What exactly is meant by science fiction has been beautifully summed up by Hugo Gernsback, who said, "By 'scientification' I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story - a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision", and where new inventions pictured for us today “are not at all impossible of realisation tomorrow". This holds true of most science fiction written in the West, but, in India, the basic theme of science fiction, be it in any language, is primarily anthropocentric, which deals with the interplay between scientific developments and human emotions or societal foundations.
The first Indian science fiction story is said to have been written in Bengali by Jagadish Chandra Bose and around the same time in Marathi by s. B. Ranade. Over the years science fiction has developed in other languages too, like in Tamil, but it has found strong roots in Marathi language primarily and this becomes evident in this anthology too. A comprehensive view of the trends in Indian science fiction can be obtained by going through this compilation of select stories in various Indian languages carefully culled by author-editor Bal Phondke, a prolific science communicator and former Director, CSIR, New Delhi.
The question 'what is science fiction?' has engaged the attention of many a critic and editor ever since the genre started holding its own in the realm of literature. Even those luminaries who ruled the roost in an earlier era, like Edgar Allan Poe, William Wilson or Edgar Fawcett, had tried their hand at providing a definition of what precisely constitutes science fiction. In fact, the name 'science fiction' itself has its own evolutionary history. However, the distinction of taking the first major step in this direction, which was to have a long-lasting effect, goes to Hugo Gernsback after whom the prestigious 'Huge' awards for science fiction are named. Gernsback tried to demarcate the category as 'scientifiction'. His editorial in the inaugural issue of Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine which ushered in the revolution in the field, carried his definition.
The rapidity with which this stream was gaining popularity must have prompted Gernsback to state the boundary conditions. He said "By 'scientifiction', I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story-a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision. Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading, they are always instructive. They supply knowledge in a very palatable form. New inventions pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realisation tomorrow."
Gernsback was no doubt influenced by the need to sift the grain from the chaff. This was indeed necessary since there was every danger of fantasy based on pseudo-science gaining acceptance as science fiction. Despite all the progress made since Gernsback, both in defining and polishing the genre of science fiction, that danger has not totally been averted. Gernsback's concern prompting him to draft the charter for science fiction in precise terms was, thus, genuine.
Nonetheless, his definition foisted on the back of science fiction a cross it bears even today. For, the genre was not only branded as 'speculative fiction' which was alright, but also as 'prophetic fiction'. Anyone daring to try his hand at this stream of literature was thus expected to be uncannily prescient even as he drew upon seemingly inexhaustible powers of imagination.
The success of Wells and Verne, towering figures from an earlier era, in predicting fairly accurately the course of events to follow; though at that time only in their outline and not so much in detail, might have influenced Gernsback. Little did he realise that remarkable though Wells and Verne and their efforts were, they were exceptions rather than the rule. Like peaks towering above the plains, they could scarcely decide the lay, or the law, of the land.
The unjust burden, however, was clearly too much for the fast emerging new breed of science fiction writers. In the mid-twenties when John Campbell played nurse-maid to many a young writer of the time including Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, ushering in the golden era, he must have felt the agony as well. Soon he issued his own manifesto. This preamble of his did a great deal to set the skewed foundations of science fiction on an even keel.
Campbell proposed that "science fiction should be regarded as a literary medium akin to science itself. Scientific methodology involves the proposition that a well-considered theory will not only explain away known phenomena but will also predict new and still undiscovered phenomena. Science fiction tries to do much the same-and write up in story form, what the results look like when applied not only to machines but human society as well." He also gave currency to the presently accepted title of 'science fiction' for this literary form.
Inherent in both these definitions is the expectation that this form of fiction will be more dynamic in content, form as well as scope than other contemporaneous forms. That expectation has been more than fulfilled but has brought in its wake a liberalisation of the basic concept. In turn, this emboldened many new entrants to explore uncharted territory, and if found hospitable, hitch it on to the mainland. These extended or mutated versions of science fiction have produced their own champions too.
To be honest, it will have to be admitted that these new messiahs and their followers did enrich the medium. Each new conquest encouraged others to venture further, to experiment, to explore new avenues and to blaze new trails. The result is that science fiction, unlike many other literary forms, has never had to fear stagnation.
Even so, some of these expeditions have gone so far afield that the umbilical cords maintaining their tenuous links with the mother genre have been strained beyond limit. Theodore Sturgeon launched the first expedition when he declared his own self-defined magna carta as "a science fiction story is a story built around human beings with a human problem and a human solution which would not have happened at all without its scientific content." This was a laudable attempt at integration of science which does not brook any irrationality and fiction which draws heavily on emotion and imagination, human faculties that often cock a snook at reason and rationality.
However, once Sturgeon punched this tentative hole in the dykes that Gernsback and Campbell had so painstakingly built, the flood-gates were opened. Those that followed him did not always keep in mind the necessity to reign in the imagination with strings of science. That is why the definition, that "science fiction is that class of prose narrative treating a situation that could not arise in the world we know but which is hypothesised on the basis of some innovation in science or technology or pseudo-science or pseudo-technology whether human or extraterrestrial in origin", gained ground.
That was the beginning which has resulted in the rather odd situation today where a significantly large proportion of new science fiction originating in the English-speaking Western world has little genuine science in it. So much pseudo- science or pseudo-technology are being used to lay the foundations of 'science fiction' tales that the genre is in the danger of losing its original identity. This gives rise to considerable confusion not only in the minds of fans and connoisseurs but also among the proponents and practitioners; certainly among the new aspirants.
The situation in other Western languages in not known since very little of that literature gets translated into English. However, a fair amount of Russian and Polish science fiction is available through English translations. Authors from these languages have remained loyal to the Gernsback - Campbell- Sturgeon school, presumably influenced by the example set by Stanislaw Lem. However, much of the Russian fare makes heavy reading, due to the stiffness of the language used, robbing the tale of romance.
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