Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: How did you get interested in Science Fiction or Speculative Fiction in general? What drew you to the genre?
Sami Ahmad Khan: Real world is slightly boring, if not downright cruel. SF is neither. It has its own mechanics of madness – and that speaks to me.
Long before I was hit by the sinking realization that our world was broken beyond repair, long before the insanity of what is happening around the world drove me towards the brink, SF represented hope and freedom – it was a liberating experience that changed the way I approached reality. Star Wars and Star Trek came in my life much, much before 12 Monkeys and Black Mirror. Today, SF is still central to my creative and critical imagination, but its inherent dynamics have changed – or maybe I have. Still, SF is not only full of projections that refract the brokenness of our world but also a template through which it can be healed. Now, whether we deserve to heal as a species is another question though – as I write this, our world is plagued by wars, ecological disasters, riots, pollution, predatory capitalism, fascism, and religious and political fundamentalism and fanaticism. What is left to heal?
But back to why SF attracts me – and it always has. From what began as a chance encounter with a Hindi comic about space battles when I was a young kid, ultimately mutated to become a fascination so intense that there was no turning back. I adore how SF, despite its interstellar travel, aliens, time-travel, AI, clones, CBRN warfare, etc., always ends up commenting on the world we inhabit, our today, and forces us to think about our future not just as individuals but also as a species. I love how SF’s infinite possibilities can translate into probabilities of change. After all, SF not only interrogates technology and its impact on human behaviour but also questions how scientific and socio-political realities contour individuals, cultures and civilizations. SF becomes a meta-genre, or a mode of thought, or perhaps even the literature of technologically advanced societies (as per Luckhurst).
Why do I love it? Because there’s nothing else that can evoke the same gamut of responses across the spectrum. It is concentrated navrasas – with a slice of dystopian ennui that hits you harder than a pan galactic gargle blaster. For in that angst exist the seeds of a utopia, the possibility of love and sanity in a world full of madness.
MMA: What are the different sources of inspiration in your work? (Indian and Islamic influences)
SAK: The more I read and think, the more I become wary of essentializing endeavours and labels, especially those which are transposed to a multidimensional singularity such as SF. While it is efficacious to use labels of religions, nations, cultures, etc. to analyse our subject-matter, this is an exercise that, at least in my opinion, somehow runs against the inherent universality and polyphony of SF, an idea which can only be understood in/as a gestalten whole. For example, is Islam so fundamentally extrinsic to India that this heterogeneous nation and Islam appear as two components of a binary? I am not sure.
My point being that SF – and its raison d’etre, science – is universal: it belongs to all of humanity. I’d rather not see them as insulated traditions but as crisscrossing warps and wefts in the fabric of space-time (using terminology from Paul Kincaid). If that be so, to identify which influence is what exactly is problematic – the being-thereness or Dasein needs to be kept abstract. Therefore, these labels, though coined to explain, often obfuscate.
That being said, I am aware of how multiple traditions flow in my lived reality, and hence contour my thought patterns. Here, I confess that I did not, unfortunately, read any Indian SF writers while growing up – this is all the more unpardonable especially since India’s regional languages have a rich history of SF. In fact, I only had mostly engaged with popular ‘Western’ SF (such as Jules Verne, HG Wells and Isaac Asimov) while growing up. It was much later I chanced across Satyajit Ray’s Professor Shonku, thanks to a Bengali friend. I was aghast – there was a mighty tradition of Indian SF and I, limited by the medium of instruction in school (English), had unwittingly ignored what was an integral part of my own milieu.
It is, however, India’s Anglophonic SF that interests me the most, even though I grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which made me fall in love with SF in the first place. Still, I’d like to avoid essentializing endeavours wherever I can, even though I understand their necessity. My sources of inspiration? Primarily contemporary SF from around the world, a tradition that belongs to all – or at least that’s what I’d like to believe.
MMA: In your opinion what does the future hold for South Asian SF? Do you see it becoming prominent like Chinese SF has become in the last few years?
