A tapestry of brilliance, imagination and more… The Gollancz Book of Science Fiction (volume 2) – Mahua Sen Mukhopadhyay

Nov 26, 2021 | Bookworm | 0 comments

 

 

Category: Science Fiction & Fantasy
Binding: Hardback
Imprint: Hachette India
Page Extent: 480 pp
Edited by Tarun K. Saint

“Breathing in, I imagine Niu Jian as a five-year-old child with a dreamy face and dark eyes. Breathing out, I smile at that child who is my teacher, a poet and the guide of my soul.
Where are you now, teacher?
The world is quiet. I refuse to accept the answer.” (Page 322, Shambhala, Salik Shah)
Or going through this mesmerizing description of the boundary of a distant island –
“ ‘At the highest point to the north’, she tells me, ‘there is a necklace of giant sleeping whales. So large are they that their humps push into the sky to gather snow’.” (Page 19, The Traveler, Tashan Mehta)
These lyrical lines stopped my thoughts and left me quiet inside. I internalized them and went back to these lines. I did not expect them in science fiction stories. As I have been going through The Gollancz Book of Science Fiction (Volume 2), reading one story after another, I have encountered the same feeling again and again. There is such a variety of colors, patterns, depth, lines, contours, light and darkness. At the end of it, I sit and look at the book as a beautifully woven quilt.
Science fiction stories nowadays have broken the boundaries or what we call stereotypes. They don’t just consist of aliens, giant cyclops, and flying machines. They have evolved and are very much embedded in the lives we are living right now. They have become humane; they talk about everyday people – their lives, their achievements, disappointments, triumphs, heartbreaks.
The pictures in science fiction portray what we fear or dread seeing tomorrow, but know in our mind that they are going to be true in due time. We as a human race, have exploited nature, have been addicted to technology knowing it very well it is controlled by handful of powerful people in the world. We have created beasts and nurtured them with utmost care for our own convenience, our luxury. We know very well what is waiting for our future. These stories portray them and say much more. They travel into the past; have imagined a world without maps, have taken shelter in the part of darkness where some remaining humans are living, have tried to migrate past the fourth dimension, have revived the first generation of artificial intelligence in future time, and tried to have evoked the feeling of pain. Apart from that, these stories are deeply rooted in the socio-economic and political culture of Indian subcontinent, in the history, mythologies, rituals and definitely, religious beliefs.

Concern about the devastating impacts of a radically changing climate isn’t a new phenomenon. But now, with the wide-ranging effects of climate change evident in the daily news, practically everywhere around the planet, it doesn’t matter where we live. As a result, science fiction as a genre, is increasingly contributing to the conversation.
The story of ‘Song of Ice’, by Soham Guha, is one of the stories in an apocalyptic world where the city of Calcutta, India, with the rest of the country is in the Ice Age. The remaining living population, along with the protagonists have taken shelter in the underground railway tunnel, as they cannot sustain the unrelenting, bitter, harsh weather. All they are doing is trying to survive. The author has etched in first person, the feelings of suffering, isolation, and fear within the wall of the tunnels, like prehistoric people did. One thing that stood out for me in this story, is the way a very conservative standpoint regarding the relationship between independent urban men and women has been portrayed. The traditional behavior, which is being expected from the protagonist couple, is as if they belong to a much older time. I get surprised and later wonder if the writer is trying to say that, as we have started to walk back towards radical conservatism nowadays in the Indian subcontinent, it might turn out to be even worse tomorrow.

This radical standpoint, which is dominating our subcontinent, regarding religion, social relationship, and nationalism is a very distinguished characteristic in the stories of this anthology, irrespective of which South Asian country the writer belongs to. Stories like ‘Dimension of Life under Fascism’ by Jayprakash Satyamurthy, The Ministry of Relevance,by Raj Gaind, The Crossing by Kalsang Yangzom, reflect these attributes. In the story ‘Ministry of Relevance’ the protagonist of a future time is stuck in this ridiculous bureaucracy where he must prove his identity. Every strata of the government is equipped to tie its inhabitants in its structure, where the citizens behave in a very expected, predictable way. They are always closely monitored and supervised, with immediate intervention if they even take a step toward divergence. The robots and androids which are described in the story working as government officials, very much portray stereotypes we expect in bureaucratic roles today. A poignant description of a single human who’s trying to fight for his identity, not to surrender to Golaeth. But he is getting humiliated and defeated by the system. In the end, the system wins. The victory of the Fascist state reaches to an unimaginable extent, in the story ‘Dimension of Life under Fascism’, where a future state who believes in a single religion as it’s virtue at any given point, transforms its citizens into a two dimensional identity, and their existence becomes a cut out, lifeless. A very lively description of a typical household consisting of two beautiful children suddenly halts to a complete stop. Starting with a heartbreaking single incident, the story portrays a vivid, tragic picture of living under fascism, which has complete power over technology and innovation. ‘The Crossing’, by Tibetan writer Kalsang Yangzom reflects the similar fascist role of government, of two powerful neighboring countries; how in one, it is cornering its minorities and trying to make them extinct them at any cost, and when they are trying to flee to another country these minorities have to prove their ethnic identities, which are supposed to be embedded in their bodies in forms of microchips. All these people want to live at any cost and for that get exiled from their own land to another country, to a completely bleak and uncertain future.

