Indicting Governmental Control, Military-Industrial Complex and Rogue AI: A Political Reading of Three Young-Adult (Science Fiction) Stories

Sami Ahmad Khan

Jawaharlal Nehru University

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


This paper delves into the tangible materiality and political relevance of three Young-Adult Science Fiction stories by Indian writers in English. It analyses how these writers approach, interpret and address socio-political maladies afflicting today’s India. Utilising the theoretical framework of Darko Suvin’s novum, this paper scans the primary texts to locate how they formulate and highlight pressing issues of a developing India, and how these contemporary problems are foregrounded using the self-aware deployment mechanism of (YA) Science Fiction. It also identifies how these writers view the operationalisation of upcoming technologies.

Keywords: Indian Science Fiction, Science Fiction in Indian English, YA SF Short-Stories, Novum

Science Fiction (SF) is a genre of rousing dreams and biting nightmares, of ambrosial utopias and ghastly dystopias. SF is a template where every vision constitutes an extrapolation that rises above the prevalent material winds. Interestingly, these very extrapolations are dependent on current material setups to such an extent that SF narratives emerge as a perfect mode to comment on the socio-political milieu of a society. SF in Indian English operates on similar principles, even when aimed towards a Young Adult (YA) readership.

This paper seeks to understand the political and social relevance of ideas, themes and issues raised by three YA SF stories especially when seen in the context of a prismatic India that produced and consumed them. The three stories – “Almaru”, “The Coward” and “Catatonic” – fuse the personal with the political, the YA with the adult, and foreground issues which speak to these SF writers the most. For example, “Almaru” indicts extreme centralisation of authority and how such a political structure can interfere with and intrude in the personal sphere of the citizenry. “The Coward” ideologically combats the Military-Industrial Complex and highlights how national government and trans-national corporations often join hands to bamboozle the very citizenry (read consumers) they are meant to serve and protect. “Catatonic”, on the other hand, comments on the horrors of AI gone rogue and manifests how the family unit curbs individual choice and free will, even in the most democratic of societies.

Using the theoretical framework of Darko Suvin’s ‘novum’, I will focus on how these stories mirror, interrogate, and refract the contemporary national realities and how writers of YA stories use the vehicle of SF to indict the faulty socio-political ecosphere around them. As in some of my earlier attempts directed towards other SF texts, I adopt the novum as a helpful ingress location into the discourse of the tangible materiality of SF since “all the epistemological, ideological, and narrative implications and correlatives of the novum lead to the conclusion that significant sf is in fact a specifically roundabout way of commenting on an author’s collective context” (Suvin, Metamorphoses, 84). Such an endeavour to pinpoint, isolate, and study specific novums of these short stories can help highlight the perceptions and attitudes of SF writers towards current India.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. defines the novum as “a scientifically plausible innovation that catalyzes an imaginary historical transformation” (A Companion to Science Fiction, Ed. David Seed, 52). It happens to be a vital tool to understand the materiality of SF. Novum is “the historical innovation or novelty in an sf text from which the most important distinctions between the world of the tale from the world of the reader stem” (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., “Marxist theory and science fiction”, 119). The novum is, thus, the innovative heart of a text, and the choice and operationalization of this core provides an unmatched glimpse into the attitude and driving forces of the author who chose it.

All of my primary texts were published in Shockwave and Other Cyber Stories, a collection of eleven Speculative Fiction (SpecFic) stories that is mostly uncharted still in terms of critical endeavours directed towards it. Published in 2007 by Penguin (Puffin), all stories contained in this volume cannot be labelled SF, and many might be called SpecFic instead. This paper chooses three (overtly) SF stories and attempts to understand the politics behind their themes and narratives.

The first SF story I pick up to dissect for its inherent materiality is Vandana Singh’s “Almaru”. Set a few years into the future, this story is located in an autonomous City-State of Delhi – a technological, seemingly utopian, marvel that is walled off from the vast expanse called the ‘Outside’ – wild plains of fields, mud villages and ‘Agri-Complexes’. These Agri-Complexes, as the name implies, are vast acres of fields taken over by the city-state and used to grow supplies for a population that lives in relative prosperity of this futuristic Delhi. These are also the times of ‘Peasant-Wars’: farmers from outside the walls often go on a rampage against these ‘Agri-Complexes’. These wildlings have declared a war on the city-state, and the latter protects itself with the help of the city guards, which comprises civilian militia and kathputlis – robotics beings which can sometimes be controlled by human mind(s).

The city-state of Delhi has a highly centralised polity. The primus inter pares is the Prime Minister, a Big Brotherly figure – “the PM’s tower, soaring over the rest of the city, was spangled with lights, topped by a bright beacon that was sometimes referred to as the PM’s Eye” (2). This description mirrors the all-seeing Eye of Sauron located in Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. To complete the picture of a highly centralised society, for example, these kathputlis have to report to ‘Central Processing’ often, and news is available only via ‘NewsCentral’.

In a plot reminiscent of Asimov’s I, Robot set in Orwell’s 1984, the story discusses the themes of AI’s quest for true freedom, and how AI can be used by a central authority to oppress the masses. It explores AI as a tool to maintain status-quo, but one that has the revolutionary potential to overthrow existing oppressive power structures in place. Of course, the AI-enabled kathputlis are also an allegory on the current caste and class paradigms.

The novum pertains to the usage of AI to support an insular, authoritarian society. The kathputlis keep the society running. Dr. Manek Kumar, a scientist, has managed to create a device through which human masters can connect directly with the brains of these kathputlis:

Robot-to-human mind-links were now a reality, and the PM had suspended all human-to-human experiments. The kathputlis that were now in every neighbourhood, every apartment block, were not only servants of the citizens of the City-State: they were the PM’s voice, his defence system, his army of willing-slave minds. The PM himself had cybernetic enhancements to extend his lifespan beyond that of ordinary human beings. Some people believed he would live forever. (9)

With kathputlis fully integrated into such a society, this technological innovation leads to a historical transformation. Not only do the kathputlis form the logistical backbone of this insular ‘utopia’, they also maintain status-quo and enforce the will of the PM, whatever it may be. For example, a ‘traitor’ is executed by one such kathputli by electrocution – the same kathputli who was a friend of this family…Full Text PDF

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