Avatar is a wonderful anthology featuring a fascinating blend of stories—hopeful, despairing, mysterious, and downright dystopian—set within the backdrop of India’s relationships with technology and nature. These nine stories answer questions about India’s future using science fiction as a lens through which to view our progress. As the climate crisis becomes an immediate threat, we need both science and fiction to assess where our current path will take us—portents of ill futures to deter us as well as depictions of promise—and to make sure that the damage isn’t irreparable, and with effort, it can be reversed.
If we continue down the path of ecological destruction, where does that lead us? What does our over-reliance on technology bode for us? Is there any way for us to halt or reverse humanity’s descent towards making our planet uninhabitable? Is there still hope for us? These are some of the questions that Avatar seeks to answer.
Edited by Tarun K. Saint and Francesco Verso, Avatar is a good exhibition of India’s burgeoning science fiction writing community. The anthology contains both the English stories as well as their Italian translations—it is likely the first Indian science fiction anthology to be published in both English and Italian. It breaks boundaries and tackles issues that are growing in the present day—showing us what they could become in the near future. I hope to see more of these well-constructed, well-envisioned views of Indian and Asian futures to become mainstream. Of the stories in this collection, Anil Menon’s “The Man Without Quintessence,” S.B. Divya’s “Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story,” and Shovon Chowdhury’s “Mother” stood out to me as particularly interesting.
The opening story “The Man Without Quintessence” is an entertaining piece about a man (Mann) who could not be identified by Maharashtra’s AI (Balasaheb) because he is missing the required unique personal identifier (quintessence). Mann must live a life of utter anonymity, heretofore unheard of (because he can’t make his voice heard) in a surveillance state driven by connectivity. Written with tongue-in-cheek humour in response to the anti-privacy policies of the government, the story is like a light-hearted take on the anime Psycho-Pass’s core conceit (more on Psycho-Pass later). If you had a world that revolves around connection, where even getting food made to your preference needs you to be registered to a network, how does a person live off that grid?
The answer: Like an odd attraction for kindly tourists to visit and gawk at, actually. You, the rarity, the strange creature, the weirdo, the anomaly. It’s all very fascinating to those with the privilege not to be you. You are the “other,” the downtrodden, who can only survive by the kindness of the haves. Apart from that rather bleak takeaway from what is a funny story, I shall now talk about filth. Not the kind you open on your laptop, only to shut hastily when someone walks in but ohmygodthevideoisstillplayingandnowthispersoncanhearthemoanscutintothisincreasinglyawkwardsilenceohpleaseletmedie, but *ahem* the rather more literal filth that clogs many of India’s water bodies.
“Microbiota and the Masses: A Love Story” presents love as an antidote to such pollution. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s your recipe for instant romance: add an eccentric genius shut-in who only speaks to her plants and cultures, and a good young man who likes fishing garbage out of water. This is a cute story of these two people falling in love, all while finding out how to clean our river systems. A win-win situation for everyone involved, it put me in the ever-too-familiar shoes of a socially-awkward young person who struggles for words in the presence of others, while being a fount of dramatic flair in private. Hope pervades every word of this story, and sometimes, that little bit of brightness is all that we need.
From here, we get to see what happens when our planet turns against us in Shikhandin’s “Communal,” wherein plants have risen to reclaim the world from other sentient lifeforms. As the preface to the anthology states, this is a new and fascinating take on the apocalypse. Vandana Singh’s story, “Indra’s Web,” is two stories at once. The first a remembrance of the protagonist’s grandmother, and the second a story of how answers to the modern dilemmas of energy and fossil fuels can be found right in front of our eyes. The preface describes this story as a synthesis between ancient wisdom and contemporary research, but it is also a synthesis of nature and technology—a beginning of what can be achieved if we can bring these two together.
These three stories tease our future with the natural world, varying wildly in tone from one to the next. It’s a blend that should feel jarring—hope, followed by violent reclamation, followed by a burgeoning coexistence, but with the turbulence of the present day, nothing could feel more fitting than being tossed about by a sea of rapidly shifting emotions.
Following these, we move to technology. Rimi Chatterjee gives us a glimpse into her Antisense universe in “Replacement”—a world run by mega-corporations and ultra-rich, psychotic brats. Yet some old traditions still persevere, even after the world has literally capsized. It’s a broken world, and “Replacement” brings out all the tensions that underpin that society, uncannily mirroring our own world today.
Then Manjula Padmanabhan takes us back with her story “Upgrade”—first to 2004’s I, Robot, where Will Smith’s Detective Spooner tries to convince his mother that the NS-5 was untrustworthy, even as it proved far more useful to her than he had; and then to Ray Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man,” where the opening story features a virtual reality room that turns fatally real. I don’t trust good-natured robots or AI, and these two stories are a large part of why. So, suffice to say that even if Padmanabhan’s story is as wholesome as it seems on the surface, I will always read it as being uncomfortably sinister.
Then comes “Mother” by Shovon Chowdhury. This story takes the worst parts of Big Brother from 1984, and affixes them to the Sybil System from Psycho-Pass. The Sybil System, in short, watches everyone, and assigns people to their jobs. It monitors their heart-rate and state of mind, and can decide whether someone has the potential to be a criminal. No one can escape the system. Mother, here, has complete control over society. She watches everyone at almost all times, and performs much the same function as the Sybil System, down to law enforcement. Then she micromanages, going so far as to set up blind dates for her precious children, and nagging them on a regular basis. It’s terrifying to know that something is watching you at all times, and even more so when that thing has adopted a tone similar to what mothers use when speaking to children. Nothing could be more creepy.
“Paused” by Priya Sarukkai Chabria feels more reminiscent of New Weird, where a god-like infant being is remaking the universe unknown millennia after a cataclysm. It picks and chooses what it wants to be from various genetic samples it possesses in its memories, building a new life form altogether.
And lastly, we have “The Silk Route” by Giti Chandra. A story spanning several thousand years, interweaving events therein with silken threads that wrap and envelop you, growing tighter and tighter, until you can do little but gasp when its web is concluded. It ties together ideas promoted through this anthology, showing us that humanity has the capacity to work with nature and its creations to co-exist peacefully and beneficially; but it also shows us that Nature is not to be trifled with—that our hubris can and will lead us into peril.
Avatar अवतार: Indian Science Fiction is currently available to read for free on Kindle Unlimited.