SAK: South Asia is one of the largest book markets in the world – and a demographic dividend will only help its cause in the near future. This, coupled with the inbuilt fascination towards the fantastic and comfort with non-mimetic modes of representation which is sedimented in South Asian peoples, could only lead to bigger and better things. The future looks bright – at least for SF and for books. For the planet, however, I am not so sure, as pointed out earlier.
Moving on, I am not sure how – and whether – to quantify prominence. You ask a prominent question but I’d like to side-step it, if I may, for one simple reason. I don’t believe in this idea of ‘prominence’, primarily because it is built (rather subtly) on the bulwark of accruing global recognition – that is, prominent is what is visible, what sells, what the dominant powers cherry pick and raise to their divine levels of consumption, and what, basically, gets adapted (and adopted) by OTT platform, the big production houses, the cultural industry. I am uncomfortable of such prominence, where monetization drives responses. It’s simply not needed in South Asia. Giving the example of India: SF in India is prominent – and always has been. Perhaps not in English-language (which, too, changed post-2000), but India has had a long tradition of SF in Bangla, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, etc., which runs parallel to the ‘Western’ (I use this as an umbrella term, that too with a pinch of salt) canons, traditions, and historicity.
I, thus, prefer to stay away from a mindset that believes in producing SF for the ‘international stage’, a globalized, technoscientific, West that operates as the centre of the Global North (as per Carl Freedman), a palace of dreams which translates into a site for a pareto-optimal monetization of our SF, a manifest destiny towards which the Global SF must continuously keep striding in order to seek validation (through commoditization). Nothing wrong with this approach, of course, nothing at all – but I personally believe in writing for myself and my immediate material realities. Prominence isn’t really a goal I pursue. Fun, yes, but I am rarely driven by this idea of prominence a la “Chinese SF” – which, I am sure you meant has finally been Netflixized and Hugoized and Nebulized! 😉
Though yes, paradoxically, I do want more prominence for anglophone SF in India – primarily because I love reading the genre and the fan in me wants more and more of it, both in terms of its creative and critical content, and I hope it gets prominent (though perhaps not in the same way as we usually understand prominence to be). Does this sound – and to use a Derridean (turn of) phrase – contradictorily coherent?
MMA: Science Fiction is universal in nature, but the local aspects of SF can help illuminate the human condition and specific historical circumstances as well. Do you think there is something unique that South Asian SF has to offer the global SF community?
SAK: Absolutely – all international airports are alike, but every bus station in South Asia is unique in its own way. Here – and let’s steer clear of rivers – no human can have the same cup of chai twice. The flux generated by mutating traditions creates its own repercussions. South Asia plays with its inherent specificities and universalities – a dialectic that defines almost all of SF anywhere on this globe (and beyond). While the issues of class, colour, ethnicity, religious and political fundamentalism, scientific epistemology etc. are universal to all SF, South Asia, sadly, comes with its own problematics, which then manifests in divergent narratives – using variegated semantic elements arranged in novel syntaxes. To cite just three example, the intermeshing of caste and class in South Asia, at least in India and Pakistan, provide fecund grounds for the exploration of marginalization and oppression. As I argue in a forthcoming monograph (see response 6), what better way to comment on caste/class than by utilizing paradigms of AI and cloning (which Indian SF does with so much panache)? Two, the gender skewness in South Asia makes our SF especially relevant as emergent critiques of heteronormative, patriarchal setups and inbuilt systemic violence. Three, the fight to be – and stay human – in a world of otherization and fanaticism, thanks to the notions of ‘nationality’ created in the Indian subcontinent in the 1940s, continues on the canvas of South Asian SF. Perhaps we can learn to be human first via SF – much before we don the mantle of other ‘identities’ based on sex, class, caste, ethnicity, colour, orientation, language etc. thrust on us by the weight of civilizations and the specters of traditions. SF is that rupture that can disrupt this matrix – and provide a pill that can truly liberate us.
