Monday, December 05, 2005

SF and the sublime

Romanian Foundation contributor CORNELL ROBU has published a book developing ideas in his essay "A Key to Science Fiction: the Sublime" (Foundation 42: Spring 1988). The book, O chiee pentru science-fiction is published by Casa Cartii de Stiinta, Cluj-Napoca. Robu identifies the ideas of the sublime from Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant -- infinity, immensity, "delightful horror" -- as a key to science fiction's "sense of wonder".


  1. Andy - I apologize for a somewhat off-topic comment, but I have been looking for some info I hope you can help me find. I have recently heard that sci-fi writing in India is on the rise. As a result of a recent trip there, I am interested in reading good sci-fi by Indian authors (even with the understanding that there will be things I don't "get" in their writing because of cultural background). I have found a few places online that list authors, but haven't had any luck finding specific books or even a rating of which of those authors are good/the best. Can you help? Thanks!

  2. John - I've put below something I wrote for our Commonwealth of Science Fiction conference in 2004. I've little to add since -- I've come across another fantasy novel, I think, but it's at home -- although I'd recommend Vandana Singh (who lives and works in the USA as a writer to watch for. She has a story in the "fiction" issue of Foundation (no 100).

    Andy Sawyer

    In Foundation 74, Uppinder Mehan writes that “sf is as Western as Coca-Cola, big cars and computers.” But he goes on to point out that not only did science fiction appear in India during the early years of the twentieth century (and thus, not that long after a name was given to this new genre in the west), but that there is a tradition of the fantastic in Indian literature that goes back millennia. With a population of over a thousand million, a thriving information technology industry, aspirations to space and English as a national underpinning of the national language (Hindi) and the major subsidiary languages, India is a prime example of a country which is fertile ground for science fiction.

    It may be the very size and cultural diversity of the country that seems to have prevented the sort of crystallization into genre of popular literary forms that has happened in the USA and Britain, but of course, our own hard crystals of genre are busily recombining into new elements. Perhaps, too, we are looking in the wrong places when we consider a “lack” of Indian science fiction.

    What do we mean by “lack”? And what do we mean by “science fiction”?

    In fact, to start from the top, Indian-born Salman Rushdie is internationally known for his work in the fantastic – some would call The Ground Beneath Her Feet a work of alternate history. And Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best sf novel of 1996. And come to think of it doesn’t Arthur C. Clarke himself live just south of India?

    It’s beginning to seem that people weren’t looking in the right places. There has always been a readership for science fiction: The Science Fiction Foundation Collection possesses translations into Malayalam and Telugu of stories by Eric Frank Russell, Edmond Hamilton and C. M. Kornbluth, and the growth of the internet has given us at least one Indian sf website ( and the webzine ADBHUT (Hindi for “Strange”) , the brainchild of writer Dinker Charak. The recent Clarke/Bradbury Short Story competition organised by The European Space Agency brought a number of entries from India and Pakistan. Uppinder Mehan’s Foundation article cites a 1993 collection, It Happened Tomorrow: A Collection of 19 select Science Fiction Stories from Various Indian Language, edited by Bal Phondke. The science educator Dilip M. Salwi, who died earlier this year, was a firm believer in the use of sf for children, and mentions his own and other writers’ collections of sf stories in an essay to be found on the web at His collection Fire on the Moon sold, according to one obituary, more than three hundred thousand copies. It’s hard to find Indian sf mentioned even in the Encylopedia of Science Fiction, but it is there: for example, Lee Tung’s 1967 overpopulation novel The Wind Obeys Lama Toru, as well as the ubiquitous Rushdie.

    It’s almost certainly true that the Indian voice is not that of conventional Anglo-American sf. Few would call Rushdie sf or fantasy – “magical realism”, possibly – and while The Calcutta Chromosome was science fiction enough to attract one of the major awards in the field, the “sf” words were rarely if at all used by its publisher and reviewers. Another significant Indian writer, the New Delhi-based Ruchir Joshi, was praised for his 2002 novel The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, a story of India’s collision with modernity from 1947 through to the future: again, not published as sf but certainly dealing with sf themes. Another writer, Vandana Singh, currently living in the USA, has a story in Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan’s “post-colonial” anthology So Long Been Dreaming, and has just published a children’s novel, Younguncle Comes to Town, an enchanting near-fantasy which has been justly praised by Ursula Le Guin. Arguably India’s biggest success in the genre field is the remarkably energetic Ashok Banker from Mumbai (Bombay), who has published sf and fantasy in several magazines in the UK and the USA (including Interzone), and in the prestigious Utopiales anthology in France. Banker is currently telling the Indian national epic, the Ramayana, in fantasy terms, and at the time of writing three volumes Prince of Ayodhya, Siege of Mithila , and Demons of Chitrakut are in print.

    Other writers of the Indian Diaspora, such as Suniti Namjoshi, author of feminist Fables, The Conversations of Cow, Aditi and the One-eyed Monkey, are creating stories and fables from a wide variety of stances and cultures. A Canadian citizen now resident in Britain, Namjoshi has also published poetry and The Mothers of Maya Diip, a satire set on an island with only female inhabitants.

    Meanwhile, a series of conferences have been held by the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies, whose fifth annual conference was held in Vellore, Tamil Nadu in October 2003. A full report appears in Locus April 2004, but as well as holding conferences and producing the Indian Journal of Science Fiction Studies the Association also hopes to encourage the translation of sf from local languages to English, and thus encourage cross-fertilisation of the science fiction scene both within India (where English serves as a bridge between local languages) and outside it.

    Perhaps not all of “Indian sf” is speaking the language we in the West would associate with something called “science fiction”. But the sub-continent is as engaged as anywhere else with the essence of sf – the effects on societies and individuals of change. This has had its effects on Indian writers, and we are seeing its results. If sf – as many of us believe – is less a genre in itself than simply how writers and other artists explore the implications and possibilities of radical technological and social change, then it’s short-sighted and arrogant to believe that it has to follow a specific line of development. Where better to look for possibilities of an engagement with change than with those undergoing it on an increasingly massive scale. Writing as someone who has only comparatively recently discovered many of the writers mentioned above, it’s my belief that, as communication increases, we are going to learn from how writers from countries like India are confronting the big global issues.


  3. Thanks for the info, Andy - that was really helpful! I appreciate you taking the time to repost that article.

  4. Hello Andy! I am doing my thesis on science fiction in the third world. I recently read "Science fiction, Imperialism and the third world" and I was wondering if you knew more places where I could find information about this topic. Thank you in advance.

  5. There are getting to be numerous books on this topic, from various angles. You might find the current issue of Science Fiction Studies useful -- -- also check out the back issues. One of the best writer's on this issue is John Rieder, especially his Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. For instances of actual sf, Andrea Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan have edited an anthology of Latin American sf called Cosmos Latinos, while Rachel Heywood Ferreira's THE EMERGENCE OF LATIN AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION is a great study of the early days of Latin American sf. For general coverage of what is happening now outside the Anglo-American field, the World sf Blog at
    is pretty essential.

    Hope that's useful.