Why India Needs To Develop An Indigenous Science Fiction Tradition

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a growing technology.
  • A creative imagination of the future is necessary for a country both to chart a vision and to excite a new generation of scientists, researchers and academicians.

    India should look to build a speculative vision of the future that is rooted in Indic traditions and thereby shape a future that is uniquely Indian.

In his book Wired for War, P W Singer dedicates an entire chapter to the influence of science fiction (sci-fi) on scientists, programmers and soldiers at the forefront of the revolution in military technology.

This influence, he notes over the chapter, is two-fold.

First, by its very nature, sci-fi pushes the boundaries of possibility in science, even if fictional, giving researchers and innovators a guide as to the kind of technologies that can be evolved.

Second, sci-fi, he writes, "forces the audience to wrestle with the effect that science has on society".

In today's world, we seem to be hurtling towards a future that we do not have the intellectual, philosophical or cultural capabilities to cope with.

Take artificial intelligence (AI) for example. It is here, it will get better, and it will affect human society in ways we are not even at the threshold of comprehending. Much of the discussion of the effects of AI has revolved around the issue of jobs, which, though important, is but one of several issues societies will have to contend with. How will AI affect politics? How will it affect religion? How will it affect human psychology? Could it propel the next stage of human evolution? The very open-ended nature of such questions necessarily means that any attempted answer can only be speculative.

Historically, such speculation has proved to be more accurate, more humane and more complex, when attempted by sci-fi as opposed to staid government documents or research papers.

To better speculate how AI may affect humans on a daily basis, it might be more instructive to turn our attention to the likes of Westworld and Black Mirror.

The open-ended, speculative nature of this endeavour, however, means that there is no one way of thinking about these questions.

Science fiction so far has been principally a Western enterprise, influenced greatly by Western philosophical and political thought, albeit for very good reasons.

Much of the technological progress of the last two centuries, from the railways to the telephone and the internet, began in the West and over time disbursed through the rest of the world.

Therefore, it was natural for the West to be at the forefront of grappling with the possibilities, and dangers, of these technologies.

The rest of the world was too busy playing catch-up.

In the last couple of decades, however, a significant portion of the world has caught up. Countries like Japan, South Korea and China have become significantly more digitally advanced than the West. And countries like India, while not quite there yet, have managed to build up sophisticated digital economies of their own.

What this means is that for the first time in over two hundred years, cultures and societies other than in the West are at the forefront of tackling tricky questions of the future. This allows for paradigms that are not underpinned by Western philosophical traditions.

The importance of this can be seen in the differing approaches to technology in the cult Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, and the immensely popular Japanese manga and anime series, Ghost in the Shell. The 'replicants' of Blade Runner, artificially manufactured humanoids which are prima facie indistinguishable from humans, are scorned, put at an arm's length and used only for dangerous work in colonies on other planets.

If such 'replicants' ever do manage to find their way to the Earth, they are hunted down and 'retired'. In Ghost in the Shell, on the other hand, cyborgs, or humans implanted with advanced computer technology, are an accepted, everyday part of human society.

While the series does highlight the numerous possible issues of having a cyborg, including the distinctly anti-Descartesian threat of hacking into and then hijacking someone's brain, at no point in time does it treat such beings as something to be relegated to the shadows.

These two are good examples of the overall trends in Western and Japanese sci-fi. While Western sci-fi traditions tend to be distrustful of advanced technology (witness HAL 9000), Japanese sci-fi, on the other hand, has no such qualms (witness Astroboy, the first post-war Japanese superhero, and a robot). While honourable exceptions do abound in either tradition, the overarching approaches subscribe to the trends above.

The reasons for this difference are philosophical and cultural. Western sci-fi writers were, and are, writing within a particular historical, philosophical and socio-political paradigm. The ideas of John Locke, Voltaire, Nietzsche, the idea of the wild west frontier and even the biblical notion of man created in the likeness of God directly or indirectly have influenced how Western sci-fi writers approach the question of technology, progress and the future.

The Japanese, however, approach these issues from an entirely different paradigm, allowing their sci-fi to be extremely comfortable with ideas that would be treated in a highly negative manner in Western sci-fi.

The Japanese are not the only non-Western society breaking new ground in sci-fi. The Chinese have recently announced their arrival with a bang. This is best exemplified by The Three Body Problem, which has created waves outside China, winning the prestigious Hugo Award and being nominated for the Nebula Award.

The novel, rightly celebrated for its ode to 'grand' sci-fi and for its attempt to make sci-fi decidedly more mainstream, should also be noted for approaching issues such as first-contact, the likeness of aliens and the place of human beings in the universe from a perspective unmistakably steeped in Chinese traditions and history.

Indeed, the novel begins in 1968, at the height of Mao's Cultural Revolution. For purveyors of a particular kind of sci-fi, the novel's approach to the old, almost clichéd, idea of first contact is, well, novel.

The seriousness with which the Chinese are pursuing sci-fi can be gauged by the institution of an award specifically for literary sci-fi by the government-backed National Congress of the China Association for Science and Technology.

