A range of flavors and concerns is discernible in South Asian SFF, which has been going through a mini-Renaissance in recent times. This overview seeks to introduce some of the established and upcoming voices in the New Wave of sub-continental SFF that have made their presence felt since the 1990s.
As we shall see, in the best of these futuristic fictions there is a sharp awareness of momentous transitions afoot in the post-colonial world, with sharply critical accounts of skewed development and modern techno-dystopias. Inevitably, such decolonizing visions of the present often address the aftermath of colonial rule in a different way from Anglo-American SF, with the focus on the task of emerging from the shadow of modernity in its colonial guise.
Vandana Singh is a physicist and SFF author who grew up in Delhi, India, but now teaches and researches in the USA. Her speculative fiction is marked by an incisive commingling of themes pertaining to science and the environment (most recently, climate change), besides the social ramifications of inequitable development. Her first collection The Woman who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories (2009) included a speculative manifesto which set the parameters for her own blend of SFF, which incorporates references to pre-modern cultural narratives and the epics as well as cutting edge scientific research. Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018) brought together stories that further redefined genre borders, retaining the sense of wonder while highlighting the importance of discovery and intellectual breakthrough in story form, a quality Singh’s work shares with the writing of Ted Chiang. ‘Indra’s Web’, for instance, synthesizes ancient wisdom and recent discoveries in the biological sciences. The protagonist Mahua seeks to decode the secret language of the forests, a ‘myconet’, even as she devises a Suryanet, an energy grid to enable displaced refugees from drowned Bangladesh villages to transform a slum called Ashapur into a viable living space in the near future. Since then, incisive stories in the climate fiction mode like ‘Widdam’ and ‘Reunion’ have been included in best of the year anthologies, while Singh has recently been chosen as a Climate Imagination Fellow at Arizona State University.
Pune-based writer Anil Menon began writing hard SF and cyberpunk style stories in various international magazines while working as a software engineer in the USA. He has recently donned the hat of editor for the Bombay Literary Magazine. His YA novel The Beast with Nine Billion Feet was published in 2009, while his speculative novel Half of What I Say came out in 2015. In the interim, Anil Menon and Vandana Singh co-edited Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana in 2012, a path-breaking collection focusing on creative re-inscriptions of the Hindu epic that launched the writing careers of SFF writers like Indrapramit Das. Menon’s hard SF story ‘Paley’s Watch’, has been included in the Locus recommended reading list for 2021. In this story about the discovery of a mysterious artifact Menon draws an extended analogy between scientific speculation and literary narration.
Manjula Padmanabhan has been a pioneer on the Indian SF scene, and is a well known graphic artist and playwright. Her SF play Harvest won the 1997 Onassis Award for Theatre. The innovative premise underlying this play was the harvesting of organs from Third World ‘donors’ for First World recipients. Her dystopian novels Escape (2008) and The Island of Lost Girls (2015) chart the perilous situation of Meiji, a young girl living in a future society based on cloning where girl children have become extremely rare, as well as her eventual escape to an island ruled by women that has its own power hierarchies. The asymmetrical relations of power and imbalance in gender relations depicted here make this projected trilogy a fascinating meditation on identity and difference.
USA-based S. B. Divya is an engineer by training and writes speculative fiction with a strong grounding in contemporary scientific research. Her YA novella Runtime, included in her collection Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse and other Possible Situations, was nominated for a Nebula in 2016. More recently, her novel Machinehood (2021) portrayed the tensions arising from the emergence of enhanced humans and sentient robots, extending a debate about the ethical questions underlying the development of artificial intelligence that has raged since the E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), here in the context of a gig economy.
Delhi resident Samit Basu has been publishing in various genres such as fantasy, science fiction and the graphic novel since 2004. Recently, his anti-dystopian novel Chosen Spirits came out in India in 2020, and has now appeared in the USA as The City Inside, a Tordotcom publication. In this post-cyberpunk style narrative with Indian moorings the role of social media influencers is examined in Delhi ten years from now through the experiences of Bijoyini ‘Joey’ Roy, an Associate Reality Controller in the Flow, an amalgam and projection of recent social media trends. Basu makes reference to events like the protest movement at Shaheen Bagh by the Muslim minority in Delhi (2019-20) as an event existing only in memory, testifying to the rapid erasure of activist interventions from the public sphere in recent times.
