“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.
A metaphor for what?
If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination”— Ursula Le Guin, in her Foreword to 'The Left Hand of Darkness'.
Two eventful years after the publication of the first volume of South Asian Science Fiction, Gollancz and Tarun K Saint are back with a new anthology comprising of thirty-two stories and poems from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Tibet (represented by writers-in-exile), and the diaspora. Volume 2 is more inclusive than the first and stronger for that; and it delves deeper without sacrificing breath.
From occult dolls deployed against colonial officers in famine-ravaged Bengal to girls modified into bioweapons in a not-too-distant future and a Ray-esque children’s science fable; from death and devastation in Kolkata and Guyana after climate apocalypses to nefarious deployments of sophisticated surveillance tech to control populations; from familiar SF tropes of first contact and deep space offworlding to jinns – how can I forget the amazing jinns? – who appear in more than one story, this anthology goes well beyond traditional SF to embrace horror, fantasy, and climate fiction seamlessly into its fold.
Geographies of tomorrow
For lack of a better categorisation algorithm, let me start with countries of origin, especially ones that didn’t feature in the last anthology. From Sri Lanka comes a stunning entry: “The Maker of Memorials” by Vajra Chandrasekera in which an almost indestructible augmented human whose occupation is to create war memorials, turns up at a war zone to design his final masterpiece. He works alongside the rehistory department, whose officials, true to name, are engaged in constructing set pieces that will rewrite history.
Chandrasekera’s story is universal and could take place anywhere in any conflict-ridden planet (the “backward” worlds that Culture Special Circumstances often intervenes in comes to mind) but the author doesn’t spare us the luxury of distance. He chooses – with devastating effect for this reader anyway – to situate the story very much closer to home in the one sentence he talks of the places where the memorial-maker has worked in – Cheddikulam, Allaipiddy, Chencholai, Vadakkandal, Valvettiturai etc.
In Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s “Confessor”, a new prisoner, a fiction writer, is brought to prison where he comes face to face with long-term prisoner who once used to be a journalist and who has since lost his mind. Other than for future tech such as embedded memory chips used alongside more traditional techniques to extract a confession, this is an eerily familiar tale to anyone following stories of the routine imprisonment of journalists.
The third story from Sri Lanka is “The Diamond Library” by Navin Weeraratne which is set in an underground world where libraries are almost extinct and so, stories can turn out to be extremely dangerous. The anti-hero protagonist tracks down stories and their narrators diligently only to discover that what he’d thought of as reality may not be the truth after all.
Onwards along the coast to Bangladesh which has the first translated story of the collection – “The Zoo” by Muhammed Zafar Iqbal and translated by Arunava Sinha is an old-world story about power and perversion, a throwback to the experiments of Dr Josef Mengele’s at Auschwitz but this time, with a satisfying conclusion. From Bangladesh, we also have “2020-NKARV”, a playful, thought-provoking poem by Kaiser Haq on what it means to be compassionate or not in the context of the global pandemic.
My pick of the lot is the last story in the anthology – “Bring Your Own Spoon” by Saad Z Hossain – where a jinn who is quite low in the pecking order decides to help Hanu, the protagonist, set up a kitchen preparing delicious food for the residents of a climate-ravaged Dhaka. This subaltern culinary venture, despite initial success, doesn’t end well but the story ends on an optimistic note and a call for solidarity, a rather rare outcome for our times.
Jinns also make an appearance in Pakistani-Dominican writer Haris A Durrani’s “Champollion’s Foot” – a space opera told from multiple perspectives, the most interesting of them being jinns who possess human hosts and communicate via them. At the heart of the story is the covered up history of the obliteration of an entire species and the jinns make sure that this particular xenocide shall not remain forgotten.
The crowd-pleaser from Pakistan is Bina Shah’s “Looney Ka Tabadla” (with acknowledged apologies to Manto) where an absurd exchange of looneys take place along the Indo-Pak border. Whether the story belongs in this anthology is open to question but this is razor-sharp satire and well worth reading for that. There are also two stories from Tibet in the collection – “The Crossing” by Kalsong Yangzom and “Shambala” by Salik Shah – both of which, expectedly so, are about the hopes and expectations of exiles and the eventual betrayal that awaits them.
The Indian imagination
The Indian and the diasporic contingent includes some of the best known names in the genre including Vandana Singh, Anil Menon and Priya Sarukkai Chabria whose stories/poems are well worth your time, but I found it more interesting to seek out writers whose works I hadn’t read before and I must say for that purpose, this anthology is a treasure trove. In no particular order, the stories that caught my imagination include:
“And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas, featuring an occult doll and a doll maker from Midnapore.
“Dimensions Of Life Under Fascism” by Jayaprakash Satymamurthy, which is exactly what it says on the tin.
“The Song of Ice” by Soham Guha, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, set in the tunnels of the Kolkata metro where what’s left of the population has moved in to after the climate catastrophe.
“The Glow-In-The-Dark Girls” by Senaa Ahmad, where girls have been modified into super weapons and we find out what superheroes are really made of.
“The List” by Gautam Bhatia and “The Traveller” by Tashan Mehta, both of which, on the surface, are much closer to what we are used to seeing in the western canon but nevertheless rooted closer to home.
Considered as a whole, the Gollancz Volume 2 anthology is a roller-coaster ride well worth the effort and time, but this ride is not comfortable by any means, and this is not a criticism. Quite the opposite. Regardless of geography and socio-political position the stories are written from, the stories hold true to Le Guin’s oft-quoted adage of all science fiction being descriptive and not predictive and that all fiction is metaphor.
And in the case of this anthology, we are talking of very thinly veiled metaphors. Le Guin may not have been able to find the words to say what she wanted to say non-metaphorically but here, one suspects its not the words but the freedom to do so non-metaphorically is what is perhaps non-existent.
It doesn’t take the reader long to wonder whether the conditions have deteriorated to the point where speaking anything at all – forget truth to power – can only be done via such means. This is not to take away the strong and well-realised world creation that shines through in a number of narratives in the anthology but it needs to be said these stories are as much or more so about the South Asia of our reality than its about future worlds.
The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction: Volume 2, edited by Tarun K Saint, Hachette India.