How Indian American Science Fiction Writer Vandana Singh and Others are Breaching the White Male Realm
- While speculative fiction is relatively a new genre among Indian audiences, there are several who have been producing compelling and creative works.
With three Indian-origin Nobel laureates in sciences, and with scores of them — from MIT to NASA — doing cutting-edge work one is never surprised to learn of their achievements in the field of science and technology. But can you be faulted if you haven’t heard of Indian American science fiction writers, much less an Indian one? Apparently, yes.
Last week, the San Francisco-based Ethnic Media Network briefing introduced several speculative fiction writers who have been carving out a niched for themselves in a field that has been a near-exclusive white male purview. In a report on the briefing, Peter White says, “a new and diverse generation of sci-fi and fantasy writers are bending an old genre and imagining alternative — even hopeful — futures.”
Speaking in the Zoom conference, Erica Hoagland, who teaches Creative Writing at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, says a new crop of writers is remolding science fiction “in fundamentally beautiful and important ways,” helping the genre to progress by engaging with some of the most intractable challenges of our time, including climate change, systemic racism, migration and great power conflict.”
Apart from Hoagland, participating in the briefing were four speculative fiction writers Mexican Libia Brenda, African American Isis Asare, Chinese American Ken Liu and Samit Basu from India.
Basu is the author of “The City Inside,” an anti-dystopian science fiction novel set in Delhi in near future describes how the “world grows more complicated, and for many people, more dangerous, it also becomes more tempting for those with privilege to turn their gaze away,” as reviewer Misha Grifka Wander put it. The novel is such an acerbic commentary on Indian politics, that critics were surprised that it was published in India at all.
Another reviewer Gary K. Wolfe writing in Locus magazine observes that Basu devotes so much attention to building a dense and detailed portrait of a world — from the effects of climate change to the marginalization of various groups to corporate malfeasance. Basu, the critic concludes, displays an “extraordinary vision of an urban future that isn’t nearly as remote as we might want it to be, and that is yet the latest example of what seems to be a remarkable period in Indian and South Asian SFF.”
Still in his early 40s, Basu has already an impressive body of work, which includes science fiction, fantasy and superhero novels, children’s books, graphic novels, short stories, and a Netflix film (“House Arrest”).
Although she was not present at the briefing, the work of Vandana Singh, an Indian American speculative fiction writer, drew much appreciation. Singh’s most recent work is the novel “Mother Ocean.” In her “Speculative Manifesto,” an afterword of her first short story collection “The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet,” Singh describes speculative fiction as writing “about what cannot ever be or what cannot be as yet.”
Singh also asserts that “Speculative fiction comes naturally to us Indians since we have a tendency to embroider, to propagate, to let the imagination run wild, and to argue incessantly.” While she confesses that she cannot back up that claim with data but it’s what she feels from having grown up in India and being Indian. “I remember going with my mother to get vegetables and the witticisms that would pass back and forth. My mother would challenge the quality of the vegetables and the seller would take umbrage and it was like a drama — a script, but a very inventive one. And they would — each side — make up stories about the vegetables — something about the “beautiful conditions under which these pumpkins ripened” or other tall tales. The place is so thick with stories! It was something I didn’t realize until I lived in the United States for a long time and then went back … that you can almost pluck the stories from the air!” she says.
Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kylie Korsnack says, “Singh’s cultural and scientific understanding of the world is woven into her narratives, the minds of her characters, and the richness of her landscapes (whether earthly or extraterrestrial). This background makes her fiction at once startling, unique, complex, and beautiful. By employing features common to genres such as magic realism, science fiction, fantasy, folklore, and myth, Singh’s fiction defies boundaries and, in that defiance, captures a vision of the world that is both far-reaching and profoundly original.”
Singh is an associate professor of physics and Chair of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. She introduces herself as “a writer of speculative fiction, which includes science fiction and fantasy. I love this genre for its imaginative richness, its vast canvas, and the sophistication with which its best practitioners wield their pens.”
Writing in the Vogue in 20121, Aditya Mani Jha says while science fiction is an oft-ignored genre amongst Indian audiences, tenacious authors have been producing compelling and wildly creative books designed to win readers over to their side. Apart from Vandana Singh and Samit Basu, he identifies three other Indian sci-fi authors “who will lead you into enthralling new realms.” They are Gautam Bhatia, the author of the dystopian novel “The Wall,” and Priya Sarukkai Chabria who wrote “Clone” which features “long, gorgeous stretches of lyrical, stream-of-consciousness prose that interrogate some pressing problems faced by any society today,” and finally, Indian American S.B. Divya whose “Machinehood” is a classic novel of ideas.
“The line between man and machine, the human brain and artificial intelligence, the power imbalance between gigantic corporations and their employees (or their customers, for that matter); these are just some of the themes this novel evocatively spotlights,” Jha writes about Divya’s novel, adding, “Humans and AIs fighting over the same gig economy jobs in a world where super-pills are helping humans enhance their physical capabilities to unheard-of standards—this is the backdrop against which “Machinehood” unfurls its central thriller plot.
Interestingly, most of the Indian speculative fiction writers seem to be extrapolating their dystopian future settings from the current religious, ethnic, caste and political polarization plaguing India today.