A contemporary science fiction anthology focused on South Asia has been long overdue, not least to provide a counterpoint to the conventional narrative that South Asian SF is an arid desert compared to say, the lush and verdant forest that is epic and mythological fiction. Enter Gollancz, the world’s leading science fiction and fantasy imprint, in an attempt to fill this gap with their new arrival: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction.

The book includes a range of historical and modern SF stories from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the editor, Tarun K Saint, offers some hope that future anthologies will likely be more inclusive in their definition of South Asia.

How it began

In his introduction, Saint takes readers on a whistle stop tour of the origins of, and trends in, subcontinental SF over the past century and a half, covering both English and other Indian languages. Unsurprisingly, given the colonial context and the Bengal Renaissance, many of the earlier stories that centred on emerging scientific theories and futuristic inventions appeared in Bengali, closely followed by books in Marathi.

In English too, there appeared works that “interrogated the existing power structures of the time” such as Kylas Chunder Dutt’s anti-imperial A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945, depicting an imaginary anti-colonial revolt, and Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain’s seminal Sultana’s Dream, arguably the first feminist SF narrative anywhere in the world. In the years running up to and following Independence, SF focused on nation-building and inculcating scientific temper. This later gave way to books that adopted a more skeptical attitude to technological development as well as a growing interest in ecological concerns. In recent years, the move has been towards more genre-fluid and self-aware narratives.

Saint places this history of South Asian SF alongside a whirlwind tour of worldwide SF all the way from Mary Shelley to Octavia Butler with nods to the Strugatsky brothers, Stanislaw Lem and Cixin Liu by way of including trends outside the Anglo-American world. This global context hints at points of deviation for subcontinental SF from worldwide trends. Saint’s introduction is informative and fascinating and well worth the time for anyone with a passing interest in the evolution of the genre.

Familiar themes

The stories in the anthology come in all shapes and sizes and even include a handful of speculative poems. It is beyond the scope of this review to do justice to all of them and after a couple of futile attempts at drawing up a neat 2 x 2 matrix, I ended up classifying the stories into four broad categories.

The first group comprises of a set of mostly historical stories, some of them translated, and all of them reminiscent of the era of Golden Age science fiction. Those of us who grew up on a staple diet of stories from mid-century American SF magazines will recognise and savour the familiar tropes and themes.

This set includes the opening story Planet of Terror by Adrish Bardhan, where a group of human voyagers in search of a new home land on a habitable planet only to find that the original inhabitants don’t want anything to do with Earthlings. Another story includes excerpts from The Twenty-Second Century by Rahul Sankrityayan, translated from Hindi by Maya Joshi, where a retired teacher wakes up after 200 years to an utopian socialist world of abundance and equality. In Why the War Ended by Premendra Mitra, a Martian invasion is imminent leading to an early end to WW2 and it even includes a cameo appearance by an aviator based on Amelia Earhart.

My favourite in this set though is a recent story: 15004 by Sami Ahmad Khan, a thoroughly entertaining high body count thriller involving aliens taking over trains in Uttar Pradesh as part of their plan to homogenise the universe – what’s not to like? (Train nerds: yes, that’s Chauri Chaura Express.)

The stunners

The second category consists of some of the strongest stories in the collection: contemporary narratives that apply hard science ideas and allusions to the issues of our time but are also well aware as to their constraints and limitations.

Reunion by Vandana Singh offers a poignant and optimistic reflection on a world after climate change and is set in a deeply-realised Mumbai that boasts of self-sustaining settlements built from a combination of the modern and the traditional. In Anil Menon’s Shit Flower, a future Mumbai is overrun by human waste, thanks to a few humorous programs going rogue. Dreaming of the Cool Green River by Priya Sarukkai Chabria takes place in a world where censorship reigns, where an archivist evades the omnipresent Eyes and duplicates objectionable art.

The two stunners of the anthology (loosely) belong to this category, both of which immediately brought to my mind the famous Ursula Le Guin quote about how all fiction including science fiction is metaphor. In the first, Stealing the Sea by Asif Aslan Farrukhi and translated from Urdu by Syed Saeed Naqvi, the residents of Karachi wake up one morning to find that the sea has vanished. The other, The Sea Sings at Night by Mimi Mondal, is a very short story about identity and letting go set in another familiar city down the same coast.

An alternative futurism?

The third category consists of satire masquerading as science fiction. The setting, the time, the world doesn’t matter much in these stories. These are amusing and entertaining stories with quite a few laugh-out loud moments – Keki N Daruwalla’s The Narrative of Naushirwan Shavaksha Sheikh Chilli, Mohammad Salman’s The Last Tiger, Shovon Chowdhury’s The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi all belong here – but one cannot help thinking that they are a valid but crude reaction to the intolerance of the past few years and are a part of the same echo chamber that we are so very used to by now. The stories are good satirical sketches but I remain unconvinced that they belong in this particular anthology.

The fourth category consists of stories that just didn’t work for this reader – a paucity of ideas, forgettable, cardboard cutout characters (the grateful maid friend who has to introduce heroine to the real world; these racist mandarins from the West), stunts without substance (the potential of an Arrival-esque first contact story reduced and trivialised to fit in Indian Stretchable Time, a “Bhumandala” couple meeting on and off in a quantum universe for no perceptible reason), all made for a bit of tedious reading. In the book’s defence, there are fewer stories on this list than on the others and I’d actively discourage any potential readers from turning away from the anthology on account of this.

Taken as a whole, the Gollancz anthology is timely and delivers on its promise of “providing a prism refracting the vivid and at times contrarian imaginings of contemporary South Asian SF”. But, from reading Saint’s introduction, this is not the only promise the book seeks to deliver. He is more ambitious and rightly so. “Might it be possible to discern in the best SF produced in South Asia in recent times the lineaments of an alternative, perhaps even a South Asian futurism,” he asks.

In this reader’s opinion, not quite, not on the basis of this anthology. There are hints of an alternative futurism but the vision is not particularly original or compelling enough. One potential reason could be that the book has, in its effort to offer a sufficient range, sacrificed depth. Perhaps a smaller set of writers who are rooted in the SFF tradition could have made this a richer volume. I also wonder whether the concept note that Saint refers to in his introduction – what might the sub-continent look like about 70 years from now – was too constraining.

Different kinds of ‘exotics’

It would also be remiss of me if I don’t mention one last niggle regarding the characters in this anthology. Manjula Padmabhan sets high expectations in her foreword when she writes:

This time, your guides have names such as Matadeen and Mahua, your picnic basket may contain mango pickle and your kit bag surely includes a collapsible lota rather than toilet paper...The majority of stories in the books are about ideas and ideals that might be of interest to anyone anywhere, expressed through the perspectives of those who have so far been presented as “exotics” in science fiction.

But what struck me as I read the book is that that there are different kinds of “exotics”.

South Asian fiction, especially Indian, is no stranger to exoticising or ignoring most of those who constitute South Asia. Global SFF writers over the past few decades have upped their game in bringing forward those who were considered exotics and misfits until now, to the centre of the narratives. In this context, its not unreasonable to expect less of what is considered “normal” in Indian fiction – such as Tamil Brahmin scientists and doctors, cosmopolitan Parsis, high-born do-gooders, angst-ridden diasporic types, globe-trotting aspirationals, all of who make an appearance (sometimes multiple) in the anthology – and more of the “other” South Asia.

This is not a cross that only science fiction has to bear but one does wish that SF editors and publishers give this a bit more consideration than they have done in the past. It may even go some way in delivering the promise of an alternative South Asian futurism that has yet eluded us.

The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, edited by Tarun K Saint, Hachette.