South Asian science fiction: roots, strains, influences, themes, and a personal re-examination

I first met my agent, Kanishka Gupta, on a cold afternoon in Delhi. February, 2018. It took me several tries to get to his place, because apparently he lives bang in the middle of Delhi’s military zone; to compensate, he rolled out a truly magnificent lunch spread, and over many sandwiches we discussed my writing and what I wanted to do next. One of the things that he said to me gave me pause: “you don’t write like other South Asians I’ve read. Or even South East. It’s very different.“.

I’ve had this rolling around in my head for a while. Was it language? Themes? The style, the texture? Obviously, my first instinct was to read more South / South East Asian SFF writers, to see how exactly I differed.  I wasn’t exactly convinced by the point: after all, the sheer diversity of South Asia is insane . . . it is strange to think that my voice, in the middle of four billion people, was somehow unique. Generally, we humans like to think that we are different and unique and all that, but as a whole we are rather predictable and comformist. But this neatly set the basis for a deeper exploration into common themes and styles from science fiction in South and South East Asia.

First, a disclaimer. As Waddell once noted,  ‘words like ”Southeast Asia” and ”unicorn” enable us to discuss topics about which we would not otherwise be able to hold a conversation.” Modify that to ‘South Asia’ and it still applies. This area is old, and it is rich in difference and diversity; this is merely a personal ramble through the history books, broad strokes rather than deep over something that would require a lifetime of study. That said, let’s begin.


Roots: South Asia

Science fiction work from South Asia is sparsely documented. To the best of my knowledge, two writers – both of whom I am fortunate to count as friends, albeit from a distance – have tried their level best, and done a decent job: Gautam Shenoy [1] and Mimi Mondal [2]. The histories they compile are slightly different and deserve reading in full, but they, and other sources, confirm a genesis set somewhere in the 18th century:

  1. Kylas Chunder Dutt (1835): A Journal of 48 hours in 1945, about an Indostan uprising against the colonial British
  2. Jagadananda Roy (1879) : Shukra Bhraman, about a Venus full of ape-like aliens
  3. Hemlal Dutta (1882) Rahashya, about a smart house
  4. Jagadish Chandra Bose (1896) : Niruddesher Kahini, about weather events
  5. Begun Rokeya Hossein (1905): Sultana’s dream, which flips the power dynamics and envisions a land ruled by a woman with men on lesser rungs on the social ladder

Bose is really the most prominent example here, his fame generated by his legendary life: a Calcutta Professor and old-school polymath who become a pioneer in several fields, from biophysics to early work on what eventually became WiFi. This story of his  is about a cyclone being quelled with a bottle of hair oil with a strange history[3]; the whole thing hinges on an approximation of what we later came to know as the butterfly effect.

It’s interesting to see the innovation here. Hossein wrote the first real piece of feminist science fiction: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland , which dreams up a utopian society consisting only of women, didn’t show up until ten years later. Bose’s story talks about the butterfly effect and did so before Ray Bradbury, though perhaps less clearly. Dutt seems to have been on point for his time; this was, after all, the 1930s, the decade where Mary Griffith produced Three Hundred Years Hence and Vladmir Odoevsky put out The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters.  Roy and Dutta  I cannot seem to find anywhere, but Dutta’s story speaks of  “A mansion completely automated and where technology is deified. Automatic doorbell, burglar alarms, brushes that clean suits mechanically are some of the innovations described in the story, and the tone is of wonder at the rapid automation of human lives.” [4]

Women ruling men, lone passengers controlling weather with ease, smart houses, the British being sent packing…these were utopic projections, then. This wasn’t that uncommon in the 1800s. Seeing the Industrial Revolution happen around you must have naturally prompted questions of “what happens next?” and “what should we aim for? Along wish that British trooper’s head, I mean?”

They were also worldbuilding exercises, rather than stories – the purpose, as far as I can make out, seems to be to paint a picture; the characters are there mostly just as excuses to gawk at the doors and windows. Camerapeople.  But this was a popular format in the 1800s – the novel was still on its way, the power of story and conflict had yet to be really explored in the genre.

