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Isha Karki — “Even When We Go to the Stars”: The Burning Light in Mary Anne Mohanraj’s The Stars Change Universe

Stars Change

The Stars Change by Mary Anne Mohanraj | Goodreads

Mary Anne Mohanraj’s sci-fi novella The Stars Change (2013) is set on planet Kriti, historically colonized by a group of wealthy Indians from Old Earth, now inhabited by a mixed population of humans, humods (genetically modified humans) and non-humans. The novella couldn’t be more aptly named; its title comes from a university motto: Sidere mens eadem mutate.The stars change, but the mind remains the same. “The university meant it to be hopeful, but there’s a darker reading,” Mohanraj writes in John Scalzi’s column Whatever, “Even when we go to the stars, we carry our minds, our prejudices and fears and hatreds, with us.” [1] Through the eyes of her characters, we see the “colonial hang-ups” of the settlers who have drawn their racial, social and caste prejudice along parallel lines: who is human, who is modified, who is pure, who is not; with the militant Human First movement gunning for a universe-wide war, regarding non-humans as “monsters” (p. 10) and Humods as creatures with “sacrilege and blasphemy carved into [their] blood and bones” (p. 38).

The opening perspective of an unnamed human sets up the concerns of Stars and the subsequent stories set in its universe: ‘Communion,’ ‘Webs’ and ‘Plea.’ We learn that he is on a mission to destroy Kriti with “cleansing fire,” the flippancy of his thoughts unsettling: “Did aliens have souls? Did the humods? Five million souls, more or less. Less when he was through” (p. 9). What is chilling is that he recognizes that the creatures whom he considers sub-human also have souls, yet despite this, he plans to go ahead with genocide. This purity agenda is the driving and shaping force of Mohanraj’s plots and characters, as well as an unforgiving mirror she holds up to our own world.

A Brave New World and the Same Old World

What struck me immediately about Stars is the way Mohanraj makes Indian-Hindu culture the undisputed canon and lexicon. There are samosas and chai in moments of crisis; ashrams for the spiritually-inclined; arranged marriages persevere albeit with the updated option of five-year contracts; cremation is the standard funeral practice. People wear saris and dhotis, especially the poorer and unmodified classes; even Saurians (a reptilian species) have South Asian names. And it’s not another version of Shakespeare that Narita goes to see the day she meets Amara, but a hypermasculine retelling of Ramayana, exploring the question of what it means to be male. There is of course a darker side: cultural prejudices persist; interracial marriages and homosexuality remain deviant (“Look at your uncle, married a white girl” [p. 100]); widows still wear white; social hierarchy is again drawn on purity lines.

Yet even with these complications, Mohanraj subverts traditional narratives of a culture in which discussions of sex, menstrual cycles and orgasms are still something of a taboo. In her universe, the erotic is a given. Sexuality belongs to everyone regardless of age, gender or species. Saurian Gaurav mates with his human partner. Through Vani and Karthik, we see the physical intimacy of a couple in their nineties. Genderless Jequith has two partners with whom it is having a child. The devadasis are a meld of spirituality and sexuality, domains often posed by nationalistic propaganda as being disparate and conflicting. Women’s desires are given credence without judgement, and though Chieri, a devadasi, is referred to derogatorily as a whore, she is instrumental in saving the Warren (a ghetto where all the non-humans live), her kindness and spirit shining bright.

While Kriti is by no means a definitive reflection of India or South Asian religions and cultures, its default culture is refreshing. As part of the South Asian diaspora, I’m so used to reading speculative fiction, especially YA fantasy and dystopia, dominantly written by white authors that are set in America, the UK or worlds that are basically replicas of the West. What you read when you grow up and what surrounds you in mainstream culture has such an obvious impact on your imagination and creativity. When I first get an idea, I fall into the trap of reverting to the West as the foundation for my stories and have to train myself to think beyond. To create a universe where the standard lived experience is South Asian in nature (with its many problems and concerns) and to do so without announcing it, strikes me as a quiet act of revolution.

