Translated by Abhisek Sarkar

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

Chhabi has expired.

Chhabila died close to day break. She had been choked to death. Her one year old child Etim, following his usual morning practice, is trying quite hard to suck some milk out of one of her breasts.

Patuki has no inkling about who killed Chhabi. Although it is not unknown to him that this is not a natural death, he is yet to discover that the man he spotted approaching Chhabi’s house early in the morning was the killer. But the very next night Patuki would come to know who killed Chhabila. The one who would be his source of information is the most reliable of all. The rich and the poor, thieves and thugs, the good and the bad, all have respect for him. It is only Patuki who he speaks with. But the day is still young and he has to wait long for nightfall. How long will he have to cope with this hubble-bubble in his stomach, with this uncanny sensation running through his veins?

The man who visited Chhabila at dawn had also been seen coming out of her house late in the night. Patuki spends the whole of the night at the southern bank of the pond behind dense bushes, fishing pole in hand. Long aerial roots of a great banyan tree surround this place. These bushes entice him. The night has its own allure. Only Allah knows why people waste these hours sleeping. Patuki does not sleep; he cannot. The long fishing line of Patuki does not have a hook hence the float also is redundant. He has seen people climbing up his fishing thread from the water— many of them. They climb throughout the night and bless Patuki. Then they climb up those roots of the banyan tree. Now they turn into fireflies and fly around the Banyan pir.

Recently, a review of Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018) appeared in Southeast Asian Review of English positioning it as a unique collection groomed by editor, writer Rajat Chaudhuri, and series editor, Zafar Anjum, and set to mark a milestone within the genre. Read here a part of the review…

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Anthologies of Asian speculative fiction are relatively few and far between and when one does get published, it marks a significant milestone in the genre itself. In addition, writers, editors and commentators tacitly recognize the  importance  of  underscoring  the  source  of  and  inspiration  for  such  works,  namely  Asia.  This,  in  turn, immediately prompts some questioning. Apart from its cultural and geographical setting, what distinguishes Asian speculative fiction from the rest? How different are the works in terms of themes, style, tropes, idiom compared with those from Europe or Africa or any other continent? Why Asian? Why now? Is there a tradition of speculative storytelling in Asia? What counts as speculative fiction in the Asian context?

These questions demand theoretical and critical responses, and this collection of speculative tales with its bold claim of being the best Asian speculative fiction for 2018 presents a singular opportunity for both the casual reader and the academic scholar to begin scrutinizing the text and, more importantly, enjoying the sheer diversity of voices and imaginings emanating from the Indian sub-continent, Southeast Asia and East Asia as well as the Asian diasporas. Both established and emerging writers regardless of whether they identify with the genre are  represented  in  this  carefully  curated  collection,  and  almost  all  the  works  were  written  specially  for  the volume.

The result is a collection that encompasses a wide repertoire of voices and tales and which is potentially at the cutting edge of the genre. In  his  helpful  introduction  to  the  volume,  editor  Rajat  Chaudhuri  describes  speculative  fiction  as  an “adorable, shape-shifting, slippery creature” (xiv), and true to this broad  and  inclusive  characterization,  this collection does not disappoint with its selection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopia and the various offshoots and permutations of these forms. It is apparent that beyond the term’s provenance associated with and manifested in the works of Robert Heinlein and Margaret Atwood, that is, speculative seen in terms of ‘what if’ hypothetical  situations  and  of  what  could  happen  in  the  future  based  on  the  technology  that  already  exists ‘speculative’ has become a catch all term for works which challenge or extend our notions of reality and truth.

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Nicanor Parra … courtesy Arteaga

With protests staged by environmentalists of different ages in many parts of the world, one is left wondering if this is not a major issue that needs to be addressed by the literary community over other issues as it links to our basic survival. These lines by Nicannor Parra, the famous Chilean poet, say it all.

The mistake we made was in thinking

that the earth belonged to us

when the fact of the matter is

we’re the ones who belong to the earth.

He redefined himself as an eco poet in the latter part of his career and said: “The eco-poet also works with contradiction, he defends nature, but he cannot fall into the trap of a new dogmatism. So there are some eco-poems which are apparently anti-ecological, like the following: ‘I don’t see the need for all this fuss, we all know the world is at its end.’ It must be kept in mind that any type of dogmatism, including ecological dogmatism, produces a hardening of the soul. To avoid this hardening, this new dictatorship, this new central committee, one has to denounce even ecological dogmatism. Paradoxically, this is also the soul regulating itself. The man who only affirms runs the risk of freezing up inside. Constant movement, vital motion is crucially important for me.”

So, what is eco literature? Is it the same as cli- fi ?Is it in the genre of speculative fiction or science fiction?

Translated by Janet Hong

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

“I think that’s how I found the way to the English garden,” Kyeong-hui said to me that day.

“I think I played on the swing.”

“Pardon me?” I asked, not understanding.

“There were so many things … inside and outside the wall … A swing, a cherry tree, and flowers … So I forgot to go home.”

“Pardon me?”

“I think the same will happen to you.”

“Pardon me?”

“I think you went to the English garden and played on the swing too.”

