Highlighting Trends in Indian SF in the Twenty-First Century12 min read
In the moment we are living in, with the pandemic redefining norms of life and existence, it may be that science fiction has become the new realism of the era, as Adam Roberts prophesized might well happen in the wake of an imagined cataclysm (in his novel about an unremitting snowstorm, with an Indian protagonist, The Snow).1 This essay will attempt to map the changing contours of Indian science fiction (SF) of the last two decades or so, during which time SF in this country moved from the fringe to a place closer to the mainstream, with significant contributions from diasporic writers. In the process, SF is, indeed, beginning to seem more like a ‘new realism’ given the extraordinary changes of the last few years.
To trace the genesis of the current proliferation of Indian SF, we need to take a step back and look at the history of this subgenre. While SF emerged in recognizable form in the nineteenth century in India, after a phase of proto-SF writing, it is in the twentieth century that the genre took hold in the collective imagination.2 This was especially the case in Maharashtra and Bengal (spaces where cosmopolitan influences have been most evident since the colonial era) in the languages Marathi and Bengali. While the spirit of protest underpinning the counter-culture had a continuing influence after the 1960s, leading to a questioning of the dominant paradigm of development predicated on an uncritical acceptance of derived notions of the benefits of Western science and technology, local movements based on an ecologically sensitive understanding of the significance of indigenous and local knowledge also had an impact on SF writing. The process of liberalization of the Indian economy (1991 onwards) necessitated even more sharply critical responses in society, mirrored in literary and popular fiction. It was thus no coincidence that a new wave of Indian SF writing came onto the scene from the 1990s onward. Such futuristic visions were often underpinned by revulsion at the trends inaugurated by globalization at its worst, with consumerism and a newly emboldened form of majoritarian nationalism feeding off the anxieties generated by the changes taking place in society and culture. The critical vision of the direction taken by the collective drew impetus from the environmental movement, and from critiques of mainstream development.
At the same time, ironically enough, liberalization and economic reforms meant that many more international publishers opened branches in India, with new avenues emerging in the sphere of both literary and genre fiction. Two major SF interventions during this time are Amitav Ghosh’s SF novel The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) and Manjula Padmananabhan’s SF play Harvest (1997). Both brought in a skeptical view of science and technology, underpinned by a humanist perspective, from different vantage points.3 Such ecologically sensitive and, at times, gender-inflected narratives with a distinctively individualistic flair took flight in the first decade of the twenty-first century, with Padmanabhan’s Escape (2008) and The Island of Lost Girls (2015) setting the tone.4 The first two novels of a projected trilogy, these dystopian novels took on the problem of a drastically skewed gender ratio in a society in which girls are rarely born due to long-standing trends preferring male children. Eventually, the protagonist flees the country in which she was born, breaking loose of its restrictive policies and systematic gender discrimination, and reaches an island run by women, which, despite being a sanctuary of sorts, has its own complex politics at work.
Such writing continued the work initiated by stalwarts in the regional languages such as Premendra Mitra and Satyajit Ray from Bengali, and Jayant Narlikar from Marathi, among others. Pioneers like Anil Menon and Vandana Singh pushed the boundaries of Indian SF further with many publications in international magazines before publishing their own volumes of stories or novels, at times with a diasporic inflection to their work (Anil Menon spent years in the US as a software professional before returning to Pune in India, while Vandana Singh teaches physics in the US after her early education in Delhi).
Vandana Singh’s SF stories were collected in The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (2008), and Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018).5 Singh also wrote a speculative fiction manifesto, included in her first collection, which outlined the revolutionary potential of the genre, with the crucial ‘What if?’ question allowing a questioning of hierarchies and received knowledge about the world.6 In her much-anthologized story ‘Indra’s Web,’ from her second collection, Singh conceptualized a Suryanet, a solar energy network in Ashapur, a slum near Delhi that draws on the language of communication of plants.7 The story draws on both traditional knowledge and contemporary research in biology and physics in its depiction of the relationship between the protagonist (a young scientist), her grandmother, and the quest for solutions to the energy crisis. Anil Menon has since written two SF novels, The Beast with Nine Billion Feet (2009) and Half of What I Say (2015).8 Menon’s first novel was published by feminist press Zubaan, testifying to the sensitivity to gender concerns in this YA novel set in Pune in 2040, about a geneticist forced to go on the run and the effects this has on his family, especially his daughter Tara. Half of What I Say extrapolates from the anti-government protests of 2011 to imagine a substantial challenge to state power mounted in the future by a force called Lokshakti (People’s Power), in a speculative novel that interrogates the limits of formal technique in myriad ways.