Usman T. Malik is a trained rheumatologist and author of speculative fiction from Pakistan. His award winning work spans horror, fantastika and science fiction, while he often draws on the Middle Eastern tradition of fantasy and fabulation. Malik’s short story collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan (2021) recently won the Crawford Award, and includes ‘Resurrection Points’ . This powerful first person tale depicts the vulnerabilities of the minority Christian community through the portrayal of the ability to reanimate the dead by the narrator, a young boy instructed in the use of resurrection points by his father (who tragically falls to sectarian violence).
Bina Shah is a media professional and writer from Karachi, Pakistan. She has written five novels and two collections of short stories. The feminist dystopian novel Before She Sleeps (2018) made a mark with its depiction of a Middle Eastern state in which women have been largely decimated by a virus. As a consequence, women are forced to procreate by the authorities. A rebel group, Panah, provides a service to an elite clientele, with women lulling men to sleep through their presence, a form of emotional compensation, for a price. As a variation on a theme explored by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, this novel set in the aftermath of an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange is able to retain its particularity and strangeness. A sequel is in the offing.
Haris Durrani is a USA based writer of speculative fiction with a Pakistani-Dominican background. Haris’s debut book, Technologies of the Self, blending Latinx and Islamic elements, was winner of the 2015 Driftless Novella Prize. He brings his dual heritage into play with several allusion to ciguapas (shape-shifting creatures from Dominican legend) and jinns (magic wielding beings from Middle Eastern lore), delineated with careful attention to the genesis of such beings, as in his story ‘Champollion’s Foot’. This story about xenocide (attempted extinction of a species) and erasure of histories of the ‘other’ re-addresses some of the themes in the work of Octavia Butler in an innovative and original way.
Vajra Chandrasekera is a writer and editor from Colombo, Sri Lanka. He has published over fifty stories in various magazines so far. His debut novel The Saint of Bright Doors will be brought out by Tordotcom Publishing in 2023. Vajra has taken on the historical trauma of the Sri Lankan civil war in his story ‘The Maker of Memorials’. In this story an augmented human is assigned the task of constructing memorials to those who fall on the battlefield at the very moment they die. This anti-war story debunks the idea of raising instant pedestals to heroic martyrs, perhaps a nod to Wilfred Owen’s World War 1 poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. The ironic take on such images of battlefield glory is accentuated through references to a Rehistory Department, which performs the task of rewriting the past according to whims of the powers-that-be.
Dhaka-based Saad Z. Hossain writes fantasy and speculative fiction underpinned by wry irony and black humour. His first book, an antiwar satire, Escape from Baghdad! was published in 2015, followed by the fantasy Djinn City in 2017 and the hybrid SF/fantasy The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday in 2019. Cyber Mage, the sequel to Djinn City, has just appeared in 2021, while Kundo Wakes Up published earlier this month with Tordotcom. His story ‘Bring Your Own Spoon’ features an unemployed jinn in a future Bangladesh, rallying to the cause of the down and outs on the Fringe whom he helps set up a community kitchen with characteristic sub-continental flavors. The future society depicted here is not without its hazards, as benevolent nanites protect the well-to-do who live in a bubble from various diseases in the water and air. The tragicomic tone of the story is a hallmark of Hossain’s style, as he treads the permeable boundary between genres with aplomb.
As we have seen, South Asian science fiction and fantasy can be relished for the diverse flavors and metaphors on offer, on par with the culinary variety of food preparations served up in different corners of the subcontinent. On another plane, we can see serious ethical engagement with pressing socio-political and ecological concerns in the best of the recent writing, even as these differentiated collectives negotiate the challenges of postcolonial histories and civilizational memories in this geographical and cultural space, with a renewed orientation towards a just and inclusive future.
Tarun K. Saint, an independent scholar and writer, was born in Kenya, and has lived in India since 1972. His research interests include the literature of the Partition and science fiction. He is the author of Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction, based on his doctoral dissertation. He edited Bruised Memories: Communal Violence and the Writer and co-edited (with Ravikant) Translating Partition. He also co-edited Looking Back: India’s Partition, 70 Years On, with Rakhshanda Jalil and Debjani Sengupta. He has edited The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction. The bilingual (Indian-Italian) science fiction anthology Avatar: Indian Science Fiction co-edited with Francesco Verso appeared in January 2020.