There’s more to what makes a story ‘Indian’ than the fact that it’s set in India or that it has protagonists with Indian-sounding names. Change Mumbai to New York and Swami to Sam, and if nothing really changes as far as the story goes, you know how ‘Indian’ it is. For such stories ignore the history and (pop) culture, little & big traditions – from religion to bureaucracy – that has gone into the making of India, and an Indian. This is where most of the stories in the science fiction anthology, ‘Strange Worlds! Strange Times!: Amazing Sci-Fi Stories’ come out as being truly ‘Indian’.
Edited by artist and writer Vinayak Varma, and published by Speaking Tiger under its young adult imprint, Talking Cub, ‘Strange Worlds! Strange Times!’ is an eclectic collection of 11 science fiction stories – including a comic – that range from post-apocalyptic and steampunk in terms of sub-genre and from satirical to hopeful in tone.
There are more hits than misses in this anthology with the standout stories being: The Crater of Kiru by the author of If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai and the English translator of the bestselling Ghachar Ghochar, Srinath Perur, about a team of government officials sent to investigate a mysterious glowing crater, who fall in with the people of a tribe that holds it sacred, and who claim to have descended from aliens. Little Begum by the author of The Devourers, Indra Das, is a poignant tale of two sisters in a slum set in a steampunk, alternate-history world in which the Taj Mahal was built to be both, a tomb and a mobile automaton, and a world in which Indians who exhibit telekinesis are killed (for this ability is not allowed to someone who isn’t white).
Zombies make their presence felt in Chennai as part of a pandemic and the undead are taken care of with due alacrity (Vazhga Vazhkai!) in Rashmi Ruth Devadasan’s The Occurrence, a tantalising excerpt from the forthcoming Blaft Publication, Zombie Da!. Meanwhile, mere mortality and metamorphosis takes on a whole new meaning in Sunando C’s Ekduo, a comic without dialogues.
Strange Worlds! Strange Times! also contains a small milestone in the form of Zac O’Yeah’s story of ‘Incredible India’, Bluru – set in a future Bengaluru where traffic jams in the CBD have lasted years and people have taken to living their entire lives in their vehicles as they wait to get to their destination – for being the first Indian science fiction story, by date of publication, to feature Aadhaar (and PAN linking, with KYC). The story also features an ATM whose sentiments are hurt and people being forced to levitate (by meditating on Kumara Krupa Road, amongst others) to avoid taking a car and thusly getting to their destination in reasonable time. Sidenote: The second Indian science fiction story to feature Aadhaar in all of its inglorious future is Shovon Chowdhury’s The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction.
Elsewhere in the anthology, Jerry Pinto’s Just Saying takes a look at the origin of life on Earth, Manjula Padmanabhan’s Interface explores why the robot takeover of humans can never be total, while Vinayak Varma’s Omni8 about a strange musical pod – that spews forth familiarly catchy Tamil tunes apart from Suniel Shetty classics and Daler hits – is set in a post-apocalyptic India populated by Swarajians, includes a large silver cow and involves invocations of ‘may gau raksh us all’. Capping the anthology is a story by Vandana Singh, The Tetrahedron – which is needless to say, engaging and thought provoking – about a strange tetrahedron that appears in Delhi (to the chagrin of western countries where such mysterious alien artefacts are usually expected to appear), but is really about a woman about to enter into an unhappy arranged marriage and her search for liberation and being true to herself.
In all, Strange Worlds! Strange Times! is a worthy addition to the tradition of Indian SF and, despite being published under a YA imprint and found on shelves of books meant for that audience, is recommended for adults of all ages, whether they are young (enjoying their summer holidays), old and in-between. On that note, I bid you goodbye and hope to see you here again on FactorDaily next weekend for yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly, as we explore this many-splendoured genre. Live Long and Prosper!
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