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Book Review

Familiar strangeness

Print edition : Sep 08, 2022 T+T-

Familiar strangeness

The futuristic stories here exude an old-fashioned charm, giving them their emotional resonance.

Sometime in 1979, my father decided to buy a washing machine. He was working as a marine engineer then and had seen its kind in operation abroad. My memories of it date from many years later, when it had been superseded by superior technology, but I still remember its distinct bullet-like shape, with the hose coiled around it.

My father engaged an autorickshaw to bring it home from the showroom. The autowallah was fascinated—what is it, he asked. My father replied confidently that it was a fragment of the American space station Skylab, which had disintegrated in the atmosphere at the time, throwing debris across the Indian Ocean and Australia. “And you were able to find it!” the auto driver was suitably impressed that our small town should be marked with such a distinction. The future, even in fragments, was here.

The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun
By Anil Menon
Hachette India
Pages: 280
Price: Rs.599

Anil Menon’s collection of short stories,  The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun, is speculative fiction: “a genre with a generous admissions policy”, in Menon’s words, an updated term for what used to be called science fiction, or SF. The genre is present in the DNA of Indians writing in English—the very first story in that corpus was “A Journal of Forty-Eight Hours of the Year 1945” , written in 1835 by a teenager, Kylas Chunder Dutt, “a student at the Hindoo College”. Presaging the genre of alternative history, Dutt conceived of an armed rebellion against the British in 1945, a staggering imaginative leap into the unknown. According to the literary critic Joan Gordon, “India’s very rich tradition begins not with Mary Shelley or Jules Verne… but perhaps with the  Ramayana… It has different definitions and aesthetic principles, a different relationship to fantasy... Its science may be Ayurvedic as well as Newtonian….”

The earliest story in Menon’s collection dates from 2005 while the latest is from 2020, and in this they are snapshots of a transformative period. As the literary critic Frederic Jameson once said, science fiction  has great value as a cultural symptom, as one privileged way of taking the temperature of a social system at a particular historical moment”. A character in one of the stories says, “SF is the literature of change”, and “so if we want an SF story we need to start with some change. The world was this way; now it’s that way.” India, in the decade and a half that the stories span, has itself undergone drastic transformation. So how do you outwrite reality?

Representative image of a futuristic city
Representative image of a futuristic city

Underlying the Indian cultural and literary consciousness is the concept of circular time as opposed to the idea of linear time, a central conception of the West. Because of this belief, there is a tendency to draw upon the wells of the past for images and meanings, for, in a circular construction, the future is what already happened. Arising out of this, Indian science fiction “transcends the binaries of faith and rationality and blurs the boundaries between belief and empiricism. This results in a kind of fiction that is heavily contoured by classical Indian literature and Hindu mythology, one in which science and God become notionally co-planar,” as the theorist Sami Ahmad Khan says.

Ultra-unreal

All such tendencies are much in evidence in  The Inconceivable Idea, where  Menon deftly weaves in re-incarnation, possession and the epics with themes of reticular implants, robots searching for narratives, and brain hacking. There are no spaceships or alien planets, or apocalypses, nor heroic quests here. This approach can be compared with what is happening in Chinese sci-fi, where new micro-genres are seen emerging out of the “age of the ultra-unreal”.

Highlights
  • The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun is speculative fiction
  • Underlying the Indian cultural and literary consciousness is the concept of circular time as opposed to the idea of linear time
  • Menon deftly weaves in re-incarnation, possession and the epics with themes of reticular implants, robots searching for narratives, and brain hacking
  • Climate change is offstage, but its effects are omnipresent
  • Menon’s central theme, which runs like a thread throughout, is the very act of telling a story

The literary movement is dubbed  chaohuan or “surpassing the imaginary” and is described by critics as “an acceleration of Latin American magical realism”. The term was coined by the writer Ning Ken to characterise the literature that comes out of the rapid pace of development, for “China has changed from being a country that moved too slowly into a country that moves too fast.” Its defining features include philosophical speculation and a fable-like quality, traits found in Menon’s stories as well.

Still points

My personal favourite in the collection is “As Clear As”, which starts with the protagonist recounting his daily life against the backdrop of a Bollywood star running over some pavement-dwellers. The protagonist’s wife is the public prosecutor and there is a debate over whether the star will get away with it because of the unreliability of witnesses.

A miniature showing Dhritarashtra hearing narratives on Kurukshetra war from Sanjaya.
A miniature showing Dhritarashtra hearing narratives on Kurukshetra war from Sanjaya.

