From India

It Happened Tomorrow — Bal Phondke

tomorrow

The good news about having read 1993’s It Happened Tomorrow is that I can now put a push-pin into India on a map of nations whose science fiction I have reviewed on James Nicoll Reviews.

On the minus side, it was not a particularly good book.




Preface (Bal Phondke):

Editor and contributor Bal Phondke gives an overview and history of SF and Indian SF (as of the book’s publication date—twenty-two years ago). Although India has a rich literary heritage, one that includes fantastic fiction of all sorts, for various reasons it does not seem to boast many SF authors (as far as I know; corrections invited in comments). Phondke was well aware that Indian SF’s focus was for the most part still rather Campbellian.

Comments:

Or more accurately, if this anthology is any guide, Gernsbeckian. Still, an interesting essay I will no doubt consult from time to time.

The Ice Age Cometh” (Jayant V. Narlikar):

Volcanic eruptions tip the planet into a sudden ice age. Can *SCIENCE* save the day?

Comments:

This would have been right at home with Weinbaum’s 1937 “Shifting Seas.”

The Impostor” (Bal Phondke):

A bold gambit to preserve a dying man’s knowledge bears unexpected fruit.

Comments:

Apparently James V. McConnell’s 1960 idea that he could transfer memory between flatworms by feeding them to each other (used by authors like Niven and Gunn) made it to India, but not the fact that other researchers found it hard to replicate his results.

I had no idea McConnell was targeted by the Unibomber.

Einstein the Second” (Laxman Londhe):

How far would someone go to save the mind of India’s (and very possibly the world’s) greatest genius? In the case of Dr. Chitale, too far.

Comments:

This is exactly the reason why informed consent is a good idea.

A Journey into Darkness” (Subodh Jawadekar):

Told as a series of letters to a distant pen-pal, an Indian child who survives the initial effects of a thermonuclear exchange between the US and the SU slowly comes to terms with the encroaching radioactive doom.

Comments:

Many of the stories in this collection are not particularly stylistically ambitious. In the case of this story, that suits its narrator very well.

The Man” (Niranjan S. Ghate):

Obsessed with the girl next door, the protagonist tries to work out what, exactly, is going on between her and the man he sees he with from time to time.

Comments:

This is sort of Big Bang Theory, if Penny owned her own supercomputer. And a robot.

Although I called this Gernsbeckian, Indian authors are more comfortable with obsessive infatuation than were American SF authors of the Gernsbeckian age.

Ruby” (Arun Mande):

A robot in love runs afoul of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics.

Comments:

On the whole, a robot’s lot is not a happy one.

Birthright” (Shubhada Gogate):

A pregnant woman struggles against the sinister machinations of the Foetus Development Centers.

Comments:

This was a rather Orwellian little tale; the true purpose of the FDCs has very little to do with public health and quite a lot to do with keeping the current government in power indefinitely.

Catastrophe in Blue” (Anish Deb):

A mysterious solar event leaves the whole world bathed in blue light.

Comments:

And that’s pretty much the whole story.

Time” (Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay):

The protagonist has been obsessively pursuing the woman of his dreams; her family hires gangsters to stop him. He is left for dead, but is rescued by a helping hand from the future—a future that depends on decisions he has not yet had time to make.

Comments:

Another story driven by infatuation. And stalking. I would stare disapprovingly if romantic stalking were not a core part of western romantic comedy.

The Elevation” (Niranjan Sinha):

When advanced robots demand civil rights, their creators have no choice but to unleash weaponized theology!

Comments:

It’s hard for me not to feel sympathy for the poor robots in these stories, but I am not sure the authors have the same problem.

Dilemma” (Sujatha):

A spaceman is faced with the difficult task of determining which of their two companions (one human and one robot) is sane and which has gone quite mad.

Comments:

The author resolves the issue in an interesting manner that those familiar with “The Lady and the Tiger” will recognize. It’s not clear to me that the author has firmly decided which possible conclusion is correct.

(There is a third possibility: perhaps the protagonist is the one who has gone crackers. Nothing in the story rules that out. Naturally, the protagonist does not consider this possibility.)

Venus is Watching” (Rajashekar Bhoosnurmath):

Distant aliens use a little known property of Venus to study Earth. They hope to acquire our nuclear technology for their own purposes.

Comments:

Aliens are jerks. Or at least these aliens are jerks, as indicated by their decision to trigger most of the nuclear weapons on Earth so as to better understand them.

The author’s grasp of conditions on Venus seems somewhat pre- Mariner. Or perhaps he’s bought into the idea that terraforming is a trivially easy and fast process. If the latter is the case, he is not alone.

The Lift” (Sanjay Hvanur):

A greedy man makes the mistake of experimenting just a bit too freely with a time-traveling lift.

Comments:

This story plays with the notion that travel to the past is OK, but travel to the future is not. This is a fairly common SF premise. This always bugged me as a kid, because of course not only is travel to the future possible, it seems to be unavoidable.

An Encounter with God” (Debabrata Dash):

A scientist’s quest to create the perfect bride for his son runs aground on the shoals of Did Not Think the Experiment Through.

Comments:

We are told (but are not shown) that the bride-made-to-order is rather cranky, which I suspect has an awful lot to do with how it never occurs to either the brilliant scientist or his son to view her as a person with her own desires and perspectives. They are only interested in her as an embodiment of their own wishes.

Twice Upon a Time” (Mukul Sharma):

A woman’s spontaneous confession of a past affair is complicated by the fact it has not happened yet.

Comments:

Time travel. It’s wacky.

The Second Coming” (R. N. Sharma):

A Holocaust victim goes to extremes to get revenge on the man who had him skinned alive.

Rain” (Kenneth Doyle):

Having refreshed his memory about why the Earth is utterly uninhabitable, a young man decides to verify this for himself. This ends badly.

Comments:

This is only barely a story appended to an infodump.

Goodbye, Mr. Khanna” (Devendra Mewari):

What could stand between a man and the woman with whom he is infatuated? Only her true nature.

Comments:

OK, not all the stories driven by infatuation end well.

Weirdly, all of the women named Ruby in this anthology turn out to be robots. I feel that there might be a cultural allusion I am missing.

The Adopted Son” (Arvind Mishra):

A desperate medical procedure leaves one young man with the memories of another man. This leaves the parents of both men in a difficult situation.

Comments:

This uses the same conceit as “The Impostor,” which comes earlier in the collection. I wonder which story was written first.

General comments:

There are some bright spots in this book. I actually did like the introduction, “A Journey Into Darkness,” and “Birthright.” However, on the whole I did not care for this anthology. Most of the prose is bare or even clumsy. It’s true that this could be due to poor translation, but the fact that many of the authors are willing to drop great blocks of infodump into stories makes me think that translation is not the issue. The problem might very well have been restricted exposure to the best of the genre. I was very much reminded of the general level of prose from ancient SF, the sort of thing that was featured in Asimov’s Before the Golden Age.

I am left a bit sad that this was my first review here of Indian science fiction; I am sure the subcontinent does better, judging by the number of Indian writers known for their elegant English prose (Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, etc.). Oh, well.

It Happened Tomorrow is available from National Book Trust, India.



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