In 2019, I stopped watching The Handmaid’s Tale. I got through the first season before the pictures of a democracy collapsing began to cut too close to the bone. It wasn’t a feeling I’d experienced when I read the novel more than ten years ago. Then, it had been a thought experiment – possible, intriguing, comfortably far away, letting me think about how it may be closer than we imagined. In 2019 though, it just felt like the news.
In 2020, I took a flight to Mumbai. I held my ID up to a camera as a man behind fibre glass peered at his screen. People wandered about in masks and face shields, some wearing protective clothing handed out by airlines. Television screens talked me through safety steps: wear a mask, sanitise, keep distance. Masked airport staff cleaned banisters under a headline that flashed MAKE FLYING SAFE AGAIN! It was dystopia like we had always dreamed: people in protective gear, wary, the faint smell of sanitiser and panic in the air. It took, as I told my partner, a pandemic to usher us into the future.
Collapsing boundaries between the real and the speculative
The pandemic of 2020 is not exactly new: We’ve been reading about it for years in speculative fiction. When the disease first spread, people began comparing the news to passages from Station Eleven, a 2015 novel by Emily St John Mandel about the swine flu pandemic. Closer home, Rajat Chaudhary’s The Butterfly Effect touches upon an epidemic created by political decisions. Even the scene I encountered at the airport has been written about in dystopias, utopias, and cli-fi. Waking up every day in 2020 felt like you had wandered into a bad science fiction novel – one where the writer didn’t have a particularly clear idea of plot but knew what concepts they’d like to convey.
As a speculation fiction writer, this wasn’t comforting to me. Speculative fiction has always had the potential to be predictive – look at how concepts in George Orwell’s 1984 are taking hold now – but there’s no pleasure in watching these predictions play out in the real world. There’s no comfort. If there’s hope in reading future fiction, it comes from warning. When I read the The Handmaid’s Tale in 2009, I thought to myself: Look how far we’ve come. Look how we’ve avoided it. That feeling is getting harder and harder to hold on to.
Instead, the division between reality and speculative fiction seems to be collapsing. Prayaag Akbar’s Leila feels very possible. Station Eleven has leaked into our present. Speculative fiction always felt relevant enough to give us that little shiver of delight when we think of possibility, but its futures were far enough for us to not feel in danger, under immediate threat. That’s been changing slowly for a while, but the pandemic seems to have hammered it home. No longer is the future growing on us. It’s here, all at once.
The collapse has been…interesting. I’ve found myself renegotiating with the genre: with my ideas, with where I want to push my novels, with how relevant they felt. I am not alone. Sukanya Venkatraghavan, author of Dark Things and editor of the speculative fiction anthology Magical Women, found herself with a similar problem: “What this pandemic has done to me personally is examine what I write and why I write it. Which means a lot of ideas I thought I could work on don’t excite me anymore. And I have to go back to drawing board to examine and evaluate what I want to put out in the world.”
Indrapramit Das, author of The Devourers, echoed a similar sentiment: “I think it’s inevitable that all art will be affected by something as monumental as a global pandemic; it’s going to give the world a long shadow of rage, grief, trauma, that will work its way into art, including spec-fic, whether subtly or not.”
Where speculative fiction goes from here
To imagine speculative fiction will change in dramatic ways is perhaps to narrow the genre and what it is capable of. Speculative fiction is large. It’s fantasy, horror, science-fiction and everything in-between: magic realism, slipstream, weird fiction and a whole host of other ways of writing that don’t quite have names as yet. That’s what draws most writers to the genre. Made a baby novel monster that no one else will take? Come, speculative fiction will give it a home.
As such, then, speculative fiction as a field dances away from the obvious influence of the pandemic – simply because we’ve done it all before. We have pandemic novels, we have apocalyptical novels, we have dystopias and utopias and government conspiracies. As writer Samit Basu said: “I don’t think the pandemic is going to have a major effect on spec-fic or SF writing, at least creatively speaking […] because I think spec-fic has a relatively lower thinly-veiled-autobiography component – at least, I hope so. I haven’t seen a similar rush to publish pandemic spec-fic.”
What the pandemic may do, however, is emphasise themes within speculative fiction that have grown more relevant with the world we find ourselves in. Gautam Bhatia, for instance, author of The Wall, thinks we’ll see a greater focus on cli-fi as we grapple with what the pandemic shows about the systems and ideals we follow. It’s a genre that’s been growing in relevance for some time, especially in the subcontinent; Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing and Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island are recent examples. Bhatia also expects to see echoes of the pandemic in world-building – if not as a direct engagement with it, then as an exploration of our altered perceptions of society and ways of being.
