Northrop Frye and W. T. Jewkes’s high school textbook, Perilous Journey (1973), was my gateway to speculative fiction (SF). I was barely into my teens when I discovered the terms "cyberspace" and "global village" in another American textbook nearly fifteen years ago. I found library copies of these books in used bookstands in Kathmandu. William Gibson predicted the future with the term "cyberspace" in Neuromancer (1984). And media theorist Marshall McLuhan would popularize the use of the phrase "global village," first used in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962). But I wouldn’t read these two prophets of the information age until much later.
The brick-and-mortar bookstores in Kathmandu, New Delhi, and Bombay don’t stock critical SF, science, or math books barring few exceptions—well-worn classics and college textbooks. The SF section of the American library in New Delhi doesn’t offer much hope either. If it wasn’t for the Internet and the open models of online American speculative magazines like Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld, I don’t think I would have discovered much of contemporary SF from around the world.
When I was growing up in Kathmandu, I had a special fondness for the German weekly, Der Spiegel. The idea of equality and justice was very important to me as part of the Maithil-Indian minority in a Khas-Newar city. Thousands of civilians were killed in a decade-long civil war, which ultimately failed Nepal. Scores of indigenous people have been massacred and shot dead in the Terai even after the civil war ended in 2006. Nepal hasn’t held local-level elections for nearly two decades. The poor families of the victims, deprived of franchise or justice, have sunk deeper into poverty, but the perpetrators of the worst atrocities and human rights violations in the country now command power, prestige, and state instruments.
When I discovered Geoff Ryman's amazing and utterly moving short story, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy)," I felt it was the best of what SF could offer to the people of the region. T. S. Miller makes an excellent observation about Ryman’s work in a review for Strange Horizons:
Reading his quasi-fairytales and other flights of passionate fantasy, we will always be reminded that these paradises, like all paradises, are places that can never be—except in fiction. For Ryman, however, this is an essential exception, as the power of story to heal and repair across time and across cultures becomes a recurrent theme in the collection. This theme will already be familiar to readers of the most widely known story in Paradise Tales, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter."
Geoff Ryman’s story is about the fictional daughter of a dictator responsible for the death of millions of people. Similar to Joshua Oppenheimer’s diptych, The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), Ryman’s story is a parable of the quest for justice. The ghosts of the past begin to speak to the conscience of the new generation. Ryman’s decision to include the brand, "fantasy," within parentheses in the title of his story might have been an afterthought, but it captures the harsh truth of the human world: where the murderers are in power, the story of "justice" can be only fantasy, not reality. Reading this quasi-fairytale, as Miller put it, I was reminded that Ryman’s Cambodia can never be—except in fiction. Nevertheless, it fills an emotional void. It fulfills the psychological need of a people who are unable to come to terms with the horrendous past of a country.
What I most loved about this brilliant novelette is its redeeming quality—its quest for justice doesn’t seem to be motivated by hate or revenge. The lesson here is unforgettable: Pol Pot’s daughter is not Pol Pot. She is capable of love, empathy, and understanding as much as we are. The children of the ruling class should not be reduced to caricatures of their parents. While Geoff faced serious criticism from within the SF community for turning a real person into a fictional character, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it resonated with the people in Cambodia.
Geoff Ryman, who has been a tireless champion of African SF, made me realize how empty the field of SF in South Asia actually is. I started reading science fiction and fantasy because the mainstream media and films ceased to be a platform for diverse and alternative voices. Ravish Kumar’s iconic show following the JNU protests against the authoritarian Hindu government in New Delhi is evidence that the mainstream media in South Asia have largely failed. For over half an hour in his forty-five-minute show, he blacked out the screen and asked his viewers to listen carefully. The dark screen, Kumar said, was the face of today’s television—it is no longer a place for rational debate or discussions. When everyone is screaming, the viewers are pushed further into the abyss of ignorance. Television doesn’t offer meaningful insight or information, he said. Most of the contemporary SF appeared to be dark spots when I began to look for stories that could address my concerns and speak to the people in South Asia.
