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SCIENCE FICTION – Another tomorrow

SCIENCE FICTION is usually celebrated for the glimpses it offers into the future. The crispest definition of science fiction is to call it a literature of "what if?" Due to the protean nature of the genre, it embraces everything from crude interplanetary romances to sophisticated psychological drama.

It has been universally acknowledged as the most popular form of fiction for young people and exists in diverse forms, challenging any kind of rigid categorisation. "It attempts to present realities which are different from those we know", says critic Christopher Evans. "The imagined future, the altered present and the past in which history was different!" Science fiction writers have been perpetually interested in possibilities and potentials.

In his preface to the anthology of short stories written by Sujatha Rangarajan, a major Tamil writer, the author admits that as a subgenre, science fiction has not been widely practised by Tamil writers. However, Sujatha points out many elements of science fiction are present in novels written in the past in Tamil. Many of his own stories have been published without being classified as science fiction, although they may have possessed many traits common to the genre. Just as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been regarded as the forerunner of the genre in the Western world, our own epics and myths have elements of science fiction which are truly amazing.

Not just rockets

Sujatha, in his preface, reminds us that science fiction need not necessarily be concerned with rockets and space odysseys. Dark subjects like the survival of mankind are frequently addressed. In "Jillu", set in the future, there is a threat of acid rain after nuclear warfare between India and warring nations. Cities are being evacuated but the child Kumar refuses to board the helicopter without his pet dog Jillu. In the ensuing confusion, both the boy and the dog get left behind. The pity and the terror of the situation is conveyed in terse crisp prose.

Sujatha's knowledge of robotics and computer technology find expression in the stories "Adimai" (Slave) and "Agayam" (Sky). In "Adimai", the human is able to hoodwink the robot, but in "Agayam" the robot is juxtaposed against the human as an equal and the ending is left to the wild conjectures of the reader. Jayant Narlikar, in his Return of Vaman, has likewise speculated on the grave possibility of robots eventually taking the place of man, making him redundant.

"Anna Salai" and "Thimala" are stories set in the distant future. "Thimala" is particularly heart warming, for the power of religion and prayer still operates even after the modern miracles of the digital age have come to pass. The experience is described as "thrilling" by the protagonist Athma who agrees to visit Thimala (our Tirupati) to please his wife who still has within her remnants of the forgotten human qualities of love and piety. "Suriyan" (The Sun) is also set in the future. It is about a few families which live underground to avoid the deadly effects of radiation, a legacy of global warfare. "Mister Munuswamy Oru 1.2.1" is an interesting essay into the psychological depths of the human mind and its capacity for total intellectual transformation. However, the scientific marvel of artificial intelligence is, alas, only temporary and Munuswamy is back to his illiterate life style, believing his short-lived transformation to be just a dream.

On the wings of time

In "Oru Kathayil Erandu Kathai", the same character is shown in two different eras, more or less displaying similar roles. In "Kala Yanthiram" the protagonist gets hold of a mechanical contraption which helps him travel backwards and forwards in time. Being a novice in such exercises, while operating it, he goes back in time to the age of the famous grammarian Tholkappiar and even has the pleasure of adding his contribution to the famous book by the grammarian. But the problem arises while trying to return to the 21st Century. By pressing the wrong button, he comes to 1774 instead of 2024 to which he belongs. This story has the reader in splits as Sujatha gets away with the anachronism inherent to such writing with audacity and brilliance.

Man and the unknown

The motif of alien beings peopling our planet is a very common one in science fiction. Patrick Parrinder comments, "Science fiction, when it is concerned with alien modes of being, approaches man through his contact with the new and the unknown. Their concern is with man himself and the literary exercise is a process of discovering what man is and what choices are open to him." "Tejaswini", written in 2001, has a startling conclusion while "Manjal Ratham" has all the weird connotations of life in a strange planet where we earthlings are the aliens. "Upagriham" is about a UFO phenomenon discovered by an aged man who is faced with disbelief and ridicule for his remarks.

Sujatha's anthology, in turn witty, wise and incredibly entertaining, makes imaginative use of conceptually intriguing scientific technology. An accessible combination of conceptual daring and moral seriousness places the book well above the common run of science fiction. Sujatha says, in Marathi and Bengali, there has been a significant increase of writers experimenting in this category. Kondke's anthology of stories entitled It Happened Tomorrow includes two Tamil stories. Even if an author is ignorant of scientific facts, as long as he observes "internal consistency", if it obeys social and structural rules within the plot, the story will be accepted, says Sujatha. He invites greater exploration of this genre which flouts tradition and invites a re-evaluation of old-fashioned viewpoints.

More than mere craftsmanship

Being science fiction, Sujatha's expertise in plumbing the depths of human emotions is naturally not in evidence. However, the reader's intelligence and emotions are stimulated through the "thought through" explanatory mode of narration adopted by the author who is much more than a clever craftsman. There is a constant sense of movement, physical as well as psychological, ensuring the reader's attention. As Mark Twain once said, "Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense": science fiction, often called the literature of the impossible, appears mainly as an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with our everyday world.

Vingnana Chirukathaigal: Collection of Science Fiction Stories, Sujatha, Uyirmmai Pathippagam, 2004, hardbound, p.464, Rs. 225.

Literary Review , The Hindu - Sunday, Sep 05, 2004.