Book Review by Suvasree Karanjai
Title: Best Asian Speculative Fiction
Editor: Rajat Chaudhuri
Series Editor: Zafar Anjum
Publisher: Kitaab, 2018
Speculative fiction can no longer be dismissed as low-brow, trashy or pulp, or at the very least, unimportant and weird fantasy if one reads the collection edited by Rajat Chaudhuri, The Best Asian Speculative Fiction. To many readers’ surprise, this marginalised genre has lot to contribute philosophically to the dream of a technocrat’s world. The present age that can be well-described as an era of artificial intelligence (AI) is surely complementary to human intelligence developed with the purpose of mitigating our works in future. But the rise of AI and the philosophy of technocracy have, at the same time, given rise to multiple speculations regarding future of humanity — the fear of Frankenstein.
Speculative fiction is too large a subject to be represented exhaustibly in a book or a collection of Asian speculative narratives. The unique character of this specific genre lies in an impossibility to hold all its threads within a watertight definition. It encompasses several genres under its shed. Chaudhuri’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction is indeed a suitable example of this broad compass. We are on an enchanting rollercoaster ride as we leap from one imaginative narrative to another coming from diverse authors from sixteen countries of Asia plus more diasporas.
The book demands applause for the editor’s skilful selection and handling of this voluminous collection and, of course, for his brilliant introduction to the infinite breadth of Asian speculative fiction. To be honest, the collection is indeed too large to ‘crack’ at a single go (especially for a reader who is not much accustomed to this specific genre) but the narratives, appreciably, indulge in philosophical enquiries about the prospect of this new world, or alternate ‘possible’ reality, from innumerable angles. They repeatedly hammer the question “What if?” in the reader through ‘multi-angle shots’ of the emerging reality of AI.
As one of the greatest SFF (sci-fi and fantasy) writers, Ursula K. Le Guin, says, “All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor…Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternate society, an alternative biology; the future is another.” What entices a reader is perhaps how the fictions in this assemblage skilfully explore the limits of human horizon and boundaries of knowledge to discover new frontiers for the future. After all, the term “speculative” calls for imagination to the forestage. Reading this collection one would surely recall Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”. While the collection incorporates Heinleinian speculative narratives of Eliza Victoria (lesbian lovers and interplanetary healers) and Lopa Ghosh, the collection also harbours stories centring around fantasy, myth, supernatural and hard sci-fi. The tale titled ‘Mountain Maid’ by Eldar Sattarov splendidly refurnishes the Kazakh myth of the mountain maid to weave a fascinating and mysterious narrative of life and death. What if we are insured for repurposing? Lopa Ghosh’s captivating tale on Patangis puts forth thoughtful queries about afterlife and death:
“Death is overrated.” Her insurance also covered afterlife expenses – “Bills have to be paid, dead or not, if you were going to keep the lights burning and took elons.”
Such narratives inspire transformative thoughts and speculations on the human condition. Carlo C. Flordeliza’s fiction, ‘How the Human ATM Lived Forever’, is indeed much simplistic compared to others in the collection but it, undeniably, engages the reader toward reflections on the life of mutants. “While he (the human ATM) made it possible for the nation to change, he was disconnected from reality.” He goes on and on without any knowledge of retirement. These narratives, thereby, pose fundamental questions about meaning. They philosophise the worth of human existence. With all sensitivity, the stories allow the reader to imagine an AI world that might be equally dystopic and dreadful. The threat to human emotions and relationships is vividly felt in the sombre and humourless treatment of most stories. The counterfactual might be apparently more appealing and enchanting, but the reality is grim and paltry. The enchantment is a temporal illusion.
This particular collection is of relevance and importance in the context of providing Asian speculative writers a platform, especially when this century is witnessing a rise in this genre elsewhere in the world. We have African Speculative Fiction Society too. The word Asia has a deep connection to these narratives. They breathe the cultural diversity of the continent ranging from Hong Kong’s dai pai dongs to a strange Indian custom of marrying off breeding daughters to Sheikhs. In fact, this is the first voluminous collection of Asian speculative fiction that has ever come out. Surely for lovers of sci-fi and cyberpunk fiction, this compilation is a great treat!
Suvasree Karanjai is a PhD candidate in the Department of English, University of North Bengal, India. Her reviews and poems have been published in ‘Wasafiri: International Contemporary Writing and Kashmir Lit’ among others. You will find her at email@example.com.
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