Beyond Balram: Stories by Vandana Singh and Ian McDonald

Reviewed by Dan Hartland

The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet cover

Distances cover

Cyberabad Days US cover

Cyberabad Days UK cover

"The future of the world," says Balram, the epistolary narrator of Aravind Adiga's Booker-winning 2008 novel, The White Tiger, "lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage, and drug abuse" (pp. 5-6). Balram's story is about the transition to that future—what he must become, and what he must leave behind, in order to reach it. My humble prediction," Balram writes in his letter to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, "[is that in] twenty years' time, it will be just us yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid, and we'll rule the whole world" (p. 305).

It is a commonplace (though an over-stated one) that where literary fiction depicts science fiction imagines. Yet Indian science fiction has traditionally been over-looked by Western tastes. The Indian Science Fiction Writers' Association is doing some worthy work in promoting the fiction of its members, for example publishing the first Indian quarterly of science fiction stories, Vigyan Katha; yet the back cover of Vandana Singh's first collection still has this quote from Nilanja Roy: "Read [this collection] in homage to the first Indian writer to make a serious mark in the SF world." When Ian McDonald's River of Gods was first published in 2005, meanwhile, the fact of its Indian setting was commented on thoroughly in almost every published review, such was its novelty. Balram's predicted future sometimes seems shrouded in the smog of Bangalore's construction industry.

McDonald's newly published Cyberabad Days happily returns to that River of Gods future (though almost everyone except me, including the BSFA Award voters, also loved his South America-set Brasyl), and along with that collection from Singh—published in 2008 by India's Zubaan press in collaboration with Penguin—will hopefully point the way to more mainstream consideration of the Indian future. "India was a place where the visible and the invisible mingled like two rivers flowing into each," McDonald writes in "Vishnu at the Cat Circus." "[It was] located as much inside the mind and the imagination as between the Himalayas and the sea" (p. 298). It is, naturally, fertile ground for the science fiction writer.

That said, it is important to note that Singh, born and raised in New Delhi and currently resident in Massachusetts, is like McDonald not exclusively a writer of Indian SF. Distances, a novella of hers published by Aqueduct Press at the end of 2008, is a far future, practically post-human, piece which, though it fails to sustain itself across its full length, nevertheless manages moments of great eloquence. In it, a "rider" named Anasuya—so called for her ability to "surf" within mathematical structures, experiencing the flow and formulae in a manner which allows her to explore reality on a very deep level—is asked by a delegation from a planet 18 light-years away to examine equations they have developed. By "living" within the space these letters and numbers create, Anasuya begins to see a strange truth at the heart of what amounts to a new, and singularly unusual, reality.

This is quintessential Singh—her fiction is not so much about India as it is about estrangement. One of Anasuya's visitors bemoans that, "On my world, everything we wish to do that is outside the norm must be justified" (p. 62). As a rider, however, Anasuya lives to one side of that quotidian, physical reality—and yet that one remove is only very slight, and she is forced to contend also with the every-day, which often seems stranger to her than the confusion of vortices in which she submerges herself: she never quite feels at home in the physical world she inhabits, and retains a sense that her true home— her real self—exists elsewhere. "She knew the sea was within her," we are told of this reluctant city-dweller, "as she was in the sea's embrace" (p. 26). Singh is interested in the ways in which we do not exist in the here-and-now, and how the consensus reality we all agree upon constantly co-habits with a much stranger plane.

This makes India, that unwieldy consensus between wildly disparate peoples, a nautral topic for Singh, and she is unambiguous about the role of her homeland in forming her fiction. "India is one of the deepest sources of inspiration to me, and being Indian is a very large part of the kind of writer I am," she writes in the acknowledgements to her new collection. This might be the sort of banal point a writer hardly needs to make, but the stories collected in The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet are, unlike the more generic science fiction of Distances, uniquely directed towards India—all published since 2002, they are an appeal to its people, but also a gesture in their direction—they represent a dual education, for Westerner and Indian alike. Take "Thirst," an intense story which shares much with Distances: a slightly detached, somewhat disappointed, female protagonist experiences the world as an alien and unfamiliar thing, perversely finding something more real, and more comforting, in the strange and the other-worldly. "Thirst" frames this as "the dilemma of choosing between two worlds" (p. 106), and it is a choice with which many of Singh's protagonists are faced: "[The way home was] familiar and strange all at once" (p. 107). This complexity of response informs much of Singh's writing, and "Thirst" relentlessly emphasises the strangeness at the heart of even the most quotidian detail.

