The Meteoric rise of Indian sci-fi - gatewaylitfest.com

| September 20, 2017 | NEWS | No Comments

 

There’s more to sci-fi and fantasy than Indian gods at war

GQ

Sci-fi fantasy is synonymous with the biggest budgets – think Marvel superhero films, Westworld, American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale – and with a multi-billion dollar industry that’s expanding its reach every year.

There’s no doubt that sci-fi and fantasy sell: Today, they’re synonymous with the biggest budgets – think Marvel superhero films, Westworld, American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale – and with a multi-billion dollar industry that’s expanding its reach every year. In India too, the SFF scene is slowly establishing itself, going far beyond the money-spinning mytho-fantasy sub genre we know. Tej S Haldule does a deep dive, and discovers there’s more to it than Indian gods at war.

In the 20th of March this year – a Monday – veteran mythological fantasy writer Ashok Banker signed with reputed literary agent John M Cusick for his debut Young Adult (YA) trilogy, Rise. Cusick suggested a few minor changes the day after, mostly line edits and rectified typos, which Banker quickly incorporated into the manuscript. By Wednesday, the trilogy was submitted to 22 YA publishers for consideration. The first offers began trickling in on Thursday morning, well into six-figure US dollars. By Friday, several major YA editors and publishers were vying to pitch their publishing houses to Banker as the best fit for his books. Only three, shortlisted by Cusick, were permitted to actually speak with him. That afternoon found the first seven-figure offer on the table and eight YA imprints willing to go to auction for the trilogy. Other publishers, interested but simply unable to marshal resources so soon – 48 hours – after a submission, fell by the wayside.

His conversation with an editor at Delacorte (an imprint of Random House USA), however, had made a distinct impression on Banker. He took the trilogy off the market without setting up the auction, which would have ensured an even larger advance.

Still, having cashed out at a cool $1.3 million for the three books’ North American publishing rights alone, the end of this frenetic week found Banker not only an incredibly wealthy man, but also having set the record for the highest advance for a YA debut: not just for an Indian, but for any YA author in history.

In 2015 though, Banker, already a bestselling author of over 60 novels that’d sold millions of copies between them (including the hugely popular Ramayana series), wasn’t dreaming of this fairy-tale flourish to end his literary middle-age. Instead, he was trying to work out how to leave India, deeply troubled by the political atmosphere in the country: The election of a right-wing government to the Centre the previous year, and increased religious fanaticism made living here appear a tenuous prospect to its minorities, among whom his Christian-origin family numbered.

So, 51 at the time, he applied for the first passport of his lifetime, then for a Green Card under the Extraordinary Ability category, and migrated to the US with his family by the end of the year to be able to write speculative fiction that was critical of India, America and the world.

Of course, Banker tells me, the teetering policies of America’s current presidency are far from perfect, “but at least we have freedom of speech. The work I’ve done since 2015 is the SFF I’ve wanted to write all my life, but never dared to in India.” He isn’t exaggerating. The plot of the Rise trilogy features elements of thinly veiled socio-political commentary likely to cause a furore in India when it’s in print: It’s set in a nation called Panchala that’s much like our own, in which the rightwing PJP party (complete with a reactionary offshoot of “Shangis”) has, off the strength of its majority appeasement politics, risen to power. Its controversial leader Nomendra is Prime Minister. Banker’s team is now busy negotiating translation, film and TV rights for the series, which follows a cast of LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual), disabled and neuro-diverse protagonists alongside people of colour – young thieves and outcasts in a magical war against the system.

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In the 20th of March this year – a Monday – veteran mythological fantasy writer Ashok Banker signed with reputed literary agent John M Cusick for his debut Young Adult (YA) trilogy, Rise. Cusick suggested a few minor changes the day after, mostly line edits and rectified typos, which Banker quickly incorporated into the manuscript. By Wednesday, the trilogy was submitted to 22 YA publishers for consideration. The first offers began trickling in on Thursday morning, well into six-figure US dollars. By Friday, several major YA editors and publishers were vying to pitch their publishing houses to Banker as the best fit for his books. Only three, shortlisted by Cusick, were permitted to actually speak with him. That afternoon found the first seven-figure offer on the table and eight YA imprints willing to go to auction for the trilogy. Other publishers, interested but simply unable to marshal resources so soon – 48 hours – after a submission, fell by the wayside.

His conversation with an editor at Delacorte (an imprint of Random House USA), however, had made a distinct impression on Banker. He took the trilogy off the market without setting up the auction, which would have ensured an even larger advance.

Still, having cashed out at a cool $1.3 million for the three books’ North American publishing rights alone, the end of this frenetic week found Banker not only an incredibly wealthy man, but also having set the record for the highest advance for a YA debut: not just for an Indian, but for any YA author in history.

In 2015 though, Banker, already a bestselling author of over 60 novels that’d sold millions of copies between them (including the hugely popular Ramayana series), wasn’t dreaming of this fairy-tale flourish to end his literary middle-age. Instead, he was trying to work out how to leave India, deeply troubled by the political atmosphere in the country: The election of a right-wing government to the Centre the previous year, and increased religious fanaticism made living here appear a tenuous prospect to its minorities, among whom his Christian-origin family numbered.

So, 51 at the time, he applied for the first passport of his lifetime, then for a Green Card under the Extraordinary Ability category, and migrated to the US with his family by the end of the year to be able to write speculative fiction that was critical of India, America and the world.

Of course, Banker tells me, the teetering policies of America’s current presidency are far from perfect, “but at least we have freedom of speech. The work I’ve done since 2015 is the SFF I’ve wanted to write all my life, but never dared to in India.” He isn’t exaggerating. The plot of the Rise trilogy features elements of thinly veiled socio-political commentary likely to cause a furore in India when it’s in print: It’s set in a nation called Panchala that’s much like our own, in which the rightwing PJP party (complete with a reactionary offshoot of “Shangis”) has, off the strength of its majority appeasement politics, risen to power. Its controversial leader Nomendra is Prime Minister. Banker’s team is now busy negotiating translation, film and TV rights for the series, which follows a cast of LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual), disabled and neuro-diverse protagonists alongside people of colour – young thieves and outcasts in a magical war against the system.

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In the 20th of March this year – a Monday – veteran mythological fantasy writer Ashok Banker signed with reputed literary agent John M Cusick for his debut Young Adult (YA) trilogy, Rise. Cusick suggested a few minor changes the day after, mostly line edits and rectified typos, which Banker quickly incorporated into the manuscript. By Wednesday, the trilogy was submitted to 22 YA publishers for consideration. The first offers began trickling in on Thursday morning, well into six-figure US dollars. By Friday, several major YA editors and publishers were vying to pitch their publishing houses to Banker as the best fit for his books. Only three, shortlisted by Cusick, were permitted to actually speak with him. That afternoon found the first seven-figure offer on the table and eight YA imprints willing to go to auction for the trilogy. Other publishers, interested but simply unable to marshal resources so soon – 48 hours – after a submission, fell by the wayside.

His conversation with an editor at Delacorte (an imprint of Random House USA), however, had made a distinct impression on Banker. He took the trilogy off the market without setting up the auction, which would have ensured an even larger advance.

Still, having cashed out at a cool $1.3 million for the three books’ North American publishing rights alone, the end of this frenetic week found Banker not only an incredibly wealthy man, but also having set the record for the highest advance for a YA debut: not just for an Indian, but for any YA author in history.

In 2015 though, Banker, already a bestselling author of over 60 novels that’d sold millions of copies between them (including the hugely popular Ramayana series), wasn’t dreaming of this fairy-tale flourish to end his literary middle-age. Instead, he was trying to work out how to leave India, deeply troubled by the political atmosphere in the country: The election of a right-wing government to the Centre the previous year, and increased religious fanaticism made living here appear a tenuous prospect to its minorities, among whom his Christian-origin family numbered.

So, 51 at the time, he applied for the first passport of his lifetime, then for a Green Card under the Extraordinary Ability category, and migrated to the US with his family by the end of the year to be able to write speculative fiction that was critical of India, America and the world.

Of course, Banker tells me, the teetering policies of America’s current presidency are far from perfect, “but at least we have freedom of speech. The work I’ve done since 2015 is the SFF I’ve wanted to write all my life, but never dared to in India.” He isn’t exaggerating. The plot of the Rise trilogy features elements of thinly veiled socio-political commentary likely to cause a furore in India when it’s in print: It’s set in a nation called Panchala that’s much like our own, in which the rightwing PJP party (complete with a reactionary offshoot of “Shangis”) has, off the strength of its majority appeasement politics, risen to power. Its controversial leader Nomendra is Prime Minister. Banker’s team is now busy negotiating translation, film and TV rights for the series, which follows a cast of LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual), disabled and neuro-diverse protagonists alongside people of colour – young thieves and outcasts in a magical war against the system.

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The West, on the other hand, has far stronger communities that nurture the craft and its constituents continually. There, a writer roughs it out for a few years on the circuit – contributing to a multitude of SFF magazines with genuine subscriber bases, pumping hands at genre conventions, showing face at workshops and events through the year. That sort of dedicated infrastructure simply doesn’t exist in India, so there’s no one sure path to follow. “These communities become aware of you and, after a point, sustain you. This is the standard route for a Western SFF writer,” Basu tells me. He reiterates that there isn’t a “global” SFF community, but each country has its own self-contained market.

“For example, Terry Pratchett is a global legend, but his popularity in America remains suspect. When you’re looking at a community-driven publishing industry, unless a writer can be in the midst of it, they’re at a big disadvantage.” Ostensibly, in this context, Basu means that he’s at one too – his Turbulence, a fast-paced yarn that follows a motley group of passengers who inexplicably develop superpowers during a London-Delhi flight, has been published by UK based Titan Books. Although Basu has gone on to have a career spanning nine novels, he still hasn’t overcome all the scene’s frustrations, spending the last three or four years (unsuccessfully) shopping his SFF scripts around Bollywood. He remembers that his first work, The Simoquin Prophecies, was released by its Indian publisher with no launch and minimal marketing, but “everyone was pleasantly surprised when it did well nevertheless.” But ever since that pioneering work – and despite the lack of visible support from Indian publishers – Basu believes every time an SFF author gets published in the country, it opens up the doors for two more. It took Indra Das, LAMBDA Literary Award-winning author of The Devourers, years to figure out the system. Das, a former consulting editor of SFF at Juggernaut Books, first self-published a novel in 2002 with a small Australian vanity press. When it tanked, he changed tack and began submitting to internationally renowned magazines – Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons; shipped off to America to clock his hours doing a Creative Writing concentration, and eventually went on to become an Octavia E Butler scholar at Clarion West, a highly prestigious sixweek workshop that’s instructed by some of the finest SFF writers in the US and whose graduates have gone on to win Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.

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In college, he realised, “the fact that I was the only brown person in those mainly white classes made me want to write more from the perspective of an Indian.” The result was The Devourers, a dense, literary-minded novel about werewolves in Kolkata. Still, Das is primarily read abroad, with the novel selling far more copies in North America than in India. Das is convinced that good SFF in India exists, but needs to be discovered and nurtured. He’s proud of Liar’s Weave, a left-of-centre fantasy he commissioned while at Juggernaut, that released in July this year. Written by 26-year-old Tashan Mehta, it tells the tale of Zahan Merchant, a man who can alter reality with his lies in a world where every life story has been predestined by the alignment of the stars. There are others mentoring young talent too, like US/ Pune-based Anil Menon, whose novel, Half Of What I Say, was shortlisted for the Hindu Prize in 2016. He’s conducted workshops across the country, as well as writing stints via email where writers work towards self-imposed deadlines. Menon’s optimistic that there’s never been a better time to be writing Indian SFF.

“Our readers are young, hungry, aspirational, horny, curious, pissed off… The difficulty is in _ nding a way to get the stories into their hands. Crossword just doesn’t cut it.” Enter Delhi-based Mithila Review, founded in 2015, the Subcontinent’s only quarterly dedicated to the publication of high-quality speculative fiction. Salik Shah, the editor, is now a seasoned rejecter of submissions. The publication pays $50 for a short story and $10 for poetry. “Since we’re only accepting the best writers from the field, we find that we rarely publish Indians who don’t live abroad or are part of the diaspora.”

The Review’s acceptance policy doesn’t bar the bizarre: Priya Sharma’s short story, “Egg”, is a horrifying first-person narrative of a woman who gives birth to a half-human/ half-chick hybrid, and Abhishek Bhatt’s “Choose Your Killer”(also available as an audio-story on Soundcloud) is a murder mystery about a film with multiple endings that gets hopelessly real. And while none of the Review’s patrons come from India at the moment, Shah is well aware of the role that Mithila Review plays in the promulgation of SFF here.“We’re hoping to inspire a generation of writers who may not have been aware there’s a paying avenue for quality fiction here.

Right now, we’re still at the nascent stages of development. China, for instance, has a longstanding history of running sci-fi magazines in Mandarin. There’s a university where you can do a Masters in Science Fiction Studies.” Today, China’s seeing global recognition with award-winning works such as Folding Beijing and The Three-Body Problem, both translated into English by prolific Chinese-American writer Ken Liu. S till, there’s hope. Back home, infrastructure comes in the form of two societies: the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) in Bengaluru and the Indian Science Fiction Writers’ Association (ISFWA) in Delhi. Both have been playing their quiet part by supporting serious writers and enthusiasts since the Nineties, and have collaboratively organised over a dozen sci-fi conferences over the years. “We’ve seen massive turnouts,” says Dr Srinarahari, General Secretary of the IASFS, who has conducted several sci-fi short story writing workshops in Karnataka.

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“Our conferences often see student participation, like the one held in the University of Pune, which saw over 400 papers presented and discussed. The conferences also provide a platform for young unpublished authors, who often do impromptu reading sessions.” IASFS, which is a non-profit with a yearly membership fee of Rs.200, champions English writing, while ISFWA is geared more towards the vernacular. “Many of our memberwriters are from Maharashtra, a state that traditionally publishes thick Diwali specials every year which present an outlet for Marathi literary talent,” says ISFWA’s Dr Mishra. Meanwhile, IASFS puts out an academic quarterly, the Indian Journal Of Science Fiction Studies, and helps fund researchers in the field like Fulbright scholar Sami Ahmad Khan, who released a scifi thriller, Aliens In Delhi, earlier this year. In June, Basu was invited to Bengaluru bookstore Bookworm for a Q&A to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Gautham Shenoy’s FactorDaily column, “New Worlds Weekly”, whose most popular pieces have been shared thousands of times on social media. Despite the misgivings Basu had previously aired about the popularity of his chosen genre, the store saw 65 attendees packed like sardines to hear him speak. “From original Doordarshan TV programming like Space City Sigma and Indradhanush in the Eighties to the pervasive recent success of Comic-Con India, the Indian mainstream has been on a steady diet of this genre without even realising it,” Shenoy later tells me. He’s striven from the beginning to foster an inclusionary community, one that accepts readers into its fold regardless of their SFF know-how. “It’s a topic Basu broached – how, paradoxically, the common love of SFF fans is to belong but also to exclude.” He posits an example: “If one wishes to join the Bangalore Sci-Fi Club on Facebook, I’ve heard that the admin requires people to answer three questions from a genre canon before he’s allowed in; what, though, if he’s genuinely curious, but isn’t a Trekkie and doesn’t know what the Prime Directive is?” There are others in the city carrying the torch too, including Ravi Menezes, the proprietor of indie bookstore Goobe’s, which specialises in science fiction along with scientific non-fiction and literary fiction.

“The business can’t survive [on SFF alone]. Sci-fi commands a small but fanatical following, so we actively try to peddle it to more receptive youngsters with undeveloped interests,” he says, only half-jokingly. “I mean, how does a sci-fi or fantasy reader become one?” Bookstores and libraries affect a significant portion of what a child reads, and kids who’re exposed to SFF are more receptive to imaginative flights of fancy than adult consumers. “We have access to kids’ publishers like CBT, Campfire and Pratham Books, who make introducing the genre a relative breeze,” Menezes says. Today, Menezes (who’s contributed to the Bangalore Sci-Fi Club’s anthology himself, with a dystopian tale of earthlings trying to salvage their civilisation’s collective wisdom by moving it to Mars) runs the Go Book Bank, a free library that provides reading material to the city’s impoverished students. “The need of the future is a genre readership that’s built from the ground up,” he says. “We have to start from the children.”

 

Source : gqindia.com

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