However, just as Kriti is a reflection of only one Indian community, it is also by no means an idyll. Examples of micro-aggressions and casual speciesism pepper the narrative, reflecting the prejudices we have either experienced personally or witnessed in history, the news, everyday life. Kimsriyalani’s fur is touched without consent. Narita supports segregated school systems for humans and humods (“It wouldn’t be fair to compete with the unmodified anyway, would it?” [p. 55]). Cassie is rejected from university possibly for her pale skin. Gaurav’s captain cracks jokes that are Saurian-specific, something that could normally get an officer fired but “not anymore.” Gone are times when casual discrimination was called out and punished, now non-humans have to put their heads down and get on with it. As Mohanraj says: “It’s a race metaphor. Of course it is.” [1].

We see the way the purity war escalates in Mohanraj’s short stories ‘Webs’ (Asimov’s, July 2016) and ‘Plea’ (forthcoming in Lightspeed), set on planets where humans are modified for flight and water respectively. In ‘Webs,’ the human glider community is increasingly persecuted. Gliders Javier and Katya make plans to immigrate elsewhere even though the gravity won’t support their lighter bones – just as refugees in our world, they have no choice but to flee to a place that rejects their very nature. In ‘Plea,’ Gwen and her family likewise have no choice but to ask refuge from the Erisians, who though welcoming, have the final say on who is allowed in or not, resulting in Gwen’s separation from her family. We too are overwhelmed with the same stories: of visas being rejected, of families torn apart, of refugees dying at closed borders, of corpses floating in from the sea. I see mirrored in Mohanraj’s universe recent events in our own world: the apathy of the West to war-torn parts of the world; UK’s Brexit campaign legitimizing racism and smearing refugees; Trump’s rise giving a horrific glimpse into a dystopian future. Mohanraj writes our past, our present, and our future: a brave new world that is descending into the same old world we know.

Multiple Perspectives, Endless Stories

“We’ll [n]ever really know the whole story.” (p. 143)

Rather than plot, which is unravelled fairly easily, it is the characters who propel Mohanraj’s stories. She is at her best inhabiting the mind of each character and bringing them to life, riddled with their own vulnerabilities and prejudices. The strength of her character studies comes from an unflinching portrayal: Narita can’t stand the “stench” of unmodified humans – “the flesh and blood and stink” (p. 102). Amara is disgusted by Jequith’s close proximity and in ‘Communion’ (Clarkesworld,June 2014) at the Saurian practice of eating one’s dead. Rajiv is unable to honour his and Amara’s life-long marriage pact, and Amara herself once abandoned Narita. In ‘Plea,’ Gwen for a split second feels the “sharp shock of thinking like a human firster, of being terrified of the strange, the other.”

Yet, we feel for every one of them as they make impossible choices, change and grow. Some of the most memorable characters from this universe are those who make that difficult journey: Anna from ‘Webs’ and Chaurin, Gaurav’s brother, from ‘Communion.’ Anna is irascible; her actions seem impenetrable until we learn she carries within the misery of miscarriage after miscarriage, the futile longing for a child, the cold fracture of both her marriage and her friendships. Mohanraj doesn’t hide Anna’s flaws: though she is modified, albeit not visibly (transitioned from male to female), she is not immediately empathetic to her glider friends whose webbed limbs and lighter bones make them a sitting target. Even though her estranged husband is a glider, she is “repulsed” by certain attributes, viewing them as something sub-human: “like bats or frogs, the sorts of things that lives in dank places, musty and animalistic.” Her neighbours and once friends, Javier and Katya, plead with her to shelter them and their daughter, Sara, and for a few moments, we believe Anna will turn them away. Yet, Anna is redeemed when in a moment of tragedy, she chooses to love and care for Sara, a webbed girl, a child not from her own womb, in a land that would murder her if they discovered the secret.