Indeed, "Thirst" is a largely mimetic piece, which opens itself to the fantastic only towards its close, when the nāga, creatures of myth, stories of whom have been passed down the maternal line of the narrator's family for generations, make their physical existence very clear to her, without necessarily impressing it upon the reader. Characteristically, "Thirst" can be read metaphorically if the reader so desires; it is as possible at its close that the nāga are a psychological experience, and this seems to me very fitting: the power of much of Singh's work lies in its shared heritage, its mission of reimagining Indian myth in a science fictional manner. In this way, the ambiguity of the nāga's existence lends power to the myth without robbing the story of its speculative impact: "when the cobra leaned his head close to hers, with bright, ardent, questioning eyes, she felt a small explosion in her chest, as though a damn had burst, letting out all the needs and desires of her barren other life" (p. 104). The nāga is here described as a "cobra," emphasising the liminality of the fantasy, yet its action either way has a profound effect upon the narrator: what is experienced as fantastic, then, transforms the perception of what is experienced as quotidian; two planes often opposed to each other in fiction co-exist and co-mingle, rendering metaphor, allegory and mimesis one.

That is, that co-habitation of quotidian and fantastic is present in form and content—a reader of whichever audience feels something of that estrangement which is at the heart of Singh's fiction. The collection's strongest story, and one of two previously unpublished works, "Infinities" is essentially a mimetic story about the search for truth, largely scientific in kind but also nodding in the direction of the artistic method. The story's protagonist, the mathematician Abdul Karim, is another Singhian type: the figure driven by an unusual interest, almost obsession, who becomes separated from everyday life as a result. In "Hunger," for instance, the female narrator has to "learn the world anew" each morning (p. 2), divorcing her immersion in science fiction and dreams from her perception of the real world. "Infinities," meanwhile, shows Karim being driven into a hermetical life of mathematical inquiry. He remembers the fate of Archimedes, beaten to death by a barbarian whilst engrossed in equations, the victim of a world with "no place at all for the austere beauty of mathematics" (p. 88). Again, ways of seeing the world are seen to fashion how one experiences it.

The reader, too, is constantly asked to balance two worldviews: so the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is seen to be a progenitor of modern (and, so often for its American audience, exlusively Western) science fiction; "Conservation Laws," meanwhile, is perhaps the most familiarly science fictional of all the stories here, and yet is by Singh's own admission "an inadequate tribute to that genius of Bengali science fiction, Premendra Mitra." At times, Singh's agenda admittedly leads to repetition: "Thirst," for instance, more successfully tackles the themes first addressed in 2003's "The Wife," and a superior precursor to 2007's "Hunger"; equally, "The Tetrahaedron," in which a multi-dimensional phenomenon appears in the centre of New Delhi, seems to repeat themes and tropes from other works through clunking exposition delivered by an increasingly annoying character.

I was reminded of a writer like Philip Francis Nowlan, the creator of Buck Rogers and an early exponent of science fiction, who devoted much of his stories to exhaustive capitulations of tropes which no longer need explaining. Singh's "Speculative Manifesto" holds little that is revelatory to one familiar with the genre, but it is necessary as part of her twin missions. In an article at LiveMint, the Indian critic K.S. Purushothaman notes that, "most writers here are still stuck to H.G. Wells." Singh's stories were written initially for an American audience, and her stories cannot be painted wholly as a sort of primer for another type of science fiction. In 'The Woman Who Thought She Was A Planet,' a husband who cannot understand his wife's expansive and science fictional worldview—"What are you doing—have you lost your mind?" he asks her when she begins to insist she is a celestial body in orbit around a star—is shown the hard way that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. This is Singh as teacher of two classrooms.

It is here where Singh parts ways with Ian McDonald, a British writer whose novels are about, but not of, India. McDonald is writing largely Western-style SF for a largely Western audience, and does not pause to explain. As Christopher Priest wrote in The Guardian at the time of its release, if River of Gods had a fault (and surely it did not) it was that, "it is not a page-turner book; it is a turn-page-back book." McDonald is unforgiving to the lazy reader: keep up or keep out. This is a demanding but hugely rewarding style, and Cyberabad Days retains its chaotic, uncompromising approach. If Vandana Singh seeks to reimagine the Indian past into a fresh literary mode, Ian McDonald's work in these stories, published over a similar period to Singh's, uses the established cyberpunk form to imagine a new Indian future.

