Essay: Asian Speculative Fiction — An Introduction
By Rajat Chaudhuri
“Anything conceivable I believe is possible.”
— Black to the Future, Walter Mosley (Dark Matter)
A sorcerer-librarian in ancient Korea who transforms people into books locking them up in his shelves for ever, a far-future civilisation on the planet Ruo, remembering their ancestors in the drowned world of BlueGemm — finished off by greed and climate change, a time travelling ghost in Hong Kong disconcerted by the rules of afterlife.
These are just a few of the characters and situations that we present before you dear reader in this book of amazing tales — stories from Asia, a continent blessed with mindboggling creativity and chutzpah, zen and brio, or what they sometimes call the Asiatic imagination, which is born of course out of its chequered fabric, the diversity of its peoples, the textures of our histories. Asia, a multitudinous hundred-headed medley of contemplativeness and chaos, a mélange of landforms, a kedgeree of ideas, a crucible of cultures, and you get it all here in this book, served fresh, sizzling, wok-fried and ready to tease your taste buds.
So go ahead and crack these pages waiting for you, which are guaranteed to beam you down, time and time again across the length and breadth of this continent and to places further still—places imagined or almost real. Get whisked away into parallel realities, commit a felony or two and come away unscathed like a lucky Schrödinger’s feline, your stiletto-sharp canines sunk into the juicy fish of redemption, get scared out of your wits by creatures of the dark in a storm-lashed Mumbai night or smell the pissoirs of humanity overflowing with the garbage of rebellious AI.
And for good measure, dig into the flavours and sounds of Asia—this paradise of the senses—the aroma of flavoured meat cooking in the home of a killer, the steam of the dai pai dong on the streets of Hong Kong or even the sussuration of castor-seeds in an old Chinese graveyard.
We have laid out before you an Asian smörgåsbord, a veritable bazaar of seasoned and fresh voices, reared, nurtured and tuned by the flood plains, forests and fog-ensconced mountains of an endless land. Voices salty-sweet, bitter-sour or with that fleeting sensation of an umami, hard to pin down. So dive in and kick that life support away, that EVA suit won’t be required here, for faith can take you to the farthest stars. In any case you are sure to float up somewhere, in this or in some other time.
Now that you are beginning to get confident about investing your time and harbour almost no doubts that this is indeed the best of Asian speculative fiction, let me give you a few more good reasons to set the remainder of your worries at rest. Let us for once look more closely at the title. Why do we say these tales are speculative? Wherefrom arises the need to qualify what are essentially tales well told that will strike a chord with readers anywhere?
“Whoever thinks his valley is the world is blind,” wrote Darko Suvin in his paper on poetics of science fiction. While he was speaking about a particular genre, these words apply equally well to all forms of storytelling that swing away from realist traditions (my valley is the world) towards those deep forests and infinite universes of imagination that is the preserve of speculative fiction. If you have picked up this collection uncoerced, of your own sweet volition, odds are you are already well clued into this speculative stuff. You know that mimetic is not the brand name of a magic drug and well, if you are more into esoteric concepts, or divination or even Satan worship, you would have already delved into the arcana. Terms like novum, cognitive estrangement, anti-mimetic, structural-fabulation, countering the post-Enlightenment real, and so on, which are the spells that need to be cast for the conjuration of the speculative in literary theory and art, do not leave you mystified. In that case you can safely skip the rest and dive straight for the meat inside.
But if you are not into the arcana of speculative fiction, you might want to take a quick spin around the property — a little tour of meanings, to take multi-angle shots and see for yourself how our precious book fits into the picture.
People seldom agree (which is why AI is stealing our jobs) and so, over the last six or seven decades, different folks have meant different things when they invoked “speculative fiction”. As Marek Oziewicz (Speculative Fiction, Oxford Research Encyclopaedias) shows in his introduction to the subject, there are at least three “historically located meanings” of the term. Around the middle of the last century the best-selling American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein came up with the tag “speculative story” for a sub-type of science fiction. Heinlein’s speculative story is a sort of sci-fi which is concerned with “human problems arising out of extrapolations of present science” which asks the question “What would happen if …”. In his influential essay on the subject, he contrasted people stories with what he called the “gadget story” while also taking a shot at those who write science fiction without learning anything about science.
If you think you love this Heinleinian brand of speculative, you need not worry because some of the memorable stories in our book would easily fit this characterisation. Philippine National Book award winning author Eliza Victoria’s powerfully imagined Web about lesbian lovers and interplanetary healers (that work like nano-robots would do in repairing damaged tissue) and Lopa Ghosh’s dystopian satire Crow about Singularity as a totalitarian despot are the two that easily come to mind though they go deeper, jostling with important issues of our times.