Like Anna, Chaurin is a character with pent up emotion; he thrums with palpable anger. Yet through his grief, even when Narita’s probing questions offend him, he manages to retain perspective and recognize that Narita and Amara are trying to honour Gaurav’s sacrifice in their own way. The strength of his conflicting feelings makes ‘Communion’ one of Mohanraj’s most powerful stories. Mohanraj also uses non-human perspective to expose how small and inward-looking human concerns can be. Chaurin on his approach to Kriti, a place we have been led to believe is the centre of the universe, finds it no bigger than the smallest Saurian tunnel-cities. His disgust at cremation mirrors Amara’s repulsion, highlighting how inexplicable human practices must seem to non-humans. He looks at Amara and Narita amidst discussions of the pros and cons of modification, notes the smoothness and regularity of Narita’s modified skin, and questions: “Was that beautiful?” Narita, in Stars, has already described Amara’s “repulsive” features (p. 59), yet Chaurin’s perspective exposes how myopic the modified-unmodified purity question can be.

Throughout her work, Mohanraj demands that we look beyond one narrative. Everyone has a story, even the butterfly-esque male who spins into oblivion, even Mikash with his burning hatred, even Dhir. I wonder what would happen if all these other stories were articulated, if we were given an insight into Dhir and the other dhoti-clad men’s mind – would they appear humane in our eyes, would we excuse their actions? I wanted to meet a female character who rejects motherhood and childbirth; a character who eschews sexual relations; how would they fit into the schema of Mohanraj’s universe? I wanted a glimpse into the Erisians’ minds, full of philosophy and peace but an unrelenting place where children are held culpable for their actions, and into Kimsriyalani’s world with its one patch of Jungle and intriguing cultural history. Mohanraj creates a world full of voices, brimming with endless possibilities, that leaves you wanting and imagining more.

The Immigrant Condition

“You adapted or you died. But you held on to as much of the past, of your history, as you could.” (p. 36)

All of the characters in the Star universe reflect and encapsulate a part of the immigrant condition. Gaurav, stranded in Kriti, hasn’t seen his parent-clutch for years; he is the only Saurian security guard on university ground. Kimsriyalani, who underwent a violent initiation rite in her own planet, hasn’t eaten real meat in ten years. Amara, whose occupation is to process visas at the port, will possibly be out of job with the impending purity war. The colonialist in Rajiv thinks Amara and her practices barbaric, soothing himself with the mistaken belief she won’t leave him, her “own personal incarnation of god” (p. 32); we laugh at the ridiculousness.

On the flipside though, Uma does hold that belief: her perspective allows us to sympathize with a woman who yearns to put on “widow’s white” (p. 96) and sink into the knowledge of her husband’s death. There is no judgement – characters are many-hued with many beliefs.

What Mohanraj’s varied portrayal of immigrants reminded me was that sometimes we assume culture and tradition always equals suffocation, and modernity always freedom and individualism: “The children only half-understood their parents’ yearnings, and the grandchildren had no idea at all” (p. 24). But of course that is not everyone’s experience, and as Uma shows, lives can be enriched by culture and strength of religious belief. Likewise, Narita yearns for the kind of huge familial network that Amara has where everyone is an aunty or uncle. Whereas diaspora literature (the kind often picked by mainstream publishers to fit their own stereotypes of South Asian people and place) often suggests how stifling it is, Narita is able to recognise its other quality: the power it has of bestowing a sense of belonging.

This portrayal of the immigrant condition is balanced by haughty imperialistic tendencies which come into sharp focus especially from the perspectives of non-humans. Jequith, who believes that not all traditionalists are anti-alien, still observes that Kriti is over 99% human populated – “yet that wasn’t enough for them. They had to have it all” (p. 42). Of course, Mohanraj doesn’t let one side win.

A Burning Light – Children, Choice and The Ethics of War

“I saw none of this, but the stories haunt my fiction.” [1]

Throughout her work, Mohanraj explores the ethics of war: how individual choice has communal impact, rippling across the universe, something that is both empowering and debilitating. Amara is cut up by the thought that her actions led to the death of many. In ‘Communion,’ both her and Narita are unable to move beyond the moment of Gaurav’s sacrifice. Yet, Mohanraj offers solace: in Chaurin’s acceptance of them; in Narita’s soothing of Amara’s conscience, the former recognizing that the support of Amara’s extended family is one of the main reasons they were able to act at all.