Religion is also a very intricate aspect in this anthology. In his story, ‘Resurrection Point’, writer Usman T Malik has depicted with deep empathy the position of the minority religion in Pakistan. The young protagonist learns the craft of resurrecting the dead from his father, in the backdrop of toxic communal violence. The intention of healing, which starts with being on the side of love and compassion, gets crushed by fundamentalism; the small world of faith, innocence and love burns down to ashes. What I find remarkable in all these stories, is that the issues being portrayed are either happening right now or that we are striding inevitably towards this future.

Of course, the stories in this book do not only imagine the future. With his brilliant imagination, author Shiv Ramdas has travelled into the past to create a story ‘And Now His Lordship is Laughing’, can be read as the ultimate protest from a woman, representing the oppression of the British regime in the backdrop of the unthinkable suffering of Famine of Bengal in1943. The uniqueness of the plot or horrifying conclusion are splendid but the description of the famine is so vivid, so evocative, that I genuinely feel that this story cannot be constricted to the genre of science fiction. In other words, I feel that the boundary line has been completely blurred in the enormous canvas of literature. I have had this feeling many times while reading other stories in this book. Vandana Singh’s poetic tale ‘A Different Sea’, where an alien’s sudden arrival, his role in the protagonist’s lonely life and his departure gives her a different perspective on death. Simultaneously, finding the lost history of a woman poet from the distant past, whose voice was being mutilated by her own as she was more intelligent , talented, gives the protagonist’s voice back, helps her way back to life.

I am amazed to find how deeply philosophical some of the stories are and how much they have made me as a reader, go back to the sentences, anecdotes, dialogs, and descriptions to internalize and then feel them. Novelty of the contents are also exceptional. In Tashan Mehta’s story ‘The Traveler’, as the protagonist washes up onto a beach of an alien island , and starts to communicate with one of its inhabitants, their perception of each other opens a different world or reshapes the world they imagine. The protagonist tries to draw a map of the island with the help of her friend, who describes the boundary of the island by beautiful stories, metaphors, which is fluid with the changing days she is describing it. This sheer description changes our perception of a land. In the story of ‘Shambhala’ by Salik Shah, it is about a child first exposed to the world of poetry by his childhood teacher and the story continues in a beautiful lyrical way describing the exile of Tibetans. Childhood, sense of belonging, nature, poetry, everything gets intertwined in an endearing painting which is never finished.

Artificial intelligence also has created remarkable impact in this book. The protagonist, in the story ‘Almost Human’ by Kekhasan Khalid, the droid NCH005, who is being evoked from the discontinued first generation ones in Karachi, Pakistan, to investigate a high profile murder mystery, shows more intelligence, commitment, perseverance and emotion than a human. In this story, artificial intelligence, despite being created by humans, have their own will, walk their own path and as a result have to be destroyed by their creator. AI has been portrayed in a little different way in ‘Malini’ which is a refreshing story by Shovon Chowdhury. A virtual female voice on a food delivery app becomes a companion, a guide of a human being’s life and his ultimate mission. Loneliness of a human in an isolated framework of society which is heavily controlled by technology, this story comes across as a very predicted future of human society. Also it has dark humor which makes the story despite being really sad, thoroughly enjoyable.

On that note, I would like to mention that one component I sadly have missed in this anthology is humor. It is completely understandable that, being in the midst of a pandemic, with climate crisis, reckless nationalism, religious fundamentalism and other dark challenges looming on the human civilization, it’s hard to bring humor; but as a reader, these stories despite being so versatile and flowing into so many unimaginable directions, leave a very profound impact, a heaviness in the reader’s heart. I wish there were some stories which had humor in them; to make our spirits lighter. Also, like a hopeless optimist, I wish that when we imagine our future, we should still have some hope. I wish even with all the complicated pessimism, human species somehow should work collectively for some greater good in the future. I wish some stories would reflect that.

It is indeed very hard to do justice to these stories in the limited space. There are so many more and they have left such a significant impression in mind. The vulnerability of the genetically engineered girls used as bioweapons in Senaa Ahamd’s story ‘Glow-in-the-dark Girls’; a time in the future, when the young protagonist is trying to restore the feeling of pain to an unfeeling human race in Manjula Padmanabhan’s story ‘The Pain Merchant”; Navin Weeraratne’s ‘The Diamond Library” where libraries and literacy are going to be endangered – in all the stories the authors have used myriad ways to open the world of imagination with the brilliance of their knowledge, ideas, intellect and compassion. These stories and poems are also deeply rooted in the soil of the Indian subcontinent – it’s fragrance, color, mythology, past and fears, failures, struggle, enlightenment of its inhabitants. That’s how this anthology has become so unique.

Mahua Sen Mukhopadhyay, works as a special educator and lives in the Greater Boston area in the USA. She writes short stories and articles predominantly in Bangla, which are being regularly published in literary magazines, webzines and newspapers in India and abroad. Her first short story anthology, ‘Kaleidoscope’ was published in 2020. She also regularly reviews contemporary Bengali short stories from Webzines for ‘Sera Galpo’, website. Her  story has been published in KalpaBiswa, a prominent Science fiction magazine from Kolkata, and is part of an anthology  of  women Science fiction writers.

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