futuristic Indian temple-city, which is drowning in its own excrement after the automated sewage system fails. In Asif Aslam Farrukhi’s allegorical “Stealing the Sea,” the Arabian Sea vanishes entirely, much to the discomfiture of the citizens of Karachi. Mimi Mondal explores Mumbai’s connection with the sea in “The Sea Sings at Night,” while Mohammad Salman’s “The Last Tiger” takes us back to SF’s familiar preoccupation with the destruction of species in a modern world. And the anthology concludes with Vandana Singh’s “Reunion,” an extended meditation on Gaian-type urban renewal within the carapace of a love story, a classic piece of “cli-fi” set in India.

This schematic account does not capture the breadth of all 28 stories in the volume. There are those that do not fit into any of the themes, even on an extended understanding, and nor does this account do justice to the depth of the stories that it does account for. But I do suggest that in these three themes—colonial legacies, distinctive social cleavages, and environmental conflicts—we have the germ of “South Asian science fiction” as the Gollancz Book understands it. Stories that engage with these themes, in their myriad different ways, are recognisably South Asian, located within South Asian histories and lived realities, speaking to distinctive South Asian concerns—that are universalisable up to a point, but only up to a point—and as much upon their own terms, as African or Chinese science fiction(s) speak upon theirs. Notably, they are of a piece with some recent English-language SF novels that have come out of India: Prayaag Akbar’s Leila features both caste conflict and water wars, while Anil Menon’s Half of What I Say wrestles with authoritarian state practices and class and social conflict.

It is, of course, open to debate—and a never-ending debate at that—whether three themes, taken as a unity, accurately isolate something that we can accurately call the “South Asian experience.” People may disagree with one or more of the themes, find more of their own to add, or dismiss the attempt itself as misguided. What we can say, however, is that in—almost unconsciously—arranging its contributions around these themes, The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction presents a manifesto and an agenda, of a fashion, for the future of what we can call “South Asian science fiction”: an intellectual and narrative platform for future projects to coalesce around, build on, or even depart from. That, in itself, is an important achievement.

IN NOVEMBER 2014, the late Ursula Le Guin—a doyen of science fiction for many decades—issued a rallying cry to SF writers. Their task, she said, was to see “alternatives to how we live now, see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” As a genre, SF, with its world-building liberties that it allows and its future-facing character, is uniquely positioned to allow for just such narrative efforts. For Le Guin, therefore, it was not enough for SF writers to simply identify problems, and compose dystopias around them; they had also to play a more constructively imaginative role.

Not all the stories in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction fit within Le Guin’s framework—nor need they. However, as a collection, when measured against this metric, it appears to fail. While Saint’s introduction discusses the utopian strain in South Asian SF, making mention of, among others, Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s famous Sultana’s Dream, the stories in the volume, by his own admission, are more accurately described as “representation of stark dystopias” in tension with the “implicit utopian imaginings of alternative South Asian futures.” Perhaps what is most remarkable about this is that in response to a concept note that appeared to ask, among other things, “what might the subcontinent look like, about, seventy years from now?” The answer seems to be: “a lot like what it does at present.” With the exception of “The Twenty-Second Century,” this idea appears to recur in future-looking stories: whether it is the combination of gender violence and nationalism in Giti Chandra’s “The Goddess Project,” the social and communal fault lines of “15004” or the class violence of Payal Dhar’s “The Other Side,” these stories share a grimly pessimistic worldview that consigns South Asia to simply traveling further down the crisis-ridden road that it has embarked upon.

This is not a comment upon the individual qualities of the stories themselves; such a worldview is an entirely legitimate one to have, apart from being a mercilessly reasonable one. It does, however, appear that the imaginative potential of SF is left a little short-changed when the horizons of what might be possible are constrained in such a manner. The one noticeable exception to this trend is the concluding story—Vandana Singh’s “Reunion,” in which ecological renewal is presented as a tangible possibility, without minimising the challenges, including those of organised violence, that would accompany any such attempt. One may hasten to add that this is not a request for happy endings. Like all good literature, good SF, too, balks at neat resolutions that bear no relation to the messiness of life. It is, though, a call that—along with Le Guin—asks South Asian SF writers to not merely write powerfully and eloquently about the trajectory of the post-colony, about social fault lines and about the environment as core problems of the South Asian experience, but also to “imagine alternatives” to ways of life that appear to be trapped into living and replicating those problems.