But the main change that the pandemic will bring to speculative fiction is its effect on the publishing industry as a whole. We may predict dystopias, but what happens to the creative arts when those dystopias come into play? This is what Das is looking at when he thinks of the direction speculative fiction will take in the post-pandemic world.
“What is completely up in the air is the state of the arts as pertains to capitalist production,” Das said. “Hopefully they won’t collapse entirely, of course, but there’s no doubt we will be seeing some unforeseeable changes in the way art is made and consumed, if the pandemic continues to hang around for longer than the next year.”
Those changes are cause for worry and, in some cases, hope. The pandemic has seen boarder social shifts in publishing, some of it positive. #Publishingpaidme, for example, opened up a conversation about racism and diversity. Whether that conversation will lead to any meaningful change remains to be seen. But this is what Basu hopes for the future of speculative fiction – that it operates in a publishing ecosystem with a more level global playing field, with more diverse voices and greater meaningful equality. The pandemic has been a moment of disruption; there’s potential here to shape that disruption into a better world. Whether it is seized or not, only time will tell.
Indian spec-fic and negotiating the present
As a speculative fiction writer, I deal in alternatives. The Liar’s Weave was an alternate history: a reimagining of 1920s India where birth charts are real and the future is written in the stars. The novel I am working on now follows a similar pattern: different universes, alternate ways of living. The pandemic, then, should have been a distant blip on my horizon. It shouldn’t have changed my relationship to my art or my works in progress.
Yet, the collapse of the boundary between reality and speculative fiction had a profound effect. I was seeing a lot of what I read play out in front of my eyes. What that did – as I imagine it did for so many of us who found ourselves suddenly at home, robbed of the movement we took for granted, new ways of working thrust upon us – is reorient me firmly in the present. Suddenly, the present demanded all my attention; to navigate it, it needed all of my focus. It affected how I wrote and it affected how I read.
Perhaps because of this, the Indian speculative fiction I’ve read this year has taken on a different relevance. The fiction felt personal, immediate. It held none of the allure of dystopia – that comfortable question of possibility and of “what if”. Instead, it felt like it was wrestling with the messiness of the world we find ourselves in today, with its fluidity and decay and rapid change. It felt like it was negotiating, in real time, the changes I have lived in this past two years.
Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits is a prime example of this. Set in the near-future, the novel – now shorlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 – enters an India that’s been affected by technology, protests, and assaults to democracy. As Basu states in his acknowledgements: “This book is not set in a dystopia, but in a best case scenario.”
What Basu seems to do in this novel is not negotiate the collapse between spec-fic and reality as much as invite it in. There’s tension in this novel that derives from how close it feels, how the questions the main characters face are ones you face today, now, tomorrow. Basu’s writing process reflects that same immediate chaotic movement of negotiation: “I’d been rewriting continuously for two years to adjust to the avalanche of daily world-altering bad news,” Basu said. “Even if it’s not the job of speculative fiction to predict the future, it’s still scary if you’re trying to capture present-day concerns and they keep trying to change overnight.”
The Wall, Bhatia’s debut novel, is more sedate than Chosen Spirits and further from our present day; it’s set in a fantasy city surrounded by a wall that no one can breach. Yet the novel grapples with themes that felt immediately relevant: oppression, powerlessness, the slow dissolving of democracy and law. Reading it felt less like an escape than a guide: a mirror polished so thoroughly, our reflection is crystal clear.
When I think about where speculative fiction can go in a post-pandemic world, then, these are the books I think about. Books that embrace the collapsing of boundaries between the real and the speculative: that negotiate in knotted and thorny terms the very real wrestle we’re facing with our present. Indian speculative fiction is particularly ripe for these examinations; we’re lucky to be at the cusp of the boom, and there’s potential to engage our reality in powerful ways.
A genre for our times
Perhaps what both Chosen Spirits and The Wall indicate is that speculative fiction won’t necessarily change its nature post pandemic, as much its nature will have greater relevance in today’s world. There’s no denying the need for art in 2020. “This pandemic is going to last,” Das said, “and have effects on our societies for much longer than people are expecting, so the need for art to help with both escapism and catharsis will be acute. You can just look around to see how much people who have access to that kind of culture are depending on movies, TV, books, music, and art in general to get them through such a dark time. That won’t change.”
In that need for catharsis and escapism, speculative fiction may have a larger role to play. The qualities this genre demands of its readers are the qualities this reality asks of us: imagination, empathy, and the ability to cope with rapid and startling change. “I think we’re moving into an era,” Basu said, “where speculative fiction is going to be our best hope of telling the stories that matter.”
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.