The author and academic says science fiction, whether set in the near future, a nearby planet or even in an alternate universe, is almost always about our today
Chatting with Sami Ahmad Khan is always fun. When he said he was re-reading Douglas Adams’ seminal Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as he was including the increasingly inaccurate trilogy of five in an elective course, one’s curiosity was naturally piqued. Sami teaches at the University School of Humanities and Social Sciences, GGS Indraprastha University. “We run MA, MPhil and PhD programmes in Literary and Culture Studies,” says the 34-year-old author of Red Jihaad and Aliens in Delhi.
“The senior faculty members are quite receptive to new ideas, and constantly seek strategies for the school to stay updated with a rapidly-mutating world. Consequently, we are encouraged to undergo frequent syllabus revisions, especially for our MA (English) course.”
Science fiction electives
The latest revision Sami says was in 2019, and gave the faculty the opportunity to engage with their core areas of research in a classroom setting. “These teacher-specific courses (offered in MA second year) range from exploring multiple dimensions of art, philosophy, gender, drama and culture, temporal/event excavations (such as Partition studies) and trans-media (cinema) to area and genre studies (such as Science Fiction). Under this paradigm, I am pleased to offer two electives on SF in the upcoming semesters: the first course is on global SF and introduces learners to stalwarts such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Phillip K. Dick and recent films such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar to study the origins and theories of SF in the Global North. The second course is on Indian SF, and utilizes, as starting points, select works by Satyajit Ray (Bangla) and Jayant Narlikar (Marathi) among others, and Shankar’s Enthiran, to explore how our own SF traditions operate across different narrative forms (short stories, novels, films, web-series etc). These courses simultaneously function as introductory primers for those interested in knowing more about SF as a genre/mode, and also address the textual/contextual depths and theoretical complexities an MA student must navigate.
The author says he included The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the course on global SF “the same ways dolphins don’t. What better novel to study about the end of world during the end of the world? It questions the philosophical underpinnings of our world and exhibits how SF toys with semantics/syntax of the narratives around it. Like a timeless classic, it doesn’t fail to respond to our contemporary material realities. Above all, it “has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” We could use this helpful advice in the maddening times of COVID-42”— Could it possibly be the answer to the questions of life, the universe and everything?
Sami says the lockdown has been treating him better than expected. “I’m privileged enough to have a full belly, a roof over my head, a broadband connection, a Netflix subscription, and a gargantuan reading list. Usually, too, I’m happy being left to my own devices. I just need a book/film/web-series (i.e. a text) and the time/space to construct (and deconstruct) random ideas in my head, which this lockdown has given me. If only the circumstances weren’t so grim. This is when we begin to “question the nature of our reality” (as per Westworld), and start looking for our towel.”
Descriptive not predictive
These are troubling times and Sami hits the nail on the head when he says it is easier to read about dystopia than live it. “Through its monsters, future wars, zombie apocalypses, rogue AI, invading aliens, environmental fiascos, and alternate histories etc., SF, whether set in the near future or on a nearby planet or even in an alternate universe, is almost always about our today. Even Ursula Le Guin finds SF ‘descriptive’ and not ‘predictive’.”
The Delhi-based author says, “SF foregrounds and amplifies the feedback we receive from these dystopian narratives to our present(s), which then radically changes the way we approach our own lives and societies. SF’s dystopias and their hapless characters translate into an almost quasi-utopian connotation for us (the readers). A shared nightmare in/of the future suddenly awakens us to the lacunae of our times.”
A real dystopia, according to Sami, portrays the exact opposite sentiment. “It is built on the premise that the SF dystopia (and its feedback) has failed to warn us, and in doing so, birthed an actual one in our lived reality. All that we are doing to this planet today – and what it is doing to us in return – makes it clear that the present has been colonized by the future. The age of men is over; the age of superbugs has begun.”
When we last spoke, Sami had spoken of a sequel to his 2017 SF thriller Aliens in Delhi, where reptilian creatures take over the capital. “I am a fanboy who has been lucky enough to not only get the opportunity to teach SF but also research and write it. I just finished a short story called Biryani Bagh, which brings aliens (and this time I may use this word differently) to a Bagh that has haunted contemporary popular imagination. I’ve been told it would appear in the second Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (Sami’s last story, 15004, appeared in the first volume). My next full-length project is an academic monograph, a critical catalogue of Indian Anglophonic SF for a university press. After that, perhaps, I might start writing the sequel of Aliens in Delhi – but only if the world hasn’t produced it already, not as fiction, but as a lived reality.
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