There is another, more private tragedy: the protagonist’s elder brother and his wife have passed away, leaving their daughter to be brought up alongside his own. It seems to be a slice of Bombay life, but as the story unfolds, things are not so clear.Through throwaway references to the Fixed Point Theorem—topological transformations of “the points of a set into points of the same set where it can be proved that at least one point remains fixed”, a mathematical equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s “the still point of the turning world”—and peculiar discontinuities in the character’s description, we realise that all is not as it seems. The narration inverts the trope of the unreliable narrator to offer a narrative where reality itself is unreliable.

In “Into the Night” set in our “age of carbon”, climate change is offstage, but its effects are omnipresent; some cataclysm has overtaken India, and an 82-year-old-man, Kallikulam Ramaswamy Iyer, flees to a technologically advanced island somewhere in the south Pacific, where his “sleek cheetah” of a daughter lives. He feels hopelessly out of place there, gripped by memories of his dead wife and dismissive of the futuristic architecture: “buildings looked like buildings in any Bombay suburb, but they could supposedly talk to each other about energy, politics and life”.

The story is driven by the dynamics of his relationship with his daughter, who is very much part of this new world. When an artefact is introduced—the “hearsee”, “binoculars and headset rolled into one”, whose virtues are extolled by his technophile daughter—Iyer is unimpressed: “Sanjaya must have had something like [this]… to narrate what was happening, to king Dhritarashtra.” He thus concludes that “nothing [is] new about the hearsee”. The critic Philip Lutgendorf says something similar in the context of  Mahabharata retellings with a modern technological twist: “The concept of recurring yugas … tended to short-circuit any teleology of change-as-progress by asserting that the most utopian epochs lay in the distant past and that subsequent world history was a sordid saga of continuous loss and decline.” Later, Iyer feels a “vast sadness” about “this whole broken world”, and the story achieves a genuine emotional resonance.

Another island features in the story, “Archipelago”—islands make good petri dishes. Here a device known as the sensorium enables its users to constantly share each other’s perceptions. When one character meets an outsider who is not linked up, he pities her for having “the jerry-rigged, Rube Goldberg-brain that Nature had evolved over aeons of trial and error ... nothing she felt or sensed could truly be shared, other than through thin little streams of colourless worlds.” Here too Menon explores the question of what the future gives and what it takes away.

What ifs

“The Robots of Eden” is a slow-burn, with shades of techno-horror that Menon artfully conceals in the unfolding. The Swiss playwright Max Frisch said: “Technology is a way of organising the universe so that people don’t have to experience it.” This story examines what happens if this is taken to its maximum limit. We are dropped into an apparent family drama with a man meeting his soon-to-be ex-wife and her partner. The details of this new world drip into the narrative like an intravenous solution.

Humanity has been divided into the Enhanced and the Unenhanced. The former are post-humans, who inhabit a post-empathetic world; whenever they experience strong emotions or distress, their “Brain”—a melded entity which sits atop their consciousness—cuts in and restores equilibrium. But even here, “there is no protection against loss”, as the protagonist realises. The science fiction story is itself an experiment hinged around the question of “what if?” In “Invisible Hand”, Menon poses a question that has probably been asked late at night on the roof of technology college hostels: what if Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu exchanged jobs? In Menon’s telling, the gods are struck by the “Mad Newbie Syndrome”, an artefact from those familiar with the UNIX operating system, and “Lord Vishnu was that mad newbie. He sought to delete a silly, trivial, utterly pointless photon headed nowhere and nowhen. Lo and behold! Most matter in Creation promptly disappeared.” As Menon says in his blog, “science-fiction plays with the material context of a story, which is what produces the genre’s much-valued ‘sense of wonder.’”

Reading the stories together, certain patterns and preferences emerge. There is usually one central idea, the “novum”, which could be a technological artefact or some unexpected manifestation of physical laws. This is combined with carefully observed domestic details, narrated by a middle-aged man who is “settled” with a stable job and family. There are internal conversations, especially with the departed. Amidst the sweep of ideas, there are small nuances and observations: for instance, a character is described as having the “ruined look of a cricket bat which had seen one too many innings”.

After this layer of reality, Menon reaches into his toolkit to create what the writer Philip K. Dick calls a “conceptual dislocation” on encountering a world just like ours but differing in crucial ways; there is a marked “strangeness” in its “small-small things”, as a character says. Still the emphasis is on achieving a certain temperature of feeling, of emotion.

Menon says in an interview that “our South Asian aesthetic places more emphasis on tenderness than on accuracy. I hope we’ll never entirely let go of that approach to the arts.” Above all, Menon’s central theme, which runs like a thread throughout, is the very act of telling a story, and how it transforms both the teller and the listener.

Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.