‘Plea’ explores the choice left to parents during war – to stay or find refuge. Gwen, along with her six-year-old, is forced to stay and fight, her initial choice of safety snatched from her by the extreme-pacifist Erisians. In ‘Communion,’ when we see Amara and Narita’s relationship a few months down the line, and it’s not happily ever after, Mohanraj takes it a step further: “Would it be selfish, to bring children into a world of war? Or could having children, raising them well, be another way of fighting for a better future?” The two women are also riddled with indecision about the reality of having a child: to modify or not to modify? If they modified, how would the child grow up to look at Amara, and if not, how would the child look at Narita; how would society view the child? In reflection of the complexity of the question, Mohanraj holds back a definitive answer.

Mohanraj melds the problem of choice and parenthood even more powerfully in ‘Webs’. When I first read Stars and ‘Communion’ and rushed on to ‘Webs,’ I was disappointed not to be returning to Kriti and its inhabitants. The thought rapidly vanished as I became sucked into Anna’s world, heart in my throat as it revealed its own horrors. Human Firsters rooting out gliders, ruthlessly slicing webbing and necks. The chilling moment Anna imagines the crack the bones of gliders make when snapped by two determined individuals. The tragic irony is that the list the Human Firsters target is a list of qualified gliders: those who have trained specifically so they can nurture new gliders, coach them how to fly. An intense eruption of violence, the ending of ‘Webs’ will forever stay with me – that final soundscape we get, of bones crunching, flesh tearing, and Sara crying: “soft, but audible to the ears of a mother.” How long and how deeply will this night haunt Anna? Will she punish herself for wishing for a child so violently that it becomes fulfilled by any means? Like a dark fairytale, ‘Webs’ asks how accountable we are, and shows the terrible way our desires can be delivered to us.

We see the direct influence of the Sri Lankan civil war in Mohanraj’s work, especially ‘Webs.’ Katya’s question to Anna haunts Mohanraj’s universe and echoes beyond – “Anna, Anna, what have I ever done to you?” – directed both at attackers and silent bystanders.

“In Sri Lanka, during the riots, there were so many Sinhalese who sheltered their Tamil neighbors from the brutal thugs.  At the risk of their own lives, they stood up to those with hatred burning in their hearts.  In the end, theirs is the story I wanted to tell.  Even in the darkest timelines, I believe a light can burn.” [1]

It is this story that Mohanraj tells in Stars, ‘Communion,’ ‘Webs’ and ‘Plea.’ The support network and resources Gaurav, Chieri, Amara and Narita are able to muster in Stars, indeed all of the characters in Mohanraj’s universe who choose to fight in some way, to resist the atrocity that is happening, often at terrible cost to themselves, are the burning light. Mohanraj’s stories exhibit the way we are connected to each other; how these webs force us to choose action over inaction; how the world continues spinning precisely because of the rallying cries of Chieris and Amaras, the selfless actions of Gauravs and the quieter acts of bravery of Gwens and Annas.

“If they were to forge a new path forward, perhaps this was part of the answer. That small creatures, desperate and despairing, should reach out to each other in the darkness of the night.” (p. 46)

Notes:

[1] The Big Idea: Mary Anne Mohanraj, 21 November 2013. Read.

All quotes are from The Stars Change unless otherwise specified.

Isha Karki
Isha Karki is an editor of Mithila Review. She lives in London and works in publishing. She grew up on a healthy dose of Bollywood, fanfiction and dystopian literature. She is interested in post-colonial narratives, feminist voices, myths and fairy tales and SF that isn’t white-washed. Her fiction has appeared in Mslexia, For Books' Sake Weekend Reads and Lightspeed's POC Destroy Science Fiction issue. You can find her on Twitter: @IshaKarki11