While all SF deals with conflict, I started looking for short stories that help SF readers in Asia make sense of the world around them. Stories that attempt to unravel the dangerous silence following violent riots, mass killings, or wars. Stories that attempt to address the horrors and traumas of a violent national as well as personal past. These are some of the SF stories and novellas with Asian/African protagonists that I think best reflect a serious inquiry into the effects of conflict instigated by those in power or opposing it, and also a quest for justice for an oppressed group of people:
Binti – Nnedi Okorafor (Tor, 2015)
Ogres of East Africa – Sofia Samatar (Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, 2014)
Resurrection Points – Usman T. Malik (Strange Horizons, 2014)
The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family – Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous Anthology, 2014)
Weep for Day – Indra Das (Asimov’s Science Fiction, 2012)
The Sill and the Dike – Vajra Chandrasekera (Nightmare, 2015)
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary – Ken Liu (Panverse Three, 2011)
Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter (Fantasy) – Geoff Ryman (Paradise Tales, 2011)
All of these stories first appeared in American publications, as most of these writers live in America. But they are not all white Americans. Nnedi is Nigerian American, Sofia is Somali American, and Ken is Chinese American. Geoff is a Canadian living in London. Usman is from Pakistan, Indra from India, and Vajra from Sri Lanka. Diversity in SF has been a topic of discussion for many years. This list shows their efforts have paid off: the field of SF is becoming more open and diverse.
I grew up with myths and legends in Kathmandu but saw little contemporary SF. As part of a proposed anthology for Juggernaut Books, I wanted to find SF stories set in Nepal that don’t exoticize the place or its people. Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days (2009) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Escape from Kathmandu (1989) are great reads but didn’t fit my requirement for this particular project. I was happy to acquire and edit Ugandan writer and filmmaker Dilman Dila’s unpublished story, "Braveheart’s Homecoming," which is set in Nepal, for the project. I also felt that "Valley of Tears," the only speculative story in Nepali writer Rabi Thapa’s debut collection Nothing to Declare (Penguin, 2011), managed to capture the angst of Nepali people and fit the theme of the anthology.
In an interview, Thapa said:
Most of the stories in Nothing to Declare are located in a Kathmandu as experienced by young people. They go to school, drink and smoke, have sex, go abroad, and come back and get married. But the final story "Valley of Tears," is a millennial conceit that seeks to wipe out all that’s gone before, particularly the mad contradiction present-day Kathmandu has become. The Kathmandu Valley used to be a massive lake until, the legend goes, the divine priest Manjushree cleft the mountains with a sword to let the waters out; "Valley of Tears" floods the city to restore it to its primordial state. I suppose you could call it the ultimate expression of frustration.
I think it wasn’t a coincidence that Thapa abandoned the mode of social realism and employed the tools of speculative fiction to give form to “the ultimate expression of frustration.” Thapa is the editor of La.lit, a literary magazine from Kathmandu, which is open to SF. Sri Lankan-American writer and editor Mary Anne Mohanraj and Indian SF writers like Shweta Narayan, Indra Das, Anil Menon, and Vandana Singh have also laid the necessary groundwork for SF in the region over the years. Das is now consulting editor with Juggernaut, looking for SF submissions from the region. From what I have seen in 2015, I’m confident that the presence and influence of SF in South Asia is likely to grow in coming days.
When the top SF markets encourage and feature SF from around the world, is there a need for a new SF magazine outside America? The answer is yes and no. No, because Neil Clarke and Jonathan Strahan don’t think it’s a good idea—it’s not sustainable. They think it would be a good idea to test waters first with an anthology or two before launching a pro zine. There is much truth and wisdom in their advice. But if we want to create a homegrown brand of SF, nurture emerging writers, and discuss works that are relevant to us, I think we do need a platform to host relevant discussions, interviews, reviews, and original fiction and poetry. We started Mithila Review to fill this gap in the literary landscape in South Asia.
I’m grateful to Juggernaut Books for their willingness to fund the Mithila Review anthology. However, the economic and legal aspects of publishing an anthology turned out to be far more complicated than I had anticipated. I was shocked to discover that the Indian tax regime isn’t friendly to literary startups, poets, and writers at all. Compensating authors from around the world sounds great, but it isn’t easy. Our banking system doesn’t believe in playing fairly: we can use PayPal to receive payment but cannot use it to send money outside India. There are other methods but they aren’t less expensive. Since the anthology seemed to be going nowhere, we decided to reprint some of the shortlisted stories, poetry, and essays through the first three online issues of Mithila Review. There is no paywall; no money changed hands. Many of our Asian readers are new to the “genre.” We know we are extremely lucky—such a niche literary project wouldn’t have been possible without the generous contribution from the SF community around the world.
When I look at the fiction we have published and mentioned above, I realize that these are the kind of stories that could bring in new readership to the field and make SF relevant to more people outside Europe and America. Being an SF enthusiast in South Asia is a lonely affair; writing SF is more so. The Mithila Review project has given me good reasons to read more widely and regularly and engage with SF from around the world. Inspired by Ryman’s African SF group, I started a group on Facebook to explore, celebrate, and discuss SF from South Asian writers or those with a meaningful connection to the region. Later, we had to drop “South” from the group’s name as it became a vital platform for readers, writers, and scholars from several countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, and beyond. If you are interested in Asian SF, you are welcome to join us there.