When Indians make first contact: Earth to Centauri, an enjoyable anti-highbrow tale

Gautham Shenoy May 19, 2018 6 min

As readers of this New Worlds Weekly column know,  we run contests and giveaways often. So it was that a few months ago, to the contest question, “Which Indian sci-fi book would you recommend to a friend?”, quite a few readers sent in their personal choices. Not surprisingly, Samit Basu’s Turbulence was the book that most readers recommended, closely followed by Amitav Ghosh’s Calcutta Chromosome. And amongst the entries, there was one book that piqued my interest – because I’d never heard about it before and the author’s name was completely unfamiliar. Not an unheard of thing – given the vagaries of Indian publishing and its marketing efforts thereof, especially if it’s genre, where even books by established authors most often aren’t brought to the attention of readers (Samit Basu’s Resistance, the sequel to the aforementioned Turbulence readily springs to mind).

The unfamiliar book in question – mentioned by Dr Jithamithra R – was Earth to Centauri: The First Journey by Kumar L. The book turned out to be a self-published effort by a person whose author bio states that the name is a pseudonym and that he is a mechanical engineer who’s been working in manufacturing for 20 years, and who is passionate about writing and technology.

Earth to Centauri: The First Journey is a novel of first contact set 100 years from now, in a world where a technologically advanced India is a superpower. They Voyager 1 spacecraft – now drifting aimlessly – has made its way to Proxima Centauri, where it gets plucked out of interstellar space by an unnamed entity. On board Voyager 1 is the Golden Record, as we all know, but in a twist, we’re told that it also carries aboard a secret cargo, put there by the creators of the spacecraft, the contents of which form a big reveal and a key plot point of the novel.

The novel per se begins in media res, 2.7 light years from Earth aboard the starship Antariksh, a craft capable of faster-than-light travel and built under Indian leadership. Antariksh is on its way to the nearest star to our sun, in response to – and to investigate – an alien signal received from the vicinity of Proxima Centauri, primed and prepared to make first contact with the alien intelligence that sent the signal. On board the ship is an international crew, commanded by Captain Anara the chief protagonist (in a rare instance of an Indian hard sci-fi novel with a female hero). The book details the adventures, and conflicts of the crew, including amongst themselves as differing worldviews clash, as they make their way to the origin of the signal, including having to deal with a recalcitrant A.I. called Narada who is part of the spaceship, and which is – in the tradition of HAL 9000 – is not letting on more than it should.

Also read: Aliens in Delhi: When extra-terrestrials finally decide to invade India first

But the book isn’t linear in the sense that it just details out the journey. The chapters alternate between the happenings aboard the Antariksh, and what transpired from the time the alien signal was first received to the time the spaceship left Earth, in some detail. This narrative device – while it helps the reader get the full story of how the world reacted to an alien signal and what transpired subsequently, including details of how the spaceship Antariksh was built – works to a large extent, it does also get in the way of the story’s flow in parts.

The Antariksh does manage to reach Proxima Centauri after a showdown or two amongst the crew, and space battles until the crew make first contact, manage to hold their own as they find themselves in the middle of a conflict between sections of the alien society, the mystery of Voyager 1’s secret cargo finally revealed, with the book ending on a satisfactory self-contained note, while nicely setting up Book 2 of the series.

Also read: The Best Indian SF Reads of 2017: A New Worlds Weekly List

I reached out to the person who’d said that Earth to Centauri: The First Journey, is the Indian sci-fi book he would recommend to friends, Dr. Jithamithra R, to find out his reasons for why he would do so. He says, “When a relative mentioned to me that one of his ex-colleagues was a science fiction author, I was intrigued. Finding an Indian sci-fi author at two degrees of separation is a rarity for me, and I decided to give the book a go. I found it quite enjoyable and it was heartening to see India as a superpower making the important decisions for – and on behalf of – the world. The story was interesting, and the science for faster-than-light travel was nicely imagined. I also liked the fact that it had different characters with different motivations, political, academic, etc., covering various questions we’d have if we made first contact. The mystery element of the book was also quite gripping. Overall, it turned out to be a quick enjoyable read and that’s why I would recommend it to other readers.”

Well, there you have it. For a self-published book, Earth to Centauri: The First Journey is quite a laudable and valiant effort. What it could have benefited from is a good editor who’d have ironed out its wrinkles, and not just in terms of grammar. That said, the book is now available from Notion Press, and one hopes that this has been taken care of.

Earth to Centauri is a throwback to the years past of enjoyable space journey stories that would appear in the pulp magazines, and in the style one found in the serialized stories of Indian magazines. Quite possibly the first novel to deal with first contact written by an Indian author, the description that would perhaps best fit Earth to Centauri: The First Journey is the one that Sami Ahmad Khan used to describe his book, Aliens in Delhi, ‘an anti-highbrow text with just one aim – to tell a crazy story.’ Earth to Centauri does that, in simple Indian English, at a fast galloping pace. So if you enjoy a breezy, easy sci-fi read by an Indian author, this would be it.

And speaking of breezy here’s your chance to win one of 3 copies that we’re giving away as part of this week’s contest, with a giveaway question that should be a breeze if you’re interested in music and space exploration. In Earth To Centauri: The First Journey, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, and its mysterious cargo (as imagined by Kumar L) plays a key role, with the Golden Record aboard the spacecraft helping the aliens in knowing about humans, and understanding them enough to make contact with Earth.

The question is this: “If you were given a chance today, to recommend one sound or a piece of music for inclusion in a new Golden Record, what would it be, and why?” Submit your entries using the comment section below, or tweet us your answer with the hashtag #NWWonFD before Sunday, May 26th, 2018 and you could be one of 3 people who win a copy of Earth to Centauri: The First Journey by Kumar L. All the entries will go into a lucky draw, and the results will be announced in the subsequent week. All the best. And Live Long and Prosper!


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