Judith Merrill, science fiction author and editor of midcentury SF anthologies, who through her creative output and critical writing had had a lasting influence on the “genre”, provided a fun definition of “science fiction” or what she called “speculative fun” in her introduction to The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy (1959). In that particular formulation she listed science, space, satellites, starships, fable, fantasy, fairy-tale, folklore, semantics, sociology and several other elements of what constitutes “Science Fiction” or “Science Fantasy”. Many of us remember her mid-century short story (That Only a Mother) about the mother and the mutant child in the backdrop of nuclear war. There and elsewhere she took a definite step in foregrounding a woman’s perspective in science fiction writing which later influenced legions of authors.
But to return to our adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature—speculative fiction—we need to look at another formulation; championed by Margaret Atwood whose work among other things has got Merrill’s feminising influence described earlier. Atwood’s test for the speculative is on the touchstone of possibility, an examination that her novels like Oryx and Crake which is about a bio-engineering dystopia will surely pass. Marking a clear break from some of the improbabilities of science fiction, her formulation stresses on this aspect of possibility as the sine qua non of the speculative.
It goes without saying that in putting together this anthology I have also kept this brand of speculative in mind. So here you will find a story about a market for fertile women who have become rare in a post-apocalyptic India by bestselling writer of tantrist-mysteries, Shweta Taneja, tales about technology intruding into lives by award-winning authors Park Chan-soon and Vrinda Baliga among several others, all of which imagine realities which are highly probable or already upon us. They easily fit into the Atwoodesque type of speculative while also highlighting elements of gender (in Taneja’s case) like Judith Merrill did seven decades ago.
Hard sci-fi buffs, weird worshippers, horror enthusiasts, fantasy lovers and devotees of the magic-realist tale, we haven’t short-changed you on your pleasures. Get reading and see for yourself. But don’t blame us if the horror gives you insomnia, scared to the bone, room lights burning through the night. For the spectrophobic, faint-hearted reader, we advice that the supernatural horror in this book be read under parental supervision preferably in a brightly lit shopping mall. Be especially careful with Kiran Manral’s Upon His Return and Rohan Monteiro’s School. Don’t say we didn’t print a caveat.
Still on the horror but with a twist, you wouldn’t fail to be amused by the banyan spirits of Samim Ahmed’s story set in rural Bengal nor can you miss the broodingly beautiful prose of the master of Malaysian horror, Tunku Halim, as he draws you into the heart of darkness of a little Japanese town festooned with koinobori windsocks. Then suddenly you come across Mountain Maid by Kazakh writer Eldar Sattarov — winner of a major Russian award — which because of its literary allusions and style belongs to a league of its own.
Moving on to stories that defy labels, and mind you I don’t have space to name them all, there is When the Ratchet Turns by the incredibly talented Soramimi Hanarejima and The English Garden by the multiple-award winning Bae Suah, who has been described as “Korean literature’s most unfamiliar being”. Both these tales have a hypnotic quality and happen to be works that ultimately point to the artificialness of the word genre, but that is a different story altogether.
Whatever kind of seeker you may be, you will see as you work your way through our menu, how the flavours of the speculative open up, absorbing a variety of subgenres — mingling, comfortably cohabiting, settling down in various permutations and combinations. Which then brings us to the third and what is today the most popular and generous description of speculative fiction, which is neither a fief of science fiction nor of fantasy—we are past those genre wars.
Here the speculative is described as a field of cultural production and is characterised as a super-genre which beyond the big three of science fiction, fantasy and horror includes several other types of stories like weird, dystopian, fractured fairy-tale (it’s a long and open list) in its fold.
In fact the inclusiveness of this definition brings within its scope other forms of creation and works by underrepresented voices and peoples. As Marek Oziewicz writes, it in fact opens up the space for the “voice of minorities and ethnic others within non-mimetic narrative forms without relegating them to the ghetto of ‘ethnic’ literatures”. The only commonality would be that these works should be non-mimetic that is they go off at a tangent from the real.
It is within this wide-armed inclusiveness, guaranteed by the understanding about speculative writing which has gained currency over the years, that we situate our book. It is this point from which I started when I conceived the anthology and sent out the call for submissions. And of course there was always Asia, where I live and work. Some would still ask, why Asian speculative fiction? I guess that question is already answered but still I would like to point out one personal reason and another broader justification, rounding it off with hat-tips for inspiration.