The events around Indian independence, the ripple effects from the World Wars – these seem to blow a hole in the growth of scifi beyond this. Shenoy tracks a few in between, but acknowledges that language tensions made many of these stories inaccessible. Things start again with Amitav Ghosh (1995): the Calcutta Chromosome, a book that academics even now refer to when reviewing scifi from the region[5] (I haven’t read it yet).

For me, this history really picks up with Samit Basu (2004). Then we have what Shenoy calls the period of greatest hits; Anil Menon and Vandana Singh happen, weaving both myth and science together. And then there’s Tashan Mehta, Indrapamit Das, Shiv Ramdas and others.  South Asian science fiction from this era stands out to me for two things: the first is the seemingly wholehearted embrace of ‘speculative fiction’ as opposed to ‘science fiction’; a sort of acknowledgement of intertwining of science and fantasy in our lives.

I once went to a national science fair, as a young student, where one of the busiest booths was where an astrologer had hacked a scanner to realm palms and pass data to a Visual Basic program that generated horoscopes.  Fast forward ten years, and I was reading about the President / Legal Dictator of Sri Lanka consulting his astrologer to hold elections. [6]. This sort of mysticism is a part and parcel of life; in a sense, religion and spirituality is the true cyborg of South Asian societies, adapting faster than the humans can.

The second thing is a sense of characters tethered by the societies they live in. I think the most brilliant example of this is from Samit Basu’s Turbulence, which explores mutant and superheroes; in it ,  Tia’s superpowers – the ability to replicate herself at will – come from the oppression of wanting to live different lives, but being unable to because of family attachments. Likewise, his Kalki is worshipped as a god-avatar and slotted neatly into prophecies.


 

Okay.

In general, I can see why my writing might elicit a comment like Kanishka’s. You see, despite me having read these works, I wouldn’t call them influences in any way. I’ve done one novel in the old tradition: Numbercaste.  Patrick Udo, who most people read as an empty, slightly sociopathic narrator, was meant to be a blank-slate reporter describing the future as it came along. He’s really at a second remove from the conflict in the story (people either love it or hate it).

But this was not intentional – it was the only style I knew how to write at the time. I was a journalist. I wrote long tech features and somewhat political investigations written in the gonzo style [7]. If anything, Numbercaste hews to David Eggers and Cory Doctorow more than it does to anyone.

My short stories, on review, are strange in that they have very little of the social bonds tugging on South Asians. This is perhaps because of my characters. My friend Navin Weeraratne says that “you write alienated people … because you feel alienated.” Certainly I like exploring people who are forever on the outer circles of their societies, peeping in: in the Inhuman Race, all of my protagonists are the same … mistfits, outcasts, rejects. I like exploring the world through characters like this. Perhaps it’s a large function of who I am as a person, and perhaps I have not truly dissociated my character from myself. None of them subscribe to the mysticism, either. I avoid it. I dislike it. I dream of more rational people and wake up knowing we will never have this; we are pan narrans, not homo sapiens.

But on the whole, I think, something more complex is due.  I think I need to immerse myself again in people – even the mystics – before I make myself too alien for my own origins.


 

 

 

[1] https://factordaily.com/indian-science-fiction/

[2] https://www.tor.com/2018/01/30/a-short-history-of-south-asian-speculative-fiction-part-i/

[3]https://web.archive.org/web/20140905235504/http://strangehorizons.com/2013/20130930/3bose-f.shtml

[4] https://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2006/05/early-bengali-science-fiction.html

[5] https://www.thedailystar.net/book-reviews/efflorescence-south-asian-sci-fi-1512136

[6] https://www.hindustantimes.com/world/mahinda-rajapaksa-s-astrologer-who-advised-early-election-packs-bags/story-ioP1WkF9Zcpz87mb6FntsO.html

[7] https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/this-is-the-colombo-port-city/

 

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