Book Review: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (Hachette India, 2019)

The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was very pleased when I came across this anthology – being from South Asia myself, it was very heartening to see a collection of stories that gave us science fiction tales with a South Asian flavour. Carefully curated by Tarun K. Saint (who also contributes to the collection), as you read the foreward and make your way through the stories, it is at a level, a labour of love – one that I can appreciate very much.
It’s not that South Asian Sci-Fi don’t exist, but rarely do they seem make it very far out of the immediate milieu if you are not connected to what’s new + I think even when I’ve read many a tale by authors of such, the genre is so heavily influenced by Western cultural tropes and Euro-based concepts that we tend to not expect much more.
This feeling applies in my mind to more than prose, it applies to movies, serials and even comics. We are saturated with it. That said, there’s nothing wrong with it but there are so many rich cultural elements around the world and we could enrich our stories if we let them have room to breath – the powerful impact of movies like Black Panther was a great example of this impact.

Now, my editorial aside, I will focus myself to the anthology at hand.
It is unfair in my mind to try and simply review it as a whole so I will review each entry briefly and give an overall view at the end – so if you want the TL:DR version, scroll straight on down!

1. The Planet of Terror by Adrish Bardhan (translated from Bengali)
A simple and effective entry for a sci-fi anthology. A group of astronauts have left Earth to seek new lands for humanity since we’ve clearly screwed up our planet – only they do not find at all what they expected. Nice attempt at sci-fi+horror.

2. Inspector Matadeen on the Moon by Harishankar Parsai (translated from Hindi)
A story set in a fictional future wherein India is a powerhouse on Earth and the titular Inspector is going to the Moon to show them how to be truly effective police. Written with a straight face, almost dead-pan, it is absolutely a tongue-in-cheek story about the “morality” of things in the India of the present and past and while a passable story overall, it uses its Sci-Fi setting effectively to lampoon its chosen subject but overall it was only minimally science-fiction-y. Entertaining but nothing exceptional as a sci-fi story.

3. Stealing The Sea by Atif Aslam Farrukhi (translated from Urdu)
A city awakens to find the sea gone! Another story with an environmentally conscious sub-text, it’s a pretty well written and descriptive story but I must admit that aside from the base concept and some bits, this again felt like an odd choice for a sci-fi anthology.

4. Chernobyl by Somendra Singh Kharola
The first of several poems in this collection which I did not truly understand. Seems like a nicely crafted poem with a lot of emotion behind it.
That said, thematically it doesn’t fit the genre for me and as I’m not a too big on poetry as such, it is perhaps even less impactful.

5. The Sea Sings At Night by Mimi Mondal
A wistful little entry that tells the tale of a sci-fi romance. I liked it.

6. The Twenty Second Century by Rahul Sakrityayan (translated from Hindi)
A wonderful entry that I wanted more of, this is a translation of a novel by an amazing man – a freedom fighter who was also a polyglot+polymath and also wrote novels. This is essentially a translation+extract+summary of one of his novels that is very much like Rip Van Winkle/The Sleeper Awakens, i.e, the tale of a person who falls asleep and awakens years and years later when the world has changed.
It was thought-provoking and enlightening and unlike Wells’ horror-filled future, our protagonist here awakens to a genuine utopia – that alone is a change from most sci-fi stories. It’s fascinating to see the India that Sankrityayan envisioned, free of so many things that plague us even today. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking contrast to consider how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go.
I now want to read more of the source material as it does what all good sci-fi is meant to do in my humble opinion.

7. Shit Flower by Anil Menon
One of the longest entries in the anthology, don’t be fooled by the name, this story is a solid sci-fi entry. A creative study on A.I and societal evolution with a more than the odd twist that kept it interesting.

8. The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi by Shovon Chowdhury
Hands down one of the most fun entries, this is a quirky little story of a man who finds himself physically changing day by day and then his thinking starts to evolve too until he becomes a kind of rebirth of the Mahatma itself. Not inherently a sci-fi story, more surreal and magic-realism maybe? But definitely a highlight purely for its entertainment value.

9. Seventy Years After Seventy Years Of Partition by Kaiser Kaq
Another poem that was fine I guess, but was out of place and did nothing for me.

10. Moksha by Sumita Sharma
An interestingly written but yet again, seemingly superfluous poetic entry.

11. A Visit To Partition World by Tarun K. Saint
One of the most interesting concepts to be had in this book. In a “Westworld”-esque setting that replicates events from one of the most traumatising events in the history of Modern India, we are brought face to face with the past and get new perspectives via the differing reactions of the family through whom the narrative is told.

12. Dreaming The Cool Green River by Priya Sarukkai Chabria
An odd entry. It’s definitely dystopic sci-fi and touches on the trope of creative and artistic items being outlawed and smuggled and such – but the decently written story aside, it felt like someone took a small chunk out of a larger novel, i.e, it didn’t seem to have a clear start or end or purpose really.