In "Sanjeev and Robotwallah," for instance, a humble servant boy is given the opportunity to observe the teenage cyberwarriors who wage war on other Indian regions as the nation of our own time collapses into the mutually suspicious states McDonald introduced in River of Gods. In contrast to Singh's stab at similar human-machine interfaces in Distances, McDonald is both original and engaging in his depiction of the effects of technology upon human perception: the separation from society promoted in these teenage generals, given as they are power over whole battalions of warrior robots and yet safe in the knowledge that "no robotwallah ever came back in a bodybag" (p. 8), turns them into unhinged sociopaths, the first foreshadowing of the effects an increasing reliance by Indians and others upon advanced computer intelligence will soon have.

At the same time, the robotwallahs adopt names and fashions similar to their favourite anime characters, and their warehouse headquarters features "cracked leather sofas, sling chairs, a water cooler (full), a coke machine (three quarters empty)" (p. 9). In these details lie the real secrets of McDonald's effectiveness: his future does not replace the cultures which pre-exist it, but grafts itself onto them, grows out of them, retranslates them for the new contexts it creates. In the previously unpublished "Vishnu and the Cat Circus," then, we follow the narration of a genetically altered child, given by advanced science the dubious gift of ageing half as fast as ordinary humans. These highly intelligent individuals are called "Brahmins," a repositioning of the existing Hindu term for the highest class, or varna, of educators, law makers, scholars and preachers, the Brahmana; likewise, McDonald's ungendered "nutes" are routinely slurred by unenlightened future Indians with the word hijra, referencing the "third gender" of south Asia. McDonald's respect for, and willingness to extrapolate from, Indian culture and develop it outwards lies at the heart of the particular power of his vision of 2047.

In "An Eligible Boy," McDonald depicts the possible effects of genetic manipulation by the Indian middle class: an overwhelming desire for male heirs results in a four-to-one male to female ratio in Delhi, perverting the Hindu shaadi wedding tradition into a kind of beauty-pageant-cum-auction. This development recurs in the beautifully realised "The Little Goddess," the story of a Nepalese Living Goddess who, upon reaching puberty, finds herself on show in a shaadi for the desperate male middle class. Time and again, the stories of Cyberabad Days link into each other—in their shared world they are far more like a story sequence (they are even arranged in a rough internal chronology) than a traditional short story collection. This obviously adds richness to them, and though each was published separately it is clear that McDonald's grasp upon his posited future is total—and yet at no point is a prior reading of River of Gods at all necessary.

Clearly, all this is quite at odds with Singh's careful schooling—Cyberabad Days simply uses India to achieve its aims. McDonald is not unaware of the presumptuousness of a Westerner so totally appropriating and translating another culture. In "Kyle Meets The River," the son of an American consultant—part of a mission to one of the Indian nations born after the wars depicted in "Sanjeev and Robotwallah"—comes to understand he is an alien in this country: "there was nothing that connected to any part of his world, his life" (p. 40). Nevertheless, Kyle admits to himself that "it was very very cool"—he remains a tourist, a guest, and an interloper. This self-awareness is what prevents the frankly excellent Cyberabad Days from accusations of pre-post-colonialist transgressions, much as Geoff Ryman's carefulness in Air did the same for his non-Western fiction.

Artificial intelligence, resource scarcity, genetic engineering: McDonald's concerns are avowedly science fictional, at first sight quite at odds with Singh's more mystical, at times barely more than metaphorical, approach. Yet each author in their own way allows science fiction to inform our imaginings of one of the planet's most important and exciting nations. McDonald allows himself room to invent and impress, milking India and retranslating it for better or worse. Singh, on the other, is more concerned with fusing forms and modes, and hers is a more incremental and cautious collection. Balram, with whom we started this piece, asks what the Bangalore of the future might be like. "Maybe it will be a disaster: slums, sewage, shopping malls, traffic jams, policemen. But you never know. It may turn out to be a decent city, where humans can live like humans and animals can live like animals" (The White Tiger, pg. 317). Maybe. But Singh and McDonald, from their different perspectives, in their different ways and for very different purposes, posit that the future, and our personal experience of it, will in fact be something much stranger than Balram may yet be able to imagine.


Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.