The field continued to expand apace in the first decades of the new century with SF writing being published to critical and popular acclaim. SF/speculative fiction became a vehicle for raising important ethical and sociopolitical concerns, even as writers experimented with style and form. Rimi Chatterjee’s Signal Red (2005) brought in a compelling reflection on the infiltration of scientific institutions by right-wing fundamentalists in the near future, an exercise in the sociology of science as much as an SF thriller.9 Priya Sarukkai Chabria in Generation 14 (2008), revised as Clone in 2019, included different timelines and braided together history and the future in her story about artificial intelligences seeking to take measure of what it is to be human.10 Shovon Chowdhury’s dystopian satires The Competent Authority (2013) and Murder with Bengali Characteristics (2015) combined trenchant critiques of state absolutism and the deadening effects of bureaucratized life in India with absurdist humor.11 Samit Basu continued to attract many readers with his blend of science fiction and fantasy (SFF), culminating in his well-received Chosen Spirits (2020), which followed the lives of social influencers in an authoritarian future, recognizable to many in the media-saturated India of today.12 Indrapramit Das has been noticed for many years in the SFF magazines, and the publication of The Devourers in 2015 marked his breakthrough. The novel featured a werewolf as a central character and interwove elements from the history and mythology of Bengal with werewolf lore effectively.13 Das’s cyberpunk-style story, ‘Kali Na,’ takes critical recourse to mythology while retaining a keen awareness of trends and dangers in the realm of the social media.14 Sukanya Datta, a trained scientist, kindles the sense of wonder of science in her many collections of SF, often aimed at a young audience.15 Aniket Jaaware’s interconnected speculative stories Neon Fish in Dark Water (2007), set in 2050, constitute a remarkable attempt to map the dark side of metropolitan existence in the time of simulations and virtual reality, indicating the vulnerability of the shadow city inhabited by the dispossessed and the marginalized.16
We continue to see such creative innovation in the work of the younger generation of SFF writers, with SF tropes and metaphors constantly being reinvented. S. B. Divya published an important collection of SF stories, Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and Other Possible Situations, including ‘Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story,’ her meditation on the isolated situation of those enclosed in protective bio-bubbles on account of rare health conditions, due to which romance becomes a fraught option.17 Sami Ahmad Khan is the author of Aliens in Delhi, a novel that features a parabolic comment on the pervasiveness of communications technology (which may even be used here as a platform for an alien invasion), also making us think afresh about ‘alienness.’18 Mimi Mondal is a Dalit writer who has made a name for herself with her critical study of Octavia Butler (nominated for a Nebula) and who has published SFF stories in prestigious magazines and journals, including her haunting tale, ‘The Sea Sings at Night,’ about the blurring of boundaries between the denizens of the sea and the land.19 Giti Chandra writes both fantasy and SF, and her story ‘The Goddess Project’ is an instance of her distinctive feminist vision, as the dwellers in the interstices of the city upend established patriarchal hierarchies.20
M. G. Vassanji, who is better known for his literary depictions of life in the Indian diaspora in East Africa, and later Canada, experimented with the genre in his novel Nostalgia, in which memory transference across bodies allows the seemingly indefinite perpetuation of life after death.21 Along the way, cases of Leaked Memory Syndrome complicate the transition from one body to the next, as discovered by the nostalgia doctor at the centre of the narrative. Philosophical reflections on memory and identity are interspersed with the fast-paced SF thriller structure to make a compelling read. Similarly, Prayaag Akbar charted out a dystopian scenario in Leila (2017), his novel about a future society overrun by high-tech–based religious authoritarianism. In 2019, it was adapted as a popular Netflix series by Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman, and Pawan Kumar.22 Bangalore-based game designer Lavanya Lakshminarayana’s set of interconnected speculative stories Analog/Virtual and Other Simulations of Your Future projected trends in the digital world into a future where demarcations of rank and class are crucial to access to the enclosed realm of the digitally connected and powerful Apex City, controlled by the Bell Corporation.23 Even in this simulation-infested society, divided into the ‘Analogs’ and ‘Virtuals,’ resistance is possible, and the illusions generated by digital technology are eventually shattered.