One possible reason why it comes up short on this count, I suggest, is that The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction is imperfectly representative of the region. The 28 stories are predominantly Indian, and when they travel across the border, they are limited to Pakistan and to Bangladesh. In terms of physical size, this covers a significant chunk of the geographical entity that is South Asia. In terms of histories, cultures and ways of life, however, it leaves out a majority of the countries that constitute the South Asian region. It is, therefore, unclear to what extent we can properly call this “South Asian” science fiction, given the silences and absences in the text.

Saint recognises that there is a problem here. At the very end of his introduction, he writes:

Sadly, we were unable to reach out to writers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives or the Tibetan community in exile, since the focus here has been on writing from the partitioned three, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Inshallah, there will be other anthologies to come which will rectify this, given constraints of geography and time.

Coming as it does, almost as an afterthought, this explanation is disappointingly glib. It is also confusing. In the age of borderless communication, what does Saint mean when he says, “we were unable to reach out to writers from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives or the Tibetan community in exile”? The next part of the sentence is even more confounding. If the focus of the volume is on “writing from the partitioned three,” then what does that have to do with the editor’s inability to reach out to writers from other countries? More importantly, why are “the partitioned three” the focus of a volume that calls itself the book of South Asian SF? There is no explanation forthcoming. What “constraints of geography,” to belabour the point, prevented communication with writers beyond India, Pakistan and Bangladesh? What constraints of time made the publishers of “one of the first collections of contemporary (and historic) science fiction (SF) from the subcontinent to appear in the twenty-first century” prioritise speed over ensuring adequate representation? All in all, Saint’s explanation sounds uncomfortably similar to the evasive excuses that we hear for the continued existence of all-male panels: “We tried our best, but it really was not working out.” And it should be given short shrift in exactly the way that arguments justifying manels are given short shrift in 2019.

Representation matters for more than one reason. It matters, as I have indicated above, that the full richness, complexity and diversity of South Asia can scarcely be captured if a majority of its countries have no voice in the volume. It matters that, in an anthology that is meant to showcase the efflorescence of South Asian SF, a prize-winning writer and editor such as the Sri Lankan Vajra Chandrasekera or Salik Shah, the Indo-Nepalese founder of one of South Asia’s only magazines devoted to SF, The Mithila Review—to name just two names out of many—are missing, either because someone was “unable” to reach out to them, or because of the volume’s unexplained focus on “the partitioned three.” But most importantly, representation matters because it is, ultimately, at the heart of any project that claims to be trying to move a writing community from the periphery to the centre, from colony to metropolis. Complaints that mainstream SF has always been Anglocentric run hollow if, when writing back, the same kind of stepmotherly treatment is accorded to smaller nations within the region: such a scenario only perpetuates exactly the same power structures and hierarchies—of narratives, of writing communities, and of markets—that it is the goal of such projects to interrogate and dismantle. The Gollancz book of South Asian Science Fiction ought to have done better on this score, and we can only join Saint in hoping that future anthologies will actually do better.

In two other ways, however, it does do better already. In a foreword, Manjula Padmanabhan points out that “the ratio of men to women in this collection, including translators and poets, is roughly 2:1. The domain of science fiction has been largely dismissive towards women, both as creators and characters within the writing.” This, needless to say, is entirely accurate: SF’s historic preoccupation with colonialism has been matched only by the male-centric character of its canonical narratives (and no doubt, the two are linked).

In that context, while the ratio of contributors shows room for radical improvement, one thing that is striking about the volume is how many stories either feature female protagonists, or foreground women’s concerns. Whether it is Ada, the capable governing officer in Anil Menon’s “Shit Flower,” or the avenging vigilantes in Giti Chandra’s “The Goddess Project,” the presence of women in the volume is both continuing and non-trivial. Perhaps, with this volume, South Asian SF has begun to make that path by walking.

The second representation-related way in which The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction succeeds is in its reprinting of historical works of SF from the subcontinent, including those in translation. Here, Saint appears to have drawn inspiration from Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s The Big Book of Science Fiction, which is mentioned in his introduction. The Vandermeers attempt to achieve not only some kind of geographical parity in their book, but also a temporal one: works by HG Wells, Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, WEB Du Bois and Jorge Luis Borges rub shoulders with more recognisable contemporary names within the genre. In similar fashion, six out of the 28 stories in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction are translated—from Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu—in order to give space to indigenous-language SF. (The absence of a Marathi story must be counted as a regrettable omission in this context, given the tradition of SF writing in that language.)

Additionally, in reprinting stories ranging from the 1920s to 1968 (including from writers we do not necessarily think of as working within the genre, such as Harishankar Parsai or Rahul Sankrityayan), the volume very consciously locates itself within a living literary tradition of South Asian SF. This is important for two reasons: first, it tackles head-on a lazy argument that we hear far too often: that SF is alien to the literary culture of the subcontinent, a “Western import” that has no cultural or social relevance to Indian soil. And secondly, within the genre, memorialising what has been done in the past is a crucial sign of respect, an acknowledgment of the work that has come before and provided the platform for the present. By doing so, The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction establishes itself as a link in the chain, and a bridge between past and future, rather than just another attempt to reinvent the wheel.

WHILE DELIVERING THE SIXTH ANNUAL JRR Tolkien lecture on fantasy literature in February, to mark the publication of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the Booker Prize-winning Jamaican novelist Marlon James spoke at length about growing up without a mythological canon to call his own, and the importance of creating one. In this, he echoed the concerns of the African SF writers and editors, with which I opened this review. Literature is a powerful force, but literature is always bound up within existing social and institutional structures; and when those structures are not ours, but are imposed upon us, a literature that shapes and is shaped by them, can be profoundly alienating as well.

Alienation can occur in different ways. At a most basic, almost primal level, SF can alienate when, for example, a girl reading it finds that only boys—or men—end up navigating the spaceship, or when a non-Western reader finds that all the protagonists seem to carry English names, and all the places seem to have Latin roots. One of the services performed by an anthology such as that of Gollancz is that by its very nature, it addresses this form of alienation. With Bhikaji Cama Place and Versova the sites of SF action as part of its stories, and with protagonists such as Adi and Sana, who wear their names with natural ease, the beginnings of that, at least, have been initiated.

It is evident that the anthology hopes to accomplish much more in the journey of the periphery to the centre. However, being the first to the ball brings with it its own set of disadvantages: the glare of scrutiny falls more keenly on pioneering work, flaws stand out all the more starkly, and, because it sets the tone for what is to follow, an assessment of such work must invariably be exacting. From this perspective, one can perhaps say that if it is to be judged by how well and how effectively it articulates and establishes the genre of “South Asian science fiction,” then this volume succeeds in part, but comes up short in important respects. It does not manage to ensure effective representation from South Asian countries, and too many of the stories seem limited to a diagnosis of current problems with a South Asian twist, rather than imagining alternatives to how we live. At the same time, the volume does succeed, through its stories, in establishing a set of unifying themes that put the “South Asian” into The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction. It could then be best understood as the first foray into building a South Asian canon of SF.

Needless to say, this is not enough. The success of the AfroSF series was built upon the back of an entire network of writers, publishers and readers, upon frequent literary festivals, and upon a whole host of SF-related magazines, both physical and online. An anthology cannot fulfill all of those needs, but it can certainly establish the framework within which those needs will be pursued. That, I would suggest, is the singular contribution of The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction. Time will tell whether the invitation it extends to the South Asian SF community will be taken up in the future, or not.

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.

Namaah Kumar is a lecturer of design and a freelance creative director, who lives on the internet.