World Building in A Hot Climate
I came across Paramjit Kumar’s Scourge From the Sky (1964) many years ago, on my way home from school, in one of Mumbai’s then-myriad footpath bookstores. The slim cloth-bound octavo volume, modestly self-labeled the “Greatest Science Fiction of the Century,” was about an interstellar adventure complete with flying metallic saucers, imperialist aliens, hapless abductees, heaving boojums, one “unreconstructed” Nazi, trips to Mars and Jupiter and “lustful orgies” by said Nazi. Did I mention it also included Eternity? Well it did. The last chapter was titled “Back to Earth From Eternity.”
Had it been written a few decades earlier, Kumar’s work could have thrown its hammy arms around other cutting-edge Campbellian SF. Translated forwards in time however, it’s a misfit. 1964 was the age of Rocannon’s World and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Stand on Zanzibar was four years away and J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition was about to get banned. Kumar’s book had all of the 60s fixations— nuclear doomsday, commie menace, UFOs, excess hair— but its SF machinery was badly out of date.
I’m fond of the book and the memory of finding it, but it’s become clear to me that its problem—premature obsolescence— continues to plague much of Indian SF in English.
If Darko Suvin right, then SF’s task is to build new worlds. It’s hard to pin down what “new” is, but it’s easy to identify what it achieves. It effects cognitive estrangement. It freaks you out. Ideally, it flips you inside out, bug-eyed and porcupine. Suvin argued that SF writers create new worlds in one of two ways: (1) by extrapolating the natural world, or (2) by analogizing with the natural world.
Indian SF also bears this out. The worlds in Amitav Ghosh’s “The Calcutta Chromosome,” Sudhir Jha’s “Matrubhoomi” and Pradip Ghosh’s “A Long Day’s Night,” use extrapolation and analogy to striking effect. The work of authors like Ashok Banker, Samit Basu, Priya Chabria, Rimi Chatterjee, Abha Iyengar, Manjula Padmanabhan, Anushka Ravishankar, Anshumani Rudra, Pervin Saket, Vandana Singh, Kaushik Vishwanathan and others all point to a new era in SF.
But these exceptions only highlight the problem with the average. What we often find in Indian SF is world-reusing, not world-building. The stories extrapolate and analogize the worlds of golden-age SF, not the natural world. The robots are from Asimov, the spaceships are from space-operas, the aliens are from 60s Star Trek, the time-travel is from Wells, and the gender-relations are straight out of the 50s. It’s a pastiche world, lovingly glued together from bits and pieces of remembered stories. There’s an old-fashioned, defanged feel to the stories, as if estrangement had been collared and corralled into the safe confines of a folktale. If it were bad writing then we could see it as a case of Sturgeon’s Law, but the problem isn’t bad writing, it’s obsolescence.
Part of the reason for this may have to do with the fact that very little of modern SF is available in most Indian bookstores. No Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow anthologies. No Octavia Butler. No Samuel Delany. No George Zebrowski. No Jim Kelly, John Kessel. No Geoff Ryman. No Kelly Link. No Jonathan Lethem. No Greg Egan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Bruce Sterling, Paul McAuley, Jeffrey Ford, or Tim Powers. The big metros have bookstores that might carry Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow and Ian Macdonald, but by and large, the smaller ones file Asimov right next to James Hadley Chase and call it a day.
Asimov is big in India. Asimov is very big everywhere. I don’t know how Asimov-bhai pulled it off, but he hit notes that everyone seems to enjoy. He’s been translated into every regional Indian language. I estimate some 200 to 300 million Indians must have heard of Asimov and read one or two stories of his. They get him.
So how come they can’t get Asimov’s magazine in India?
No doubt, there’s a reasonable answer based on the cost of beans, Ben Franklin’s bifocals and what not. Besides, when I say stuff is unavailable, I mean it’s not legally available. Thanks to Al Gore, a lot of fiction is downloadable via torrent files.
But the pirate still has to know what to download. And what the pirate knows is often shaped by the pirate’s preferences. If golden age SF is what most Indian readers are exposed to, then those are the sort of worlds they’ll reach for when they begin to write.
This disconnect from mainstream SF is only part of the reason why much of Indian SF—at least, the one in English– feels dated. Paradoxically, the other aspect is that there is not enough of a disconnect. The subcontinent, like other once-colonized nations, is still emerging from a state of thralldom with “the west.” Frantz Fanon’s brilliant and perhaps unequaled description of this process in The Wretched of the Earth, and summarized here in Ian Crump’s abbreviated quote captures the idea:
“In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. . . . In the second phase we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is. . . . But since the native is not a part of his people, he is content to recall their life only. . . . Finally in the third phase, which is called the fighting phase, the native . . . shake[s] the people. . . . He turns himself into an awakener of the people.”
It’s interesting that even so shrewd an observer such as Fanon couldn’t shake free through the sexist presumptions of his time. That aside, there is truth to what he says. The writer who reaches for the stale futures of the past, of the West’s past, does so because “he” is seeking to join the conversation, but is unaware that the discussion has shifted to different topics. This attempt is grounded, I think, not just in the history of colonial oppression, but also in a genuine love for a new set of ideas.
Chinua Achebe, in his essay The Novelist As Teacher, tells the story of a boy in his wife’s class, who wanted to write about winter, something he’d never seen, instead of the harmattan, West Africa’s Saharan winds, because he didn’t want to be thought a bushman. Presumably, western kids don’t reach for the harmattan when they mean winter despite the risk of being labeled rednecks. So why is that?
Achebe sees this as an residual of the “traumatic effects of our first confrontation with Europe.” Maybe. Certainly one effect of colonization is to make one ashamed of one’s own. But it’s equally possible that one can fall in love with another culture. It may be a forbidden love. An out-of-your-league love. Perhaps there are better, more worthy, parent-approved creatures to love. But there it is. This is what you love. The Romans fell in love with the Greek world. The Europeans fell in love with the Roman world. The “lost generation” of American writers fell in love with the European world. Why should it be so upsetting if a generation of African, Indian, and other non-western writers fell in love with the western world?
It is only upsetting if there’s no choice. For me, what matters is that the African kid should reach for winter because he wanted to, and not because he wasn’t aware there were other choices. Indeed, the lack of a similar choice for the western kid would make her situation equally unfortunate. What I see in many of the Indian SF stories that come my way is the lack of such awareness. So we get kids in Delhi, one of the most historic of cities, writing public school fantasies set in England. So we get dragons, as Deepa D wrote in her insightful blog piece, not garudas, sharabas or navagunjaras. So we get stories that are sincere, well-intended and perhaps even estranging in the exotic Indian-rope-trick manner, but all the same, hopelessly out of date.
The solution is not to embark on a massive reading program. That would only replace one set of dead idols with another. Such programs, usually self-inflicted, only result in what Hoggart sneeringly referred to as “scholarship boys,” deracinated individuals ruined by education. The problem is not to become more like somebody else but to become uniquely oneself.
So what to do? I suggest the solution lies in discontent. Discontent is an endless resource. Discontent is a natural human instinct, both contagious and easily kindled. Discontent makes hope possible. After all, one hopes for what one does not have. Discontent packs bags, jumps borders, breaks hearts, ruins lives and wrings pearls from grit. Discontent allows us to say: balls! Balls to history. Balls to psychology. Balls to probability. If these three witches had their way, humans would still be huddling in caves, contentedly picking lice off each other’s hairy backs. But we are not. That’s because we became discontented. Discontent brought us down from the trees, drove us out of the caves. Discontent set sail on the Mayflower. Discontent is the key. Discontent with what has been done. Discontent with what hasn’t. If SF writers were to start in a seething state of discontent, trembling like compass needles maddened by a private magnetism, then they could tear free and truly produce what Paramjit Kumar threatened in 1964: “the greatest science fiction of the century.”
 Darko Suvin, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” College English 34 (1972). pp. 372-82.
 Ian Crump: ” ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born’: Irish Literature as a Paradigm for the Formation of Postcolonial Literatures.” In English Postcoloniality: Literatures from around the World. Radhika Mohanram & Gita Rajan (eds). Greenwood Press. 1996. pp. 31-42