The intent here, as elaborated by the author Xia Jia, is two-fold. First, to draw young Chinese into the world of scientific research and innovation, and second, to provide the Chinese state, and society, with a speculative peek into the future. It is no surprise therefore that Invisible Planets, Ken Liu's anthology of thirteen translated contemporary Chinese sci-fi stories, contains the byline, "visions of the future from China." When the future does arrive, the Chinese will have their sign-posts to guide them by.

Going back to Singer's twin influences of science fiction. While science-fiction as a tool for exploring the possibilities of science is important, it is its role as a study of the effect of technologies that is critical. And this is where we come to India. Indian society is unique, with unique challenges. How would existing realities of caste, religion and language intersect with a speculative vision of Indian society in the future?

One cannot assume that the same technology will affect different societies in the same way. The railways in India, for example, not only allowed people to travel between two points faster and more efficiently, as it did in England, but also played a major role in levelling the historical inequalities in access to public spaces, which were unique to Indian society.

Standing at the cusp of the next great era of technological changes, what is the status of the Indian voice that predicts the effect of these changes on the multi-dimensional vortex that is Indian society?

As a genre, what can be described as Indian sci-fi is old. It arose simultaneously with the birth of modern literature in Indian languages. Quite possibly the very first sci-fi story from India was a Bengali story, Shukra Brahman, written in 1879.

Indeed, there continues to be a small, but thriving, market for sci-fi in various regional languages, and especially so in Bengali and Marathi. It is extremely marginal and niche, and much like sci-fi elsewhere, not considered worthy of the label of Sahitya, or serious literature.

As for English works of sci-fi from India, the situation is decidedly grimmer. Barring Amitav Ghosh's Calcutta Chromosome and probably Samit Basu's Turbulence, one would be hard-pressed to recall any popular English work published in India that can come close to being labelled sci-fi. Even It Happened Tomorrow, possibly the best Indian sci-fi anthology in English, consists primarily of short stories translated from regional languages.

Which is not to say that there are no Indians who write sci-fi in English. Vandana Singh and Anil Menon especially have made a considerable name for themselves. Both of them, however, are based out of the United States, writing therefore from distant shores, and unfortunately, neither have managed to break into popular consciousness in India.

In fact, no indigenous sci-fi writer has managed to occupy the mainstream cultural space, whether in English or any vernacular, in the same manner that a Jules Verne or H G Wells did in the West or Liu Cixin is currently doing in China.

Indian films have tended to do better in this regard, with several mainstream movies, across languages, engaging with sci-fi, though the focus here is often less on the science itself; it is often nothing more than a plot device. This also tends to be an issue with literary sci-fi, especially in the regional languages.

The 'science' component plays second fiddle to the 'fiction' component. The issues sci-fi faces in India are therefore of a first-order nature. First, it lacks mainstream popularity and acceptance, and second, it veers more towards fiction than science.

Even if these issues were surmounted, that is, if Indian sci-fi, both literary and cinematic, does become increasingly popular and more science fiction, would it be a mere philosophical copy of a Western sci-fi, or will it introduce a uniquely new voice and ideas, like the Chinese?

In a fascinating conversation between writers Anil Menon and Vandana Singh on Jeff Vandermeer's blog, Menon outlined what he thinks could the unique perspective of Indian sci-fi.

The contribution is likely to be more of an epistemological shift. We Indians are the world’s first postmodern civilisation. It is a worldview that that subverts traditional notions of objectivity, rationality, universality, essentiality so dear to Victorian physics. The psychology is not linear, such subversions are often disturbing.

In essence, therefore, Indian sci-fi would actually break from the strait-laced, neatly linear narratives of Western sci-fi. The multiplicity of characters, situations and actions that are fundamental aspects of Indian life and core facets of Indian literature, right from the Mahabharata to the 'Great Indian Novels' of the post-independence state, would infuse sci-fi with a qualitative twist incapable of being achieved by writers from other cultural milieus.

Imagine, if you will, Raag Darbari with augmented reality and Hyperloop transportation or a story that examines the impact of genetic engineering on the still prevalent caste system. Apart from being interesting narrative ideas, such stories would also project scientific soft power, necessarily as an exploration of the future of human society from an Indian perspective.

To say that the fast-approaching future is going to be a period of unfathomable, rapid and continuous change has, by now, become a cliché. Clichés, however, tend to be true. Artificial intelligence, quantum computing, maybe even actual space travel will fundamentally affect all of humanity but will also affect different societies in different ways.

To begin understanding, and then coping, with these changes will require great leaps of imagination. Such imagination, as the Chinese have realised, is necessary both to chart a vision for the future and to excite a new generation of scientists, researchers and academicians.

This 'future' will not be the same for all nations, and our version of it need not be influenced either by established Western traditions or by our neighbours to the East. To be able to shape this future to its advantage, a country needs, among other things, to control the narrative of the future. And to control the narrative, what are needed are stories.

Stories, as Yuval Noah Harari points out, are the building blocks of human civilisation. In this particular case, though, they can be the indicative and inspirational architectural blueprints, which, for India specifically, present a uniquely indigenous vision of what the future holds for this country.

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