MMA: What are your favorite Speculative Genre writers from South Asia?
SAK: South Asia happens to be a treasure trove of Speculative Fiction (a literal, literal khazana) – and the list is going to be too long! South Asia, with all its literary and cultural traditions, is too vast even as an umbrella term. However, let me apply some filters to regain some semblance of coherence: how about delving into the cultural production of a nation (India), language (English), genre (Science Fiction) and time (post-2000)? Even with these filters, one comes across towering stalwarts, and I will just mention a few. Shovon Chowdhury (who left us a few days ago and will always be remembered for his brilliant, brilliant works which are, I am sure, making the real competent authority guffaw somewhere up there right now), Vandana Singh, Anil Menon, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Manjula Padmanabhan, Rimi Chatterjee have always been awesome, and are now joined by interesting writers like Rajat Chaudhuri, Payal Dhar, Suraj Prasad, Shweta Taneja, Prayaag Akbar, Indrapramit Das, Mohd Salman, Lavanya Lakshminarayan, Kumar L., Vinayak Varma et al – who make us question the nature of our socio-political reality in the best traditions of SF. Moving away from these filters, I must also mention Jayant Narlikar (Marathi), Satyajit Ray (Bangla), and the inimitable Samit Basu (SFF rather than SF) .
MMA: What other projects that you are working on and what can be expect to see in the near future?
SAK: I am currently wrapping up a critical volume on India’s English-language SF for the University of Wales Press. The monograph is titled Star Warriors of the Modern Raj Materiality, Mythology and Technology of Indian Science Fiction – and is scheduled for a June 2021 release. Over the last few years, I started asking myself if I could explicate the divergent nature and being Indian English SF, which became an obsession of sorts – and this book emerged as a result. It book comes up with an ‘IN situ model’ and advances three nodes vis-à-vis the space, time and being of SF: the ‘transMIT thesis’ evidences how Indian SF transmits (emergent) technologies, (sedimented) mythologies and (mutating) ideologies across/through its narratives; the ‘antekaal thesis’ interrogates the ruptured temporalities of Indian SF; and the ‘neoMONSTERS thesis’ approaches marginalisation-monsterization as contingent on specific material realities. This book, in specific, deal with ‘transMIT thesis’, how mythology (M), ideology (I) and technology (T) contour Indian SF. As I write this, I am finishing a chapter on the antekaal thesis to explicate linear/cyclical/quantum temporalities – through which I observe how SF narratives respond to a quantum interplay generated before time (Latin ‘ante’), against time (Greek ‘anti’), at the end of time (Sanskritised/Urduesque ‘ant-e-kaal’) and for all-time/eternity (Hindi ‘anantkaal’). After this, I hope move on to the neoMONSTERS thesis.
On the creative front, there another short story coming in the next Gollancz/Hachette collection. Fingers crossed!
MMA: Literature carries the weight of history and remakes the present. What role do you think South Asian SF can play in healing the rifts across countries, communities and groups in South Asia?
SAK: SF not only carries the weight of history, its facticity, but also contains strains of transcendence via its projections into the future. SF, thus, is a panacea which can not only reinforce oppressive ideologies but can also counter an exploitative order – and vice-versa. As someone who loves reading and writing low-brow narratives, I want more of pulp-for-political-betterment. I know the trialectic between reading/writing SF for political purposes, aesthetic gratification, and market consumption. There’s a fourth: fun! I want SF to heal, to indict the imbalances of power, to scrutinize hegemons of tyranny, oppression, inequality and concentration of wealth, for that is what it does best (since this comes naturally to its being), but SF can also be fun via its reengineered semantic elements and tweaked syntax. I think if we can rescue pulp from the clutches of (reinforcing) dominant structures of oppression, then we can, somehow, ensure it is fun and progressive alike. SF is what binds us – in invisible orbits around each other. However, suum cuique.