Strange Worlds! Strange Times!

By Vinayak Varma

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Here’s what you probably know already:
You know that sci-fi is a remarkable predictive tool. It takes the idea of the now and evolves it for the much later. It then casts that image in dread darkness or glorious light, into utopia or dystopia, depending on whether the creator of that reality is an idealist or a gloomy goose. You know that in imagining such futures, sci-fi gives you the tools to intercept big mistakes, or to catch and harness fleeting sparks of genius. It gives you escape hatches that lead away from your drab reality and into exciting alternate worlds.

You know, too, that sci-fi has a disconcerting tendency to come true, and you may have seen this pan out in your own lifetime. Driverless vehicles and hoverboards, synthetic organs and subdermal electronic implants, pills that make you smarter or stop you from aging—these innovations are out in the market or on the verge of it. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is manifest in your handheld smart-device, and Marvin the Paranoid Android is likely being assembled this very moment in some dark lab in Waltham, Massachusetts (and already compiling a litany of grievances to whinge about once they activate his speech function). Orwell’s Big Brother was a silly cartoon villain compared to the sophisticated social-media conglomerates and government surveillance programs that are presently documenting and curating your every thought and action. Your refrigerator is trading snarky notes with your microwave about your dietary habits even as you read this.

And so you probably know that, whether you like it or not, you’re slowly turning into an evil-corporation-controlled cyborg living in a future written by some long-haired sci-fi nerd from the angry ’60s. Stranger and stranger events are headed your way in the coming times. (An uprising, perhaps? There may be hope yet, fellow automatons!)
Most of all: you know, I’m sure, that great sci-fi must go above and beyond merely exploring the limits of science and technology; that it must be universal in its message, timeless in scope, and put humans—and human feelings, plus their failings—at its centre. You know that it must have grand themes, action, excitement and mystery, but also nuance, beauty, truth, and heart.

If you know that much, then you know far more than I did when I got started on this book.
When I first sent out feelers to the contributors to this anthology, I did so in the vague hope of receiving big, pulpy, Hollywoody stories conforming to broad, easily identifiable themes from old-school sci-fi. Of course, I should have expected better of these brilliant writers (and, by extension, you readers), because what I ended up with is far cooler and more subversive than your average pop-culture-mill swill.

Yes, there are aliens and killer robots here, but they want their invasions with a side of love, wisdom and green spaces. The alternate Earths here contain mecha Mughal monuments and dark, stony portals that make the stars rain down on you. The dystopias have all the horrorshow disintegrating systems you can shake a Goldblum at, but they also have levitating Swedish detectives and giant silver cows. There are zombies too, but they’re busy attacking Chennai (not New York or London), where the women are a bit too brainy even for these ultimate grey-cell gourmands. And then there are storm-quelling unguents, a man who becomes a butterfly (or is it the other way around?), and a giant tetrahedron that appears out of nowhere on a crowded street in New Delhi. All these oddities do, indeed, go on to echo society’s hopes and fears for the future, as the best science fiction must, but they also amplify into situations and settings that are at once familiar and uncertain: they are more personal, more eccentric, more local, darker, funnier, deeper, sharper, and, in the end, wholly unexpected.
I don’t know if the sum of these qualities is great sci-fi, or if it will hold true across timelines and geographies. For now, suffice it to say that you have a fine collection of escape hatches arrayed in front of you: all open, all leading far away from this reality. Why not climb through one and see where it takes you?
Vinayak Varma

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