British publisher Victor Gollancz, after whom the publishing imprint Gollancz is named, was a liberal socialist and pacifist who published authors such as George Orwell and Franz Kafka, started a book club that campaigned for left-liberal ideas in England, and supported the rehabilitation and humane treatment of German citizens after World War II. Gollancz once said: “I hate everything that is pro and anti (different peoples). I am only one thing: I am pro-humanity.”
It seems entirely fitting, then, that the publishing house he started in 1927 (now owned by Hachette) publishes and reprints some of the best work in a genre that is intimately concerned with the essential humanity of beings, both human and not: science fiction.
The recently published Gollancz Book Of South Asian Science Fiction is a timely tribute to speculative fiction writing from the subcontinent (more accurately from the “Partitioned three”, as several reviewers have pointed out)—and, as the anthology shows, this is a vast and prolific pool from which to populate a collection like this. The 28 stories display a remarkable variety of voices, themes and tonalities employed by writers engaged in making sense of the past, present and future of the planet, as well as their own more personal and limited geographies. Science fiction is not about the future alone; it helps us see the world as it is today, revealing truths hidden by conditioning, forcing us to confront absurd beliefs that we take for granted, boundaries that we think are insurmountable, and natural laws we imagine to be unchangeable.
While the collection features many stories that would be classified as “hard-core” science fiction (difficult to define but you know it when you see it), there are a few stories that work equally well as social satire: One of the most memorable, Stealing The Sea by Pakistani writer Asif Aslam Farrukhi, is a dreamy, lyrical story about the citizens of Karachi suddenly finding their sea missing one day. It could be an allegory for something vital missing from society, or a warning about climate change, but it is still science fiction in its speculative questioning.
The politics of identity plays a strong role in many of the stories, and pinning them down is especially difficult in Anil Menon’s story Shit Flower, set in a Mumbai of the future which is battling sewage (still!) and where the protagonist’s identity is ever-shifting, with lots of winks and nods to pioneering programmer Ada Lovelace (it is this kind of in-joke bounty-hunting that allows science fiction to remain playful while telling serious truths).
Identity also creates bloody havoc in 15004 by Sami Ahmad Khan, a railway story unlike any other (so evocatively written that you can almost smell an Uttar Pradesh train station) that pins down the end-game of identity-based hatred through the familiar device of homogeneity-obsessed aliens. In Keki N. Daruwalla’s The Narrative Of Naushirwan Shavaksha Sheikh Chilli, the last surviving Parsi on earth tries to relocate to the moon, with disastrous consequences.
There are more. In Mimi Mondal’s tiny The Sea Sings At Night, a mer-person falls in love with a human but has to go back to where she belongs. Now that I think of it, the ocean is a big theme in the collection—Vandana Singh’s excellent Reunion imagines a submerged world—and is perhaps an indication of the writers’ preoccupation with climate change. “Literary” writers may not have paid much attention to it, as Amitav Ghosh alleges in The Great Derangement, but climate-anxiety has always been a big part of the sci-fi imagination.
One wants to be kind to a collection like this. It is immensely well-intentioned, curated with deliberation and hard work, and diverse and flexible in terms of the writers represented, with many of the stories appearing in translation and quite a few vintage stories written before science fiction was even a minor phenomenon in Indian writing. It perhaps needed a lighter touch to be perfect, and more thematically diverse—many of the stories try too hard to be meaningful and political and, well, woke, without saying anything new or at least being a pleasure to read. The dialogue is often stilted and amateurish, like the first draft of a bad TV show script.
A more playful approach and less of a preoccupation with the “dialectics of authority” and “indigenous epistemology” (quoting from editor Tarun K. Saint’s introduction) would perhaps have made this collection much more enjoyable to read. It strives to be worthy and at times ends up being a bit of a blunt instrument, when the best science fiction is often as sharp as a needle.