On the other hand, Tashan Mehta’s The Liar’s Weave offered an intricate account of an alternate history, recuperating a history of the castaways in a world in which astrology has real meaning and futures can not only be predicted but changed. The Parsi protagonist Zahan Merchant’s ‘lies’ transform reality, altering timelines and constructing a parallel version of history, which the outcasts who inhabit the Vidroha hinterland hope to tap into to usher in dramatic changes in the world as it exists.24 Gautam Bhatia is a Supreme Court lawyer and an editor at Strange Horizons, roles he commingles in his recent novel The Wall: Being the First Part of the Chronicles of Sumer.25 Mithila, his youthful protagonist, is a citizen of Sumer, a city bound in by a Wall which constrains movement according to time-honoured rules and also defines set roles for all. In this allegory about the need to question boundaries, whether physical or metaphysically ordained, Bhatia brings in his legal acumen as he charts the course of a rebellion against strictures that limit freedoms of various kinds.
In the realm of online SFF magazines, Mithila Review, edited till recently by Salik Shah, has introduced many capable writers from the region and also included speculative poetry, interviews and reviews.26 Among anthologies, Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan, sought to collate recent writing in the SFF vein by women. The stories, united by the principle of feminine ‘magic,’ often deployed divinely endowed characters from mythological narratives to question patriarchal certitudes.27 Stories by S. V. Sujatha and Tashan Mehta stood out here in particular. Vinayak Varma’s Strange Worlds! Strange Times! is a collection of SF stories for young adults, with stories by Srinath Perur, Indrapramit Das, and Vandana Singh especially well-wrought.28 I edited The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (2019), and the second volume appeared in 2021.29 Both volumes feature many stories and poems from the talented crop of Indian SF writers mentioned above.
In the domain of film, Deham (2001), Govind Nihalani’s adaptation of Manjula Padmanabhan’s play Harvest (1997), was a courageous attempt to introduce serious SF themes to Indian audiences.30 The story about organ harvesting from Third World donors for First World recipients had a resonance that sadly did not translate into box-office success at the time. Like many such experiments, this artistic treatment of a sensitive subject did not initiate a wave, despite the distinction of its director, one of the finest in the realm of parallel cinema. This turned out to be a dead-end, like many such crossover initiatives. Unfortunately, in Bollywood cinema, SF motifs were more often used as a pretext for low-brow comedy or thrills, raised to the level of satirical comedy in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014), a story about the bewilderment faced by an alien visitor at the ills of human society (with the focus on India, of course). The arrival of OTT platforms has opened the space for more complex SF narratives, and Arati Kadav’s Cargo (2019) combined elements from mythology and SF in this science fantasy about rakshasas/demons processing souls after death in outer space.31
As we have seen, the range and depth of the Indian SF scene in the twenty-first century is notable, even though this subgenre is yet to match the level of say Chinese and for that matter Anglo-American SF. The field is marked by experimentation with form and content, and the best writing synthesizes the strengths of older narrative traditions (whether mythology, epic, fable, horror, or fantasy) with elements of contemporary SF to come to terms with dilemmas of postcolonial reality more than fifty years after partition and Independence and beyond.
While the influence of SF models such as the Golden Age SF of the era of Asimov and cyberpunk is palpable, contemporary Indian SF has traveled in its own direction. This is also a result of the impact of changes ushered in by society and culture after the greater integration of the Indian economy and developmental state with the world system, and the advent of multiple media forms, not least the ubiquitous social media.