13. Mirror-Rorrim by Clark Prasad
A multi-dimensional and globe spanning adventure story. The writing felt like it could have done with a little more polish, but the passion of the story-teller is clear in the energetic journey his protagonist takes to unravel the mystery of what is happening to his world. Wierd til the end but intruiging enough that I kept going.

14. Flexi-Time by Manula Padmanabhan
Absolutely one of my favourite stories in this collection, Padmanabhan is in good form here.
It’s a creative and interesting tale of humanity trying and struggling to communicate with an alien species that has come down and been slowly and steadily solving all our problems – and meanwhile the powers-that-be pursue their own interests and bicker.

15. The Other Side by Payal Dhar
A well written tale that very powerfully puts a focus on the challenges of social class systems and the power of perspectives in any social setting. Told in a somewhat reverse-linear fashion, it’s a bit awkward at moments and seems to meander at others, but it comes together as we get toward the end and ties together well.

16. 15004 by Sami Ahmad Khan
This one was a bit of a slog to get through. It’s more of a horror story with a hint of sci-fi coming into play at the end. Skippable.

17. Why The War Ended by Premendra Mitra (translated from Bengali)
A alternative history story set roughly at the start of World War 2 that see’s the course of human history veering away from global conflict thanks to a mystery radio signal. Quite enjoyable and makes you think about the choice we make as a society.

18. Were It Not For by Arjun Rajendran
Yet another poem that I didn’t see the point of – also skippable.

19. The Beneficent Brahma by Chandrashekar Sastry
An interesting take on the magical benefactor concept with a techno-twist. Simple, cute and cleverer than I expected.

20. The Goddess Project by Giti Chandra
A wonderful entry that makes the reader wish this was a fuller story, perhaps a novel or novella – something that I think speaks to the quality of this tale. Powerful and filled with a healthy dose of social commentary and feminism, this is one of my favourite entries.

21. The Last Tiger by Mohammad Salman
A bit ham-fisted and perhaps a bit too obvious in what it’s trying to do, i.e, the focus on present day politics, environmental issues, etc.
It is a story with some humour and cheek, but overall it’s yet another entry that’s only peripherally sci-fi. It’s silly-fun enough after the heavier stories that precede it but nothing too memorable – can skip.

22. A Night With The Joking Clown by Rimi B Chatterjee
A hard story to read, but I have to admit that it’s for the right reasons. This is one of the most intense and in-your-face examples of toxic masculinity and patriarchy I’ve ever seen and at times it’s downright uncomfortable. If you can bring yourself to make it through, I found I liked how it eventually played out and the ending was a nice choice by the author in my humble opinion.

23. The Dream by Muhammed Zafar Iqbal (translated from Bengali)
Surprisingly fun little two page story which ended up being far more fun than expected.

24. Anandna by Rukmini Bhaya Nair
One of the most high-concept and hard sci-fi entries in this book. Tells the story of 3 scientist friends who come up with an idea to change the world and actually do – told through the eyes of one of the three as he looks back on the journey in his old/middle age.
Not an easy story and required the reread of more than a couple of passages, overall I quite liked it.

25. We Were Never Here by Nur Nasreen Ibrahim
Another entry with a starkly feminist twist, this one’s again not quite sci-fi.
That said, it’s an interesting perspective that’s writtne well and ponders the question of what a society of all-women if it came into being overnight, told through the microcosm of a small group of women in a contemporary world, who have established a tiny enclave as a secret haven for their gender.

26. The Narrative of Naushirwan Shavaksha Sheikh Chilli by Keki N Daruwalla
One of the longest and most pointless entries in this entire collection, about the last Parsi on Earth and the shenanigans he gets up to. I suppose there’s a sense of humour to it all and it’s well written enough given the respected author, but personally I was bored through most of it and had to really make an effort to get to the end because the writing was not bad but the narrative itself was frankly… boring.

27. Looking Up by S.B. Divya
A low-key sci-fi story about a woman with a troubled youth and life as she prepares for an upcoming departure to Mars and her personal challenges as she tries to say goodbye to and close connections with the life she has on Earth. Heartfelt and thoughtfully written, a good read.

28. Reunion by Vandana Singh
This story closes this collection out strong as it is yet another low-key sci-fi. It’s told through the perspective of an old lady who looks back on her life as she went from a simple life of environmental science to getting caught in the midst of the a climate-change based upheaval that changed the face of Mumbai completely and her entire life thereafter becoming an unintended face for socio-cultural change to give humanity a chance to not just survive but find a new paradigm; all the while she is also facing her own mortality through her ageing body.

A bit of a mixed bag with some very good entries and some that had me scratching my head as to their being part of this; that said, apart from a few being sci-fi only partially or not at all, this is very much like many a short-story collection I’ve read.
All in all I’m glad it exists, I’m very glad I read it and I hope it leads to more stories that bring a South Asian perspective to the world of Science Fiction and Fantasy and inspires more writers to try their hand at it.


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