Kyeong-hui was the first person forbidden to me. She lived with us, but no one talked about her. No one called her or mentioned her name. No one even looked at her. If we happened to cross paths, my family acted as if she were invisible, though she rarely emerged from her small room. We weren’t allowed to touch her, to make eye contact with her, or to gaze at her as if she were real. The only thing we were allowed to do was move out of the way so that she could pass, or so that her body wouldn’t brush against ours. Naturally Kyeong-hui never joined us at the table, not for a single meal.

Oddly, my parents expected us to adhere strictly to their rules regarding Kyeong-hui, but gave us no direct orders or warnings. Not once were we told that talking to her, or about her, was forbidden. If we ever pointed towards her corner room on the second floor or thoughtlessly uttered her name, we merely received a sharp “Shh!” which flicked like a whip from their mouths.

The Best Asian Speculative Fiction

It had been forty-two days since the incident. Pulling money out of his body became a daily routine. He had no choice. When he ignored the piece of paper sticking out, the side of his body ached, he became nauseated, forcing him to vomit. And so, every morning, he would lock himself inside the bathroom, turn on the shower, and pull out money from his body.

The first few days were challenging. He told his parents that he had a particularly bad case of the flu. He forced himself to cough hoarsely. When someone entered his bedroom, he hid under the covers, shivering, trying his best to impersonate someone who had the chills. He had hoped that his condition would pass after several days, much like the disease he pretended to have. He went online and searched for anything about humans that made money using their bodies. He found stories and interviews about prostitution. He found porno videos of Asian hookers who specialised in fetishes, from BDSM to peeing on the face of their customers. He found articles and posts about modern day slavery. He found Reddit threads filled with people who desperately hope that they could shit money, fish it out of the toilet, and purchase everything they have ever wanted. However, there was nothing about any medical condition that made a person biologically manufacture actual money. It was unnatural. He was officially a mutant, an aberration, a freak of nature. On his third “sick day,” he decided to just ignore it, like what many teenagers had done once they find something growing on their body.

Reviewed by Shikhandin

Clone

Title: Clone
Author: Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Publisher – Zubaan Books
Pages: Hard cover 285
Price: INR Rs 595 / $25 / £19

In 1897, the French artist Paul Gaugin, who had relocated to Tahiti some years earlier, painted his masterpiece – a wall sized fresco-like oil painting, in which flowed the summation of his ideas through the medium of sensuous Tahitian figures against lush Tahitian backdrop and motifs. He titled it in French, the English translation of which reads: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ These are existential questions, asked by humans down the centuries. Poets have asked through poetry, story tellers or minstrels have sung of those who cried out to the wheeling universe. Philosophers have pondered and mathematicians have tried to solve them through equations. Priya Sarukkai Chabria, in her richly textured novel, has written about one who seeks answers to similar questions. Her quester though, is a clone.

The subject of clones with heightened sensitivity has been treated in literature before, and also rendered into cinema.  Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, made into a movie of the same name later, is one of the most thought provoking and based on Earth. An earlier novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick in the late 1960s, renamed Blade Runner, was made into a movie by Ridley Scott in 1982. Other novels and movies too have dealt with clones, mostly in far off space colonies and space ships.

Sarukkai Chabria’s novel evokes luscious images, even as the narrative throws up unsettling theories of the future of humans. She comes across as a demanding writer, one who expects her readers to be informed and attentive. Her prose urges closer scrutiny, heavily embossed as it is with imageries culled from myths, legends and history. The reader has to know the sources, or at least be curious enough to find out, or else be left bereft of the contexts of her narrative. The extensive use of esotericism in her novel is both its strength and a weakness – the former as it adds layers and dimensions to the story; the latter, because the profusion of references and allusions, imageries and motifs, draws the reader in too deep into specific portions, slowing down the pace, and yet one must read on for the tale hasn’t ended, making the book exhausting at times. It is a relief therefore to know that the plot of Clone is fairly straightforward.

Kitaab is seeking high quality short stories for The Best Asian Speculative Fiction anthology to be published next year. We take a liberal approach towards defining the speculative and will look beyond popular categories of science-fiction, fantasy and horror though these are very much welcome. Our anthology editor is looking forward to reading a variety of stories which could include dystopian, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, weird, utopian, alternate history, superhero and any permutations and combinations of these. But first and foremost your story should be engaging with attention to characterisation and plot.

Give us stellar tales that slip past the quotidian and the mundane, transporting your reader to the edges of the possible and realms further still. Whisk us away to Murakamiesque wonderlands or Huxleian cacotopias; indulge us with the outré, the outlandish, the uncanny. We are looking here for a whiff of the Asimovian imagination, a taste of Lovecraftian weird, a dash of Atwoodesque futures. Take us on journeys through chinks of space-time, fling us into situations of climate change horror. No fan fiction please. Give us mind-blowing originals.

The best three stories (decided by the editor) will get cash prizes or Amazon vouchers (worth $50 each)! All selected contributors will each receive 2 complimentary copies of the final publication. 

If you are interested to delve a little deeper into speculative fiction, here is an article by Annie Neugebauer.