I write fiction (novels and short stories) which is often speculative and increasingly of the “possible worlds” type. This inclination perhaps has its roots in the literary culture of my city, Calcutta, where a robust Bengali literary tradition and reading culture has co-existed and in some cases been enriched by literature from the west through the medium of English, right from colonial times. Here, as schoolboys we got acquainted with the adventures of a world-famous Bengali scientist-inventor whose cat was named Newton (in the science fiction of Satyajit Ray, the filmmaker and writer), we revelled in the tall-tales of another globe-trotting Bengali adventurer who would inadvertently blow up an island of the south Pacific while prospecting for precious stones or get dragged across the Everest by a yeti (works of Premendra Mitra) on the run.
Later I would discover Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury and others through their dystopian novels, which were easily available from the numerous shops selling used-books in my city. Soon I got acquainted with the work of Amitav Ghosh through his speculative novel Calcutta Chromosome ( winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award) which would leave a deep impression.
These were my introductions to a world of stories that were playing games with the real and often turning away from it altogether. These stories, rephrasing Suvin, did not believe their valley was the world. And somehow these stories entertained and edified in a way that others did not. So in the works of authors working in Bengali or English, I was already acquainted with speculative stories from an early age while later, through my own writing, I tried to tell such tales, placing them in familiar settings. Last year when author-friend Anu Kumar suggested proposing an Asian anthology to the publisher, we quickly discovered that we were all on the same page on this. This project wouldn’t have taken off without her enthusiasm and support.
The more immediate reason for an Asian anthology of speculative fiction is the fact, already mentioned, that this “genre” because of its generosity and breadth is welcome home for underrepresented voices.
As inspiration for an anthology which makes an effort to turn away from dominant narratives, and tells stories from another perspective, I count that great anthology of black speculative fiction — Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas as I do regional and country collections from the Asia-Pacific (Amok edited by Dominica Malcolm), Philippines and elsewhere. The stories and essays in these books are brilliant and they inspired me to look for the best for our own. Lontar, the journal of Southeast Asian speculative fiction has been a great venue for speculative writing and we are honoured to share a couple of our authors with them.
Genre writers and commentators like Anil Menon, Mimi Mondal, Barnita Bagchi and others have in their interviews and essays drawn out the contours of south-Asian speculative fiction, its past, present and possible futures. In Mondal’s article (A Short History of South Asian Speculative Fiction) which appeared in Tor.com we were introduced to the current robustness of the genre and the history of the tradition in South Asia. Pointing out that writing about living faith is not fantasy, a mistake often made by westerners, she goes on to present a structured history, commentaries and extensive reading lists while also pointing out the importance of non-English traditions (Bengali, Urdu and Tamil) in south-Asian genre fiction writing.
Anil Menon on the other hand in an interview with noted science-fiction author Vandana Singh has said that he was hopeful that south-Asian SF would not let go of its sense of place and that it could contribute by bringing in that sense of “‘buzzin’, bloomin’ confusion’ one finds in bazaars …”. Barnita Bagchi in her essay points out the anti-apocalyptic stream flowing through the speculative works of some south-Asian writers and links it with the decolonisation of the mind. These writers, like disembodied voices, floated over my desk when I went about putting together this volume. They were all my inspiration and I hope to have some of them on board in our future journeys.
Having grown up in the literary culture of south-Asia, it has been easier for me to sift through submissions from this region, but along the way I was enriched with my introduction to a wealth of speculative writing from all over the continent. If ethnicities and multiple nationalities can be counted as influences on the imagination, then by a good guess we have covered in this anthology fifteen different peoples or countries of Asia plus the diaspora. We have gathered stories all the way from Kazakhstan to Korea and from China to Indonesia bringing together voices from more than thirteen countries of this vast continent. But we are neither cartographers nor accountants, we don’t want to mark each page of our book with flags and numbers. We were just looking for fine stories here and we have done the best we could. And though we will miss cli-fi, silkpunk, space operas and other imaginative sub-genres in the present volume, we believe we have enough magic here to make you call for a repeat.
This project is special because almost all of the stories were written for this collection, and so it is a bouquet of freshly minted tales. The element of newness, I hope, would give the book an added edge as will the great line-up of authors both from within and outside the genre. It was a joy fighting with some of you over commas or splitting hairs over that intransigent clause which would refuse to find its right place under the tropical sun. Now our job is done and it’s time for us to return to our desks and conjure up new worlds.
It’s over to you dear reader. Go get drizzled in stardust.
Read the stories in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018. Show your support for contemporary Asian voices. Order your copy now:
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Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace Trust, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow and the Editor of Kitaab’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction, was published recently.