Give your kids the gift of science-fiction

I wasn’t lucky enough to inherit a crazy uncle, but I discovered science-fiction, so it worked out more or less. Craziness, like cholesterol, comes in a good form and a bad form, and science-fiction is the good kind of crazy. Read science-fiction, and we come to realize that humans are meant to use our imaginations the way trees use green, dancers their bodies, or birds their wings. Imagine a world ten billion years from now. Imagine a world without night. Imagine a world where women live twice as long as men. Imagine a world where mosquitoes carry the secret of immortality. Imagine your child freed to imagine worlds never before imagined. Fortunately, the last item is easy. Just give the kid some science-fiction.

Science-fiction does one very specific thing for a reader’s imagination. You become comfortable with figuring out things as you go along.  There is a lot of unpredictability and uncertainty in science-fiction, partly because you don’t know how the world is supposed to work. For example, Manjula Padmanabhan’s story Sharing Air begins with the line: “On the bargain network today, there was a selection of antique atmospheres advertised.” A science-fiction reader will guess they’ve just stepped into a world where atmospheres can be bought and sold like bronze figurines. But what the heck is an antique atmosphere? Crazy! The reader will shiver with pleasure, snarf down some peanuts, and read on.

Science-fiction has been around for at least a couple hundred years.  In the 1930s and 40s, science-fiction was mostly published in seedy American magazines with lurid covers. So it acquired a reputation as something seedy, lurid and American. Things eventually got respectable, and now science-fiction is in the process of transforming itself into a true world literature.

This is an important point. Early science-fiction writers were very imaginative but their imaginations had some interesting blind spots. For example, their stories had all kinds of extraterrestrials, but they rarely had Asian, Chinese, African or South-American characters.  If present, such characters were usually marginal, expendable, or in need of being saved. Sometimes their role was to be suitably exotic and give the white hero heavy fundas about life.  Aliens also never landed in Delhi or Dhaka or Nairobi. Everything worth inventing or conceptualizing had begun with the Greeks. So on and so forth. It is curious that many writers who prided themselves on their cosmic imaginations couldn’t see their own planet very well.

Of course, this isn’t a problem unique to science fiction. C. S. Lewis’ novels consistently depict eastern cultures in a negative light. Enid Blyton’s fictional kids seem to live in an England without brown people. In Agatha Christie’s novels, non-white characters are mostly used for serving drinks. When such dismissals are multiplied by a thousand authors in every genre, the overall result of literature is to cripple the imagination rather than give it wings. Then literature does more harm than good.

Fortunately, a lot has changed. Science is no longer the privilege of a few Western nations. There is far greater appreciation of non-western contributions to civilization. And there are now many Indian writers who, along with their compatriots the world over, are reworking science-fiction.

This continues a tradition rather than make a new one. Perhaps it will come as a surprise to learn that the first short story in English by an Indian author was set in the near-future. Published in the Calcutta Literary Gazette on 6 June 1835, its young author, Kylas Chundar Dutt, a student at Hindu College, imagined an Indian freedom fighter’s final days in the year 1945. In 1896, Acharya J. C. Bose wrote a science-fiction story about a toofan tamed with the application of a little hair-oil. Yes, hair-oil! Kuntalini hair-oil, to be precise. In fact, nineteenth-century Bangla magazines had many SF stories intended for a general audience. Things went a bit quiet in the 30s, 40s and 50s, perhaps because we were busy with the Independence struggle.

Today we have writers like Samit Basu, Vandana Singh, Roopa Pai, Sunita Namjoshi, Mainak Dhar, Indrapramit Das, Priya Sharma, Jerry Pinto, Manjula Padmanabhan, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Rimi Chatterjee, Shovon Chowdhury, Shweta Narayan, Andaleeb Wajid and Payal Dhar. Their distinct stories are a beautiful blend of influences.  There are also an emerging generation of writers like Sami Ahmad Khan, Nishant Joshi and Mahesh Paranjpe. In the regional sphere, Marathi, Bengali and Tamil have always been quite strong in children’s SF. All this makes the future of Indian science-fiction rather promising.

In a sense, the job of science-fiction isn’t to predict the future. It is to keep us from running out of futures. We’ll never run out of futures worth building, worth living in, so long as we gift our kids the right kind of crazy.

Recent Indian sci-fi reads I enjoyed

  1. Shockwave & Other Cyber Stories, edited by Himanjali Sankar (Scholastic)
  2. Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy (Zubaan)

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