In 2001, while receiving the Carnegie Medal for his children’s bookThe Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, author Terry Pratchett said, ‘We categorize too much on the basis of unreliable assumption. A literary novel written by Brian Aldiss must be science fiction, because he is a known science fiction writer; a science fiction novel by Margaret Attwood is literature because she is a literary novelist. Recent Discworld books have spun on such concerns as the nature of belief, politics and even of journalistic freedom, but put in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.’ Pratchett was England’s most popular author in the 1990s (before yet another fantasy author, JK Rowling took over), having sold over 85 million books worldwide in 37 languages. The Amazing Maurice is a tale of a cat and a group of rats fighting monsters and two-legged humans in a quest for their survival and deifes any categories really, be it a metaphor, a children’s book or even a fantasy fiction.
For most of us, it’s the dragons who breathe fire, immortal vampires with icy smooches and marble-skin and werewolves and robots and faeries and artificial intelligence who want to take over the world—these are the things that take us back again and again to the speculative genre. We live in these make-believe worlds, we see them through the dragon’s eyes, through the wizard’s adventure, through the superhero’s flight in the sky. For those few hours a day, swashbucklers we, slay with our Valyrian swords, dashing away from the Nazgul, and facing worst dementors by becoming Jedi masters. For fantasy, be it in gaming or books or movies, is perceived by the majority as escapism and a desire to live in alternate realities.
But for many authors like Pratchett, the purpose of fantasy is not to immerse yourself into another world so as to forget your own, but to reflect on your own society, poke into the gaping holes in your own. In the same speech, Pratchett says, ‘Far more beguiling than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that evil can be defused by talking. The fantasy of justice is more interesting that the fantasy of fairies, and more truly fantastic. In the book the rats go to war, which is, I hope, gripping. But then they make peace, which is astonishing.’
And the skilled writer that he is, he manages to reflect our society’s political and social milieu through parodies, mirroring international bickering on climate change, modern day television obsession, ambitious politicians who force war in the name of justice, and even the disruptive role that everyday greed and cowardice play, all through a bunch of monsters and wizards. Similar to him, author Douglas Adams’s explosive Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) starts with a house being razed by authorities in a shire in England and parallels it to Earth being razed by an apathetic race of Vogons who follow processes, just like our administration. It makes us guffaw and then perhaps, makes us think, reflecting on things like houses, towels and processes and filing systems that fill our lives.
When in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness flipped the testosterone-seeped, thrill-seeking science fiction in the USA by exploring our preconceived notions on gender, author Ursula Le Guin had to actually write an introduction to the book to explain what she was trying to do in it. The novel, explores a human race on an alien planet, that doesn’t have a fixed sexuality, changing genders month after month. In the introduction, Le Guin famously wrote that all artists are liars and so, ‘Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.’ In the same marvelous introduction, she also touches up how we believe in these packs of lies created in a make-believe world.
“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.”
Perhaps without realizing it at first, Le Guin wrote on the power of stories and how inverting the society in them, changed both the writer and the reader and the world around them a little bit. Now codified as a sub-genre of science fiction, feminist authors try to look away from spaceship adventures, trying to explore the society’s rigid gender, social and caste perceptions. For many have realized the power of stories to restructure and reinvent societies.
And it didn’t start in the West. I was able to find a short story, The Sultana’s Dream written in 1905 and first published in The Indian Ladies Magazine of Madras. Written by a Bengali Muslim Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, the story created a gender-reversed world where women run everything and men are secluded and in purdah. Imagine that power of this story, on a teenage girl or boy in that era (or even now for that matter).
Be it gender, caste or social hierarchies, there’s nothing better than speculative fiction to invert and reflect on your own society. For it is through delving into these false worlds and alternative realities, subverting morals and values of society, exploring, extrapolating, and crawling through the dark seepages of the subconscious mind that truth can be reached. I realised this recently as I wrote Anantya Tantrist’s character, the tantrik detective of my latest novel, Cult of Chaos. She’s a conscious inversion of the Indian idea of womanhood (much like Hussain’s world, though maybe not as dramatically different). She speaks her mind, is boisterous, angry, spews gaali, smokes beedi, drinks liquor like a fish, hangs out and has one-night stands with any kind of species and can wield a boneblade to fight like a chef can use a kitchen knife. Taking inspiration from humourists and feminists alike, I tried to invert social situations in the book, reversing gender roles. In the first scene of the novel, Anantya rescues her blind date (who is six feet tall and quite alpha), from a rakshasa who attacks them. In the last scene of the book, Anantya rescues yet another guy, from the advances of a creep in a dingy bar, kicking the ‘goonda’s ass. In the middle, she’s the one who’s driving her scooty all over the city, trying to solve the case, while her assistant, Shukra, sits behind, taking the pillion seat.
At first I was just having some fun with situations and words, inverting gender and caste and social pyramids. But writing, like magic, is insidious, and you don’t know how putting word after word after word might transform you, subconsciously twisting and turning your DNA into someone else. For me as a woman, who has grown up in middle class morality in India, struggled with restrictions and biological nonsensical rules, with aggression from males, writing and creating the fiction of Anantya and her world, set me personally on the path of freedom in understanding and expressing my own personal body and gender. Which is how I could reimagine somewhat what authors like Ursula Le Guin and before her authors who touched on gender issues through SFF, Mary Shelley (Frankenstien, 1818), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Herland, 1915) or Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1970) felt when they inverted their patriarchal worlds. For speculative fiction gives you that space, to break the world as you see it into pieces, and put them into a kaleidoscope, so you might be able to reimagine and rebuild another world, another society, created with lies and fiction but a truthful reflection of your own world. And through the journey, change bits and pieces of your own self and society.
(A version of this article was published in Scroll.in where it got 12 lakh + views.)