Indian SF narratives have addressed both the perception of consequent losses in cultural identity and the sometimes problematic gains in the scientific and technological realms, often through dystopian representations of the crises being faced today. Whether it is artificial intelligence or biotech, the concentration of corporate power in the digital era, or the complications ushered in by virtuality and simulations (especially in the era of social distancing), Indian SF has grappled with the issues at stake in for the most part original ways. In the process, we can see a redefinition of the category of realism, as this variant of ‘new realism’ takes into account the imaginative ecology and economy of twenty-first-century India, projecting contrary impulses and ambivalences in fictive form across time and space. Indeed, the at times surreal juxtapositions of ancient and modern geographies and cosmologies in this subgenre may be read as productive heterotopias, as they continue to generate alternative visions for the future of this civilizational space and the world.32
1 Adam Roberts, The Snow, London: Gollancz, 2004, 356.
2 The following draws on the Introduction, ‘SF Matters: South Asian Futures to Come’ in Tarun K. Saint ed., The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Gurugram: Hachette India, 2019, xiii-xli.
3 Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery, New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1996, Manjula Padmanabhan, Harvest, 1997, revised and expanded edition, Gurgaon: Hachette, 2017.
4 Manjula Padmanabhan, Escape, 2008, rpt. Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2015, Padmanabhan, The Island of Lost Girls, Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2015.
5 Vandana Singh, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, 2008: rpt. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2013, Singh, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2018.
6 Singh, ‘A Speculative Manifesto’ in The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories, 2008: rpt. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2013, 200–03.
7 Singh, ‘Indra’s Web’ in Ambiguity Machines, 142-151.
8 Anil Menon, The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, New Delhi: Young Zubaan, 2009, Menon, Half of What I Say, New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2015.
9 Rimi B. Chatterji, Signal Red, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2005.
10 Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Generation 14, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2008
11 Shovon Chowdhury, The Competent Authority, New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2013, Chowdhury, Murder with Bengali Characteristics, New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2015.
12 Samit Basu, Chosen Spirits, New Delhi: Simon and Schuster, 2020.
13 Indra Das, The Devourers, New Delhi: Penguin, 2015.
14 Das, ‘Kali Na’ in The Mythic Dream, eds. Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, NY: Saga Press, 2019, 220–42.
15 Sukanya Datta, Worlds Apart: Science Fiction Stories, 2012, rpt. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2014,
16 Aniket Jaaware, Neon Fish in Dark Water, Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 2007.
17 S. B. Divya, ‘Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story’, in Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse: and Other Possible Situations, Gurugram: Hachette India, 2019, 27–57. Her novel Machinehood appeared in 2020.
18 Sami Ahmad Khan, Aliens in Delhi, New Delhi: Niyogi, 2016
19 Mimi Mondal, ‘The Sea Sings at Night’ in Saint ed., The Gollancz Book, 36–39.
20 Giti Chandra, ‘The Goddess Project’ in Saint ed., The Gollancz Book, 221–35.
21 M. G. Vassanji, Nostalgia, New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2016.
22 Prayaag Akbar, Leila, New Delhi: Simon and Schuster, 2017. Also, Leila, dir. Deepa Mehta, Shanker Raman and Pawan Kumar, Netflix series, 2019, with Huma Qureishi.
23 Lavanya Lakshminarayana, Analog/Virtual and Other Simulations of Your Future, Gurugram: Hachette India, 2020.
24 Tashan Mehta, The Liar’s Weave, New Delhi: Juggernaut, 2017.
25 Gautam Bhatia, The Wall: Being the First Part of the Chronicles of Sumer, Noida: HarperCollins, 2020.
26 Salik Shah, ed., Mithila Review, https://mithilareview.com/, accessed 14 Jan., 2021.
27 Sukanya Venkatraghavan, ed., Magical Women, Gurugram: Hachette India, 2019.
28 Vinayak Varma, ed., Strange Worlds! Strange Times!, New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2018.
29 Saint ed., The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, Volume 2, Gurugram: Hachette India, 2021.
30 Govind Nihalani, dir. Deham (The Body), based on Manjula Padmanabhan, Harvest, 1997, with Kitu Gidwani, 2001.
31 Arati Kadav, dir. Cargo, 2019, with Vikrant Massey, Shweta Tripathi. Also see Rajkumar Hirani, dir. PK, with Aamir Khan, 2013.
32 See Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’ at https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf, accessed 15th Jan., 2021.