The BS Column: From Dune to Cyberabad

(Published in the Business Standard, December 8, 2009)

If a future historian were to examine the ways of humanity via a library of science fiction, these would be the scholar’s conclusions. Most rocket scientists and space explorers are white and male. UFOs, ETs, alien life-forms and spaceships prefer to visit the United States of America and large parts of Europe, with the occasional foray into Japan and very rarely, deserted patches of the globe.

Astronauts and spaceship crews are chiefly drawn from the West, though an occasional Indian (usually a doctor) or Chinese member (usually a mathematically gifted technician) might find a place on board alongside the token blacks. Africans, Brazilians (and other Latin Americans), and Indonesians or Malaysians rarely explore space, though Russians often do, and even Australians might. (Canadians and New Zealanders are conspicuous by their absence.) Robots, androids and humanoids are either based on Caucasian or more infrequently Japanese models, but evil aliens may reflect certain racial stereotypes of the time.

Around 2006, SF author Ian McDonald began exploring landscapes outside the Western world as possible terrain for speculative fiction. His River of Gods offered a Balkanised India, while Brasyl travelled to both the Brazil of the future and a Brazil of the past. He’s just out with Cyberabad Days, and his vision of India of 2047 is both riveting and eerily plausible.

McDonald has travelled extensively in India over a period of years, but sees himself as a tourist rather than an old India hand. This allows him to make the occasional gora mistake, as when he refers to “fields of dhal” when “fields of masoor” might have been more accurate, but these errors are minor. What makes Cyberabad Days work as a short story collection is not just that he writes brilliant SF; it’s that he creates an incredibly recognisable view of a future India.

In the hands of a seasoned SF master, India/ Cyberabad emerges as a fractured state, torn by increasingly vicious water wars. Marriage bureaus augment the routine with the assistance of aeais (artificial intelligences); hijras transform into “nutes”, taking on the slick mantle of future technology; steel monkey-robots can be found on the pink walls of Jaipur; Ardhanarishva Clinics assist in gender-transformation surgery; and the rivers, down to the Ganges, are “starved and frail” across the land.

One of McDonald’s aims, as stated in his interviews, is to shift the focus of SF to the developing world—a shift that, as he says, should have happened internally, with Colombian or Bangladeshi writers, for instance, joining the phalanx of Indian SF writers. To some extent, that process is happening. Samit Basu’s Gameworld series is an unselfconscious fantasy saga set in a very Indian world, with explicitly desi references. Manjula Padmanabhan’s more recent Escape explores a dystopian world where women are exterminated as a matter of course. Padmanabhan didn’t name her country of the future, but as she says, references to food, clothes and geographical terrain make it clear that her dystopia is a very Indian one. It’s influenced by the present-day phenomenon of a skewed gender ratio caused by the killing of female foetuses and infants by Indian families who want sons, not daughters.

Authors like Anil Menon, Anshumani Ruddra and Basu also have an understanding of the workings of the international market—explicitly Indian SF and fantasy is less saleable than more conventional works set in a recognisably Western world. Anil Menon bluntly counselled Indian authors to look to a local rather than a global audience, though writers like Ashok Banker have had some success with wider audiences—Banker’s updated fantasy reworking of the Ramayana found many readers outside India. It’s not an easy market for writers in India—or Brazil—to penetrate, though, and perhaps McDonald’s success with Cyberabad Days, Brasyl and River of Gods will open those firmly shut doors a crack wider. There will need to be several McDonalds (or Orson Scott Cards) before editors and publishers abroad begin accepting SF set in the developing world.

What we need is for the wheel to come full circle. From the 1850s onwards, India saw a curious phenomenon—a healthy appetite for local science fiction, especially in Bengal and Maharashtra. Early Bengali SF writers wrote about explorations to Venus, automated homes and suitably respectful household robots. One of the great pioneers, Premendra Mitra, allowed his imagination to aoar in the other direction—outwards from India to the wider world.

In his classic Piprer Puran (Saga of the Aunts), Mitra writes of the invasion of “monstrous Ants” who bring the cities of Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador down. Their story, told in the early 20th century, is narrated by a multicultural cast: Asesh Roy, Senor Sabatini, Sukhomoy Sarkar and Don Perito. By setting his SF in Brazil and India, Ian McDonald is returning a very old compliment.





2 responses to “The BS Column: From Dune to Cyberabad”

  1. Krishnan Avatar

    Neat piece. Incidentally, Sujatha (S. Rangarajan) wrote many science fiction works in Tamil.

  2. Aditya Avatar

    An American friend used to make fun of Indian movies because they are full of lovey/mushy stuff. I told him it that it is the society's fantasies/fears that make way to the movies. Our's is a society that is deprieved of love and yours is a society deprived of superheroes who save you from aliens. Couldn't that be applied to books/fiction as well? After all, aren't those prospective movie scripts?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: