In the second-last endnote in Star Warriors of the Modern Raj: Materiality, Mythology and Technology of Indian Science Fiction (2021), Sami Ahmad Khan suddenly breaks out of character: ‘Dammit Jim, I’m a fan, not a scholar!’ This rendition of a Star Trek reference accurately portrays Khan’s perspective in his first book-length academic publication. Star Warriors is less a run-of-the-mill treatise on SF and more a paean to the genre as it exists in India. An SF writer himself, Khan brings forth an accessible style that eschews dry prose for a playful, entertaining engagement with SF.
But don’t let ‘not a scholar’ lead you astray: the book is one of three recent publications on Indian SF – holding the mantle alongside rigorous companions like Suparno Banerjee’s Indian Science Fiction: Patterns, History and Hybridity (2020) and Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee’s Final Frontiers: Science Fiction and Techno-Science in Non-Aligned India (2020) – that has set the stage for future studies on Indian SF. What sets Star Warriors aparet is that it focuses exclusively on texts originally written in English – Indian Science Fiction in English (ISFE) – and published after the turn of this millennium. Though this represents only a small fraction of Indian SF, the relatively narrow focus allows the study to engage more deeply with its chosen material. Like Banerjee’s study, Star Warriors is also part of the New Dimensions of Science Fiction series published by the University of Wales Press. It seems to work with two aspects of the series’ call: to imagine the global dimensions of SF, and to study the way science operates within SF.
The candidness with which Khan brings his personal experiences to bear on the study is a rare occurrence in scholarly treatises and provides an earthy quality to the writing. For instance, he starts off the book with an Author’s Note, providing an account of his conversations about Indian SF with contemporaries in Indian academia. This free-flowing account (usually consigned to the acknowledgments page) helps situate ISFE and the challenges it faces even before the scholarly analysis begins. These extra-literary challenges are a fact that all scholars of SF in India likely face but few talk about in their writings.
Star Warriors collates Khan’s developing research into Indian SF, drawing liberally on his published articles over the last seven years. It gathers this diverse scholarship – ranging from general surveys of the field to specific studies on Indian SF and myth, Indian cinema, and climate change, among others – under a fresh theoretical umbrella. Khan proposes a broad ‘IN situ Model’, which is divided into three theses: transMIT, antekaal, and neoMONSTERS. The book focuses only on the transMIT thesis, proposing that it can be divided into the triad of Materiality, Ideology, and Mythology. As you go through the book, expect tables and figures to pop out at you and help you navigate the rich tapestry of this theorization.
Divided into five parts, the book effectively frames each part both as an independent study (with prologues and epilogues) and in relation to the other parts under the broad theoretical framework. Readers interested in exploring a specific aspect of ISFE (its engagement with mythology, say) will find the section devoted to it substantial enough. However, the book is best studied in its totality and with attention to how it builds connections among the sections. The connections are also highlighted in an engaging manner: for instance, Part 2 ends with the sentence
Execute Command Two: transMIT.
highlighting through underline and anticipating Part 3’s focus on mythology. Most of the individual chapters are short and further divided into subsections. The arguments build succinctly and move on swiftly, making the reading experience not unlike that of a breezy, exciting SF novel.
Part 1 deals with the issue of defining SF as a field of study and then moves on to situate it in the context of India – focusing first on the problems typically encountered in such an undertaking, and then proposing a way out. The first chapter polemically proclaims that ‘The genre is dead; long live the genre’, refiguring Roger Luckhurst’s influential essay on SF’s death-wish. It draws out the history of SF scholarship, focusing attention on the varied and often mutually contradictory theorizations of the genre. As a way out of this dead-end, and motivated by the question ‘what happens when we apply science to SF criticism?’, Khan proposes to study SF through chaos theory. Here, Khan pays his debt of influence to John Reider by proposing his own five-point categorization: SF as (1) eluding a fixed definition, (2) being a dynamic system, (3) being non-predictable despite deterministic, and (4 & 5) being dependent on its ‘initial conditions’. The second chapter extends the discussion on SF’s nature to Indian SF, complicating and merging the extreme positions on India’s relationship with SF. In this, it draws on the existing scholarship on Indian SF before proposing the IN situ model and the transMIT thesis as viable modes of inquiry into the field.
Though novel and thought-provoking, there is one issue with the transMIT thesis as it has been presented here: the ‘I’ for Ideology, though preserved in the terminology, has been changed to Materiality in the analysis. I for one found it difficult to understand the explanation provided for this change. It is possibly based on Althusser’s formulation of the relationship between materiality and ideology, but this has not been satisfactorily explained in the text.
In any case, the chapter also tentatively suggests that Indian SF may be seen as part of a global SF imaginary. The third chapter draws out this suggestion by proposing that SF (and indeed literature) as a global phenomenon may be understood through the various levels of the ‘atman’. Khan’s uncomplicated translation of ‘atman’ as ‘soul’ may be contested here. However, the larger implication – situating ISFE (Deca-atman/atman:101) under not just Global SF (Mega-atman/atman:106) but also World Literature (Yotta-atman/atman:1024) – is a welcome move. In the manner of Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay’s reframing of ‘kalpavigyan’, Khan’s ‘atman’ too brings an indigenous lens – an in situ model from India – into global SF theory.
The next three parts study the three elements of transMIT – materiality, ideology, and technology. In Part 2, materiality (the broader term for ideology) is studied through the lens of alterity/otherness. Three forms of otherness –civilization, society, and gender – are argued to constitute ISFE. It is impressive that the analysis does not restrict itself to simply outlining the forms of otherness but instead further reflects on it, theorizing it to be on three graded levels based on the strength of the disruption caused. The individual chapters focus on one level each. Future explorations into this aspect of ISFE (and indeed Indian SF) can perhaps use an intersectional lens to illuminate the cross-currents that animate this tripartite otherness.
Mythology and the mythic imaginary in ISFE is the focus of Part 3. This is truly an understudied and exciting area of inquiry for scholars of Indian SF. Khan locates his own inquiry by highlighting how ISFE challenges normative knowledge structures by forcing one to reflect on the science/fiction, gyan/vigyan, myth/history binaries. The discussion about the place of Gods (divine beings) in SF is routed through the place of ‘science’ in ISFE. The issue with a lot of existing discussion on myth and SF is that SF from non-western spaces is seen as particularly, almost fundamentally invested in mythological figures, completely ignoring the fact that a lot of British-American SF has historically focused on the myths (and mythical characters) of the respective cultures too. It is then a welcome relief to see that Khan does not take up such an Orientalist perspective, instead situating the question of myth and science in the specific context of India’s emergence as a nation. The chapters study the way ISFE has portrayed the relationship of Gods to three typical forces of SF – aliens, time, and technology. This section also hints at its links with and anticipates the ‘antekaal’ thesis. The concluding chapters feature a particularly intriguing discussion that gathers many strands of thought and works through them quite effectively. Of particular significance here is the relationship of mutual porosity between the mythic and the scientific (‘Mythic ⇋ Scientific’), leading to the dogged persistence and constant return of the mythic in SF narratives.
The last part, on technology, focuses on ‘how ISFE portrays emergent technologies and how it appropriates, abrogates, resists and/or collaborates with new “Empire(s)”’. This is the only part where the chapters are not devoted to developing a single thematic strand. Instead, the five chapters deal respectively with genetic engineering, cyber threats, CBRN warfare, alien disruptions, and environmental degradation, a really challenging set of issues to tackle together. Perhaps this is why the epilogue’s brief discussion feels abrupt, though it is probably in tune with Khan’s own characterization of the book as a ‘critical catalogue’ of contemporary ISFE meant as a ‘stepping stone for further forays into the area’. Even so, this concluding section would have benefitted from a more extensive analysis, perhaps discussing at length the interconnections among the very pertinent issues raised in the chapters.
Part 5 acts as the conclusion, not so much summarizing the arguments forwarded across the study as tying the loose ends together to suggest ways to further complicate the model and theses proposed in the study. Its brevity vis à vis the extended introduction in Part 1 jars slightly, once again leaving me desiring more of the good stuff.
Since SF is a varied genre that has historically been strongly characterized by the question of definition, all SF criticism faces the challenge of framing its own assumptions. Typically, this involves scholars taking up and focusing their analyses through one or a combination of the existing definitions. Khan’s study eschews this setting-up of any singular dimension of SF definition. Of course, this endeavour would be infinitely more challenging without Reider’s contributions to SF scholarship, the welcome effects of which are visible on this and other contemporary studies. In his introduction to a recent (2017) study, though, Reider has acknowledged his scholarship’s limitation inasmuch as it focuses primarily on American SF, professing hope that ‘scholars who know more than I do about other national traditions of SF […] can make some use of my work in those areas of research’. Khan takes up this challenge, following through on Reider’s suggestions in his attempt to grapple with the complexity of ISFE.
The most striking aspect of this study is that it is constantly in dialogue with other theorists: this represents a very inclusive and dynamic approach to SF. Khan accumulates and mixes together the suggestions of other theorists to build a larger argument. Sample this sentence, for instance: ‘When Freedman talks about a “SF tendency” or when Kincaid refers to “family resemblances”, are they not referring to the presence of a breath of the mega-text in the breadth of all SF?’ Here, Khan not only combines the works of two theorists but locates his own theorization alongside and in conversation with them. This dovetails with his claim that ISFE’s impending boom represents a shedding of the postcolonial writing-back tradition and is perhaps at the forefront of the writing-alongside tradition. Rather than attempting to eke out an exclusive space for ISFE (or Indian SF), Star Warriors presents an example of the writing-alongside tradition in SF scholarship. No wonder then that one of the most exciting suggestions in the book pertains to locating SF within the realm of literature as a global phenomenon, while using metaphors (‘atman’) arising out of India’s reflective traditions.
(As an important aside, I would strongly suggest readers refer to Khan’s discussion about why one should study post-millennial ISFE (28–32). I was particularly struck by the specific focus on India’s cultural reality, as opposed to a generalized argument about SF’s capability to read societies. One indication of the maturing of Indian SF scholarship is that such meta-questions are now being discussed confidently.)
If Suparno Banerjee isolated four aspects with which to understand Indian SF – epistemic base, time of unfolding, space of action, and characters’ identity – in Star Warriors, Khan has given us three more – materiality, mythology, and technology – with the additional promise of antekaal and neoMONSTERS possibly adding further critical axes to the discussion in the (hopefully near) future. The academic study of English-language Indian SF is certainly coming of age with works of this nature. There is much to be excited about, and younger scholars like me are being provided with a fantastic base to build upon.
Editor’s Note: Suggested Reading
“Star Warriors made me want to seek out a few titles that had escaped my notice when they first came out and made me feel that I really ought to read more Indian SF.
I think we are on the verge of a boom in South Asian SF, and these early ‘eyewitness’ accounts of the beginnings are going to be important anchor-points for the study of the genre. I would like to see more critics engaging with it, debating its directions and beauties, and unfolding its meanings and intentions.” — Rimi B. Chatterjee (Mithila Review, Issue 15)