The thing about science fiction is that it demands a certain amount of commitment to buy into the world the writer is creating. In The Gollancz Book Of South Asian Science Fiction, Volume 2, an anthology of short stories and poems from South Asian writers of science fiction-fantasy-horror, there are no fewer than 32 worlds, each of which differs from our own in widely divergent degrees, each intricately conceived and executed—all within the space of a short story. There are authoritarian worlds and post-climate change apocalypse worlds and space worlds and absurd worlds where people do not read any more. There are worlds-within-worlds, and worlds where there is no pain and people actually have to buy it.
This is an immersive, mind-bending volume—certainly not one you can speed-read. Each story demands that you put the book down after reading it and turn over its ideas in your head, like good science fiction forces you to do.
The volume contains stories from Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Tibetan writers, along with several translated stories written in Indian languages (predominantly Bengali and Marathi) and stories from the South Asian diaspora. Many lean more towards horror than sci-fi—such as the opening story, And Now His Lordship Is Laughing, by Seattle, US-based writer Shiv Ramdas, a Stephen King-like tale of revenge set in 1940s West Bengal during the famine years, and The Zoo by Bangladeshi writer Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, which imagines the typical mad rich scientist of popular science fiction as a man who is experimenting on humans raised by animals—the story, especially the scientist’s genuine, gleeful enthusiasm for his work, reminded me of a Satyajit Ray short story, Professor Hijibijbij, about another mad scientist who wants to create a mythical creature by stitching together parts of various animals and a human.
Many of the stories are set in dystopian, authoritarian futures, from Sri Lankan writer Vajra Chandrasekera’s The Maker Of Memorials, a spare, succinct tale about a superhuman sculptor who is literally rewriting history by creating fake war memorials made to look ancient, to Bengaluru-based writer Jayaprakash Satyamurthy’s even more sharply and urgently political satire Dimensions Of Life Under Fascism, about a ruling government that’s quite literally making people flatter versions of themselves.
Some of the most haunting and poetic of the stories are written by feminist science fiction writers who, carrying forward the legacy of Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood, write female-centric stories that are less preoccupied with the state of the world than the interior lives of their protagonists.
Vandana Singh crafts a perfectly captured story about a lonely academic in a submerged world who waits for her daughter to come home while delving into the works of the medieval Bengali female mathematician-poet Khana and taking care of a creature that is quite possibly an alien; another personal favourite is Goodbye Is The Shape Of A Palm Pressed To The Sky by Lavanya Lakshminarayan, which imagines a future human who unravels the story of her pioneering female space pirate ancestors. And then there’s a masterfully surreal story by Manjula Padmanabhan about a world in which physical pain has been obliterated, and people must buy pain from the story’s titular “pain merchants”, who collect it from those who remember it in a pain-free world (it’s not as utopian as it sounds).
There are stories that share a humorous undertone as well—from Bina Shah’s Saadat Hasan Manto-inspired story Looney Ka Tabadla, which imagines today’s intrepid fake news generators and WhatsApp warriors as tomorrow’s offenders in the wake of lasting peace between India and Pakistan, to the late humorist Shovon Chowdhury’s Malini, a comic and wholly original take on the well-explored SFF trope of a man who falls in love with an AI voice.
Most of the writing included in the anthology was written and submitted before the pandemic, and editor Tarun K. Saint says in his introduction that this volume “does not attempt a consolidated view of this still-unfolding disaster”.
At a time when science fiction and reality have collided so violently in the real world, Volume 3 should be interesting.